A is for adjunct

The hidden class of exploited labor teaching in our colleges and universities

Mar 11, 2015 at 4:07 pm
An attendee had a question for professor Michael Parson during the recent JCTCS Teach-In at Hartford Hall on the JCC campus.
An attendee had a question for professor Michael Parson during the recent JCTCS Teach-In at Hartford Hall on the JCC campus. Photo by Marty Pearl

Adjunct faculty teaches approximately 70 percent of the general education courses at the University of Louisville and Jefferson Community and Technical College. These numbers are in keeping with national statistics, as are the abysmal working conditions of local adjunct instructors: low pay, no benefits and no job security. While they teach the majority of core college courses, many adjunct instructors live below the poverty line and the vast majority teach without contracts. On February 25, adjunct instructors at UofL and JCTC held “teach-ins” to raise awareness of their numbers and their working conditions, which are, in turn, local college students’ learning conditions.

It began as a hashtag on Twitter – #NationalAdjunctWalkOutDay – and spread across the country from that first tweet by an adjunct instructor at San Jose State University to hundreds of colleges and universities, including the University of Louisville and Jefferson Community and Technical College (JCTC).

On Wednesday, Feb. 25, at noon, a small group gathered in the Elaine Chao Auditorium in the University of Louisville’s Belknap campus. As occurred at many campuses across the country, the adjuncts at UofL decided to “teach in,” rather than walk out, to raise awareness of the issues facing adjunct faculty on this first annual National Adjunct Walk-Out Day.

Although the PowerPoint presentation provided a familiar medium, the message shared was one that is often silenced and obfuscated. Adjunct instructors are the generic “staff” you see listed by some 70 percent of general education courses in the catalogue. You won’t see their names on building directories because if they have an office at all, it is a shared corral. You certainly won’t see them listed in the university’s slick marketing materials, where the professoriate is falsely represented exclusively by the small percentage of full-time tenure-track faculty. They are the university’s dirty little secret. On the first annual National Adjunct Walkout Day, adjunct instructors across the country broke their silence.

The PowerPoint shown at UofL and JCTC was created by adjunct instructor Katherine Lafferty and begins with the question “What is an adjunct?” The fact that the job title of some 70 percent of the faculty needs to be spelled out and defined makes vivid the extent to which adjunct labor is generally absent from the discourse of higher education. The definition of adjunct —“something that is joined or added to another thing but is not an essential part of it” — illustrates how thoroughly inaccurate and misleading the title of the largest class of instructors is. They perform the majority of the essential work at universities, which is teaching students.

The presentation then outlined adjuncts’ abysmal working conditions: little to no job security, no healthcare benefits, no retirement benefits, low wages, no conference or research funds.

It spelled out the negative impact that adjuncts’ lack of office space and lack of time has on students.

“Lack of office space: A significant amount of educational time occurs outside the classroom. When adjunct faculty do not have office space to meet with students, this cuts down on face time that has been shown to be an important factor in student success.” “Lack of time: Because adjunct instructors have to either teach at multiple institutions, or have another job, or both, in order to pay their bills, they have to scramble from campus to campus or campus to job and are unable to spend face time with students outside of class.”

The presentation displayed graphs of the number of courses taught per semester by adjuncts and the average annual income earned from adjunct teaching.

For full time instructors, a heavy teaching load is five courses per semester, but because adjuncts make only an average of $3000 per course, in order to piece together a living wage, more than half of all adjunct instructors teach eight or more courses per semester, and in order to teach that many courses, more than half teach at two or more campuses at a time. Still, adjuncts only earn on average $15,000 to $20,000 per year.

An April 2014 report by the American Association of University Professors validates the statistics in the PowerPoint, stating that, nationally, adjuncts comprise 76.4 percent of the faculty in higher education, and a January 2014 U.S. House of Representatives Committee Report on the Working Conditions of Contingent Faculty in Higher Education finds that the majority of these adjuncts live below the poverty line.

