Illustration by Greg High
You’re tired, and they’re still 18.
For 27 years George Matson has taught history as an adjunct, or part-time, instructor in San Diego County universities and community colleges he declines to name. He calls himself a survivor. “But, boy, you pay a penalty,” he says. “You get beat up by the system and by the students, It’s nice sometimes when you see these 18-year-olds become a little more mature. But each year there’s more of them. You’re tired, and they’re still 18. They're ready to start treating on you, and some of their decisions are not good. And it’s your fault their decisions aren’t good.”
Matson was still working toward the Ph.D. in history he received from UCLA in 1974 when a community college in Burbank offered him a full-time teaching contract. But the school voiced concerns that his ongoing graduate research would demand too much time. So Matson turned down the job in favor of finishing his doctoral dissertation. Despite repeated job applications after that, he has never gotten another full-time offer.
Single with no children, Matson lives comfortably in a North Park condominium, drives a brand-new Mustang convertible, and in his free time travels around the world. But to do it he teaches 25-plus classes a year. Such a load is more than twice that of community-college instructors and five times that of most university professors.
Colleges pay adjunct faculty at a lower rate per classes taught than they do full-time faculty. For example, the San Diego Community College District pays entry-level full-timers $3500 a month, while it pays adjuncts $35 an hour. And it pays adjuncts only for the hours they spend teaching in the classroom. Full-time faculty salaries pay additionally for office hours, class preparation time, and other activities, such as attending committee meetings.
To make up the difference, George Matson was teaching ten classes at four colleges and universities at the time I talked to him last October. When I recall some of my own adjunct-teaching loads, I am inclined to call his humanly impossible. He puts 30,000 miles a year on his car driving freeways between campuses.
Intense blue eyes sparkle below Matson’s high forehead. His thin graying hair is combed back evenly. I ask him if he has to cut a few comers to squeeze in his ten classes.
“Absolutely,” he says. “I am leaning now on experience. I don’t have time to read many additional books. I don’t have time to go to conventions. First, the money is not available for me to go, and I don’t have the time. So I don’t publish articles either.”
Matson doesn't think his failure to publish in his field is what has prevented him from getting a tenured university position. “A school will give you a job,” he says, “it will give you $50,000 per year, and your teaching schedule will be relatively light. In exchange for that, the school wants you to publish. I have never known a young person in my area, let’s say someone under 30, who has published extensively prior to being employed.
Why hasn’t Matson ever gotten a tenure-track position?
“Wrong place, wrong time,” he says. “From about the ’70s until the ’90s, there were few sociology, political science, economics, and history teachers hired. More were hired in the ’90s, but the overwhelming preference now is a young minority or a woman, and by now they are looking for ways to ease the older people out, not only because of age prejudice, but also it’s more economically sound to hire a younger person.
“I got my Ph.D. when social science was unpopular. Business, computer science, and bookkeeping programs were exploding like crazy. Also, the number of adjunct teachers was increasing, because the schools found them an economical way to run their programs.”
Instructors often apply for tenure-track positions at colleges they already work for part time. They hope their service with the college will stand them in good stead during the hiring process. If, however, they have accumulated too much teaching experience and have a Ph.D., they may be pricing themselves out of the range a college is willing to pay for the job. Matson claims that one candid administrator, who is a friend, admitted what many adjuncts often suspect. An upper-level administrator sometimes announces to the hiring committee, “This is who we're going to hire,” even before interviews take place. Then comes an admonition: “What goes on in this room, remains in this room."
“Today, they’re looking for a person that’s young, not older than the middle 30s, and preferably of diverse ethnic background,” says Matson. “Although when diversity is mentioned, Europeans are not discussed, because the English, the French, the Germans, and Swedes are exactly the same. So they want youth and diversity, and beyond that, they could care less who the person is they hire. Sometimes they luck out and get a good teacher. And sometimes they luck out and get a bad teacher, because, if teachers are bad, they can flunk them out before they give them tenure. And that’s often what happens."
The heavy use of adjuncts has become a common way colleges and universities all over the country save money on salaries and benefits. But Matson criticizes the practice bitterly. “Administrators feel that, with the law of supply and demand, they can get anybody in the classroom that they want to, at the costs they’re willing to pay. They don’t care if a teacher is excellent. They care if a teacher is satisfactory. Administrators do not want to have students lining up outside their office criticizing a teacher, but as long as the teacher is adequate, they’re happy. Excellence in the classroom is not a requirement. And it makes me sad.
