An Adjunct Thanksgiving

I’ve spent the last three years working to make life better for adjuncts. The Adjunct Project is approaching its third birthday, and I’ve been reflecting on some of the successes that have been achieved since its launch. It’s been a good year for adjunct professors. Here are some of the things for which I’m thankful during this holiday week:

I’m thankful for the adjuncts who stand up for themselves and speak out.
For the adjuncts who recognize that they hold the power.
For the adjuncts who have decided that they alone can change their situations.
For the adjuncts who have gained the confidence to make those changes.

I’m thankful for other members of the academic community who have decided it’s time to step up.
For the tenured faculty members who have joined the cause and raised their voices.
For the administrative assistants who devote special attention to adjuncts’ schedules.
For the human-resources professionals who take extra care to pay adjuncts on time.

I’m thankful for the adjunct unions and their successes of the past year.
For Adjunct Action and the Service Employees International Union and the advancements they’ve made.
For the metro organizing strategy and the fact that it’s WORKING.
For the contracts that are being negotiated across the country to make adjuncts’ lives better.

I’m thankful for New Faculty Majority and the work they’ve done for adjuncts.
For Maria Maisto and her tireless lobbying and testimony in support of the cause.
For the attention politicians have begun paying to the adjunct plight as a result of that lobbying.
For the partnerships and collaborations that the New Faculty Majority has forged in the name of adjunct research.

I’m thankful for the media coverage that’s been given to adjuncts this year.
For the conversation that is now spreading beyond the boundaries of the campus.
For the mainstream coverage from news outlets like PBS and Al Jazeera.
For the industry coverage from Vitae, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, and other blogs.

I’m thankful for the platform Vitae gives me to speak my mind.
For the freedom I have to write about any topic I choose.
For the commitment my editors have made to telling the truth about adjunct labor.
For all the important stories I’ve been able to read and contribute to over this past year.

I’m thankful for my Vitae colleagues and others who continue to thrust adjunct issues into the spotlight.
For Rebecca Schuman, Sarah Kendzior, and Kelly Baker who speak truth to power and call out injustice.
For Karen Kelsky, Joe Fruscione, and Katie Pryal who are helping adjuncts escape bad situations.
For Stacey Patton, Sydni Dunn, Audrey June, and Peter Schmidt whose news coverage of adjunct issues inform all of our discourse.

I’m thankful for the promise of the future for adjunct professors.
For the fact that, finally, adjuncts seem to be gaining ground.
For hope that things can get better.
For all of the changes that will come this year.

Thanksgiving Day

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Always an Adjunct?

Regular readers of this website know that I left my adjunct teaching position at the University of Georgia last May.  Ultimately, I’m glad I did what I did. The job wasn’t bad, but it was keeping me from moving on to something better.

In this week’s post at Vitae, I discuss some of the questions I’ve been dealing with since deciding to leave my position.

For one, it’s just kind of strange to not be prepping for classes this year like I would usually be doing. After dedicating about seven years of my life to a career track, I’m having a hard time leaving it behind.

I’m also struggling with another important question. How does my role as a writer about adjunct issues change now that I’m no longer an adjunct? My professional identity for the past couple of years has been that of an adjunct who writes about adjunct issues. Now I’m wondering what my new life outside of academe means for my legitimacy as a higher ed writer.

Should I continue to write about adjunct issues? Am I allowed to? Will I even want to?

I have to admit that part of me wants to leave the conversation entirely. I know progress is being made. I see it every day. In the two and half years since the Adjunct Project first began, adjunct issues have been pushed into the mainstream. The tide appears to be turning.

As I discuss in the piece, I’m not sure what my new role will be and whether or not I will stay connected to higher ed. I know leaving was something I had to do. Now I just need to figure out how I can continue to be useful to the growing movement.

Read more about my decision to leave academe and about the questions I’m pondering at:

Giving Up the Good.

 

Walking Away

I’m walking away, but I’m not turning my back.

