Monday, December 22, 2014

Caution, Your Professor is Broken

While in recovery from last semester’s mania, I am gripped by the understanding that, to stay afloat, I will again have to teach six courses between two institutions next semester, and again I will likely end up no better than I started, just treading water. For the past couple of years I have taught 5-7 courses per semester as an adjunct professor at two colleges an hour’s commute apart. I’ve made it work, despite everyone telling me I was crazy, with one colleague adding, “If I had to teach seven classes, I’d shoot myself in the head.”
The truth is that every cell in my body is screaming, “Nooooo!” Despite what I want or need to do, I find that I am completely burned out with my various intro-level circus acts. Highly credentialed performers—that’s what we Higher Ed instructors are for the most part, pulling off piecemeal, low-wage acts all over town, sometimes across state lines, with no expectation of continued employment and zero benefits. I would like to cling to the higher ideals of education as a means to upward mobility or a rewarding career—for enlightenment’s sake?—but it’s just not the case. It’s getting harder and harder to convince myself that pointing out this contradiction to students is inappropriate or wrong. After all, adjuncts hold advanced degrees and don’t even clear minimum wage. Telling students the truth isn’t “politicizing the classroom” in a negative way. Instead, telling them the truth is my—is our—imperative.  
Yet, many students do not want to be in class in the first place. They are attending for the loan money or program rewards because there are so few jobs or opportunities available now beyond the military. So, there we all sit together, just scraping by building skills that our society doesn’t value while suckling on this anemic cash cow financed by an excessive debt bubble on the verge of bursting, with the majority of funds trickling quite obviously to the executive salaries of upper administrators at the top, not to mention the overall bloat of unnecessary expenditures with no connection to the classroom whatsoever, or the heartlessly exploitative and very lucrative textbook racket.
Interestingly enough, I was approached not too long ago by one of these upper administrators, who proposed that maybe adjunct faculty did not deserve to earn a living wage because numerous students passed our entry-level English composition courses and still could not read or write well. I retorted that we adjuncts are not the gatekeepers to the classroom. We do not set the standards on placement exams, and—although we would like to believe that everyone who passes high school is fairly literate—this is not the reality we face. 

Highly disposable contract professors get fired all the time without due process or recourse if we fail too many students. I, for one, have had administrators come into my classroom and try to convince me to pass students who hardly attended, texted and surfed the Web for entire class periods after arriving late, and didn’t complete assignments. I flat out told one waify admin that they could go ahead and try to intimidate me into passing the student in question by putting my job on the line, but that it would be doing a disservice to the student and the college. Still, she persisted with personal visits and emails until I just gave up trying to hold on to any semblance of integrity in our correspondence. Somehow the student’s papers were quickly created and delivered, and I still have no idea under what conditions this miracle occurred. 

At universities and colleges across the country, professors and their students are losing ground to the corporate agendas of rogue administrations. We have SWAT teams of “student services” ready to connect “customers” to emergency loans and other resources. At the same time, adjuncts teaching intro-level courses for poverty wages are expected to help at-risk students academically, but without the institutional support to do so effectively. Our policies and teaching materials are increasingly dictated from above, and the syllabus as a form of course outline has become more of a legal document for students wanting to appeal grades than an accurate depiction of learning objectives or progression of the course.

We adjuncts teaching intro-level and developmental courses are continually placed in positions of high responsibility with little authority over our classrooms, students, and our own working conditions. Still, every semester we are assigned new fleets of students facing severe hardship: people struggling to overcome violence and poverty, recover from addictions, to rebuild their lives after jail or prison, yet we are not trained as culture workers or missionaries; we are barely surviving ourselves and with massive student debt. There is seemingly nowhere for us to turn but against the forces that are competing to destroy the profession we spent so many years preparing to enter. 

It’s not a national secret that our students are being failed by all levels of public education. There is a brutal war on teachers occurring in K-12 and Higher Ed where teachers are set up for failure even before we begin practicing. Although I have surplus energy to continue fighting the battle against the corporatization and privatization of education, I don’t know if I can stomach my further participation on the production end; I mean, I don’t know if it’s even possible for me to continue teaching like this because, to get up and go for another round, I would have to find a way of convincing my mind, body, and soul into thinking that I’m not burned out to the innermost core of my being.

There are so many variables I have to consider. I have sick, elderly parents who also have no safety net. Will one or both of my children want or need to live with me in this extortionist apartment complex that requires me to wring out nearly $1k every month for a basic cube life? What is to become of my dog and cat if I can’t make it another semester, and how would I even move my stuff with my back thrown out from carrying around my adjunct mobile office campus-to-campus for 16 weeks? I don’t know the answers, but I find some solace in knowing that thousands, if not millions, of teachers are in the same boat with me. An all-out mutiny may be the best option at this point.


  1. Professor, fix thyself. Consider that your friends who tell you you are crazy to do it may actually be your friends. Is it your mission or calling to fix these systematic faults? Even at the cost of your own happiness, health and prosperity? If not, take your ample talents and go somewhere that pays you a thriving wage for them. Difficult or impossible for many people today, but not so hard for someone like you.

  2. Mark's comment is so completely out of touch that it's laughable. Adjuncts such as myself are constantly looking for an "out." This semester alone, I've applied for many assistant professor positions, before moving on to nonprofit and grantwriting positions. As time is running out, and I expect to possibly receive a spring semester contract soon, I'm moving on to administrative assistant positions at used car dealerships and minimum wage retail positions at discount stores.