“I’m pretty burnt out doing 25 to 30 classes a year, dealing with 200 to 300 students every semester, and with administrators who are insensitive and uncaring when it comes to what is taught in the classroom. Most administrators I deal with are bean counters. They would like to put the maximum number of students in the classroom, make sure the lights aren’t on — because that increases the electricity bill — and make sure the fire marshal and WASC [Western Association of Schools and Colleges, the accrediting agency] are satisfied. If anybody learns anything, that’s a bonus.”
Matson mentions bonuses of a different sort. At one college, in addition to his salary, he is offered “a bonus, get this, for having extra-large classes. So how’s that for an incentive to be a demanding teacher? They’re paying me over $500 extra per class to take more than 50 students. That overloads the classroom, and it makes the discussion situation nearly impossible. But it makes money for the school. It’s cheaper than dividing that class in half and hiring an additional teacher.”
Several colleges, Matson says, have also degraded the evaluation process for adjuncts. In the past, a full-time faculty member would come to his classroom, write up a critique of his teaching after listening in for half an hour, and then hand out evaluation forms to the students. “So you had a dual faculty-student evaluation," he says, “and then the results were reviewed before you by your dean. Now the evaluation is only the forms, and it's a bureaucrat, without any background in your subject, that comes, hands out the forms, and leaves. I suppose the teachers arc too busy to do this or don’t want to bother."
Matson adds that some teachers are hardly innocent. “I have known adjuncts that have stolen equipment, like projectors and VCRs, and their rationalization is that the school they work for owes it to them. The school steals from them, they figure. And it gives them the option, a 40- or 50-year-old man, ‘If you don’t like it, go out on the street and beg.’ Then the rationalization, ‘I’ll steal from you.’
“Colleges are based upon one group of people exploiting another. Adjuncts, to most administrators, are not people. They’re pieces on a checkerboard. That’s the system in place. And, amazingly, sometimes it still works. I don’t see any end to it soon. From an administrator’s perspective, it’s cost-efficient and flexible. It does allow them to do things with their contract people they might not be able to do, like giving them leaves of absence and plugging the holes with adjunct people within hours’ notice. But from my perspective, the system is immoral. In many instances it encourages bad teaching. I find that when you teach at as many schools as I do, you’re not giving your all, nor your loyalty, to any one of your schools. And that’s a shame.
“That does not mean, when I go into the classroom, that I treat it lightly. That does not mean I don’t give my class everything I have that particular evening. As a young man I was an idealistic person. I thought about working with the Peace Corps and with VISTA. I wanted to make this a better world for other people, and maybe, by being a good teacher, I’ve done that.”
Students I talked with are enthusiastic in praise of Matson’s classes. He is the most energetic lecturer I’ve seen in a classroom. He speaks loudly and with an urgency that makes you think the future of America is hanging in the balance. His use of the historian’s present (“So Lincoln, this particular evening, decides to go to the theater...”) creates a sense of participation in the scene. “Teaching history, to me, is telling stories,” he says.
Matson teaches a variety of lower- and upper-level American history classes and several introductory world and European history surveys. I ask him what he thought history classes can contribute to a student’s life.
“It helps us know who we are,” he says, “and become better writers, better talkers, better participants in the body politic. The greatest weakness in teaching is that so many professors teach their students what to think, rather than how to think. I ask students to analyze everything I say in class critically. They’re going to be a much better citizen of the United States, a much better voter, a much more involved taxpayer, if they do that. We have a desire to know where we came from, how we got into the 1990s, and history, although not perfect, provides us some of those answers.” Still, though history is collective memory, Matson says that memorization is the weakest part of learning. “Critical thinking and writing skills are far more important,” he says.
Every year, usually during Christmas or spring breaks, George Matson takes a major trip. He’s been to 42 countries and to 30 of the 50 American states. I ask him, how much of what he sees on his trips does he bring into the classroom?
