I don’t think I’m bragging when I say that I was once an excellent Freshman Composition instructor. I did my best in Comp 2, where I taught my students how to conduct research that did not involve citing Wikipedia. I taught them skills that would serve them throughout their college careers, even into graduate school and beyond. I got great student evaluations, and my supervisors always lauded me for the quality of research essays that my students produced at the end of my rigorous but fun* research portion in Comp 2. On more than one occasion, other faculty members asked to sit in on my classes to see what I was doing, and graduate students asked for my help in improving their research and writing skills.
Unfortunately, I don’t teach anymore. I made the decision to become a full-time secretary primarily because of an environment like the one described in this Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, which details the downward spiral of Margaret Mary Vojtko, a long-time adjunct professor. Her poverty eventually led to her death, so I feel lucky that mine merely led to a secretarial job.
Universities increasingly rely on underpaid adjunct faculty to carry the burden of what are dismissed as “entry level” courses. It seems to escape university administrators and many tenured faculty members that those entry level courses matter the most. Those are the classes where freshmen get a firm footing for the courses they will take in the next three years. Underpaying the people who teach first-year college students seems equivalent to systematically paying first grade teachers less than sixth grade teachers. After all, teaching kids to read, that’s just entry level work. Easy.
Yet those same tenured faculty lament how many students arrive in their upper level courses without the most basic research skills. Why? Because the people tasked with teaching them basic skills – the underpaid adjunct faculty – do not have the time, energy, or institutional support to become truly great teachers. Some of them are teaching four courses per regular semester and two courses per summer semester (compared to the average tenured faculty load of two/two/zero for an academic year.) At the typical pay of $3,000-$3,500 per course, an adjunct is lucky to make $30,000 a year, teaching as many as ten courses per year.
A person can survive on $30k, but teaching ten Freshman Comp courses, or ten French 1 courses in a year is grueling, if you can even get that many courses. With the typical enrollment for these types of classes running around 20-25 students, you’re staring down grading 100 essays or exams on a regular basis. And if you can’t survive on that $30k? If you have children? Or you live in an area with a higher cost of living? You’ll do what many adjuncts do: get a second job, or a third. Some adjuncts swing double teaching loads. Four courses at the university, another two picked up at a community college, raising their class time and grading time into the stratosphere. Others settle for different types of jobs. I have known adjuncts who taught three courses at the university, one at a community college, and put in 20 hours a week at the local Sonic. I imagine it’s hard to maintain your professorial dignity when you find yourself serving limeades to your students. All the elbow-patched tweed jackets in the world can’t salvage that.
Even at good universities, like the one where I’m currently a secretary, where adjunct faculty are eligible for health benefits, they are still treated like disposable people. They exist for the convenience of the university and they’re cast aside whenever budgets are tightened or enrollments dip. They are paid what often equals less than minimum wage and no amount of excellence in the classroom will produce a reward. There are no merit salary increases, no real recognition for being a stellar teacher, beyond the kind words of people who recognize how difficult the job is.
The easy answer is to say, “Well, if academia is so terrible, those put-upon adjuncts should go find other jobs, where they’ll at least earn minimum wage.” I wish they all would. I wish they all could. All of them. En masse. It would be a sobering moment for a lot of universities who treat adjuncts with all the dignity of a tampon applicator. Of course, a job is a job, and it’s hard to walk away from one you know, which is why so many adjuncts stay on. I hated to give up teaching. I was good at it and I enjoyed it. But more, I hated being paid so little for doing valuable work and doing it without any kind of safety net.
The thing is, it’s not just wrong and demoralizing to pay adjuncts so little and to provide them with no security or benefits. It’s harmful to the long-term quality of the education a university offers. A tired, demoralized adjunct instructor isn’t going to put in extra hours to develop a new classroom activity that will help students learn how to assess the quality of their research sources. She isn’t going to do elaborate classroom media demonstrations of JSTOR or lead students on guided tours of library holdings. Eventually, she’s going to give up. She’ll lower her standards. When the inevitable Wikipedia citations crop up in research essays, she’ll cringe and move on, instead of protesting. Or she’ll quit teaching altogether and become a secretary. Most universities pay their secretaries better and respect them more.
*I have the evaluations to prove that a wide variety of students thought my classes were fun.