Adjuncts on the Diane Rehm Show

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.

My Graduate Degree’s Default Setting

Treasure Map

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.

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

Combined Operations

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.

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

Burning House of Academe

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.

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

Unemployment Line for Adjuncts

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.

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.