Several weeks ago, I approached my friend Jenny (not her real name) for information on how to get hooked up with a teaching position at one of the local community colleges. Jenny currently works at five different schools — three community colleges, one private university, and one online university. My guess was that if anyone could point me in the right direction, it would be her.
I always figured I’d end up in academia. While in graduate school, I taught a semester of undergraduate creative writing, but then after a few years in elementary-school classrooms, I gave up on the idea of teaching. Still, I keep it in my back pocket as a go-to if I absolutely have to do it again.
I approached Jenny not because things have gotten dire, but that the scramble from one freelance writing job to another is beginning to take its toll. I figure why not take it easy for a while, supplement my income with a consistent, guaranteed paycheck and balance out the uncertainty of the freelance life. And, yes, after years of living hand-to-mouth, I have lofty dreams of tweed, sabbaticals, retirement plans, and picking up the check while drinking beer with graduate students.
But, halfway through our conversation, after we’ve covered whom to contact, what to do with my résumé, and which schools not to bother with, Jenny knocks my professorial fantasy on its ass.
“It’s really political,” she says. “There’s an atmosphere where we don’t feel safe to talk [publicly] because we’re afraid our opinions and our thoughts can work against us. We’re constantly in this fear that this could hurt me from getting classes assigned next semester or my comments could hurt me when I’m trying to apply for a position.”
Apparently, this is the point when I become way too interested and change my posture from that of friend to reporter, because she stops speaking briefly to request anonymity.
“You can share that I’m not coming across as a rebel or a troublemaker,” she says, “but this is just how I see things and how I’ve experienced things so far.”
She goes on to explain that it’s not just the department chairs or hiring committees she’s afraid of upsetting; it’s also her fellow faculty members. Adjunct (or part-time, or “contingent”) faculty, she says, can be separated into two basic groups: the brown-nosers/optimists and the cynics/activists. Most of them want the same thing, a tenured or full-time position. But those positions are hard to come by, and the two groups are often at odds.
“I also don’t want to seem like I’m against my fellow colleagues who are in the struggle with me,” she says, “just because I see the positive.”
“We didn’t get the job because there is no job.”
One thing that came up in my conversation with Jenny was a website started by some of her colleagues. The site is called AdjunctCrisis.com, and though at the time I began my research it was not yet live, when I Googled the term “adjunct crisis,” I got 4,700,000 hits. Most of those links connected to articles and references written in the past two years.
When AdjunctCrisis.com does go live, the first post is by John Rall, an instructor who writes about how he was barred from advising a student group at Mesa College.
“Through my dean I learned that the administration does not want adjunct faculty to be advisors because they do not want to have to compensate them for the time they serve the students,” he writes. “Adjunct instructors cannot have more than a 67% load, and adding time as an advisor is not permitted. I also learned through my dean that the school has had cases where an adjunct gained over 67% and it led to the full time hiring of that adjunct on technical contract grounds. The administration learned their lesson and closed the loophole that allowed adjunct faculty to gain full-time employment.... I offered to be an advisor as a volunteer, but the school is highly skeptical of such altruism and does not want to take a chance.”
A week after my first conversation with Jenny, Professor Rall shows me around the adjunct office in the Mesa College English Department. The office consists of five tight cubicles, officially shared by the department’s 85 adjunct faculty members, though not all of them use it, and the attached 36-square-foot “conference room,” where we settle in at a small circular table. The 73% of part-time faculty members in this department is just above the 70% average for community colleges, according to the American Federation of Teachers.
When Rall began teaching here in 2004, he envisioned himself no more than a couple of years away from an esteemed professorship with an office and parking spot. With three degrees under his belt (bachelors’ in philosophy and anthropology, and a master’s in comparative literature), and a combined 13 years of teaching at the high school and college levels, he considered himself a prime candidate for a tenured position.
“I got here thinking I was going to eventually move right into a full-time position after a couple of years,” he says. “Now I’m mostly just trying to swallow the tough pill that I’ll probably be in my 70s still in a part-time position with a poor retirement plan because I’m an adjunct,” he says.
Adjunct Professor John Rall
John Rall talks about the opportunities and challenges of being a non-tenured, "adjunct" professor of English in San Diego community college systems.