Changing Gears in a Difficult Job Market

Editor’s Note: There are so many stories about the difficult academic job market that it’s easy to forget some people do occasionally get jobs. Every once in a while, a tenure-track job is awarded to a lucky candidate, but more often than not, getting a full-time job in academe requires a shift in focus toward what is now commonly referred to as an alternate academic, or alt-ac, career. Sometimes this shift is only a slight pivot, but it can also mean going back to school and earning a new degree.

Brian Flota’s “alt-ac narrative” falls into the second category. The English literature tenure-track market just wasn’t working for him, so he reinvented himself by returning to school and becoming an academic librarian. His story is a good example of how to take a bad situation and change it into a better one. Following is Brian’s alt-ac story that grew out of a discussion between he and Joe Fruscione. Maybe it will help others who are thinking about shifting gears while on the job market.

Going Back to School

In 2006, I graduated with a Ph.D. in English, and the Great Recession happened. Five years later, I’d had nine interviews and zero job offers.

I sat back and watched peers with virtually no publication history from more prestigious universities get tenure-track positions. After a few years on the market while teaching as an adjunct, I was “damaged goods.” There’s that perception that if one does not have a tenure-track job five years out from the Ph.D., the “dream” is probably not going to come true. Getting fewer nibbles on the job market year after year became demoralizing. Realizing this, I began to seriously entertain other career options. Given my research background and some experience working in libraries, I started thinking about getting a Master’s in Library and Information Science (LIS).

This seemed like a great option, although the library job market is just as fraught with peril as the tenure-track English one is. I applied to the Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I was accepted, but decided to defer my enrollment into GSLIS for one year so I could test the English Lit job market one last time.

That last year, I only had one job interview. Two months passed without hearing back, and I realized my goose was cooked. I was no longer wanted in the profession I had devoted the last dozen years of my life to. I declined an offer to adjunct again the following year and, with a mixture of relief and terror, went all-in for library school.

Switching careers gave me the opportunity to pay attention to the things I overlooked the first time I was in graduate school. When I started the Ph.D. program in 1999, I was a young, idealistic student who wanted to soak up as much great literature, theory, and research as I could. Getting a job wasn’t a primary concern, even though I was a first-generation college student from a middle-class background. I hadn’t taken advantage of the opportunities to professionalize that I should have, and I’m confident these oversights hurt me on the job market.

I was determined to do things differently the second time around. In fact, in a now-infamous 2012 article published by Forbes, the LIS degree was rated the “No. 1 Worst Master’s Degree for Jobs.” I learned along the way that having a degree from a top-tier school made a huge difference. As a result, I chose to attend UIUC, the school with the top-ranked library program in the country. I began my new life by immediately relocating to Champaign in order to take advantage of the school’s knowledgeable librarians and numerous libraries.

While I waited for classes to begin, I took every volunteer gig I could, and one of them eventually became a graduate assistantship. Before my first class at GSLIS, I met with six librarians to introduce myself and share with them my goals and ambitions. One of those informational interviews led to a second assistantship at UIUC’s Literatures and Languages library.

Once coursework began, I took courses that covered a wide swath of specializations within librarianship, such as reference, cataloging and metadata, databases, displays and exhibits, archives, special collections, and administration. One of the greatest strengths and weaknesses of a PhD is specialization. With this second degree, I wanted to avoid the specialization of my PhD program, so that my marketability wasn’t confined to a very small segment of the profession.

Throughout the two-year process, I was often seized by doubt. I asked myself: “Have I made the right decision?” “Is this worth it?” “Will it work out?” “Am I a failure?” Much of this can be traced back to the amount of loan debt I acquired. I also asked myself, “Will I be able to get a job that will allow me to make my loan payments?”

Once it was time to go on the market, I overcame my self-doubt and applied to 50 jobs, ultimately securing seven phone interviews. This was great compared to my previous job market experiences.

After a dodgy first interview, I got much better. But still no luck landing a job. I was competing with much younger, more tech-savvy applicants. Undaunted, I solicited advice from recent hires and asked them how I should approach the interviewing process.

