Illustration by Jim Cooke

America’s bloated higher education industry is supported by the work of an immense pool of well-educated and very poorly paid workers: the adjunct professors. They are telling us all about it. And they have a few ideas.

Hundreds of adjuncts have written us with their stories. Last week, we told you about their general themes: low pay, no job security, overstuffed and overpaid college administrations, and an unsustainable system that pumps out more Ph.D.’s than the market can handle. This week, adjuncts explain why their jobs suck, who is to blame, and who has the power to change things. (Read them, they were all written by very literate people!)

Can’t survive off crumbs forever

I’m an adjunct in California. I teach at a community college which actually has one of the better reputations for how they treat adjuncts, but it’s still a fairly abysmal situation. We have a part-timers union, which has gotten raises for us over the last two semesters, with another due this fall. They’ve also ensured that we have some amount of time for office hours (45 minutes/week/class; part-timers get up to two classes/semester).

That said, I don’t have an office for these office hours. Students meet with me at the campus coffee shop, where they tell me about medical issues (so much f’ing cancer!), personal problems, or occasionally class work in a completely public area. We have mailboxes and shared work space with computers; I believe we share this space with at least three other departments. There are no quiet places for adjunct faculty to grade, plan lessons, nor meet with students.

Once the ACA really came into play, HR decided that no part-timer could work more than 70% of a full load. This means that I’ve been offered hours in labs that HR wouldn’t allow me to take; no money in the budget for health care (or other benefits) for a part-timer. A quick aside: this is the same HR department where most are gone by 3 pm. You can send them an email, but you can’t find them on campus most afternoons.

I make about $4000 per class per semester. Two classes over Fall and Spring provide about $16,000/year. I work another job, but if not for family providing extremely affordable housing, we’d be living in an extremely impoverished fashion. We live closer to the poverty line than I’d prefer, and it’s extremely difficult (if not impossible) to save when rent, food, gas, etc. are always increasing.

I teach only about 6-7 hours/week, but there is a LOT of prep and grading time for which I am not compensated. Also, my campus is nearly an hour from my home, so that’s another almost 4 hours/week spent commuting.

The full-timers on our campus aren’t really assholes; they’re just oblivious. They don’t recognize the opportunities that they had are no longer available to us. They are also obligated to teach a certain number of classes each semester, and if they like, they can bump us from previously assigned classes. I just spent a week worrying about a lack of employment next semester because a full-timer took my class; it was at a better time for that person. Had someone not given up a different class, perhaps that would have been the semester I finally left due to finances. I think about it all the time; there have to be better jobs out there with more security...right?...

I worked one semester at another community college. They gave me a night class which was held at a high school campus. The wages were lower; there was NO work space for part-time faculty, nor computers, nor office hours, nor a decent way to get materials printed for classes. Part of this was due to it being a satellite campus, but most of my wages went to printing materials and transportation costs. I commuted, paid for auto upkeep, and supplied my own computer and paper. I couldn’t use an overhead projector (they didn’t have anything compatible with my technology, but suggested I provide something, as I could easily get something compatible online. Ha)...

Our wages aren’t livable. Every part-timer I know has at least one additional job. I work online for another company based on the East Coast, which allows me flexible hours — this is important because I’m also a single mom. When I don’t go to campus, I work from home, often starting at 5 am and finishing around 2. My child has a lot of afternoon activities, so at least I can chauffeur her around and take the papers I’m grading for my classes with me. Her father is a vet with PTSD, so he’s not working, but he does provide her with health insurance — as do I...

My kid will prepare for college in less than a decade, and I have no idea how I could help pay for that. I’m priced out of the housing market. Every winter and summer break, I apply for Unemployment Benefits. Thanks to the Cervisi decision in CA, we adjuncts are allowed to do that. Even so, every time I reapply, I have to jump through various hoops and wait excessively long to access my benefits. We are allowed to do this because our employment is contingent upon enrollment. I could have two classes this semester, and get none next semester.

My campus has several deans, all of whom make FAR more than I do. I know we need admin, but we have to distribute the pay in a much more logical, rational way. Instructors can’t survive off crumbs forever — though it often seems like the overcrowded grad school classes are trying to do just that, supply lots of new workers for the higher ed field. We need more full-time, tenure-track jobs with wages that will allow us to live decently and pay off our student debt.

Not a meritocracy

I liked most of the people I taught with and worked for, although I find the false care most tenure track faculty show towards adjuncts infuriating. They will all say how terrible the situation is, but will never do a single thing to address it. When they bring it up I now ask them when the last time it was discussed in a faculty meeting….blank stares…... “That’s just the way it is.” If you have tenure and aren’t actively trying to fight for those with no job security, those who make your research schedule possible, then you just suck. A key problem is that this reality is relatively new. The dominantly older white guys running Academia never had job markets like this. Professor after professor will tell stories about how they got their first job, and their CV’s when they landed those jobs wouldn’t get them to the interview stage nowadays. They like to think it is a meritocracy, and entirely forget how different their experiences were, let alone how much they benefit from the free labor adjuncts (and graduate students as well, who also get hosed). I had one colleague who got his first job in the 1970’s, he published no papers as a student, was offered a job that wasn’t even advertised internationally, and earned tenure at an R1 school with no funded grants. He now believes that newly minted PhD’s with fewer than 3 papers are “risky hires”, and expects everyone to have a well-developed “finding portfolio” when they apply. People who land jobs easily are just as bad, often thinking that it is all a meritocracy, or assuming that their experiences and opportunities are universal...

