vindicated but still underemployed

storm clouds, gray skies, June in Portland

In my inbox last week was a link to a Chronicle of Higher Education article called "Underpaid and Restless: Study Presents 'A Dismal Picture' of Life as a Part-time Professor." This week the article is available for free, but last week, only the teaser was viewable. I would have read the article when it was fresh, but as a part-time college instructor I can't afford a subscription to the Chronicle of Higher Ed, so instead I read the original 53-page report by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW), titled, "A Portrait of Part-Time Faculty Members." Here's a summary of the findings from the original (p. 4):

Ironically, it appears that those increasingly responsible for educating the undergraduates who reap this earnings premium [of postsecondary education] are themselves excluded from the economic benefits of advanced educational attainment.

I've already written about this fact of highly educated teachers being shunted off onto a dead-end job track and being told to like it or lump it because schools can always find somebody willing to work for the administrators' pocket change. And one can't blame the part-timers too much for taking such treatment since many have now over-educated themselves into marginal employment outside academia. Here's another juicy quote from the CAW survey (p. 4):

Although most faculty members serving in contingent positions hold a master’s degree or higher and almost all hold at least a baccalaureate degree, their earnings are not remotely commensurate with their training and education, particularly when compared with professionals with similar credentials in other fields. The gap is particularly striking for faculty members serving in part-time positions.

In addition, the CAW survey claims that for-profit institutions (like the one I'm teaching for) pay adjuncts the least of any type of college (p. 11):

With one exception, pay increases by institutional type within each sector. One clear deviation from that pattern is the pay per course in for-profit institutions, which is significantly lower than pay per course in not-for-profit institutions, public or private.

crumbling brick mausoleum, Lone Fir Cemetery, Portland

If my true hourly teaching rate, once grading and prep time are factored into my classroom face-time wage, is equivalent to working at McDonald's, why not just sign up to work at McDonald's? But I don't, because who wants to work at McDonald's? Coming home smelling like French-fried, artificially flavored beef fat for minimum wage is for those who lack high school diplomas and immigrants who can't speak English, right? Generation X and those even younger were told if we got college degrees, we wouldn't have to work at McDonald's. Isn't that what we all still tell kids? As the report mentions, more Americans are seeking some level of college education because all the studies show that on average a college education will award the earner more money over a lifetime than a high school education. We've entered the knowledge economy, after all: brains not brawn. That's why we're seeing books like Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys and articles like The End of Men, claiming that women are pulling ahead of men, on average, in college education and the workforce.

MAX bridge under construction, Portland

So more teachers are needed to head all those classes of mostly girls, assign and grade all those papers, mark up all those tests. However, governments, federal and local, are at the same time increasingly unwilling or unable to give schools more money for education (though they can always borrow more money for wars, bridges, buildings, and more administrators). So schools need to cut costs somewhere in order to pay for all those needed instructors. And where do companies cut costs first? Their employees, of course—because payroll comprises such a large chunk of any budget (employees, remember, are the ones doing the actual work). Colleges can't rid themselves of masses of teachers to cut payroll when they in fact need more of them, but they can change the job type from full-time to part-time and eliminate benefits. And that's what they've done.

MAX construction at SE 17th Avenue, June 2012

Another way for an organization to cut payroll costs is to hire more assistants and fewer professionals. This is happening in public K-12 schools where less educated, lower paid classroom assistants are hired to help certified teachers handle increased class sizes (due to inadequate state tax revenues and Federal funding). Similarly, in the highly profitable medical field, medical assistants increasingly replace nurses because nurses know more about the human body after four years of nursing college and are thus more expensive to employ. (The largest career program at the school I'm currently teaching for is medical assisting, a year-and-a-half program.)

