From 2005-2006 I worked my last year (30th) as a technical writer making $65k -- nothing to sneeze at. Then one Friday morning I was summoned to my manager's office and was told my position was being eliminated. At age 54, this should have been devastating. As I packed up, co-workers consoled and asked what I would do. Smiling, a bit perversely, I said "write my memoirs by the pool." I recall driving home on the interstate, laughing like a mad fool. What gave?
I had amassed, through savings and investing (and by being cheap some would say), a decent sum of assets along with, most importantly, zero debt. I knew I would do early retirement in eight years. During the intervening time what might I do? By turns good and bad the technical writing "field" had been decent, but it been a job by default, certainly no career or profession.
Back in 1975 I took a master's degree in English, with the naive hope of teaching college. There were no teaching jobs. Had I gone on for the Ph.D. it may or may not have made a difference. That goal of being an academic in the classroom, the discipline in and focus on literature and writing never left me. In 2007 the local colleges were hiring adjunct professors. And so the dream happened -- sort of.
For those unfamiliar with the term "adjunct," it is considered a part-time supplemental teaching position, requiring only 18 graduate credits. I had the master's. It's a part-time job if you're teaching two or three courses. More than that, you're scraping the 40-hour ceiling, especially when reading student essays. The college deems fit to pay you for class-time only, as if lessons and content sprout fully formed from one's brain.
The compensation was abysmal. Low wages. No benefits (most important of those being a health plan). This came out to about $16-17k a year (about what I made in 1979) and included summer semesters. The only way I could afford to take a position was to supplement the meager wages with $1,000 a month from my investments plus dip now and then for large ticket items (e.g., property taxes). I rarely touch the one credit card I own. I wasn't saving but still, a single drink now and then from a barrel the size of a small Fort Knox can't hurt much.
I had become asset rich and income poor. I was one of the fortunate adjuncts. Some taught several courses a semester because they had to get by. I knew one who taught nine courses across multiple campuses because he had to.
Mine is just one story. To virtually earn somewhere between $10-13 an hour for performing college-level instruction speaks plainly of the Walmartization of our nation's colleges and universities.
The implications of this corporatized campus environment has systemic implications for our America's intellectual infrastructure. The delivery of higher education has become a cheat, a hustle, and thoroughly corrupt. Most of all it is unsustainable, for what young person in their right mind will pursue a graduate degree with the intention of becoming a college professor?
The "race to the bottom" continues to accelerate.It has become almost a cliché to say education, K-12 and beyond, is broken. It is dysfunctional now; its prospects, without sweeping reforms, are bleak at best.
A Frontline documentary, Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk (2005) talks about the financial challenges but also of the lowering of standards, referred to as grade inflation as a means of keeping students enrolled. It may be a bit dated but the problems cited not only remain but have worsened. Any parents paying college tuition should see this.
Parents don't know that their child for whom they've paid dear tuition may have courses taught by an adjunct or T.A., who maybe works the night shift at a 24-hour Walmart out of financial necessity. How can classroom performance not be compromised? The reaction has to be more than shaking our heads and dismissing it with, "Oh well, the new normal."
The core of corruption is with the "business" model colleges and universities have adopted: rake in the tuition at all costs, reward the lifeblood of the institution, the faculty, with diminishing compensation and status, throw six or seven figures at the administrators and give athletic programs a virtual blank check.
When the last adjunct dies out (they tend to be in their 60s), they will go after the regular faculty. This is treated in a novel by Alex Kudera (an adjunct) at Clemson University, probably the only novel written whose protagonist is an adjunct.
(I have reviewed Professor Kudera's novel, if you are interested.)
It is a sad irony that the adjunct is no lifetime indentured servant, but rather an endangered species, as institutions of higher learning contemplate "satellite hookups and TVs in every classroom... with the finest Indian universities teaching virtual classes long-distance... the $15,000-a-year they were paying the graduate student [or adjunct] has become $1,500 for a hungrier South Asian." (Fight for Your Long Day, pages 207-208)
Physical classrooms will disappear, academic rigor all but eliminated, and the MOOCs will be taught by uncredentialed "instructors," as attrition claims live professors who must leave for more viable economic positions or simply retire. The public generally thinks that a liberal arts education is a waste of time, but the math and science adjuncts are paid the same, at least at my former school.
Shockingly, there is no public policy debate or discussion on this problem: certainly not in circles where power exists to effect change.
Chris Hedges has written:
"We've bought into the idea that education is about training and "success," defined monetarily, rather than learning to think critically and to challenge. We should not forget that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers. A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, which mistakes management techniques for wisdom, which fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death." (Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and Triumph of Spectacle).
There's a public perception that a college education is the path to a good-paying job and at least a middle-class lifestyle. This is no longer the case.
Joseph's story is part of a Huffington Post series profiling Americans who work hard and yet still struggle to make ends meet. Learn more about other individuals' experiences here.
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