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.

some books belong in the trash

I’ve been toying with the idea of going back to school to finish my PhD for years.  Every now and again, I get the bug to take a class (instead of teach one), just to see if I’ve still got it – you know, that “it” that makes you work hard and get good grades.

Right now, I don’t have it – but you never know what the future holds.

In 2007, I waded back in, taking a summer course at NOVA.  I was pretty excited about it – a philosophy class, and a logic class to boot.

Unfortunately, my excitement soon turned to dread for two reasons.  First, I didn’t realize that the base-level logic class was really more like a math class, with formulas, proofs, equations and other math-like aspects.  Second, the professor was hands down the single worst teacher I have ever had in my entire life.  The guy was just horrible.

The fluorescent lights hurt his eyes, so he kept the room half dark. Great for him, perhaps, but not for anybody trying to take notes.  He assigned us a textbook, then ordered us not to read it. He felt the book was OK for the homework problems contained inside, but that his superior knowledge of the subject was more important than anybody else’s.  His lectures were pedantic in the extreme, laced with personal asides that had nothing to do with the subject matter and served to distract us all from the lessons at hand.  Homework assignments were voluminous and overly repetitious.

Those are the more objective reasons why I thought he was such a poor teacher.  On a purely personal note, he not only informed the entire class that I was a professor myself (after I explicitly asked him not to do so), but after the first two of our three exams, he took it upon himself to inform the class that I had the highest score on said exams.  While normally a person would be proud of that accomplishment, I found it to be terribly embarrassing. If you’re interested in looking at what a logic class exam looks like, you can see one of mine by clicking this link.

(One interesting side effect of him exposing this data point to the class was that all the slackers in the class suddenly wanted to be pals with me and join my study group.  I spent most of the last 4 weeks (of the 6-week class) coming up with new and increasingly less believable excuses to exclude people. I was very lucky in that before the 1st exam, I was able to connect with two intelligent, motivated classmates – our study group of 3 rocked those exams!!  It is precisely for this reason that I never, ever expose the identity of the student that gets the highest grade on any exam in any of my classes.)

As I often tell my students, all that up there is background – I told you that story, basically, so I could tell you this one.

ImageToday, of course, I had my Saturday morning History 101 class.  It was their mid-term examination, so there wasn’t much for me to do other than give the instructions; encourage them that they could, indeed, succeed on the exam; and be available to answer questions during the two or so hours it would take them to complete the exam.  I brought a book to read (Lawrence in Arabia, by Scott Anderson – an excellent look at the Middle Eastern theater of operations in World War I), but I have to admit I didn’t read too terribly much of it.

The reason I didn’t read much of it was because, upon my arrival, I noticed that whomever used the room before me (I’m assuming on Friday, because who would have a class that was over before 0800 on a Saturday? You’d have to be insane!) hadn’t bothered to clear off the table at the front of the room where I normally station myself.  It was covered with papers – and one book.

An introduction-to-philosophy textbook.

Written by … you guessed it, the Worst. Professor. Ever.

I couldn’t help myself. I had to read it.

It was, as you can probably expect, torturous to read. I heard his droning voice and incessant lip-sucking in my head as I read it and that surely didn’t help my judgment of the content.  Each chapter was just like one of his boring-ass lectures, only without the personal anecdotes.  He’s the only author I’ve ever come across that basically tried to convince the reader that he was smarter than Socrates.

I looked at the back of the title page to see when the book was published – 2010 – so a while after the class I took from him.  I was further stunned that anybody would actually publish such a book, so I looked to see who the publisher was.

I’d never heard of Publish America, so I looked them up on the internet when I got home.  Based out of Frederick, MD, Publish America is a typical “vanity” press.  Anybody can get anything published through Publish America, you just send it in and promise to buy a bunch of copies.

Publish America and “publishers” like them are universally reviled in academic circles for a wide variety of reasons.

I wasn’t the least bit surprised that this particular professor had used a vanity/print-on-demand publisher for his book.  I looked up his Philosophy 101 classes and surprise – he’s listed the book as his course’s required text.

(Interestingly enough, the 2nd worst teacher I ever had – this one at GMU back in the mid-1990s – did exactly the same thing, requiring us to buy an expensive book he wrote that was, of course, not available used as we had to buy it directly from him.)

After about an hour of thumbing through this purple turd of a book, I tossed it on the floor with the other stuff I’d moved off the desk and started reading the most excellent book I’d brought with me.  I thought about tossing it in the trash, but then I realized that somebody shelled out their hard-earned cash for it, and maybe they’d come back for it.

It was a tough decision, though.  A really tough one.