    The most helpful advice I've received lately is to remove all references to my Ph.D. from the resume I submit to such jobs. I just label the sections as "relevant experience" and so forth to avoid lying. This seems to be helping, as I've gotten a few phone calls and even interviews lately. Having an advanced degree seems to scare most employers.

    1. I AM out. I am #postac and the degree is a liability. I have many skills and I am either over-qualified or not a kid anymore. This career took the best years of my life.

      I have significant and substantial cyber-skills. I have training and writing skills. The works. I am on LinkedIn.

      I left the system in 2002. I taught since 1989 so I stayed in education - big-time. I started my own non-profit/non-charter donor-funded school in an urban neighborhood. We did okay and we did GOOD things of which I was most proud. Then the Great Recession hit and we lost our Angel Donors. We were wiped out.

      I tried tutoring. I am still trying different things. I search on LinkedIn. I had some stock, but it's gone now.

      This career stole the best years of my life. Still, academics have a dedication and integrity that few understand; we are not M.B.A.s.

      Hey Mark, you got a good job for me? You said we should f(ix) ourselves, after all, didn't you? Didn't you say that? (Odd choice of word. Professors generally don't "fix" things.)

  3. As someone who has been both a casual academic and a "waify administrator", I'd like to make a few points:
    1) Yes, the administrative arms of universities do the work of the corporate, neo-liberal ideologies which now underpin the higher-level running of the institution
    2) Yes, casual academic staff are running themselves into the ground, often at the seemingly random whims of administrators
    3) However: administration staff are equally at the mercy of the system - it may seem like they are the gatekeepers, or that they harangue academic staff unnecessarily, but I guarantee you, they are just as dissatisfied, just as exploited, and just as afraid for their jobs (the middle to junior ones, at least).

    One of the biggest issues in universities is undoubtedly the bloated bureaucracies which take a huge amount and give little back. But those who are on the front line of these have no more power (or better job experiences) than those on the business end of social and unemployment services; high school administration; or immigration control (to name a few similarly thankless jobs which perpetuate broken systems). For many of these jobs, they also need degrees, and so will also have student debt. Many of them are very high responsibility roles with little pay (in the UK, sometimes as little at 12 or 14k pounds a year to decide who enters university, and who doesn't). Sure, the administrators at the top have lots of power and lots of cash, but everyone below them is in a similar position to the casual academic staff - with the possible exception of more likelihood of obtaining permanent work (but, don't forget, all those people working in student services, for example, tend to get put on during high-demand times such as enrolment week, and are back looking for work a week or two later. Many get 1 year contracts on projects and no further work, many are students finishing graduate degrees).

    Not to mention that administrating for academics is a nightmare, most of the time. 9am requests for reams or printing, for a 9:30am class; Sunday emails demanding last minute changes to Monday publications, and half finished formal reports sent 30 minutes before submission deadlines - and that's not considering the higher up demands that a certain proportion of students must pass, continue on, and graduate, or money will be lost, and your job will be on the line... I suspect that is why that administrator was chasing you, and that is a clear giveaway of the power to divide and conquer inherent in a neo-lib ideology. AND on top of that, many academics think of administrators as nothing but overpaid, stupid, and surplus to need, seeing them only as tools of the system, not victims.

    I don't think the answer to the increasingly hostile working environment of the University is to introduce more hostility. Many administrators (as with many academics) are simply doing their best under very trying circumstances - getting together with (especially junior) administrators to discuss these issues may be the best way to oppose the increasing coporatisation of the university - and also taking on more responsibility at an academic level for things like policy and passing of students (which was once an academic concern, but with the idea that academics should be socially respected, was increasingly deferred to "lesser" (usually female) administrators. And so here we are.)

    1. Thanks for your comment, Emmerage. I thought I did make it clear in the post that I was specifically referring to upper administrators, who typically “earn” very high salaries for a light and often debatable workload. However, you do raise very important points about the overall systematic failures and broken systems that are terrible for everyone involved, which is why I think it’s important for us workers to be able to talk about our working conditions without engaging in what a colleague of mine calls an “oppressathon," where groups of people compete for the title of most exploited. In any case, being that many adjuncts are typically capped at around $12k USD annually with no health insurance or other benefits and are subjected to wage theft during the "breaks" when we design courses and prepare syllabi for classes that can be hijacked (along with our intellectual property) and canceled at any time before the semester starts, it’s pretty clear to me that the exploitation of support staff may be similar in kind but not at all in degree. I do realize that advisors and academic staff are becoming increasingly contingent, which is why they should consider aligning themselves with us and our students in a coordinated effort. Even if not represented by the same union, there’s no reason why we couldn’t work together to flip the tables. Regarding tone policing, I think we need a whole lot more of the “hostility” that makes people uncomfortable. The kind of social change we adjuncts are hoping to bring about—hopefully in the company of all exploited workers in academe—is just not going to feel heartwarming to management, and I know of no historical example where everyone politely singing ‘Kumbaya’ accomplished much beyond a useless “Cult of Happiness” that is equal if not more destructive than doing nothing at all. Please see >>> At any rate, this is a necessary discussion for us to be having because, as you point out, Higher Ed has multiple classes of injured parties.