Although the message was clear, there were few present to hear it — only about fifteen students and no faculty or administrators. Just a few miles north at JCTC, buildings throughout campus were studded with event flyers that boldly stated, “The system that exploits part-time and contingent faculty exploits students too!” Simultaneous with the teach-in at UofL, a large group of at least 75 people gathered in JCTC’s Hartford Hall Auditorium, where adjunct instructors Michael (Mick) Parsons and Katherine Lafferty showed the same PowerPoint to a group of tenure-track faculty and students.

The difference in attendance at the two teach-ins may be attributed to multiple factors but, at the core, may be distilled to the difference in the makeup of faculty at the two institutions and the resulting difference in institutional culture.

Although Mick teaches at both institutions, he organized the teach-in at JCTC, where the majority of the tenured and tenure-track professors have previously worked as adjunct professors — shuttling between Ivy Teach, UofL, JCTC and Indiana University Southeast to piece together a “living wage” that still amounts to less than minimum wage.

When I introduced myself to Mick after his presentation at the teach-in, he pointed out several of the full-time faculty members standing in small groups talking with students and one another. “Full-time faculty recognizes that the situation is not equitable, but I’m not sure they would have supported us if we had walked out. I think some of them would have, some of them would not. I think the fact that we chose a teach-in approach enabled us to communicate more effectively with our peers and our students, but it was nice that they came out to support us, and I hope that they continue to support us. I believe in striking, in the power of a walkout, but I want to use it very carefully. We teach because we love to teach, because we want to be in the classroom, and we don’t want to negatively affect our students’ education and that’s the reason for the teach-in and because we want to engage our students in this process.”

Portrait of an adjunct: Alice

“The climate at UofL is vastly different than the climate at JCTC,” an adjunct instructor at UofL, who asked to remain anonymous, told me.

Nationally, there are more women adjuncts than men, probably because traditional gender roles still mean that women are more likely to have a partner with a full-time job and benefits who can subsidize low-paying contingent work, but women adjuncts at UofL were not as vocal or visible as men. The one woman who agreed to talk to me for this article — I’ll call her “Alice” — only agreed to do so if I promised to conceal her identity and to meet her off campus. We met at a coffee shop in the Highlands near a house where she was dog-sitting, one of the many ways she supplements her adjunct income. Alice fears that speaking out openly about the inequitable working conditions at UofL would likely lead to her not being offered any more classes, and she points to an example in her department the previous year where an adjunct instructor who advocated unionizing was “let go.”

Alice is young and with the way she’s dressed and the way she carries herself, I can imagine mistaking her for a student if I were to run into her on campus. However, she is confident in her teaching abilities and fully embraces the role of teacher, something she’s passionate about. When asked why she continues to work as an adjunct despite the abysmal pay and working conditions, she says frankly and without hesitation, “Because I love it. I love the interaction with students. I love sharing the knowledge I have. I love the little light-bulb moments. It sounds cliché, but when students finally get it, they’re struggling with a concept but you figure out a way to express it in a way that they understand.”

Alice fell in love with teaching when she was a graduate teaching assistant. Since earning her master’s degree five years ago, she has worked as an adjunct instructor, teaching three to four courses per semester at around $3000 per course. “To have what amounts to ‘a salary,’ I work at two different campuses,” she explains. “There’s a lot of wasted time, just flipping back and forth. You can’t give as much attention to certain aspects that need it. If we had more stability and we were just at one place, we could work more towards that, and we could spend more time on teaching and on students.”

“On days when I’m just teaching, which is Monday through Thursday, I leave the house at noon and I’m not finished until about 10:00 p.m. On weekends, grading is the big beast. I try to devote one day of the weekend to grading, and that will be a 10 – 12 hour day.” The number of courses adjuncts teach is dependent upon the vicissitudes of student enrollment and they generally don’t know how many courses they will teach until a week or two before the semester begins. Courses are sometimes scheduled during the first week of classes, and, more often, courses are cut last minute due to low enrollment. Adjuncts are the first to lose a class if enrollments are low. If a full-time faculty member has a course that doesn’t make its enrollment, they will take a course away from an adjunct so that the full-time faculty member can meet the contracted course load.

