Teaching college is no longer a middle-class job, and everyone paying tuition should care.
Image by Zeke Berman
When Mary Margaret Vojtko died last September—penniless and virtually homeless and eighty-three years old, having been referred to Adult Protective Services because the effects of living in poverty made it seem to some that she was incapable of caring for herself—it made the news because she was a professor. That a French professor of twenty-five years would be let go from her job without retirement benefits, without even severance, sounded like some tragic mistake. In the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette op-ed that broke the story, Vojtko’s friend and attorney Daniel Kovalik describes an exchange he had with a caseworker from Adult Protective Services: “The caseworker paused and asked with incredulity, ‘She was a professor?’ I said yes. The caseworker was shocked; this was not the usual type of person for whom she was called in to help.” A professor belongs to the professional class, a professor earns a salary and owns a home, probably with a leafy yard, and has good health insurance and a retirement account. In the American imagination, a professor is perhaps disheveled, but as a product of brainy eccentricity, not of penury. In the American university, this is not the case.
Most university-level instructors are, like Vojtko, contingent employees, working on a contract basis year to year or semester to semester. Some of these contingent employees are full-time lecturers, and many are adjunct instructors: part-time employees, paid per class, often without health insurance or retirement benefits. This is a relatively new phenomenon: in 1969, 78 percent of professors held tenure-track positions. By 2009 this percentage had shrunk to 33.5. The rest of the professors holding jobs—whether part time or full time—do so without any job security. These are the conditions that left Vojtko in such a vulnerable position after twenty-five years at Duquesne University. Vojtko was earning between $3,000 and $3,500 per three-credit course. During years when she taught three courses per semester, and an additional two over the summer, she made less than $25,000, and received no health benefits through her employer. Though many universities limit the number of hours that adjunct professors can work each semester, keeping them nominally “part-time” employees, teaching three three-credit courses is certainly a full-time job. These circumstances are now the norm for university instructors, as the number of tenured and tenure-track positions shrinks and the ranks of contingent laborers swell.
A moment of full disclosure: I am an adjunct. I taught freshman composition at Columbia University for two years as a graduate student, then for a few semesters more as an adjunct after I finished my degree. I now tutor in a writing center in the City University of New York system. Many of my friends do this same kind of work at colleges around New York City, commuting from campus to campus, cobbling together more-than-full-time work out of multiple part-time jobs. We talk a lot about how to make adjuncting livable, comparing pay rates at different writing centers and English departments. We crowdsource answers to questions about how to go to the dentist, for example, since none of us has dental insurance—wait for a Groupon for a cleaning, or go to the student dentists at NYU for anything urgent. I do have health insurance at my current job, though I get an email a few times per year informing me that it may expire soon because negotiations between the union and the university over adjunct health insurance have stalled. This is mostly fine—my coverage has never actually been interrupted—but it is hard to swallow the notion that the university that employs me is constantly trying to get out of providing health insurance to teachers, particularly when it announces that it is giving our new chancellor an $18,000/month apartment for free.
So I have closely followed the news and op-ed coverage of the adjunct bubble that followed Vojtke’s death. And while I have been glad to see more attention being paid to the working conditions in higher education, I’ve been surprised that the issue is consistently framed as purely a workers’ rights problem. It is this, of course. But it is not only this.
Students are often unaware of the way their colleges contract with their teachers—after all, who would tell them?
The rise of adjunct labor in universities is also a student issue. Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. And when the average graduate of the class of 2014 leaves school with over $30,000 of debt (nearly twice what the average was twenty years ago, adjusted for inflation), it’s an important consumer issue, too. Students deserve to know how their universities are spending their money, and how they’re contracting with their teachers, especially those teachers who have the most student contact. Courses like composition—a universal requirement at most colleges, and given in small groups—are taught almost exclusively by adjuncts. For such courses, many colleges employ “small armies of adjuncts,” and at large universities where large classes are divided into smaller discussion sections, those are often taught by grad students. Yet students are often unaware of the way their colleges contract with their teachers—after all, who would tell them?