“I take pictures,” he says, “and transfer all of them onto slides, many of which I show to my classes. It’s relevant to bring in material about what’s happening in a country today and to blend it with the history of that country. It’s helpful for teachers not only to do research, but also to visit the sites they talk about in class. How could one possibly, say, write a good book on Buddhism if they’ve never been in a country where Buddhism is one of the dominant faiths? You’re only seeing half the picture.”
A little more than a year ago Matson also decided to study Spanish. He has now completed two semesters of elementary Spanish at one of the community colleges where he teaches.
Given his schedule, I ask him whether he was in his right mind.
“It might sound funny to say, but part of that was to fight off being overworked. For a year I found it interesting and enjoyed it. It did not infringe on my teaching at all. It made me a better teacher, because it gave me a breather from doing history. Anti sometimes broadening our horizons and studying some other discipline makes us better at what we do.”
“Do you ever speak Spanish to any of your students?”
“A little," says Matson. “Most of the students that I speak Spanish to are fluent, and I’m certainly not. And I do it in a kidding way, but it’s how I am reaching out to their culture. For example, I spoke to them about how a young lady’s 15th birthday is much celebrated in Hispanic families. It’s like sweet 16 for Anglo-Saxon sorts. And we talked about that in class. They shared some things with me, and I shared some things with them. That brings them out of their shell, so they can discuss. Even though, maybe, it’s not pertinent to the course, if we don’t do it too long, it gets them involved in the class. Then they're more willing to ask me questions about things that are pertinent, because they say, ‘Hey, this isn’t a stuffy old Ph.D.; this is a regular person like us.’ You have to break down barriers. They have to trust you, and you have to trust them.
“The number-one reason students don’t talk in class is that they’re afraid they will appear stupid, or the instructor will make fun of them. If you can somehow break those barriers down, so even if they give an answer that seems to you to be absolutely outlandish, you can correct, or discuss with them, what they said, without embarrassing them.”
I mention that many of the first-rate teachers I know are adjuncts.
“Some argue,” says Matson, "that more good adjunct teachers are in classrooms, despite all the setbacks, than contract teachers. One of the reasons is that some contract teachers are so involved in their publications that teaching is a secondary area of importance to them. They don’t have to get good evaluations, if they have their tenure, because they can say, ’My students are stupid, so I don’t care what they think of me.’ But adjunct teaching has a lot of weaknesses in it too. Adjuncts usually have obligations in other schools, and sometimes they have to go to seminars for their other jobs.”
Over the years Matson has developed friendships with many tenured faculty at the schools where he teaches. Most of them, he says, “shy away from doing anything that is controversial. So they will say a few nice things for me, but they don’t want to go beyond that, because it’s a subject they feel uncomfortable with. It cannot benefit them. All it does is create enemies for them among administrators, and the administrators have their ways of getting back.”
Hence, conversations with administrators and tenured faculty regarding the adjunct situation can only take place in general terms, says Matson. “One might say, ‘Man, the system sure sucks, doesn’t it?’ ‘Yeah, it sure does.’ But, if you say, 'How do you live with yourself?’ then you will no longer be working there. It’s role-playing. You have to talk to administrators differently than you talk to a full-time teacher and differently than you talk to another adjunct teacher. Some full-time teachers are sympathetic. Like, ‘Boy, I don’t know how you do it. Where are you teaching this term? Golly, it must be tough. Sure glad it isn’t me.' " Matson laughs loudly. “One of my tenured friends told me that adjunct teachers are an embarrassing necessity at our universities.”
What has Matson done to prepare for retirement? Quite a bit, it turns out. He invests regularly in the stock market and has money for several “mini-pensions" deducted from some of his paychecks.
“I am trying hard,” he says, “to prepare for the future, in case I live to be Methuselah. Or should I suddenly drop dead of the big one in the middle of a class, I can say, ‘At least I’ve had some good experiences in traveling.’ I do like traveling. And, I hate to say it, I travel first class, though I slept in railroad stations in my 20s. Now I like five-star hotels and going to the buffets.
“So I’ve tried to both enjoy myself and save for retirement. Right now I’m in the midst of a diet, because not only do I have to exercise my brains out, but, at my age, I cannot take a burger home after a night class. I have to munch on an apple instead, because no matter how much I exercise, it goes right down here.” Matson pats his stomach.