“When that happens,” Alice says, “I really have to cut back in order to cover my bills.”

Alice’s frustration with her working conditions line up with those of adjuncts nationally. She says, “I’d like stability, benefits … to know that each semester how many classes I would have.”

While the Affordable Care Act promised to help ensure that workers like Alice have employer-supported health insurance, Alice explains that local campuses work together to avoid paying benefits to adjuncts. “JCTC and Ivy Tech used to have a lot of people who were ‘technically’ adjuncts,” meaning they taught on a per course basis and didn’t receive benefits, “but they would teach five, six, seven classes,” giving them enough hours to require their employer provide them health insurance. Alice says that to avoid doing so, local campuses work together. “What JCTC and Ivy Tech do,” she explains, “is work together to say, ‘We’re cutting courses for these people at our campus. Can we trade them with you so that they can fill up their time? So someone who was teaching like five courses at Ivy Tech was cut down to three course but they got to pick up two at JCTC.” And vice versa. “Which,” she says, “is kind of the lot of the adjunct in general. You know you’re just never going to get benefits.”

Alice would also like to have a voice in her department. “Adjuncts have pretty much no say in anything that happens in the department. There is an adjunct faculty senate, but it’s university wide and doesn’t have much to do with the department.”

Although Alice says she thinks “faculty is going to have to come together and work together to be a unified front” to improve the labor conditions of adjuncts, her very working conditions make it hard for her to change them. Not only is she spread too thin over multiple campuses to easily connect with other adjuncts, but also she is afraid of reprisals if she does. And she doesn’t think unionizing is a viable solution to the problem, saying “Unions are somewhat outmoded.”

Despite her reluctance to join with other adjuncts at UofL’s teach-in, Alice says, “I wish students were more informed. They assume that all of their instructors are doctors (Ph.D.s) and are full time and that they’re on campus every day, and the students don’t realize that most of their professors are working two or three jobs. And I think if the students knew what the situation was that they would demand more from their university.”

As idealistic as Alice seems when talking of her students and her love of teaching, when it comes to the prospects of the adjunct labor movement, overall, she is pessimistic and defeatist. “I am pursuing going back to do a second degree in a field that’s more stable,” she says, “So that I would still have the option of teaching, which I love, but so that I could do something that is a 9 to 5.”

Portrait of an adjunct: Mick

Mick Parson’s views on unionizing are starkly different than Alice’s. A member of the International Workers of the World who has studied and written about labor history and labor movements, Mick says frankly, “There’s no other way to resolve this issues except for collective action. Unions exist to protect labor from being exploited. While we think of education as work, we don’t necessarily think of it as labor. We want to think of ourselves as professionals. But all work is work. All work is labor. At the end of the day, whether my back is tired or my brain is tired, it’s all labor, and getting people to understand that nothing changes until we all work together is going to be the next step. But consciousness is starting to rise again, and part of it because of this adjunct situation, where we recognize that we are a labor force, and that we are an important labor force. And the students are a labor force too, and this impacts their ability to be good students.”

Mick has had multiple jobs that worked his back at least as much as his brain. While also adjunct teaching, to fill in income gaps, Mick has worked as a janitor and a bartender. Like Alice, he fell into teaching as a graduate assistant and discovered that he liked it … so much that he was willing to stick with it after completing his master’s degree.

He’s taught in Tennessee, where he simultaneously worked as a janitor; in the Ohio area, where he taught ten classes in one semester, at Xavier, the University of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky University. “That semester almost broke my head a little,” he says. It did break his brief case. Porting so many freshman compositions around proved too much for the leather satchel his mother gave him as a graduation present.

