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An Adjunct Story: Our Economy Is Eating Higher Education

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I've grown very attached to teaching (studio art) but I am struggling; this is a common refrain heard the past several years in what has become a countrywide outcry from contingent faculty. Recently, these tremors have been underscored by the reports from the House Education and the Workforce Committee and the Annual report from the AAUP. They paint a dour portrait of the adjunct predicament in the U.S. and I suspect the problems they layout only telegraph greater challenges ahead. We all want a way to support our communities, follow and share our passions and live without a constant fear of illness. Yet, while these aspirations have historically been ripped from beneath the feet of the uneducated classes, it seems we are now seeing the black hole of debt gobbling further up the ladder.

At my college, contingent faculty outnumbers full-timers 1100 to 350. Across the country adjunct pay since the 70's has reduced 49 percent. Today contingent faculty accounts for three fourths of instructional staff. The statistics continue like this for a good while. But don't these metrics reflect the trends of the economy at large?

On the interpersonal side, it's not uncommon for my peers in the humanities to have persistent concerns for their students who aspire to enter into their respective scholarship. They know that even the brightest of them has little but capriciousness and fortune to rely on. By this, it seems the arithmetic of tutelage is undermined at a basic level, where those promoting the values of their fields of study are themselves struggling to embrace them, not for lack of want, but for lack of opportunity.

Predictably, the hinge of the argument is that it is not the responsibility of schools to employ their alumni, and students are culpable for their career decisions. But if our higher-ed institutions cannot support the millennia of development through the culture of learning then isn't this tantamount to forfeiting the academic endeavor; isn't it implicitly made obsolete? If you can't entertain, you lose -- can't produce a product, tough luck -- get a real job.

In appearance this view emerges from the practical constructions that reside in our culture at large, and they threaten to render the majority of our higher education into something more closely resembling trade schools than institutions for advanced learning and understanding. It represents a basic misunderstanding of the function and promise of a liberal arts education and as we are beginning to see in the amplification of social-class structures, is reverting us to a pre-university society -- we may even feel the itch to begin a fourth crusade?

Perhaps this is a cancer in the system, and the chin-wagging regarding the graduate generation hit by the 2008 crash only reinforces that postulation. In 2009 I received my MFA. A single class each semester since has kept my head above water. During this time I have fought to orchestrate my schedule around no less than a dozen sources of income. While squeezing in time for my painting and writing, I have installed art shows and cabinets, baked cookies and managed theater performances, labored on a book and managed the organization and storage of an artist estate, grown my own food and donated time to the boards of a couple foundations, to note only a few examples. Moreover, my family is also affected by the volatile economy and has been in need of whatever assistance I have been able to provide, preventing me from accruing anything resembling savings. I am one of the successful ones.

Last month my brother caught an unknown illness, we couldn't afford tests and were consequently in limbo until he found out he qualified for Medicaid. He currently attends my college and is earning his degree in photography, oh dear. The most secure position I have is part time, pays very little and is up for review bi-annually. As even a superficial survey of our economic systems encourages no confidence or hope for future prospects I am in the process of building a greenhouse to grow food and give myself a chance to help offset those cost for my family and friends -- modern subsistence farming.

Is it as straight forward as a shift in the gravity of our economy; the relentless march of debt building upward momentum and marginalizing yet another subset of society? I'm not sure; but to paraphrase Henri Bergson, a well-defined problem already contains its answer. For now I am resigned to be one of the highly educated poor, vitalized by academic labor and atmosphere but subject to a hustle on the street. I don't come from an educated background, so I describe myself as lucky to have encountered the formative advice I've received. Still, I was hoping to use my effort and passions somewhere outside my mother's basement; it's hard to paint while ducking away from the ceiling.

If we don't change the paradigm soon, the scales for those picking up the rocks will outweigh those trying to put out the fires.