When Andrew Scott, a composition instructor in Indianapolis, explained adjuncting to some of his students, he wound up being called into his supervisor’s office for a scolding. A group of his students at the private university where he was adjuncting (he also had a full-time position at Ball State) had arrived early for class, and were talking in the hallway. When one student mentioned a history teacher who seemed eager to get the students to like her, and whose class didn’t have a lot of work, Scott explained how her work situation was involved: “I knew the instructor was an adjunct, and that she taught at several places to cobble together a living. I told the students that she was an adjunct, and that the class was easy because she was afraid of losing her job.” Adjuncts are often evaluated solely based on student evaluations. As Rebecca Schuman put it in her Slate article “Confessions of a Grade Inflator,” “popularity is the only thing keeping them employed.”
Scott had this conversation with his students outside of class, because the students had brought it up, and because he considered it “a teachable moment.” But it still got him into trouble, probably because of this comparison: “I said that the university pays the janitor who scrapes the gum off their desks more per year than me and most of the people who teach their first-year classes. My private university students couldn’t believe that, but it was true. Even a low estimate shows how that’s true. Ten bucks per hour for forty hours a week equals an annual salary of $20,800.” One year Scott taught seven courses at that college, and made under $15,000 for that work.
Ten days later, Scott’s supervisor called him into her office because she’d heard about a “classroom incident” in which he had “ranted” about adjunct faculty pay and working conditions. “The director was especially worked up about my janitor comparison. She wanted to know if I’d really said that, and how I could possibly say that,” Scott recalls. The situation worked out for Scott—his other job made it possible for him to leave Marian, and he told his supervisor during the meeting that it would be his last semester. But not all adjuncts would be in such a position. And this dynamic is one of the reasons that adjunct conditions remain obscured from students: for workers without job security, the line between scolded and fired is uncomfortably thin.
Last fall, Karen Gregory was teaching a labor studies course in the City University of New York system when she found herself the object of media scrutiny because she included in her syllabus a short text describing the adjunctification of CUNY, and what it means for students:
“To ensure that we remain conscious of the adjunctification of CUNY, we ask that you do not call us ‘Professor.’ We are hired as adjunct lecturers and it is important that you remember that. You deserve to be taught by properly compensated professors whose full attention is to teaching and scholarship.”
The text, which was developed by the CUNY Adjunct Project and distributed for teachers to include in their syllabi, briefly describes the history of CUNY’s increased reliance on adjuncts. It explains how adjuncts are paid and what that means for students:
“Adjuncts are not regular members of the faculty; we are paid an hourly rate for time spent in the classroom. We are not paid to advise students, grade papers, or prepare materials or lectures for class. We are paid for one office hour per week for all of the classes we teach. We are not paid to communicate with students outside of class or write letters of recommendation. Out of dedication to our students, adjuncts regularly perform such tasks, but it is essentially volunteer labor.”
And it says one thing that is so rarely part of the adjunct discussion: “CUNY’s reliance on adjuncts impairs the conditions under which courses are taught and the quality of your education” (emphasis mine).
Of course it’s possible to love what one does, be good at it, and still be exploited.
The public response to Gregory’s syllabus helps explain why the debate is so rarely framed in these terms. Indeed, her discussion of adjunct labor with her students inspired a surprising level of vitriol. Gregory noted that “it’s a savvy and interesting thing to not perform the legitimacy of The Professor. Because this is the double thing: you’ve got people saying, ‘You’ve made a bad choice, but we have to keep sacred this term professor so you have to perform this cultural capital.” An interview with Gregory in Inside Higher Ed, a publication not really known for thread trolling, yielded advice that Gregory “should have earned a PhD in something useful then” and if she “felt lousy” about teaching “it is time to seek a new profession.” This “love it or leave it” argument is often the first line of defense when workers dare to speak out about problematic conditions, but of course it’s possible to love what one does, be good at it, and still be exploited.
In fact, Gregory doesn’t feel lousy about teaching—when I met with her recently to talk about the reaction to her syllabus, and adjunctification in general, it was obvious that she is an enthusiastic and committed teacher who wants her students to get the most out of their time in college. “The more you can be honest with the students about what is going on, the better. I don’t think it’s about angering them, or mobilizing them, but talking to them about what we’re all doing here,” she said. She added, obviously not for the first time, that “this was a labor class.”