So what can be done? I think it is key that students faced with rising tuition learn where their money goes, and how little is spent on their education. Realistically I think the only solution will be unionization. A strike planned on the days prospective students and their parents all sit in on classes, well that is the only path forward I see. Administrators and trustees are now dominated not by educators interested in higher education, but by business people who see universities are places to make money. Appealing to ethics is pointless with these people, they want schools to be nothing but machines that train future employees, and I have no hope of changing their minds. Adjuncts and tenured faculty need to unionize and strike.

I also think that academic disciplines need to be serious about helping community members find non-academic employment. Despite the reality that most graduates don’t end up in academia, most advisors and departments refuse to incorporate any alternative career development ideas. I’m in academia, but still get crap for not being tenure track. This is idiotic. I think if non-academic jobs were treated as respectable alternatives, perhaps the pool of us hoping for adjuncting scraps would dry up, and salaries would have to rise. It’s not that different than a high school football coach treating all of his players as if the only good option for them is to play D1 college sports. Those people suck.

Students have the power

After a couple of years of adjuncting, I realized how exploitative this system was and transitioned to other full-time work.

What I am writing in to say— and which is something I NEVER hear articulated in articles about how awful adjuncts have it— is that one group has the power to change this instantly and forever, and that group is the students. If students began staging protests demanding exclusively full time faculty, the problem would resolve itself. If prospective students began asking admissions officers the percentage of classes taught by adjuncts, and then not applying to schools where that number was high, the problem would resolve itself.

People in their 20's and 30's are now, by and large, very aware of the adjunct gulag and its dangers. But high school kids and undergraduates do not know and/or do not care. THAT’S what has to change.

It’s easy to think of political causes and social justice issues for which students are willing to enthusiastically agitate. The day that that same intransigence and passion are applied to eliminating the use of adjuncts (or seeing that they receive fair pay and acceptable benefits) the system will instantly change. But not before.

Money is the dictator

I’ve been an adjunct for 13 years. I work at a community college in California’s Central Valley. I have two Master’s Degrees, one of them from Cal. I’ve also been a “freeway flyer,” but gave up because of the wear and tear on my car, time spent traveling literally hundreds of miles to and from three different college campuses, and time away from my family. I make anywhere from 16K to 20K a year, based upon factors including whether or not I teach summer school and whether I’m teaching “classroom” hours or “lab” hours. I am contracted to spend 10 hours a week in the classroom. I do not have paid office hours, so if I need to meet with a student outside of class (which I often do) I do not get paid for it. I also do not have an office, so I have to meet with students in the cafeteria, library, or my department’s conference room. Students and I are often “kicked out” of our conference room because two or three colleagues want to have a “meeting” in there when they could go elsewhere. The only campus computer I’m “allowed” to use is also in the conference room, so I have no privacy to either “work” outside of class or to meet with students. I just got an email from my current dean saying the conference room will be “offline” next week because the College is using it for high school outreach, so I have nowhere on campus to work next week. I also don’t get paid for “prep” time, which, for a new lesson plan, can be lengthy. I have been tracking my actual work hours recently, and I “work” 40 to 50 hours per week based upon that week’s grading load, although I’m only paid for the 10 I spend in class...

My College, and especially my department, has a high turnover rate for instructors. We also burn through administrators. I’ve had 7 “bosses” (deans or managers; they change the administrative structure every decade or so) in 13 years. Most of the full-timers in my department are younger than me (I’m 43), less educated than me, and have significantly less experience than I do. Several of my colleagues dropped out of the Literature graduate program I attended at a CSU campus because it was “too hard,” and switched to a Rhet/Comp program there or elsewhere. I will never be hired full-time at my campus because as a full-timer, based on education and experience, I would start at $68K per year. The College can hire “kids” straight out of grad school for $48K because most of them only have one graduate degree and little to no experience. Adjunct here (and at every other community college I know of in the state of California) are treated, quite simply, like shit. I have never met an adjunct who has not felt at one time, or does not pretty much always feel, that they are second-class citizens on campus...

Many of us (and some of our ft colleagues) feel that the lack of paid office hours and lack of office space is a serious student equity issue, because students can’t just walk in and see us like they can full-timers. Pity our poor Child Development instructors; they don’t even have a computer or room to use on campus.

I have no idea what the solution is, other than creating more full-time, tenure track positions, and ensuring that community colleges practice ethical hiring (like that could ever be enforced). I worked for corporations before I started teaching, and I really thought Academia would be different. It’s not. People complain about the way the “business world” has crept into higher education. In my experience, it’s always been here. Money is the dictator, not student needs. In my experience, the focus, at least in the California community college, UC, and CSU systems, is not on quality teaching, but on getting the cheapest, most minimally qualified body to push the most students through the fastest. High quality teaching should be a priority, not a side-effect.

Final thoughts

The day I crossed over from adjunct to full-time gave me four things:
-Health benefits like a normal human being has
-A lack of self-loathing
-Four times the pay
-Half the work

Thanks to all the adjunct professors who have written in. We will share more stories in the coming weeks.