With the sixth attempt, I netted my first campus visit, which resulted in finally getting a tenure-track position: Library Liaison to the English Department at James Madison University at the rank of Assistant Professor.

Brian Flota is a tenure-track Library Liaison to the English Department at James Madison University.

Congressman George Miller Challenges University Presidents on Adjuncts

Last year, Congressman George Miller of California took up the cause of adjunct labor. Miller, who is the senior Democrat on the House of Representatives’ Committee on Education in the Workforce, opened a public forum last year where adjuncts and other contingent faculty members could share stories about their working conditions.

The open forum generated hundreds of responses from adjuncts across the country. Miller said he was reading each one. According to an interview conducted by Vitae‘s Sydni Dunn, Miller was hoping to “have the opportunity to have a full-committee hearing in the education and workforce committee” regarding the findings of the forum. 

Congressman George Miller

Congressman George Miller

I admit to being a little skeptical of Congressman Miller’s interest in this topic. For all I knew, he saw an opportunity to reach thousands of new constituents in one swipe. Maybe that was the case, but Miller has proven more than once that he hasn’t forgotten about the pledge he made to adjuncts.

For starters, he publicly discussed the 800+ responses he received to his open call, and he co-authored a report on the findings. This report was known as the “Just-in-Time Professor: A Staff Report Summarizing eForum Responses on the Working Conditions of Contingent Faculty in Higher Education,” and it’s a 36-page exploration of the adjunct responses to the public forum complete with charts and graphs.

And then today, over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Rep. Miller published an open letter to college presidents wherein he discusses some of what he has learned about the working conditions of adjuncts and also student athletes. In the letter, entitled “Presidents, Do Right By Athletes and Adjuncts,” Miller calls out college presidents for their treatment of these two exploited groups on college campuses.

The Congressman challenges the rhetoric of university administrations, who often discourage union activity and promise compromise, but then turn right around and maintain the status quo.

He writes:

You can’t have it both ways; you can’t insist that you are unable to make things better for athletes or adjuncts, and simultaneously insist that they should not try to make things better on their own, through collective bargaining.

You own these working conditions. You can keep defending the status quo and trying to excuse shabby workplace practices, but I respectfully suggest you change them instead.

Couldn’t have said it better myself. As for whether this advice will be heeded, well, we shall see. At least the cause is continuing to receive attention—and it’s going further up the ladder than ever before.

Fighting For an Adjunct Union in San Francisco

Adjunct professors at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) are attempting to unionize under the SEIU’s metro-organizing strategy, which is now spreading across major cities of the west coast. It’s another exciting opportunity for the successful higher ed organizing group Adjunct Action.

But SFAI administrators are fighting the union drive. The school has hired attorney Ron Holland to represent it. A bio of Holland explains that his practice “focuses exclusively on representing management in traditional labor law and employment law issues.” The union-busting campaign is underway according to Jennifer Smith-Camejo, who works in the communications department of SEIU Local 1021.

Adjuncts at the school are fighting back against the anti-union rhetoric being disseminated by SFAI and their attorney. Some have written on their personal blogs about the opposition they’ve faced, and a tumblr page has also been created to keep people posted on the latest updates. The tumblr links to a petition that anyone can sign to show support for the right to vote.

Students and teachers from SFAI and other area schools will be meeting over the next few days on and off campus to discuss the next steps.

For more information about the union effort at the San Francisco Art Institute, contact:

Jennifer Smith-Camejo, SEIU Local 1021
510-289-1244
jennifer.smith-camejo@seiu1021.org

Adjunct Action Bay Area

Adjuncts on the Diane Rehm Show

The Diane Rehm show out of Washington, DC featured an important segment on adjunct professors this week. The public radio show has an estimated 1.7 million listeners. On the show Wednesday were Maria Maisto, executive director of New Faculty Majority, and Peter Schmidt who authored the recent Chronicle of Higher Education piece on the Adjunct Action national adjunct union.

The hour-long show gives a solid background on the current state of academic labor, and it also gives Maisto and Schmidt a great platform to explain the problem.  Some good discussions came from listeners, as well, who called into the show in order to weigh in on the adjunct issue.