Colleges (and increasingly governments) are thus following the lead of the private sector, seeking more contract, outsourced, and, when possible, less skilled labor to cut employee costs: hence the swelling of the contract adjunct faculty ranks. According to the CAW survey, 75% of all U.S. college teaching is now part-time or non-tenure track (p. 1). Gone, as I've said before, are the days of the cushy professor job. Once the baby boomers retire, many of those 25% tenured jobs with offices, sabbaticals, summers off, and health benefits will be phased out, guaranteed.

strike signs, SE 9th Avenue overpass, Portland

The only way this is going to change, dear fellow part-time instructors, is if we stop teaching as adjuncts. And practically, that means most must stop teaching, period. Schools aren't going to magically start tossing us more money or awarding us health care. Even union organizing wouldn't change the new part-time, contract nature of the profession, though it would be interesting to see people try. The CAW survey claims wages, benefit rates, and professional support for adjunct instructors are generally all higher at institutions with union representation (pages 11, 13-14)—which, of course, is the point of unionizing: to demand higher wages, more benefits, and better working conditions. Adjuncts like myself must wake up and opt out after finding other sources of incomeno more part-time teaching. Stop. Just stop. (I'm talking to myself.) One can't live on part-time teacher wages, and from everyone I've talked to who has ever done it (or read stories here), it's nerve-racking trying to cobble together full-time hours from different schools, one's car becoming one's office between campus commutes.

Part-time college teaching is only viable for those who already have full-time jobs, who are just picking up some extra income on the side (at the school I teach for, the side-job adjuncts tend to be accountants), those who want to keep their hand in after retirement (a former high-school math teacher I know), or those who are supported by a partner's income and want a little something to do to get out of the house (I don't know any instructors like that). The rest of us just need to drop out.

But it's not only teachers whose education is undervalued, as the following (partial) job posting I came across here a few weeks ago shows. Please note the hourly rate.

· College degree, preferably with English, journalism, or computer concentration or equivalent experience.
· Basic understanding of HTML, content management systems, and online media.
· Solid writing, editing, research, and communication skills.
· Detail-oriented with the ability to meet deadlines effectively and multitask.
Pay is $10/hour.

What's minimum wage now, $8.80 an hour here in Oregon? And a four-year English degree with computer skills is worth $10 an hour? The only logical conclusion is that college has become a racket for humanities and social science degrees, for the liberal arts as opposed to clear vocational tracks. Liberal arts for any but the upper middle class with their entrenched social-club networks are a straight track to the poorhouse. Unless one selects a college degree with a guaranteed career track, one will likely be making just over minimum wage. People in this depressed economy are finding jobs because of who they know, how outgoing they are, or because they've already done that exact job before on an established career track. That's it. Those are the secrets to finding jobs in contemporary America. Anyone who wants to change careers probably needs to start her own business. Signing up for additional vocational schooling may lead to a more secure job down the road but certainly guarantees tens of thousands in debt in the bargain.

dead tree, Portland

Someone kind and well meaning implied recently that my current fiscal situation is a direct result of my attitude, that I'm dwelling on the negative, that if I instead will positive thoughts out into the universe, positive is what will return to me; in other words, this person subscribes to the pseudoscientific Law of Attraction. Thanks, college degrees, for providing me with the analytical skills and ability to detect and call bullshit where I see it, thereby undermining my own success—because no one likes a downer.

Instead, I should be smiling all the time (though it's true that studies say the brain gets confused by this and thinks one is actually happy), doing more yoga (well, yes, it does feel good to stretch), listening to upbeat music (which does help my mood), dancing around my apartment (dancing is indeed fun), and telling myself, "An interesting full-time job offering a living wage is on its way. It will be here any day now." Tossing my long, shiny hair as in the old L'Oreal commercial, I'll repeat over and over, "Because I'm worth it." Optimism still rules America. And so what if pessimists are statistically more likely to be right.

train overpass, SE Portland

Still, even pessimists can press onward, dogged, persistent, because they know tenacity, passion, intelligence, wit, and skill are also sometimes rewarded. And so I am trying to hold to what mythologist Joseph Campbell says in the biographical documentary, The Hero's Journey, as I bang my head against walls, networking, writing, hunting, and hoping:

. . . I have a firm belief in this now, not only in terms of my own experience but in knowing about the experiences of other people. When you follow your bliss, and by bliss I mean the deep sense of being in it and doing what the push is out of your own existence, you follow that and doors will open where there were—you would not have thought there were going to be doors, and where there wouldn't be a door for anybody else. And there's something about the integrity of a life and the world moves in and helps.

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