By Christian L. Pyle
Recently I was walking through the Humanities Division office suite at Bluegrass Community and Technical College (BCTC) where I’ve worked as an adjunct English instructor for fourteen years, and I noticed a list of Humanities Division birthdays posted on a filing cabinet. My birthday wasn’t on it. That’s not just an oversight; the list also did not include over eighty other adjuncts in the division, some of whom have worked there longer than me. While this may seem a trivial slight, such subtle reminders that adjuncts are not really members of the departments they serve are regular signposts in the current academic workplace.
What the heck is an “adjunct,” anyway? I get that question a lot from family and friends outside academia, and my standard response is that it’s a fancy word for “temp.” Whether in business or academia, temporary workers are intended to fill temporary needs: to staff short-term projects, to fill in for workers on leave, or to teach extra classes added to account for unexpectedly high enrollment. For the last few decades, corporate America has been building workforces of temporary workers rather than hiring traditional employees. With temps, companies don’t have to make long-term commitments, give raises or bonuses, or offer benefits like health care or 401Ks. Thus, temps stopped being “temporary” and became, instead, “disposable workers.” Perhaps because governing boards of regents/trustees tend to be made up of successful businesspeople, colleges and universities soon followed suit. Today the majority of teachers at any given college tend to be adjuncts, not traditional professors. The practice of depending on disposable workers is sad enough in corporate America, but in non-profit institutions that claim to work for the betterment of their communities, it’s obscene.
The alternate term for adjunct is “part-time instructor,” which references another disturbing trend in today’s workplaces, the abuse of part-time labor to evade laws that protect the rights of full-time employees. For example, the documentary Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price chronicles how Wal-Mart keeps its workers from getting enough hours to be considered full-time. Again, the non-profit academic workplace followed the lead of for-profit America, hiring growing numbers of “part-time instructors” whose classloads are scrupulously kept just under the full-time line.
At BCTC, that line is drawn at five classes, the typical load for a full-time faculty member (although many teach fewer by obtaining a “course release” for doing another job at the school). For a while, I could get five or six classes at BCTC as a “temporary full-time instructor” or, ridiculously, a “part-time instructor with an overload.” (The latter gig was paid less than the former even though the workload for the two was identical.) Recently, though, BCTC has more or less banned giving adjuncts more than four classes. This might be a well-intentioned attempt to lessen the exploitation of adjuncts, but I suspect it indicates a fear that letting adjuncts teach a “full-time” load would give them grounds to claim in court that they deserve full-time pay and benefits.
When I started teaching in 1990, I was paid just over $2000 per class. Today, twenty-one years later, I still make just over $2000 per class. In the early 1990s, I somehow managed to survive on two classes (and Tuna Helper). A lot of inflation and an economic collapse later, I need six classes a semester to get my ends even close to meeting, and the day when I’ll need seven is not far off. I’ve heard of adjuncts teaching as many as nine classes, spread out over several area colleges. The implications of this pattern for the physical and mental well-being of teachers as well as the attention given to any student or class seem obvious.
The good news: the house of cards colleges have constructed by hiring scores of adjuncts rather than full-time faculty will eventually collapse. When academia envied the for-profit sector’s exploitation of temp and part-time workers, it did not consider that those non-academic jobs don’t require graduate degrees. I made my decision to attend graduate school in the late 1980s. If there was writing on the wall back then, I didn’t see it yet, nor did the professors who offered me advice. We assumed that as the Baby Boomer profs retired, my generation of college teachers would take their slots as full-time, tenure-track professors. By the time I noticed the trends I’m describing in this essay, I already had an MA and was working on a PhD. But undergraduates today can have no illusions about what sort of jobs await them if they should seek a career teaching in college. Therefore, I look for colleges to eventually become more and more desperate to find qualified teachers, and I hope that offers of a living wage and benefits may follow.
The bad news: by the time the shortage comes, colleges may be relying almost entirely on robo-profs. Online classes can use cartridges of recorded lectures and automated exams in place of live instruction, and the grading of other work can be outsourced to Asia. But those disturbing trends are not the subject of this essay.
Flashpoint: tenure at BCTC
My adjunct awakening came in late 2008 when the board of regents for the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS), the parent of BCTC, tried to remove the possibility of tenure for all new full-time faculty. My initial impulse as a college teacher was to support tenure even though I was not eligible for it. However, reading the arguments by full-time faculty members shook my sensibilities. The word “adjunct” appeared often to describe what full-time non-tenured faculty would be. We were described as “rootless,” despite the fact that many full-time faculty at BCTC came there from other places while many adjuncts are native to the area.
Furthermore, we were depicted as unreliable. One associate professor claimed, “Every academic coordinator has a story of the adjunct who bails out the day before the semester begins (or during the midterm).” While that may be true, I suspect there may be even more stories of adjuncts who’ve gone beyond their job descriptions in service to their departments: serving on committees, aiding with ongoing projects, and jumping in to take on those abandoned classes at the last minute. Prior to this, I had noticed that when there were full-time openings available, hiring committees in my area either hired someone who was new to BCTC or they chose someone who had only been an adjunct for a couple years (as opposed to a couple decades). The pro-tenure arguments also stressed that removing tenure would keep the college from “recruiting” new faculty. Recruitment would seem an easy matter as most departments had a large number of adjuncts serving them.
