Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

The Adjunct Carousel: Part-Time Instructors Scramble to Patch Together Jobs, Provide Quality Education

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

The Adjunct Carousel: Part-Time Instructors Scramble to Patch Together Jobs, Provide Quality Education

Article excerpt

Documentary filmmaker and writer Linda Janakos describes the life of adjunct professors as "Teachers on Wheels." She teaches at various schools in California where adjuncts are also called "Freeway Flyers." I call this life the "Adjunct-a-go-round." As an adjunct professor at several Washington, D.C.-based universities and colleges over the last decade, I have been among the large and growing cadre of unsung, "part-time" educators driving miles around the Beltway. We cart papers and books in canvas bags and rolling suitcases each day, to teach whatever classes we can get our hands on for either a 15-week semester or an eight-week "term."

We are anything but part-time, but we fall under what is known as "contingency labor," contract workers paid far less than our full-time faculty colleagues for doing the same work with fewer resources. Hired at whim and at will, we are often called for what the Center for the Future of Higher Education Policy dubs "just in class" duty, assigned "just in time" before the semester commences "just in case" no full-time faculty shows up to "bump" you.

Each term, we cross our fingers, hoping our classes will draw the requisite magic enrollment number to avoid cancellation. At the end of each semester, we compete for those coveted few classes proposed for the next session We are ever-mindful of our "course ceiling," usually nine to 12 hours each regular semester, depending on the school's rules. This forces most of us to teach at two, three, sometimes four schools, either online, on-ground or both to patch together a livable wage.

I teach English classes at Northern Virginia Community College, Alexandria campus, and urban-studies courses at the University of the District of Columbia Community College. I taught journalism at Catholic University of America for a decade, and English at Potomac College for two years.

At an average of $2,700 a class per semester at community colleges, this "Adjunct-a-go-round" barely allows us to make ends meet.

"When we tell students that your adjunct lives in poverty, students can't believe it," says K.B. Brower, a graduate student and an organizer with United Students Against Sweatshops.

She spoke during the fourth annual meeting of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 500 Coalition of Academic Labor's conference on Dec. 1 at its Washington, D.C. headquarters.

A Movement to Unionize

Aptly named "Caste and Classes: Contingent Academic Labor Confronting Inequalities in Higher Education," the conference of pro-union participants, academics and activists linked the movement to unionize part-time workers to larger societal issues. Those include creating democratic environments and maintaining a middle class, maintaining the dignity of work, protecting academic freedom, but more importantly, ensuring quality education for all students, especially those from "ignored populations."

Gary Rhoades, of Tucson, Ariz., a member of the New Faculty Majority, spoke about the growing practice of using underpaid contingency faculty, particularly at community colleges and for-profit schools with increasingly nontraditional student populations who need enhanced courses and services.

"This is a savage inequity for [adjuncts] and for students," he says.

Who suffers most from this growing employment practice? The adjunct? The student? The college? Prospective employers? Society? All of the above?

"This is a social justice issue," Rhoades says. "If you don't serve these students, you won't have students."

Corporations are beginning to understand the dynamics of the rapidly changing demographics in the nation, Rhoades added, but "in higher education, they haven't figured this out."

Whether one thinks the use of contingency labor compromises the quality of academics depends on one's perspective. Teachers and activists generally assert instruction suffers with overreliance on independent and isolated part-timers. …

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