As a culture, we value the dissemination of knowledge more than the distribution of hamburgers. Or at least we say we do.
Another exchange in the IHE comment thread handily brought up a problematic rhetorical strategy that arises often in the discussion of the adjunct bubble: the comparison to fast-food workers. One commenter wrote, “You know what’s demeaning? Earning a PhD and making less money than a manager at McDonald’s.” And another replied, “You know what’s demeaning? A PhD who thinks she’s better than a manager at McDonald’s.” This exemplifies a serious problem in the ways that advocates for better working conditions for adjuncts make their argument. (A related problem is that adjunct advocates sometimes dramatize their argument by using phrases like “slave wages,” “slave labor”). Yes, college-level teachers should make more than cashiers at McDonald’s. Not because they hold advanced degrees—to pay someone for merely holding a degree is naked credentialism; to believe you deserve more money because of your credential itself rather than what you do with it is to misunderstand the value of work—but because as a culture, we value the dissemination of knowledge more than the distribution of hamburgers. Or at least we say we do.
Gregory connects the rising dependence on adjunct labor in universities to the broader move toward more “flexible” work in the economy. “Twenty or thirty years ago, you would have worked somewhere for life. No matter whether you went into manufacturing or cognitive labor, you went to a corporation and that corporation saw you as an investment. In the ’80s and ’90s, that connection between owner and workers was severed. Workers became replaceable, technology was brought in.” She recalled being told that by pursuing a career in academia she had made a bad choice. “But I would have chosen what, actually—a sea captain?” Gregory wondered with a laugh. “Everyone is struggling.” The challenge of finding a good job after college doesn’t belong only to the crazy wide-eyed dreamers who dared to study comparative literature. A spring 2012 American Bar Association study found that only 55 percent of law school graduates had gotten a job requiring a law license, a credential that the average student took on $125,000 in debt to earn.
Gregory sees the angry responses to her syllabus as being linked to a larger phenomenon: the backlash that often erupts when workers speak out. “The conditions of labor must always be obscured,” she said. “Work is good, work is noble, work is disciplining, work is what gives you social meaning in your life, so you can’t say, ‘Oh, this job is killing me.’ And they certainly don’t ever want you to talk to other people and realize this is structural, this is planned, we are the effects of other people’s choices and perhaps we should have a bigger voice here.”
One of the most significant frustrations in my own adjuncting experience has been the giant disconnect between the adjunct teachers and the administrators who determine budgets and hiring. We report directly to someone—usually another professor who oversees a particular academic department. To that immediate supervisor, we are real people; my bosses at universities have been nothing but kind, and genuinely interested in helping their colleagues be successful teachers. But as cozy as they are, those relationships, on a practical level, don’t matter much. These supervisors have their budgets handed down from other echelons of bureaucracy, from administrators whom, at least in my experience, the adjuncts never meet.
American universities are on a dangerous trajectory of “corporatization,” operating from the view that students are consumers and instructors are just one more cost of doing business. It used to be common for administrators to be professors who took a break from teaching to perform administrative duties for a short period of time, or took on admin duties in addition to their classes; they were people whose first commitment was to research or teaching. In his book The Fall of the Faculty, Johns Hopkins professor of political science Benjamin Ginsburg writes that “Forty years ago, America’s colleges actually employed more professors than administrators.” But while the faculty-to-student ratios have remained constant (with both groups growing at around the same rate), the administrator-to-student ratio has increased dramatically. And Ginsburg notes that though administrators often extol the virtues of using part-time contingent labor for teaching, “they fail to apply the same logic to their own ranks.” In 2005, 48 percent of college faculty were part time, compared to only 3 percent of administrators.
But to talk about these structural issues is to deviate from the idea that work is sacred, and that—especially in this economy—to have a job at all is a gift. Advocating for better pay and conditions is not just impolite, it’s ungrateful.
The sanctity of teaching ought to be an argument for compensating teachers fairly, not for shutting underpaid teachers up.