I could see that there was a stigma attached to being an adjunct that only became darker with time. I suspect that this bias may be a psychological reaction to the inherent unfairness of the full-time/adjunct system. Full-time profs recognize this inequity and subconsciously resolve their internal conflict by believing that adjuncts are inherently inferior to full-time teachers.
Academic caste systems
In today’s academic workplace, there is a caste system, and the two castes (permanent full-time teachers and adjunct teachers) live very different lives despite the fact that they may be teaching the same courses at the same school. At large universities, the caste system had a logic to it: tenure-track faculty had PhDs and were judged on the research they did rather than the classes they taught; adjunct faculty often had master’s degrees and focused entirely on teaching. Tenured profs taught upper-level and graduate courses; adjuncts taught freshman and sophomore classes. While that arrangement assumes that the “business” of the university is research, not teaching, it at least had a clear basis. At a community college, however, there’s little emphasis on research, and there are only two levels of classes. Although full-time faculty have a few added responsibilities, their primary job is essentially the same as that of adjuncts, but the two sets of teachers are treated very differently.
Just as there are two Americas, in the words of former senator John Edwards, there are two BCTCs. Consider this fact: the majority of instructors at BCTC are not members of the Faculty.
Really. The Faculty, as an organization that has a voice in the college’s policies and elects its representatives, includes only tenured or tenure-track professors. The majority of teachers at the college have no vote, no voice, no representation.
How much of a majority? In my division, for example, there are 30 full-time permanent faculty and 84 adjunct instructors. As the number of adjuncts increases much more rapidly than the number of full-time faculty, the ratio will eventually reach 3:1. How different are their lives? Full-timers get a living wage, adjuncts do not. Full-timers get a benefits package that includes health insurance, adjuncts do not. Full-timers are eligible for promotions and raises, adjuncts are not. Full-timers have a representative on the Board of Regents, adjuncts do not. Full-timers have offices and their own computers, adjuncts do not.
The lack of office space and access to resources for adjuncts raises another interesting issue. Not only are adjunct instructors treated as second-class citizens, their students are, too. Why don’t my students deserve to be able to meet with me between classes in a private office? They’re paying the same amount to take my section of a course as a full-time professor’s students are to take the same course. If BCTC is going to save cash by paying me starvation wages, why don’t my students get a discount? Even when I was a teaching assistant in graduate school, I had an office. Whenever a paper was due, I would hold extended office hours and allow students to sign up for appointment times to have private conferences about the papers they were writing. That’s not an option now.
Furthermore, part of my life as an adjunct is a constant quest for a quiet place to work on campus; many times I’ve ended up grading papers in my car as no other quiet space was available. When I enter grades on campus, I have to do it in a public space where anyone walking by could see my students’ grades, a potential violation of the students’ federally-protected right to have their grades remain private. Rather than having a special higher caste of teachers have offices to themselves 24/7, wouldn’t a more logical plan divide the number of teachers by the number of offices to arrive at the number of people who would share each office? BCTC is moving in two years to a brand-new campus. The opportunity to design a workspace to meet the realities of 21st century higher education means that BCTC could guarantee that every teacher has an office. However, the plans that have been posted on the BCTC website offer only a classroom-sized space for adjuncts in one option. The other option has no adjunct space at all.
How does it feel to be an adjunct? A dead-end job is bad enough, but a dead-end career is a real soul-killer. Adjuncts worked just as hard as full-timers to earn one college degree, then another, possibly a third. My résumé lists pages of awards, publications, conference presentations, and community service—all to earn a job which offers no possibility of a raise or a promotion, regardless of how many years I work at the college. I started at BCTC with a strong belief in my own ability to earn a full-time opportunity through hard work; despite my years of service, I have never even been offered an interview for a full-time job. The result for me has been a deepening depression. Luckily my wife has health insurance, so I’ve been able to receive treatment. The current advertising program for BCTC shows students moving from dead-end, low-paying jobs to better opportunities provided by education, yet the administration keeps the majority of its teachers in dead-end, low-paying jobs.
When asked, college administrators toss their hands in the air and blame the times in which we live. Our leaders consistently refuse to lead on this issue. There is at least one example of a better system that they could imitate. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Vancouver Community College (VCC) has found a way to improve the lives of its adjuncts. The per-class pay for adjuncts is based on what full-time profs make. After two years, adjuncts become “regular faculty,” with job security. Thus, they move out of the shadows and are recognized as a permanent part of the college.
It’s still a caste system, of course, and far from ideal, but the creation of a “middle caste” is more respectful than pretending that the adjuncts who teach at a college year after year are temps hired just for a semester. The VCC system was the product of collective bargaining by the faculty union. To receive better treatment in the USA, adjuncts must organize, and full-time faculty must become part of the solution. A step toward this end, I’ve started a page for KCTCS adjuncts and supporters on Facebook. Search for “Kentucky Community and Technical College Adjuncts” and “like” the page to join the discussion.