Monday, October 21, 2013

The Adjunct Trap

This month The Savvy Reader Book Club is reading Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus's book Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids---and What We Can Do About It. Today’s post is the first in a series of posts I will be writing this month inspired by this book.

The book begins by informing us that the American colleges and universities are bound by a caste system. At the top of the caste are 320,000 associate and full professors, most of whom have tenure or will soon receive that reward. Below them are about 170,000 assistant professors, of which most are on the “tenure track.” The third tier consists of instructors and lecturers who aren’t in line for promotion and who handle introductory sections at modest salaries and benefits. (A number are faculty spouses unable to find other employment). The fourth and fifth castes are made up of part-time adjuncts and graduate assistants. They are the contingent people of the campus - exploitable, disposable, and impoverished by low wages. They do the bulk of the undergraduate teaching at many universities. (Pg. 15)

What is an adjunct?
Adjuncts belong to a diverse group of teachers called contingents, who are hired to take on chores regular faculty members don’t want to do. They come from respected professions like lawyers and film producers who teach one evening course (largely because they enjoy it) or are among the gypsy scholars who commute among as many as four campuses in a single week. Pay rates are shamefully low. The American Federation of Teachers found the average is about $3,000 per course, which means many get less. And of course there are no benefits.

Here is an example of the huge inequality found in the adjunct/professor pay structure:
At Queens College, a branch of the City University of New York, the pay is better than average but the disparities are typical. When students walk into the gleaming building that is Powdermaker Hall, they might see one classroom where a full professor is explaining the economic ideas of the Nation’s founders. He’ll earn $116,000 for six classes taught over nine months-$17,000 per course. In the very next room is an adjunct teaching political theory to thirty bright-eyed freshmen. But she gets a flat fee of $4,600, admittedly higher than the national average, but so is the urban cost of living. Moreover, the professor has health insurance, sick days, sabbaticals, and a hefty TIAA-CREF pension. The adjunct’s benefits are akin to W.C. Field’s reward in The Bank Dick- “a hearty handshake.” (Pg. 48-49)
Adjuncts are not respected:
Many adjuncts are not respected by the salaried faculty members and administrators and are not perceived as part of the campus community.

Why is adjunct teaching a trap?
Many women think they can have families and stay in the game by adjuncting. They get trapped there. Age and time trap them. Vagabonding from job to job isn’t so terrible when you’re young, but it takes a toll on you as they get older. In another example sited, an adjunct teacher tried to cobble together a livelihood by teaching sixteen “distance” courses. Online teaching, she said, was tougher than face-to-face instruction, because if you do it seriously, “you never get a break from it. You almost sleep with your computer. (Pg. 54)

The sad fact is it is difficult to earn a living wage teaching as an adjunct even when you teach multiple classes.

What are the chances an adjuncts position will morph into full-time?
Many years of adjuncting wouldn’t count as valuable classroom experience. Rather, for most, it’s a black mark. This was borne out by an informal survey Angelo Gene Monaco, the vice president for human resources at the University of Akron, performed. Out of curiosity, he surveyed sixty heads of departments at a sample of Midwestern colleges. Only three told him they’d even consider hiring a contingent for a full-time post. Monaco created quite a stir at the 2008 meeting of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources when he declared: “We’ve helped create a highly educated part of the working poor.” (Pg. 53)

A real life example:
Which brings me to Kate; I’ve previously written about Kate’s disillusionment with her job after she was repeatedly passed over for promotion. Kate has since abandoned her dream of being a controller or CFO and refocused her energies on becoming a full-time teacher at a local college. She taught her first adjunct class last semester – an introductory business course.

Initially, Kate was extremely frustrated by the lack of support she received from the college. She had difficulty setting up her email, accessing the school’s intranet, and even getting a ‘teacher’s edition’ of the book. She earned $2,600 to teach the class which met once a week for four hours. She took a week of vacation from her day job to prepare and lost sleep fretting about whether to send emails to students who hadn't turned in their homework.

Next semester she is contracted to teach this class again along with a 12-week accounting class. Surprisingly, the 12-week class pays the same as the 6-week class; it too meets once a week, but for three and a half hours instead of four. I can’t imagine the accounting class taking any less time to prepare, so there goes another week of vacation.

Has Kate fallen for the adjunct trap?
Unfortunately, after reading this book I think she has.  I told her what I had learned from the book, but she refuses to listen. My experience has been when someone wants something badly they rarely listen to naysayers.

What do you think?  Is adjunct teaching a trap?
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  1. This is such a shitty situation. I understand adjuncts don't get benefits, but can't these universities at least amp up their pay- the disparities are ridiculous. My adjunct professors in college were the most influential because they were the ones living and working in the business day to day in addition to being my teacher.

  2. i am really looking forward to hearing more about this. i agree that college education has failed! unless kids go to a top tier school (and i'm talking top 20-30 across the united states), then kids are not going to get value from going to an unranked university. might as well save all that money and go straight into the workforce!