Other guests on the show included two academic administrators who did their best to obscure the problem and deflect the issue by obfuscating and shifting blame, but Maisto handles them well by continuing to return to the real problems.

I love seeing adjuncts’ media presence continue to spread into more mainstream outlets. The adjunct problem really speaks for itself, so the key is just getting this message to a broader audience.

Lots of good tweets and comments posted on the piece, as well.

Check out the whole conversation on the Diane Rehm Show website.

Diane Rehm Show

My Graduate Degree’s Default Setting

I ended up a teacher by accident. At some point during three years of graduate school, I got it into my head that I was going to teach college students. I never even liked teaching or public speaking or even being around people all that much. So, naturally, I decided to become a teacher.

Actually here’s what happened: Someone told me at some point that teaching was a thing people do after they get a master’s degree in English. That’s what caused it. Someone said I should do it, and for some damned reason that was all I needed to hear.

I remember the day two women came to one of my graduate classes and talked about planning for the future after grad school. It was one of those pep talks or something like it. Come to think of it, though, they were mainly just recruiting future adjunct professors for the satellite campuses of the university. Out of the whole talk, that’s the message that stuck with me.

We hire people from this program to teach. In two years, we might hire you.

After class that night, one of the women—Director of Something or Other—told me I could be an adjunct professor with my degree. I didn’t even know what the hell that meant. It seemed cool at the time, and she gave me her business card so it was official. Said to contact her in two years when I finished the program. We’re always looking for good adjuncts, she said.

At the time, I assumed her invitation was a compliment. She had seen something in me, and she had offered me a guaranteed spot on the teaching roster after graduation. I remember being excited. It seemed too good to be true. It was.

Looking back that meeting could only be described as a kind of propaganda session, designed to indoctrinate us new recruits into the system of exploitation. The seeds were planted. You, too, can be a professor. Opportunity awaits.

When you’re green like that it’s easy to get thoughts implanted into your mind. “You’d be good at X,” and then suddenly you’re doing everything you can to become X because somebody with authority saw promise in you.

I fell right into it. Never even questioned the track once I had been set upon it.

Yeah, okay, a professor—that sounds cool. She’s right actually; I do want to be a professor. I remember now.

If I had thought about it for two seconds, I would have realized I didn’t want that at all. Too easy to take the path that had been outlined for me. Too convenient to follow the map that someone else drew rather than design my own adventure.

Once I had the map, all I had to do was follow the dotted line to the buried treasure. Nevermind that the treasure might be fool’s gold.

Treasure Map

And from there on out, I was a teacher. Never questioned it again. Now, six years later, I’m finally starting to admit that I deviated from my plan, that I allowed the words of an authoritative stranger to influence my future. I didn’t go to grad school to be a teacher. That was never the plan. It was only a default setting that I forgot to switch off once I took my degree out of the package.

To be clear, I’m not blaming my mistakes on someone else. No, I’m the one who failed to plan. I’m the one who ignored the warning signs. I’m the one who veered off course. I’m the one who accepted someone else’s plan for my life.

And now I’m the one who is tearing up the map mid-course. I’m the one who is stepping off the trail and venturing into the wilderness. I’m the one who is now—finally—creating my own path.

 

It’s Time for the AAUP to Get Serious About Adjunct Pay

Despite increased attention on the plight of adjunct professors, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) is still showing its bias against this professorial underclass.

The 2013-2014 AAUP Faculty Salary Survey data was released today and, just as in years past, it does not include a category for adjunct professor pay. This despite the fact that adjuncts and other non-tenure-track professors now make up the majority of the professoriate.

As this report reveals, tenure-track faculty members are still prioritized in the AAUP’s salary data. By the AAUP’s own statistics, tenure-track faculty make up only about 30% of professors now. The AAUP’s continued ignorance of the majority in their annual salary data is inexcusable.

Combined Operations

To be fair, the AAUP has begun to get much more involved in the fair pay for adjuncts fight. They’re getting better. Now it’s time to start treating adjuncts like a part of the university by including them in the salary data survey. Adjunct salary should no longer be invisible.

