Today was National Adjunct Walkout Day. Or, for those adjunct faculty who couldn’t afford to walk out of their classes, it was National Adjunct Awareness Day.
I could have walked out of my class today, but I’ve already missed a couple of days because of my injured hand and since then, I’ve been so focused on catching up on my syllabus that I hadn’t prepared my students for a walkout, which means they wouldn’t have known what was happening. It would have been just a day off for them. So I took the latter option and turned class today into a two-hour conversation about adjunct issues.
I started by having students define the word “adjunct,” which they did admirably just from root clues. But then we looked up the dictionary definition: “a thing added to something else as a supplementary rather than an essential part.” And I began explaining what adjunct faculty do.
We looked at charts about state funding for education: Oregon has great schools, but the state needs to vastly improve its funding for those schools. (The colleges and universities generally are doing everything they can to lessen the impact of low state funding, and my community college, to its credit, is doing a fairly good job of it.)
We talked about faculty ranks: my community college doesn’t do tenure, so we skipped the issue of tenure, but I did explain the various ranks of professorship as well as the different labels applied to part-timers and full-timers alike (lecturer, instructor, adjunct).
We looked up ratios of full-time to part-time faculty: in my community college, it’s two adjuncts for every full-time instructor, but at my smaller branch campus, the ratio is closer to 10-1.
At this point, my students (without my prompting) returned to the definition and wondered how it was possible that the primary teaching force in a school could get labeled “supplementary rather than an essential part.”
So I started walking them through the history of using adjuncts, how we were once the “supplements” to a tenured faculty, there to fill a need as education boomed after the GI Bill and as technological advances required limited-term faculty for specialized classes, but how rapidly — and beginning at community colleges like ours — administrators realized we were an economical alternative to a fully tenured faculty, and starting about 30 years ago, we became the default because we were cheaper.
This led us to a discussion of compensation for adjuncts as compared to their qualifications. In general, I explained, every adjunct usually has at least a masters degree and, as the market floods with more and more graduate students, often adjuncts have PhDs. (I’m one of them.) This means that, generally speaking, adjuncts are exactly as qualified as their full-time colleagues. But because we’re technically “part-time” (despite the fact that many of us teach on multiple campuses to piece together a full-time load), we get paid significantly less than our full-time colleagues.
Depending on where I teach, I get paid a salary rate per course or I get paid an hourly rate, but that hourly rate is only for the number of hours I’m in a classroom or holding office hours. If I have a full load of four or five classes in a term, that’s about 16-20 hours a week. But I do a lot of my work outside the classroom, and if I divide my salary by the actual number of hours I work in a given week, as opposed to the course load I’m given, it turns out that I make somewhere around minimum wage.
Of course, some might argue that I’m working harder than I need to, and that calculating my pay as an hourly wage doesn’t really matter. And in practice, I agree with this. I’ve never been much of a clock-watcher, and I’ve always been willing to put in the extra work if the work was needed to get a job done. Still, for my own sake and especially for the integrity of the profession in general and my colleagues, it’s worth paying attention to how much work our job requires in relation to how much we get paid, and even if I estimate conservatively and let myself get away with fewer hours in a given week, I’m still making somewhere around $10 an hour.
That’s the new minimum wage for Walmart employees.
Think about that.
What might it look like if, to work a cash register at Walmart, you first had to attend eight years of higher education and spend six figures (or rack up six figures of debt) on tuition and books and research, just to ring up someone’s groceries?
I was talking about these issues with my students today and one of them came up with an interesting suggestion. He said we ought to pay part-time teachers the way we charge part-time students. When a student attends school halftime, she pays the same tuition rate as a full-time student: the full-time student pays around $95 per credit hour (typical for community colleges in Oregon), and the part-time student also pays $95 per credit hour. It’s the same rate. Similarly, my student argued, we should pay part-time faculty the same rate as full-time faculty. So, for example, a typical full-time faculty member at a community college in Oregon gets paid $70,000 for teaching nine classes in a year. That’s about $7,777 per class. My student suggested that a part-time faculty member should make the same $7,777 per class, regardless how many or how few classes that adjunct is teaching. My students said that only seems fair.