This dynamic applies to any group of workers that speaks out on its own behalf, but there’s a special factor at work in the way that people critique adjuncts who want better conditions. Teaching college is a white-collar job. It is not dangerous or degrading; it happens on college campuses, which often are pleasant and have trees and sometimes inspirational phrases about learning carved into stone buildings; it is—except for the low pay and lack of benefits and constant uncertainty about the future—a good job. Gregory calls this a “cruel double standard: you’ve made this choice to go into a bad career that has high social status.” Many of the comments directed at her, and others who raise the adjunct issue, are concerned with protecting the sanctity of teaching. A professor should not be so vulgar as to talk about the material reality of her life.
“In the classroom, with students, in the present moment of teaching, all instructors/adjuncts/tenured faculty are professors because that is what they are doing. It is a sacred thing. We are all ‘real teachers’ there,” wrote one Inside Higher Ed commenter. Yes, teaching can feel sacred, in the way I imagine most of the “helping professions” can, because your labor is so directly linked to another person’s benefit. But the sanctity of teaching ought to be an argument for compensating teachers fairly, not for shutting underpaid teachers up. This anger—coming as it does so often from other professors—seems to be a way of, as Gregory puts it, “desperately trying to protect the middle-class status of the professoriate.”
At the City University of New York, an adjunct teaching full time—four courses per semester—receives a starting annual income of $24,644. That’s less than half of the New York City median household income. Full-time professors at CUNY make between $56,000 and $102,000 a year. These statistics are in line with the numbers at other colleges around the country. So adjuncting is decidedly not a middle-class job. But it does sound like one, probably because, before the adjunct bubble, it was.
For many people work is as important as a source of identity as it is as a source of income. You can go to a college reunion and feel good when you call yourself a professor, even if you’re scrounging in your couch cushions for bus fare to travel to that reunion. The adjuncts who work in our writing center were collecting and sharing data about how much we make at our various jobs, how many other jobs we have, where we see ourselves five years down the line. We were hoping to bring each other some strategies and tips, or just to raise our collective consciousness. When asked about the benefits of our work, one tongue-in-cheek coworker’s response summed up the conundrum: “Sometimes the guy at the sandwich shop calls me ‘professor.’”
Adjuncts need better conditions—stable contracts, office space, access to departmental decision-making, access to the kind of work community that makes people better at their jobs and allows space for reflection and information-sharing. And they need living wages. Not because they hold advanced degrees, not because they are better than other kinds of workers, not even because teaching is a magical and consecrated profession. We need these things because they allow us to be the teachers that our students need and deserve.
No one ever says this, probably because adjuncts don’t want to advocate themselves out of a job. But being adjuncts makes teachers do a worse job than they would do otherwise. When I was adjuncting at Columbia, I remember calculating the maximum number of hours I could spend on my class before I reduced my pay rate to under $15/hour. It was less time than I would have liked to spend, but I couldn’t work for less than that. So I taught differently: I assigned fewer drafts, I held shorter and less frequent conferences, I read student essays faster and homework assignments hardly at all. When I realized I was not going to be able to do right by my students, I stopped classroom teaching. In part, this anecdote is just that—a little story about me. It depends on the particulars of my financial situation and personality. I didn’t want to have a job in which my time was so undervalued that I felt I was either doing a poor job or giving my time away as a gift. But it’s also not just about me. Others have written about how the circumstances of adjuncting force them into grade inflation, or into designing easier courses so that they’ll get better student evaluations.
Don’t misunderstand me: most of the adjuncts I know are excellent teachers, committed and talented and generous. And it’s still true that every one of them—if they had the mental calm that comes with job security and health insurance, the focus that comes with having an office in which to work, the support and professional development that comes with being fully integrated into the workplace, and the time that comes with not having to hustle and scramble to scratch out a living—is able to do even better.
Will you forgive me a moment of English-teacher pedantry? I may not be a professor but I am certainly an English teacher. Throughout this piece I’ve been taking the liberty of using adjunct as a job title and even as a verb. The term actually means “a thing added to something else as a supplementary rather than an essential part.” If teaching is a supplementary rather than essential part of college, why go?
Rachel Riederer is the editor of Guernica Daily. Her work has appeared in Tin House, The New Republic, Best American Essays, and others.