No doubt one reason for the absent adjunct salary information is its relative difficulty to collect. Adjunct pay varies widely. Even adjuncts at the same university can earn different salaries based on how many classes they teach. It’s definitely not easy to glean that kind of information from the universities or even from the adjuncts themselves. But it can be done, as the Adjunct Project has proven.

The data exists; it’s just a matter of how much time and resources the AAUP is willing to invest in order to obtain that data. If the organization continues to ignore this huge swath of its constituency, it will lose relevance among the majority of faculty members. Why would adjuncts be interested in joining an organization that ignores them?

How the AAUP Can Include Adjuncts in the Annual Salary Report

Here are some steps the AAUP can take in order to start being more inclusive of the majority of professors in its salary data report.

  1. The AAUP should create a category for adjunct pay and list it on a per course basis. This would alleviate the problem of varying adjunct salaries due to teaching load. Readers can extrapolate full-time equivalents based on these per course numbers.
  2. Partner with the Adjunct Project in order to take advantage of existing salary numbers. The Adjunct Project currently has about 7,400 self-reported entries on adjunct pay and counting.
  3. Designate a dedicated researcher to contact schools directly and inquire about adjunct faculty pay. All it would take is a couple hundred schools to report their adjunct pay information in order to get a reasonable data set. This might also put pressure on other schools to divulge their information.
  4. At the very least, the AAUP should acknowledge in this annual salary report that it is missing salary numbers for 70% of the professoriate. Not acknowledging this fact is a pretty egregious misrepresentation of reality.

It’s time for the AAUP to step up and take a stand for adjuncts by committing resources to the annual salary report. Continuing to omit adjunct pay information is only hurting the organization by projecting the (certainly unintentional) message that the AAUP doesn’t care about adjunct pay.

 

My House is Burning

I dreamed last night that my house was burning and, as I rushed to escape the flames, the only item I grabbed was a set of kitchen knives. Out of everything in my house, the only thing my subconscious mind decided to save was a collection of Henkels.

It’s true I love a good set of knives. No secret among my close friends and family. Ask any of them. I’ve been known to joke that the only reason I want to get married is to add a great knife set to the gift registry.

But this dream was more than just an homage to cutlery. As I grabbed the knives and headed for the inflamed exit, I knew the precious cargo under my arm meant something important—like taking those knives was crucial to my ability to rebuild post-fire.

Burning House of Academe

When I woke up the flames were gone. The knives were holstered, as usual, in the block between the coffee maker and the refrigerator. It wasn’t until hours later that the dream began to take on a special significance.

I was talking to a friend on Facebook who also works in academia. She’s finishing her second year in a PhD program in Kentucky, and she’s also contemplating the long walk.

She half-jokingly suggested that my dream was a metaphor for the major life decision I’ve been struggling with lately. At first, I laughed. But then it hit me that she might actually be right.

The burning house in my dream is the academy. It’s a profession in flames, and I’m inclined to believe it can’t be saved as long as we stay on our current path of destructive labor practices, increased tuition, and defunded state coffers.

Or maybe I should just say that the burning house is my own personal status in the academy. I’m likely not going to advance any further than the adjunct role I currently hold. Same job, same pay for the rest of my life. My career is a burning building and I need to get out of it. So that’s what the house symbolizes.

Now for the knives. A little bit harder to explain. Here’s the way I see it. The kitchen knives represent a set of concrete, utilitarian tools that would help me reinvent myself in a new career. As long as I identify specific skills and specific actions I can take to employ those skills, I can recover from this transition and successfully reinvent myself. I’ve been in this position many times before. I know it can be done.

That’s why my subconscious mind grabbed the knives on the way out the flaming door. “Take something with you that can immediately be put to use,” my mind was saying. “Cover your ass and hit the ground running.”

I watch a lot of Top Chef, but I don’t think the next phase of my life will involve the culinary arts. The knives were just a symbol of a skill proficiency, something I could utilize when I escape my burning house.