(The average per-class rate for adjuncts in America as well as in Oregon runs between $2,000 and $3,000 per class — about a third the average rate for full-time faculty. Of course, we adjuncts don’t usually attend committee meetings or inservice workshops, and when we do, we’re paid extra, but even a generous accounting for that extra full-time work puts us at less than half of full-time pay.)
I like my student’s idea. I still think adjunct faculty should have access to at least health care (which under the ACA we are starting to get, but it’s still an uphill battle), and possibly some retirement benefits as well, though I understand that’s a hard argument to make. But at the very least, if we could be paid at a rate commensurate with our qualifications and on a par with our colleagues who have full-time contracts, that at least would be something.
But the most interesting conversation to evolve in my class today revolved around adjunct faculty time, not their salaries. In a PBS Newshour video I shared with the class, there was a line about how the heavy workloads adjuncts have to work, just to make ends meet, reduce their time available outside the classroom. No time or space for office hours, for example; no time to commit to committee work; fewer opportunities for one-on-one interactions with students.
I expounded on this and explained to my students that when I was in college, I was lucky enough to attend an institution that used very few part-time faculty, and almost none of my professors were part-timers. And everyone had an office. Everyone had spare seating in their offices — a stuffed armchair, or a couch, or a bean bag. I told my students how I pestered my professors, how I would follow them from the classroom to their offices. I would sit in their chairs, I would drink their coffee, I would listen to their records, I would sift through the books on their bookshelves, and I would talk to them for thirty minutes, for an hour, for as long as they would tolerate me. When the campus had events on weekends, my professors were there, and I talked to them. Some faculty had housing on or very near campus, and I would sit in their living rooms in the evenings, drinking tea, watching movies, engaging in intellectual salons. I told my students that most of what I learned in college I did not learn in the classroom, I learned outside the classroom, talking to my professors.
And then I pointed out how on our community college campus, the adjunct faculty have one strip of computers, about the third the size of the classroom I teach in, for the 70 or 80 adjuncts to share. We used to have a small conference space where adjuncts could meet with students privately, but space constrictions being what they are, that has since become a full-time faculty member’s office.
When I meet with students, I meet with them in my classroom, or in the hallway, or in the lobby of the building. And it’s rare for any adjunct to have time to meet outside of class anyway. Most of us are leaving the class immediately to rush off to our second or third jobs. Most of us are arriving to work just in time for class to start because we had to drive from our second or third jobs. And all of us have to carry our office with us in the trunk of our car, grading papers in the front seat or at a table in the student cafe.
In other words, while the quality of education that students get in the classroom is exactly the same whether they have a professor or an adjunct, the opportunities for engaging teachers outside the classroom is dramatically different.
I’m lucky enough to have a little extra time, at least this term, and I do try to engage my students outside class as much as I can. Today, one student stayed after class to talk with me about today’s discussion, and he told me that he thinks that kind of face-to-face communication outside the classroom is so important because it helps students better understand teachers and therefore better learn from them in classroom, but it also helps the teachers better understand their students so we can better teach in the classroom. These are his words, his insights. Our students know what good education looks like. Our educational institutions owe them the kind of education they expect and deserve, and part of that means providing better compensation and better working conditions for our adjunct faculty.
At the end of the class, I asked my students what they could do to address all these issues, if they thought this was an issue worth their time. (I know they have lives — jobs, extra jobs, spouses, kids, and so on. Maybe they have more important issues to worry about, though this one does directly affect their education.) Some suggested sharing the news on social media; I pointed out that the movement has a Facebook page and a tumblr, and there’s also a #adjunctwalkout hashtag on Twitter. Other students suggested making sure the media reports on the issue; I pointed to articles in the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and the LA Times just to hit the few I’ve seen so far. Other students suggested writing their state legislators — and this is when I got excited.
So yes, share your support for adjunct faculty on social media, demand news coverage of the issue in your local papers, but most importantly, write your state legislators and demand increased public funding for education, demand fairer treatment of adjunct faculty (and, frankly, demand fairer treatment for ALL faculty, because this isn’t a matter of full-time vs. part-time — we’re all in the same profession with the same ultimate goals for our students, and we should be united in our efforts).
Write, and let your community, your state, and your nation know that if we want the best education the world can offer, we have to treat our educators better than we do.
My students deserve that.