To clarify, “adjunct” officially means “part-time,” an appropriate definition, given that California’s education code currently caps adjunct course loads at 67 percent of full-time (per school). In my mind, however, the term “freelance” paints a more accurate picture, as many “part-time” professors, like Rall and Jenny, create full-time schedules across multiple campuses, often equaling more hours than tenured (or full-time) professors.
This semester, Rall is teaching five classes: three at Mesa, and two at Cuyamaca. Although less than what he was doing before, it’s still full-time work.
“On a week when I don’t have essays, I’m probably doing six-hour days, four to five days a week,” he says. “As soon as the essays come in, I’m probably doing nine-hour days and weekends. I’m adding probably about 20 hours a week during those weeks, and it comes every other week throughout the semester.”
Five classes per semester is considered a full load for full-time faculty, but the difference in pay is significant.
“I work five classes, and I’m making barely $40,000, probably more like $35,000. A full-timer teaches five classes and they’re making $65,000 a year,” he says. “We have the same responsibilities except for whatever work their committees are doing, which isn’t that much more. We have the same credentials. We have the same obligations in terms of what we do with our students.”
Another perk for full-time faculty members is that they have the option of getting paid through the summer. Adjunct professors do not. And because of the minimal number of summer courses available, many, like Rall, must find work elsewhere or apply for unemployment to get through the summer months as well as the winter breaks.
“Technically, I’ve been here ten years and they’ve laid me off 20 times,” Rall says. “They call it something else, but the State of California recognizes it as being laid off.”
Fortunately for Rall, who provides the sole income for his family (he has three children and his wife stays home to school them), adjunct professors at Mesa College who carry a 50 percent load for three consecutive semesters are eligible for health insurance, which they can keep through their stints on unemployment.
“We’re, like, the envy of California because we have health insurance,” he admits. “Because of our union.”
This is the first year Rall has taught so few classes. For the past four, he taught seven per semester: three at Mesa, two at Grossmont, and two online for the University of Phoenix. He took on the load not only for the money, he explains, but to prove his worth and his willingness in the hopes it would help him secure a full-time position. This, while applying for jobs “in every English department up and down the California state” and volunteering approximately five hours a week (outside of teaching) to develop and coordinate a writing-outreach project for high school and college students across the county.
“My health was suffering,” he says, “and I’m, like, What am I doing to myself? Is it worth all this to believe that there’s some position for me, when in all actuality it’s a lottery? If you look at my record and what I was doing, I should be standing out.”
To prove his point, he leans back in his chair and tells me about the Adjunct Appreciation ceremony Mesa College administration held at the beginning of the 2013 fall semester. The event, held in the gym, consisted of presenting contingent faculty members with certificates of appreciation.
“There was one guy who had been here for, like, 40 years, and all he got was a paper certificate,” Rall says, appalled. “You couldn’t get him a frame? You couldn’t buy him a lunch? It was kind of a morale breaker for adjunct because most everybody wants a position, but they kept calling out people who had been here for 10 years, 20 years, and the new people were, like, ‘I don’t want to be here for 30 years as a part-timer.’”
According to a national survey done by Hart Research Associations on behalf of the American Federation of Teachers in 2009, more than 40 percent of part-time/adjunct faculty (not including graduate employees) have been on their campuses eleven years or more; 32 percent have been on the job six to ten years; and only one in four has been on the job five years or under.
Although he uses a different terminology, Rall agrees with Jenny that adjunct faculty can be divided into two camps: the gung-ho (as he was until about three years ago) and those that want to change the system (as he does now).
The gung ho, he says, tend to be newer, believe that if they work hard, step up, and prove themselves worthy, they’ll get that elusive full-time position. And then there are those like him who work hard for years to no avail and finally decide something has to change. “[The newbies] think that all of us who are not gung ho are not good adjunct, like we’re not good teachers because we didn’t get the job. And it’s, like, no, we’re good teachers. We just didn’t get the job because there is no job.”
“You’re never going to win.”
Based on my next conversation with Jenny, I’d say she fits the bill for what Rall considers “gung-ho.” And she also falls in with the one in four who have been teaching five years or under.
“I really, really love my job, and there are some unfair aspects of it, but for me, I still feel really lucky that I have classes,” she says. “I just try to focus on the positive and focus on my students and the great job that I have. I don’t have to lift heavy boxes at Starbucks. I get to go to a class and talk to wonderful students about writing and reading and critical thinking.”