Then, Mick landed the next best thing to a full-time or tenure-track teaching, a nine-month renewable contract with benefits. He moved out West for the job at Arizona State. “The economy was booming and there was all of this real estate development. They had all of these students,” Mick explains. “But then the bubble burst. The department came to us and said, ‘We have to tighten our belts. They raised the number of students per class. Then they raised the course cap from a 4/4 to a 5/5 teaching load for the same amount of money. Then they released all adjuncts who weren’t on contract and the full-time contractors covered all the classes with pay cut from $30K to $26K.” Mick says he left higher education for a couple of years after that experience, but he is at it again, teaching simultaneously at JCTC and UofL, a total of seven courses this past fall and five courses this semester.

Mick and I arranged to meet at JCTC after his developmental English course. As class concluded, some students filtered out of the computer classroom while a few lingered to chat with him. Mick shared a story about teaching his kindergarten-aged daughter the word “facetious.” The conversation sounded relaxed and intimate; the students clearly like him.

We sat down to talk in one of the shared office spaces at JCTC, a room filled with study carrels where adjuncts can access a computer and hold office hours, a “luxury” not afforded adjuncts at all campuses.

While the culture and sense of solidarity is better at JCTC, the pay is significantly worse, only about $1,685 per course. “Almost everybody I know is teaching other places or they have another job,” Mick says, “like I have a colleague who works weekends at Hobby Lobby, because you can’t really make a living doing this. If my fiancée didn’t have a good job, I would not be able to do this without living in a cardboard box.”

“It would depress me to figure out how much I would make on an hourly basis,” Mick says. “Every class is 3 hours per week. Outside of class, we put in about 8 hours per class per week. Office hours are two hours per class a week. State requirements, SACS accreditation, requires 4-6 papers per term. All my classes write a minimum of 4 papers. At a good clip, I can get through a paper in 10 to 15 minutes. With 19 to 26 students per class, that’s 6 hours of grading per class. That’s my weekend on weeks when a paper is due. Five to eight hours planning on a week when I’m not grading. Then there’s the time you spend responding to emails.”

“What we’re talking about is time,” Mick says, latching onto a key narrative of the national adjunct labor movement, one that not only emphasizes adjuncts’ poor working conditions, but, maybe more important, the negative impact these conditions have on students. “We work at quality instruction. We work to make sure our students succeed in the best way we are able to manage that. That’s why we spend the amount of time we do and do what we do, so it’s not about the quality [of teaching] but it is about the time that we are unable to spend. Face time with students outside of class is one of the main determining factors to students’ success. Them having access to us and not just email. As an undergraduate, I had a lot of access to my instructors. I have a few hours here and I have a few hours at UofL, but no matter how I try to parse out my time, it’s never quite enough, and I love that interaction with my students. I love when I can sit down and talk with them about their work. Time is the crucial thing.”

While Alice and Mick disagree on the role unions might play in the adjunct labor movement, they agree on the pivotal role students could play in improving their instructors’ labor conditions by demanding more for their tuition dollars. “When students walk into a place like this,” he says, “there’s a dollar sign on their back, and that’s power. The administration, while we’ve had some positive support, as we are, they don’t have to listen to us, but students hold all the power here. They just have to decide that they want that power. That’s one of the reasons we decided to work with students and talk with students about this issue. We’re reaching out to adjuncts across the state to come together with a more collective voice.”

Data from the Delphi Project (established by the Earl and Pauline Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California in partnership with the American Association of University Professors to assess the causes and effects of adjunct instruction) consistently correlates negative student outcomes with the percentage of courses taught by adjunct instructors.

Adrianna Kezar, a co-founder of the project, says that despite adjunct instructors overall being qualified instructors, the lack of resources provided them by the university undermines quality education. Kezar cites lack of time to interact with students, due to commuting between multiple campuses, as detrimental to the overall quality of students’ education.

Local response to the teach-in

The Jefferson County Chapter of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth wrote a “Statement of Solidarity with Jefferson Community and Technical College Adjunct Teach-In Day”—that was distributed at the JCTC teach-in — in which they state, “We believe adjunct professors, students and the community at large deserve better. … We are encouraged by the courage and leadership of adjunct professors to lead a public conversation about how we can do better together, and we look forward to further collaboration to help build the strong economy that values higher education and each other.”