Glad to see my subconscious thinking ahead. Now, as this house is subsumed around me, I just need to grab my tools and run.

Summer Jobs, Credit Cards & Unemployment: Surviving the Summer on an Adjunct Budget

Summer is coming up and, for most adjuncts, that means 3-4 long months without a paycheck. Most adjuncts receive their final paycheck of the spring semester in May, and they won’t be paid again until September. The summer months can get pretty tight financially—especially for those adjuncts who aren’t lucky enough to find summer work.

Adjunct budgets are notoriously thin anyway without the added strain of skimming a portion each month to survive the financial dearth of the summer months. Saving money on an adjunct’s salary is nearly impossible. So adjuncts must find some other way to continue to pay rent when they aren’t teaching.

Unemployment Line for Adjuncts

The really lucky adjuncts snap up a summer section or two, which keeps the paychecks coming. But most schools have many more adjuncts than they have summer sections, so only a few score one of these coveted assignments. Landing a summer class is the dream for most adjuncts because it means they can continue to eat without running up their credit cards.

I’ve known many an adjunct—myself included—who have had to rely on credit cards over the summer months. During graduate school, I ran up about $8,000 in credit card debt. I depended on my credit card to squeeze me through the pay gaps.

Summer Jobs for Adjuncts

Of course, the ideal solution to the strain of the adjunct summer is to find a job during those three non-teaching months. Just something that can keep the income consistent, even if it’s not glamorous. Believe me, I’m no stranger to taking ignominious jobs in order to fill gaps in employment. For most of grad school, I delivered pizzas at night. I kept this job during my first year as an adjunct while trying to dig out of my debt hole.

But never did I deliver pizzas in the same city where I taught. I couldn’t bear the thought of ringing a student’s doorbell and handing over a large pie topped with pepperoni and shame. Could you imagine recovering any kind of classroom ethos after that exchange?

The problem is it’s not that easy to pick up a job for only three months. Hiring managers aren’t stupid and they realize over-educated workers will turnover quickly. They don’t want to hire and train someone who will quit a few months later.

Therefore, your best bet might be to find a seasonal job that expects to churn employees quickly. Landscaping crews are a good example of this kind of work. I’ve done it. Seasonal warehouse jobs also fit the bill. Done that, too.

But what if one has a physical limitation that keeps him from taking a labor-intensive seasonal job? Seasonal jobs for knowledge workers are harder to come by. A couple good examples are tutoring, freelancing, and teaching for a test prep company. Temp agencies are another safe bet, but you should send your resume to them as soon as possible in order to get in the rotation for summer work.

One more idea: If you plan ahead, you can substitute teach in local public schools during the last month of the school year, after college classes have ended. I’ll be doing that in May.

Filing for Unemployment During the Summer

Finally, for some adjuncts, the option that makes the most sense is filing for unemployment during the summer pay gap. As I said, picking up a job for a couple months can be tough, not to mention stressful. Adjuncts with children are especially vulnerable during these months without pay. It’s much more difficult for them to pick up a 9-5 job cutting grass—and it might not even make financial sense once childcare is accounted for.

If you’re an adjunct considering unemployment this summer, here a couple good resources you should check out:

  • Access to Unemployment Insurance Benefits for Contingent Faculty is an excellent guide to filing for unemployment as an adjunct. It was published by the Chicago Coalition on Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL) with the help of NEA, AAUP, and AFT. Basically all the big education unions had a hand in compiling this manual.
  • The Unemployment Question is a blog post at the Adjunct Project with a discussion thread 45 comments long about adjuncts who have filed for unemployment in various states.

Surviving the summer as an adjunct without pay is rough. Many of the thousands of adjuncts at American universities suffer through this pain every year. Whether you get a summer class, find a temporary job, rack up credit card debt, or file for unemployment, know that you aren’t alone.

If you would like to ask a question to the adjunct community, feel free to post it here. I also edit the Adjunct Project blog and I’d be glad to open up your question to the group. Adjuncts can also get in touch with me directly to talk about adjunct-related issues at adjunctprojectmail@gmail.com.