the plight of the adjunct professor

angryprofA few weeks ago (a couple of months – could it be that long?) the story of Margaret Vojtko came out. A longtime adjunct professor at Duquesne University, she died of a heart attack in what looked like abject poverty despite having committed the bulk of her life to teaching at the college level.

Naturally, people were outraged. Here’s an old lady working for a Catholic school, and they unceremoniously tossed her out on her ear to suffer from cancer, the frigid temperatures of a Pittsburgh winter, and of course, the fatal heart attack.

Slate (not always the most …unbiased… of sources) ran a follow-up article that makes Vojtko look more like a cranky old crazy woman than a sympathetic doddering professor, but that’s neither here nor there.  Here’s the article:

It’s an interesting piece – weird to see actual investigative journalism going on – but I want to talk about a couple of things.

1.  Vojtko says that teaching isn’t a job and that it’s not about money. It’s a devotion, something that somebody does, not for the money, but because they simply have to.

I agree.

I’ve been an adjunct professor for more than a decade. While the money never hurts, I’m definitely not doing it for the money.  The schools I work for pay about $2,500 per class.  If I had to make my living on that, especially now that one of the schools has limited adjuncts to just 3 classes per semester, I’d be one hungry, broke-ass dude.  Figure 3 classes in the Spring, 3 in the Fall – that’s $15,000 a year, 20% of which goes to taxes.  Add in a class or two over the summer for maybe a total of $20k a year.

In the DC area, who the hell can live on $20k a year?  Somebody fresh out of college, maybe, living in a house with 3 other people. That’s not going to work for me – I have a family to take care of. Therefore, I have a day job – a full time position with a  company that has all the benefits you’d typically expect a full-time employer to have.

The schools offer me exactly no benefits except for being able to say I teach at those institutions.

2.  The author appears to make the following assertions:

2a.  “Hiring adjuncts instead of tenure-track faculty is unquestionably great for a university’s bottom line.”

Perhaps, but perhaps not. While it may appear from the outside that paying adjuncts peanuts & denying them benefits saves the college money, if the quality of the adjuncts gets too low, students will stop coming to those schools, which makes it in the university’s best interest to hire the best adjuncts possible – which costs money.  At any rate, I do agree that denying adjuncts access to standard benefits like health insurance does, indeed, save the colleges money, possibly a great deal of it.

2b.  “Professors who don’t have their own offices … cannot devote as much energy and time to their students as they would like.”

Patently untrue.  I devote exactly as much energy and time to my students as I would like. My students contact me via email (mostly) and phone (rarely). Even when I had access to an office AND held regular office hours, very few students ever came to see me. What did they do?  They emailed me.  As a result, after several years, I stopped holding regular office hours and now, if a student insists on meeting with me in person, we make an appointment that is convenient to both of us.

2c.  Adjuncts often find out what classes they’re teaching shortly before the semester starts, and that hampers their ability to adequately prepare for those classes.

Partially true.  While on occasion I have been contacted in the few weeks before a semester starts to take on a class, that is the exception. In general, I know my classes several months in advance simply because universities plan their semesters months in advance and don’t generally like to leave things to the last minute.

However, adjuncts are rarely tasked with teaching highly complicated classes that they’ve never taught before. I teach the same 5 classes semester after semester, over and over. My dean could call me the DAY a class starts and I could show up 6 hours later having done nothing more than updated some information on the syllabus and jump right into teaching the course.

The author’s assumption that adjuncts are not well prepared to teach their classes is inappropriate and belittling.

2d. “Hiring adjuncts anew every semester is inefficient, and managers’ lack of accountability for how their treat these employees leaves them vulnerable to discrimination suits.”

It is perhaps inefficient to issue contracts to adjuncts for each semester’s classes, but when it’s incorporated into the scheduling process as it seems to be at the two schools I teach at, it doesn’t seem to be any more or less efficient than any other hiring process.

In fact, I would posit that it is in some ways more efficient, as when a department no longer wants to employ an adjunct, they don’t have to go through any complicated process – they just stop calling them. Not very nice, sure, but that’s life. It’s very efficient and quite easy for the university.

As far as accountability, I know who my supervisors are and who they report to. While I have never felt the need to go over the head of any of my deans, I know how to do it. Every meeting or discussion I’ve ever had with senior management at either of my schools has been cordial and I left feeling as if I’d been taken seriously.  (Not to toot my own horn too much, but I even alerted a senior dean to an issue within his department and saw, over the course of a few weeks, several changes take place that resolved that issue.)  I have no doubts that my chain of command has all the accountability it needs.

2e. “We should expect universities to pay adjuncts a living wage, give them benefits and some job security, and provide them with the resources they need to do their jobs well.”

No, we shouldn’t.  What we should expect is clarity and honesty.  “This job provides no benefits” – understood from the get-go – enables you to make the choice of whether or not to accept the job.  “This job pays $2,500 per course” – clearly stated up front. You decide whether or not that amount of money is worth your time and effort.  I’m provided with all (more, even) the resources I need to do my job well and have NEVER asked one of my schools for something they weren’t able to deliver.

Look, being an adjunct is no better or worse than any other job.  It has good days and bad days.  What all these people up in arms about poor Margaret Vojtko aren’t doing is looking at the GOOD aspects of being an adjunct.

For example:

  • No pressure to publish.  “Publish or perish” is a huge thing with tenure-track & tenured professors, and it creates an unbelievable amount of stress.
  • No student advising.  While I care deeply for my students and do my best to help them when they come to me, I am not assigned a block of students that I have responsibility for. I’m not expected to guide anyone through their college experience and make sure they’re taking all the classes they’re supposed to take to graduate on time.
  • No committee assignments.  I hate meetings and even more than meetings, I hate bureaucracy.  I’m not required (or even asked, really) to be on any committees, am asked to attend very few meetings, and have no responsibilities in these arenas of college administration.
  • Ultimate flexibility.  If I don’t want to teach over the summer so I can go on a motorcycle trip, no problem.  When they say “what’s your availability for the summer?” I can answer “I’m not available” and rest assured that they’ll not only find somebody else to teach those classes, but – as long as I’ve been doing my job well anyway – will be happy to welcome me back for the following semester.

There’s more benefits to being an adjunct, but I’d guess anybody who feels roped or trapped into being an adjunct will dispute or deny them.  Yes, there are times that being an adjunct sucks, but there are times when it flat-out rocks, too.  I am lucky, I suppose, compared to other adjuncts, that I not only have a full time job with benefits, but that I teach because I want to.

Rather, because I have to.

See, like Margaret Vojtko, I have never believed that teaching is about the money. I am driven to do it, I am, at heart, a teacher.  I have been teaching in one capacity or another since 1988 and cannot envision a time in my life where I am not teaching.

I’m also learning, though, and one of the lessons I learned long ago is that making a living as an adjunct is tough. That more than anything is why I have a full time day job.

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