  3. One of my friends is an adjunct professor at an Ivy League school and I'm sure she makes less than $3000 a course. It's such a bummer!

  4. Yes it is a trap and one that I never wanted to fall in. Teachers have such a desire to teach and there are so many hoops to jump through. After almost thirty years of teaching I'm about to retire. I'm not going to work as an adjunct even though I've been asked and I'm not going to sub even though the asking was almost begging. I'm going to write, exercise, travel, and improve my low level photography skills.

  5. I don't think it's a trap, you just have to know what you're getting yourself into, just like any other job. I was an adjunct for three years and I really enjoyed it. The pay wasn't wonderful, but I knew it would be like that before I started, and it did make a difference in our family's bottom line. Today even the Junior colleges where I live use PhDs for professors, so there are no more adjunct positions.

  6. Some of the best professors I ever had were adjunct. I think it's crappy how they get paid and compensated; one of them told me they were only making $1,800 for each class they were better hope you have something else going on for that pay! Especially when a lot of schools cap how many courses you can teach as adjunct. Thus your gypsies, I suppose. I had no idea it was a dead-end field, though.

  7. I don't know if it's a trap or not (perhaps it is), but I think she needs to ask herself, whether she enjoys it and if she does, what does it matter if its a trap or dead end?
    But I love this line of yours: "My experience has been when someone wants something badly they rarely listen to naysayers." The reason this line spoke to me, right now we are having a big problem at my station. There are about 50 people who want to unionize. I'm on the management team and I find this heartbreaking. We are a small organization where management has done a lot to meet the needs of staff. One of the best things about where I work (it's a nonprofit so pay isn't great) is the flexibility. If you're a parent or if you need to tend to your car or run errands during the day, it's ok. They know we'll do our work.They trust us. So I'm in knots over this, and I find your statement to be true in this case because these folks who want to unionize won't listen to the other side. Plus they're getting nasty, yelling at people, and getting testy. It's created a division in the organization. Not just management versus them. But amongst each other, those that want it and those who don't. Was wondering if you've written about this topic at all?

  8. I think our education system is just broken - top to bottom. There are so many great examples in the private sector with Charter schools and private schools, but the other options are just dismal and completely broken. It's just depressing.

  9. Stefanie,
    According to the book, the problem is spending at colleges is so out of control (tenured professors, sports facilities and admin staff) their isn't enough money to pay the actual teachers. That is why they hire so many adjuncts. The system seems pretty backwards to me.

  10. Catherine,
    I will write a post pondering whether a 4-year degree is worth it. Should stimulate interesting discussion.

  11. Sheila,
    I'd be curious to learn if the salary they offered you to teach adjunct was in line with other adjuncts? Also interesting you mentioned other hoops you need to go through. I can only imagine. Good luck in your retirement. I wish I could join you.

  12. Bonnie,
    I do agree. You need to realize up front an adjunct position is unlikely to lead to a permanent position. Glad to hear your area uses professors to actually teach. If you stop back in let me know where that is.

  13. femmefrugality,
    Thanks for the comment. $1800 is shockingly low especially when we consider how expensive tuition is.

  14. Monica,
    I can certainly write about this. It could add a little controversy to my blog! I live in Wisconsin, as you may recall our Governor Scott Walker faced a recall after proposing legislation that would take away rights from the teachers union. He won, kept his job and the union lost their power. My BIL who worked for the teachers union lost his job.

    But I see the other side as well. My company has an office in another state that has a union. They make substantially more than our employees here in Wisconsin and the benefits don't begin to compare. From an administrative perspective meaning - paying the dues & sending in the union reports which is my job - I hate it. Just when I finally get everything set up correctly. Something changes and is not communicated to me properly and I start all over again. Also, this particular location has been losing money for years. Every now and then the owners get all bent out of shape about it and threaten to close it down. Some day they just might.

  15. Adrian,
    I agree our education system is broken. I am almost finished with this book, I believe the solutions are going to be to make better choices, but sometimes we don't have the resources to make those choices.

  16. I agree that the adjunct situation is rough, but I can also add that the competition for these jobs is FIERCE. I've have 3 Masters degrees in the subject I keep applying to teach, with great grades and some tutoring and high school subbing experience and I can't even get to an interview. They want people who are published and have Doctoral degrees for these jobs and they're actually getting them. I can see why you'd be disillusioned if you went to school for 7-9 years only to find yourself in a position to only make $18,000 a year with no benefits. Academia is rough.

  17. Mel,
    It is worse than I had thought. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  18. Very interesting. I didn't know what an adjunct professor meant. It's sad to think that teachers at all levels are paid so poorly for the job they do. Thank goodness people takes these jobs out of necessity or because they truly enjoy teaching. It seems these adjunct professors would be the best at providing practical and theoretical lessons.

    Thanks for sharing with #throwbackthursdaylinkup. I always enjoy what you share. and I think I need to put that Higher Education book on my TBR!