Contingent Labor: Thoughts from our Colleagues, Part I

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Yesterday’s Contingent Labor Panel, part of Jenna Lay’s Job Market panel series, featured four of our Lehigh colleagues, either current students or recent graduates. Colleen Martell, Rebecca Martin, Nicole Batchelor and George Mote have a variety of experiences in the adjuncting world, and they each offered advice for getting adjuncting jobs, advice for planning an exit strategy, a picture of the realities of the contingent labor market, and most surprisingly, the benefits and even pleasures to be found as an adjunct. Because the topic of contingent labor is both capacious and contentious, this will be a two part post to allow me to do justice to the complexity of our panelists’ contributions and of the political implications of the adjunct world as a whole.

Here in part one, we will cover our panelists’ articulations of the realities of contingent labor, including the good, the bad, and the practical considerations. Each of our panelists contributed stories from their own experiences at a number of different schools. Generally, composition classes (which are usually the classes for which universities hire adjuncts) are less content driven than at Lehigh. They tend to focus on genre and/or mode, which Nicole found presented her with a steep learning curve.

Each panelist mentioned support or freedom. Support is often lacking in terms of resources such as desks for student meetings, computer and copier access, and observations. It occurs to me that support and freedom are, in practice, two sides of the same coin- for many schools, “support” comes in the form of a set syllabus and curriculum instead of those resources. Teaching someone else’s syllabus, of course, can feel constricting after the freedom of Lehigh’s FYW program, particularly in Nicole’s experience. She also found that schools have individual sets of learning objectives that adjuncts must conform to. All of this structure may be intended to cut down on course development and lesson planning (though in effect, it does not), but this form of support does not mitigate the daily difficulties. Colleen described her daily routine as a constant cycle of teaching, then feverishly planning, teaching again, then doing some more planning. Other schools do not offer this structure, though. George found that he had minimal oversight, leading to total autonomy in his teaching. He found this challenging, but it also offered him the flexibility to adapt to his students’ needs.

Colleen also pointed out the importance of viewing contingent labor politically. This is where the horror stories we’ve all heard come into play. Most recently in the news, we heard the sad story of Margaret Mary Vojtko’s death after being laid off from Duquesne

Margaret Mary Vojtko, fall 2008.

Margaret Mary Vojtko

University ( Vojtko’s story brings home the fact that universities exploit adjuncts. The proportion of contingent labor to tenured or tenure track faculty has sharply and consistently risen over the last few decades. Adjuncts are cheaper to employ; they are part-time employees without benefits or contracts. Colleges know that it is precarious, underpaid work, and their priority is the financial bottom line over the well-being of their comp teachers. Moreover, while the Affordable Care Act will hopefully lead to changes for the better in the contingent labor market, it also means that schools are now careful not to hire individuals for more than two sections per semester, so that they do not have to give adjuncts benefits.

But the pay for two sections is not livable. Though the topic of compensation is often taboo, is essential. As graduate students contemplating a future of adjuncting, even in the short term, we need to know exactly what we’re getting into. Comp classes pay the least, but they are by far the most common. There is generally no negotiation on salary; universities have a per credit rate policy for part time employees. For 3 credit classes, our panelists had compensation ranging from $1,200 to $4,500 per section. Rates are higher for PhDs than MAs—for instance, one community college pays MAs $1,200 per section and PhDs $2,200. Some (rare) schools will also include reimbursement for travel. Others increase rates based on years of experience at their institution. To put this in other terms, a 2-2 teaching load would pay anywhere from $4,800 to $18,000 (the latter being significantly more rare). It can take up to five or even more sections per semester just to make ends meet. But even securing five sections can be a struggle, particularly when universities can cancel or reassign your section just days before the semester starts.

These numbers, obviously, make it difficult to survive; adjuncts must constantly be planning for the next semester, applying for summer jobs and trying to secure courses. Being an adjunct means being underpaid and in a constant state of precarity.

However, this rather terrifying picture does not mean that adjuncting is a nightmarish landscape lacking any benefits or pleasures. Teaching at community colleges and other universities offers the opportunity to work with a diverse body of students. Lehigh, as we all know, is predominantly composed of privileged students just out of high school with a relatively strong background in writing. Other schools, however, are populated with students who are working full time, who have had fewer educational opportunities, or who are from different backgrounds. Our panelists agree that this diversity of students means a diversity of needs. They push you to be more flexible in your teaching, and often to get back to the basics of composition. You may need to teach what a thesis statement is, and establish that language, before you can teach how to write one well. George phrased this as breaking out of a “one size fits all” model of teaching. And teaching students who have had fewer opportunities than your typical Lehigh first year can be far more rewarding, whether because you relate to them or because you get to see huge growth. Nicole and Becca emphasized that as adjuncts they’ve formed lasting relationships with students that they really value.

Colleen added that even seeing the ugly, exploitative side of academic institutions is incredibly important. Adjuncting cures you of any illusions you may have had about your university and your education, allowing you to critically view your institution and your career as a whole. Most tenured and tenure track faculty have not had the personal experience of academic exploitation and are thus blinded to some of the realities of their workplace.

I find it heartening to hear that adjuncting can give you excellent teaching experience and sometimes be quite rewarding. We don’t often see this perspective. However, this does not mitigate the fact of being exploited as contingent labor. Moreover, Dr. Peterson pointed out that this exploitation is part of a larger, broken academic system; he notes that graduate school “trains specialists for a market that rewards versatility.” Our very academic training makes it difficult for us to compete on the market, leading to a body of trained scholars whose only options are to adjunct while continually attempting to break into the tenure track, or to leave academia. Part two will address the truth of this belief (spoiler: it’s not true! Cultivate a multiplicity of options!) and offer out panelists’ practical advice for finding adjunct work, surviving the harrowing world of contingent labor, and developing an exit strategy.

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