Besides her positive attitude, Jenny claims she’s the first to jump on any volunteer opportunity, go to all professional developments, and get involved in the department in any way she can. But she also admits that she’s motivated somewhat by fear.
“Honestly, I have so many classes that I don’t know what to do with. But I’m scared to turn them down because I feel like this semester if I turn down a class, next semester they won’t give it to me. For that reason, I take whatever I can. I never say ‘no,’” she says. “I just pray and I work my butt off to eventually one day get a full-time faculty position. I have a whatever-it-takes attitude until I [do].”
At the same time, she attends union meetings and shows up to make phone calls or march in the streets when the union requests it. She knows there are problems of unfairness in her work. And she knows that in teaching eight classes, she’s making what a full-time faculty member makes teaching four or five. It’s not naiveté that keeps her from being a hard-core political activist adjunct.
“I try to get involved as much as I can, but sometimes the negativity — I just can’t take it anymore, and I try to detach myself from the group,” she says. “Every day [some of] my colleagues are talking about the shitty job conditions that we have as adjuncts. And these things can range from assignment of classes to pay and health insurance to office space and how we don’t have water coolers.”
Many of the issues are valid, she says. For instance, recently, Mesa College had an issue with pay warrants (or paychecks), which can be issued in four or five warrants per semester, depending on when the semester begins. For the past couple of years, they’d issued ten pay warrants per year, the first coming on the tenth of the month following the beginning of the fall semester. But in the spring of 2013, adjunct faculty members had to wait an unexpected 48 days for their paychecks, which Jenny says resulted in late bills and overdrawn accounts for many of her colleagues. The explanation was given that the late start of the semester threw off the payroll schedule. Full-time teachers, however, received their pay as expected. It was a big deal, and Jenny readily admits it. But as far as she’s concerned, despite the “shitty job conditions,” she is tired of listening to the complaints.
“It’s not just in the break room. When I open up my email, I’m constantly bombarded with articles or just really immature back-and-forth personal attacks from colleague to one another, fighting over what we feel is our right to teach and benefits that we deserve to have,” she says.
Out in the World Wide Web, one can find several highly political analogies in which the national “adjunct crisis,” is compared to slavery, sweatshops, apartheid, indentured servitude, and the civil rights and farmworkers movements. In the slavery analogy, the comparison is not adjuncts to slaves, but rather refers to the split between adjuncts and full-time faculty similar to that of house slave versus field slave.
“I think the reason why I have this positive attitude is that I don’t really see light at the end of the tunnel,” she says. “I feel for my colleagues who constantly fight, but I feel as though they’re fighting a losing battle.”
She launches into a monologue about the “deplorable” and “unethical” behaviors of college presidents, the practices of nepotism and cronyism on campus, the rising tuition rates, and other evils of academia.
“I look at these colleagues who are constantly advocating and fighting,” she concludes, “and I think, You’re never going to win.”
And yet, she’s still hopeful that she’ll land one of those prized full-time, tenured positions. It’s too early to tell if her go-get-’em attitude will pay off. Five or six months ago she applied for two open positions, but she hasn’t yet received a response. At the very least, she says, “I think [my attitude] has made me a likeable person.”
At this she laughs.
When I ask if she thinks it’s gotten her any other perks, such as plum class assignments, she says, “Probably not,” and that with only four years of teaching, she’s “still at the bottom of the chain.”
There is no chain.
Once word gets out that I am sniffing around adjunct offices, someone forwards my contact information through the adjunct email channels, and I receive a meeting request from professor Corina Soto, a full-time faculty member at Southwestern College. We agree to meet in room 435, a classroom with stained gray carpet at the south end of campus.
It’s mid-afternoon when I arrive, but the overheads are off and a bright white projection screen is the only light in the darkened room. Professor Soto introduces herself. She’s relaxed and casual, in a simple black shift dress and flip-flops. Her reddish “messy bun” hairdo and coppery freckles create a nice harmony against her brown skin. After we shake hands, another woman steps out of the darkness and greets me with a request for anonymity.
“I’m sorry. I hope that’s okay,” she says.
She’ll apologize again before the day is over, and then later by an email that reads, “It is sad that I must ask for anonymity, as I have already become a target of retaliation for my district for my activism.”
We’ll call her Professor M. She wears her long dark hair pulled back tightly at the nape of her neck. Her sharp suit jacket and shiny black shoes give her an air of severity.
