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.