Staying in for National Adjunct Walkout Day

safe_imageToday 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.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

13 thoughts on “Staying in for National Adjunct Walkout Day

  1. Great read, Sam. I’m glad you were able to engage your students in this conversation, which seems to principally happen among faculty and administrators. I am impressed by your students and excited for their futures. I will say, I employ and supervise about 100 English-teaching adjuncts, and as a full-time college administrator, these ideas and notions are frequently in my mind. I ask A LOT of my faculty, and I hold them accountable. But I also examine their rates of pay, and acknowledge the positions they are in. I feel it is important to understand where they come from and what they struggle with, the way I ask them to understand and know their students every day. I cannot change the HUGE institution I work for, cannot insist on the creation of more full-time positions, cannot negotiate their rate of pay. I do what I can: recognize their work, ask them for their contributions to best practices summits and professional development sessions, observe them as often as I am able to, so they have feedback and applause. I guide and direct them, write them (when deserved and necessary) sterling recommendations, and I assist them with syllabus creation, textbook navigation, student concerns, and… dreaded parent concerns. I think it’s important, as you point out, to focus on students. And to remember that the people whose faces students see, whose voices students hear deserve support and appreciation. Institutionally, higher ed agencies need to do better by their adjuncts, but in the meantime, adminstrators (chairs, deans, and the like) need to do whatever they can to bridge the gap. Thanks for sharing these thoughts. They are good for me to keep in mind.

    1. Thank YOU for all your advocacy! I’m lucky to work for devoted administrators at my community college as well, and have often (though not always) been fortunate in my administrators at other institutions as well.

      I will point out one thing: You rightly point out that, alone, you “cannot change the HUGE institution I work for, cannot insist on the creation of more full-time positions, cannot negotiate their rate of pay.” But you can advocate for more full-time positions; you can support negotiations for better pay. We need our administrators to do these things with us! But with all the work you do say you put into helping your faculty, I suspect you do these things as well, and we thank you for it! (Actually, I know you do — you rock, Allegra!)

  2. True to form, you gave me quite the smile! I do, indeed, advocate, lobby, and negotiate as I can. I have the privilege of, in terms of hierarchy, being two steps from the campus president. He loves adjuncts, insists we drop everything in the case of questions of their pay or turmoil, and we are working, as campus leaders, on ways to address the needs and concerns of students AND faculty. Yeesh. That last bit sounded pretttttty administrator-y. That said, I’m glad to have read this, because I can do more. This has lighted a new fire for me.

  3. I think you accomplished far more with this discussion than if you had walked out. I could babble on about this and that but facilitating a discussion such as this is much more respectfully productive than walking off the job which could leave a blemish on your employment chances for full-time. Good job.

    1. I wouldn’t have worried about the blemish to my work history — as a union state, Oregon doesn’t generally consider it a blight to organize and demonstrate for better working conditions. But I work hard to adapt my teaching according to the students I have and the situations we’re in together, and that was really the driving force behind my decision to stay in the classroom. Had I worked on a campus where my union had organized a demonstration, I would have walked out with them (and invited my students to join us), because that would have been a more widely visible and effective method of starting a discussion. But here in Oregon, there was a widespread effort to focus not on walk-outs but on “teach-ins.” That was the case at OSU, for example, and at my art-college, where the full-time faculty joined the part-timers in organizing a campus-wide discussion. At my community college, where I happened to be teaching on National Adjunct Walkout Day, our adjunct representatives in our faculty union have been organizing discussion-starting surveys, informational materials, and action proposals that will extend far beyond a mere one-day walkout, and I felt that starting a discussion with my students made sense as part of that larger effort. But had I been better organized, undistracted by my hand injury and keeping my class on track, I might have asked my colleagues to lead similar discussions in their classes; I know some did, but it wasn’t an organized effort. Something to work on for next year. 🙂

  4. Most of my classes at my community college were 4 credits and met 3 times per week. At $95/credit those classes would cost me $380 to attend today. Divide that by the 10 weeks and the 3 times per week that the class meets and my math puts your theft of each student’s education at $12.67. I generally had about 30 in my classes. That’s $380 worth of stolen time.

    If you want to picket or protest, that’s fine. If you want to take actions that negatively impact your finances (walking out), that’s fine. But don’t steal to advance your cause.

      1. Really? Did you hold class and cover the material that the program’s accreditation is dependent upon or did you just show up and lead a discussion on life for the scheduled time? There is a difference. You may value the talk about life more, but the students were paying for the writing lesson.

      2. You might want to reread the post. I led a discussion on the value of their education and how writing can impact what kind of education they receive. That is not only well within the purview of the course but also is part of every good class’s attention to each student’s overall education. Of course, I led this discussion with the consent and participation of my classes, and since they were the ones paying for that classtime, I’ll accept their feedback on the day — they told me they considered it a valuable lesson toward the whole of their education.

  5. You led a discussion on your *level of compensation*, not on the *value of their education*.

    The only mention of “write” or “writing” in your 27 paragraph posting comes in three instances in the 24th-26th paragraphs. That would hardly make it the main topic of your class discussion — at least as reported here.

    This isn’t a matter of whether the students gave their consent for the wasted time or if they felt good about it afterwards. You start the article saying you were already behind schedule in the class. By abusing your role as their instructor you robbed them of two hours of instruction in writing. Instead, you substituted two hours of discussion aimed towards your own financial enrichment.

    The students pay for less than 2/3 of the cost of their education. The taxpayer provides over 35% of the cost. You stole from the students. You stole from the tax payers. You politicized a writing class. I am sure this is not living up to the standards of your department or your college.

    1. I find it interesting that you would rather those students have no class at all — that I simply cancel class to “protest” elsewhere — than that those students learn a little about where their money goes when they pay for their classtime. Why is that? They spend the money either way. And who better to tell me what is relevant in a classroom than the students themselves? It’s how I develop each class.

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