The two women have come to this meeting prepared with a stack of handouts containing everything from newspaper articles to internet chat-room postings; from printed emails to a statement of ethics by the Association of California Community College Administrators. The projection screen at the front of the room displays the website of the New Faculty Majority — A Coalition for Adjunct and Contingent Equity.
“We can’t help it. We’re college professors,” Professor M says, laughing, when I express surprise that the stack of printouts is for me.
After a brief moment of chitchat, we sit in a semi-circle of three student desks, and the two women battle it out for who will be heard first. Professor M wins.
“The situation of being a part-time faculty member is a hand-to-mouth existence,” Professor M says, leaning forward to hand me a printout of a comment she posted to an article on the Chronicle of Higher Education Journal website.
“The use of the term ‘throwaway humans’ is apt,” it states, “and part-time activists often make parallels to the civil rights movement. I even heard a professor call part-time faculty the ‘farm workers’ of academia.”
The article to which she’d commented, “An Adjunct’s Death Becomes a Rallying Cry for Many in Academe,” referred to the death of an 83-year-old adjunct professor who had been teaching French at Dusquesne University in Pittsburgh for 25 years.
According to the original article noting the heartbreaking circumstances around Margaret Mary’s death (“Death of an Adjunct,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 18, 2013), the French professor had been recently let go from her position, but that “Even during the best of times, when she was teaching three classes a semester and two during the summer, she was not even clearing $25,000 a year, and she received absolutely no health care benefits. Compare this with the salary of Duquesne’s president, who makes more than $700,000 with full benefits.”
The article goes on to explain that in the past year prior to her death, her class load had been diminished to one per semester, that she was working at an Eat-n-Park at night, had no electricity in her home, and a stack of medical bills resulting from cancer treatments.
“Still, despite her cancer and her poverty,” the article reads, “she never missed a day of class.”
Professor M’s and Professor Soto’s voices rise in pitch and velocity as they relay Margaret Mary’s story to me. “This is a hot topic right now,” says Soto.
“I’ve heard it called ‘Academia’s dirty little secret,’ the fact that part-time professors are used and abused to this extent and nobody knows it,” Professor M says. “A professor is not supposed to live in poverty. A professor drives a late-model car and has a faculty parking space, and has an office with awards on the wall, et cetera.”
Professor M speaks of contingent faculty all over the country as her “colleagues” and relates to me her admiration for one of those colleagues who refers to other adjuncts as “brothers and sisters.”
Soto, though full-time, is the former president of the faculty union, Southwestern College Education Association, and claims her current interest in matters of part-timers revolves around the implementation of seniority or rehire rights, what they call “vesting.” One of the handouts she has brought is a copy of the Southwestern District vesting policy.
“She is the one who implemented the rehire right language for part-time faculty [in August 2007],” Professor M says of Soto. “So she’s in our court.”
Soto jumps back in, speaking a mile a minute and punctuating the air every couple of seconds with a zebra-striped pen. “The position of the union is supposed to be to support rehire rights for part-timers. My contention is they’re not fighting as hard for it as I think they should,” she says. “In my opinion, the district is engaging in regressive bargaining because they’re trying to do away with the right that was already negotiated.”
Professor M opens her mouth to add something. Professor Soto keeps going. “They agreed they were going to nip the cronyism and the nepotism and the appearance of evil from the way they were doing business here,” Soto says. “And now they’re reneging on their word.”
When she takes a pause, Professor M takes advantage. “If I can just interject here,” she says. “The rehire language went into the contract in August of 2007. At that time, with the new rehire language, I thought, Okay, I’ve been teaching here since 2002, I’m a senior part time faculty member, I get rehiring. In other words, I should have the same number of classes, I should have first pick of the classes or what-have-you. And, lo and behold, I had a class taken away.”
She goes on to explain that prior to every semester, a list of available classes goes out to adjunct faculty, who then respond with their faculty assignment requests. Between 2002 and 2007, she usually received her top choices and always taught at the 67% allowed for part-time professors. At Southwestern, the max means three three-unit courses. (This can be exceeded if there is an administrative reason, as happened once when Professor M received a call at 10 p.m. on a Sunday requesting that she teach a fourth class — beginning Tuesday — because a new hire had, at the last minute, dropped out.)