JCTC President Tony Newberry took up the offer to engage in a larger conversation about adjunct labor, and in response to the teach-in, he wrote a memo to Kate Lafferty and Mick Parsons, which was also distributed.

In full, the memo reads: “At JCTC we have more than 400 dedicated adjunct faculty who are an important element of the college’s instructional programs. We are deeply grateful to the dedication of those faculty and to the experience and richness they bring to our classrooms.

At the same time, we acknowledge that at Jefferson, like colleges and universities across the country, our part-time faculty are challenged by issues of pay, benefits and other support. As president of Jefferson, I am equally concerned with those issues and committed to addressing them. The Teach-In is a constructive way for our faculty to engage in a wider discussion as we work together to find solutions.”

At LEO’s request, UofL Provost Shirley Willihnganz responded by phone to the concerns raised by adjunct instructors at the teach-in and those interviewed for this article. Willihnganz said, “We are very aware of these concerns, and we are concerned about them also.” She clarified that there are multiple categories of faculty at UofL, which doesn’t seem to use the term adjunct, but rather to classify all faculty as either full-time or part-time. And even among part-time faculty, Willihnganz clarified, “There are the part-time faculty who sound like the folks you talked to, but then there are the part-time faculty who are working professionals, who come in to teach a course because they think it’s fun. So when you talk about part-time faculty, it’s a broad array of faculty, and we are concerned about their welfare within the broad array of concerns of all faculty.”

Justifying adjunct instructors’ pay and working conditions based on their motives for teaching — “professionals … who think it’s fun,” as Willihnganz said — or those who teach a course here or there as service to the university and community is relatively common in conversations about adjunct labor. As one of the adjuncts I spoke to said, however, “Most of us are trying to make a living at this and want a full-time position. To teach English, to teach writing, what sort of profession would someone like that come from if we’re required by SACS and other accrediting organizations in the state of Kentucky to teach things like MLA formatting and research and scholarly type of writing that really is not done outside of the university? What sort of profession does that? That kind of thinking is out of touch with what actually happens.”

Provost Willihnganz also said, “We have been having conversations over the past few years with our part-time faculty to see what kinds of things we can do to make life better for them, and I’m not saying we’ve gotten it all the way, but it’s like everything we do at UofL. Every year we try to do something that people bring to us that’s the most important. So, for example, for our part-time faculty, they can do year-long contracts now rather than just semester contracts.” When asked if she knew what percentage of adjuncts have year-long contracts, Provost Willihnganz said, “No, but I think that they would all be eligible for that, as I understand it. We’re trying to do that for everyone.” When I shared this comment with adjuncts at UofL, one instructor said that if all adjuncts were eligible for one-year contracts, it was something they had never been made aware of. Another adjunct instructor from one of the departments that offers intro courses required for all freshmen (thus, a department with a large number of adjuncts) said that there was only one such contract position in that department and such contracts were sporadically available depending upon the funding in each department.

As for the negative impact adjunct instructors’ working conditions may have on student outcomes — an important argument made by the national adjunct labor movement — Willihnganz said, “From the University perspective, our part-time faculty are some of the people that our students identify as their favorite faculty.” The adjuncts interviewed for this article seem to be highly effective and well liked teachers. Despite adverse working conditions, they are willing to work beneath the poverty line while subsidizing students’ education at their own expense.

Willihnganz acknowledged that adjuncts “do an incredible teaching job.” She went on to say, “We are very grateful for all that they do. And last year we did have an appreciation luncheon for our part-time faculty because we do feel that they do such a great job for us.”

In conclusion, Provost Willihnganz said, “I think as we go forward, this is certainly an issue that’s garnering national attention that we are all trying to figure out how to deal with this going forward.”

Those interested in also figuring out how to develop a better solution for adjunct instructors can connect to resources at LouisvilleTeachIn.blogspot.com and KYCFA.org