At this point, Professor Soto hands me two sheets of paper stapled together and labeled at the top “Article XV: Part-Time Faculty.” It’s from the union contract. It defines vesting rehire rights and right of assignment. It states that to be eligible for rehire rights, the part-time faculty member must have taught a minimum of 2.4 lecture-hour equivalents each semester for six sequential semesters (not including summer); that priority assignment is acquired once vested status is achieved; and that vested part-time faculty will have a “reasonable expectation” of maintaining their consistent assignments.
In the fall of 2007, when the new language was implemented, Professor M submitted her class request as she did every semester but was assigned only two classes.
“I went to Phil Lopez, who was the union grievance officer at the time,” she says, “and I said, ‘Aren’t I supposed to get another class?’”
Lopez went to administrators, was told that everyone teaching was vested, discovered this was not true, and eventually was able to get Professor M her third class.
In the years since, Professor M claims she has had to fight every semester for her three classes, or “consistency of assignment.”
“Changing a college professor’s schedule is a well-acknowledged fear tactic. It’s a retaliation tactic,” she says. “A full-time professor likes his classes a certain way, maybe doesn’t want to teach Friday, teaches Monday. Likewise, a part-time faculty member has a set schedule because you teach at other campuses. If you teach afternoons here and you teach mornings at Mesa and nights at City College, an administrator can say, ‘I know you teach mornings for the last five years, but I’m going to offer you a night session.’”
Professor Soto, who has been marking up and making notes for me on the handouts, adds, “It’s not just that you like it, but you plan your life around it. Childcare and elder care, and all that kind of stuff, so it’s important to have a set schedule so you can make and keep other commitments. And what’s hard for the part-timers is being treated like a yo-yo. They roll you in, roll you out, roll you every which way.”
“The district is getting more aggressive in ignoring the language at all,” Professor M says. “In other words, ‘consistence of assignment’ means ‘consistent with our needs, and that can be anything we choose.’”
Professor M continues her story. In 2011, she explains, she was offered a night class for the first time. For nine years, she had been teaching mornings and afternoons. Furthermore, she submitted her course preferences as she always did and was offered the night class even before the deadline for faculty assignment requests, which means not all classes had yet been parceled out. “My mother was dying,” she says. “She was in my home under hospice care, and because I had never caught a night class since my hire in 2002, I arranged with family members [that I would] be with my mother at night.”
Her department chair and dean were aware, she says, that her mother was dying, and yet, at a meeting in which Professor M went to grieve the class assignment, she was told they would not consider a schedule change. And when Professor M was unable to accept the night class, they considered it a refusal of their offer and whittled her schedule down to two classes per semester.
“The thing that’s harsh about all of this,” Professor Soto says, “is that not only did they deny her the opportunity to manage this life crisis, but also, there’s a resultant loss in pay.”
I ask her to speculate about how the same situation would have played out with her, as full-time faculty member, and she concludes that it never would have been an issue. “I have priority over all the part-timers in terms of any classes that get assigned,” she says. “I have the ability to plan my life because I know what my schedule is going to be. It’s probably not going to change for the next ten years unless I want it to. If I want a nighttime class, I’m going to get it.”
Love might not be enough.
The Executive Summary of the American Federation of Teachers survey, as published in the March 2010 issue of American Academic, reads, “Most part-time/adjunct faculty members are motivated to work primarily by their desire to teach and have been at their institutions a considerable amount of time. About 57 percent of those surveyed say they are in their jobs primarily because they like teaching, not primarily for the money. This reflects their commitment and passion for the profession but not a high level of satisfaction with their working conditions, which a significant majority believes are inadequate.”
Jenny, Rall, and Professor M all relay their love of teaching to me, and each confirms that, without it, working under these conditions wouldn’t be an option. For Rall, however, love may not be enough. He’s considering (but not yet committed to) a host of other options.
“I’ve been thinking about getting my contracting license,” he says. “I build organic gardens. I would like to go to school and get a credential in horticulture. That’s one idea. I also make surfboards, I’ve been making surfboards since I was a kid, I thought maybe I’d turn to hand craft. Writing is another thing. There are lots of things I feel like I could do that would give me security and the pay that I need to raise a family. It’s hard to go look and to be retrained because I don’t have time for that.”
In the meantime, although he does fear retaliation, he says, “I made a promise to myself to speak up at every opportunity.”