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Underpaid Adjunct Professors Sleep in Cars and Rely on Public Aid

A new book argues that college teaching for most faculty has increasingly turned into a gig economy.

A new book argues that college teaching for most faculty has increasingly turned into a gig economy.

Adjunct professors are the minimum-wage temp workers of academia. Underpaid, overworked, with no benefits and no job security, their numbers have ballooned in recent decades. They are part of what Herb Childress calls “hope labor,” in his new book, The Adjunct Underclass. Childress quotes researchers who define hope labor as “un- or under-compensated work carried out in the present, often for experience or exposure, in the hope that future employment opportunities may follow.” For most adjuncts, that hope comes to nothing.

Childress compares the catastrophe of gig economy college teaching to gig-based employment in other industries like medicine or taxis. He argues that adjunct teachers are the Uber drivers of academia. “College teaching has become primarily a pickup job … like running chores for TaskRabbit,” he writes, reporting that 25 percent of adjuncts depend on some form of public assistance. His book brings to mind the nearly starving, peripatetic scholars, wandering from one university to another, teaching and begging, in medieval Europe.

The Adjunct Underclass summarizes The Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s account of the death of Margaret Mary Vojtko,

who died at the age of eighty-three from cancer she could not afford to treat. She died at her home, for which she could not afford electricity. She had taught French at Duquesne University for twenty-five years, never making more than twenty-thousand dollars a year for her six or more courses and never receiving health benefits or retirement contributions.

Childress discusses homeless adjunct professors who sleep in their cars. He cites the San Francisco Chronicle and the example of English professor Ellen Tara James Penny. While teaching four courses per semester at San Jose University in Fall 2017, Penny “often drives to a parking lot to grade papers. When it’s dark, she’ll use a headlamp from Home Depot, so she can continue her work. At night she’ll re-park in a residential neighborhood and sleep in her 2004 Volvo. She keeps the car neat to avoid suspicion.”

Some adjunct professors turn to sex work to augment their income. Childress refers to a Guardian story about a “middle-aged” adjunct whose income dwindled dramatically when her course load was cut in half. About to be evicted, she told The Guardian, “In my mind I was like, I’ve had one-night stands, how bad can it be?… And it wasn’t that bad.”

Many adjuncts toil at multiple campuses in a semester, commuting hundreds of miles each day, working essentially nonstop except for sleep, as they teach, grade papers and answer multitudinous student emails. “The figure of 45 contract hours is a fiction that conceals 350 hours of work, maybe 400 and maybe more,” Childress writes. “A $3,600 pretax stipend with no benefits like healthcare or retirement contributions, spread over 400 hours of work, comes to $9 per hour.”

As a result, adjuncts are organizing. This spring, adjunct professors at several Minnesota colleges began agitating for unions, as reported by the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Minnesota’s first adjunct union, at Hamline University, has pursued negotiations for a second contract since July 2018. Meanwhile in January, New York City-based Mercy College adjunct teachers started a drive to join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Recently, Fordham University adjuncts ratified their first contract, which mandates substantial pay increases. “Nationally about seventy new faculty bargaining units — all but one for nontenure faculty — have sprung up on private campuses since 2012,” according to the Star Tribune.

By 2016, gig faculty labor at more than 60 schools was organized by SEIU. In March 2018, “University of South Florida adjuncts voted to form a union…. On April 13 adjunct faculty at the University of Chicago ratified their first union contract … adjuncts at Loyola University in Chicago,” also reached an agreement, according to the Johns Hopkins notice. And Labor Notes recently reported that this past April, international student workers were key to the success of the University of Illinois at Chicago graduate employees strike. Unionization is sweeping the gig faculty labor force, despite fierce management opposition that does not want to cede money or power to what Childress calls “the scavengers, the bottom feeders, paid by the course as the need arises.”

Overworked and impermanent, no matter how excellent their teaching skills, adjuncts lack opportunities to form the sort of lasting mentoring relationships with students that are associated with tenured faculty. So, students suffer. And these students are predominately low-income at community colleges, which employ more adjuncts than four-year schools — at some, 90 percent of their faculty. Adjuncts, Childress writes, “are camouflaged to look exactly like their [tenure track] counterparts,” so students and parents don’t know the difference. This affects lots of students, because there are so many adjuncts. “More than one million people are now working as contingent faculty [in the U.S.] … providing a cheap labor source, even while students’ tuition has skyrocketed,” according to a congressional Democratic staffer quoted by Childress.

This faculty precariat constitutes almost three-quarters of community college teachers who instruct, in turn, 40 percent of all undergraduates. “If community colleges prepare students to mirror their faculty’s lives as isolated individuals, scratching out a tenuous survival,” Childress writes, “the state [universities] also prepare students to mirror their own faculty’s lives, with secure enough jobs that provide for the mortgage, the gold clubs and the new SUV every few years.” Affluent liberal arts colleges have far fewer adjuncts, while Ivies and other elite universities are certainly not training their students for a precarious survival.

Stanford education professor David Labaree, quoted by Childress, says “stratification is at the heart of American education. It’s the price we pay for the system’s broad accessibility.” Just as 100 million economically precarious Americans cling to the bottom rungs of the U.S. economy, so too in U.S. education, precarious gig faculty labor teaches those low-income students who can scrape together community college tuition. Clearly community college students have the greatest need for close mentoring relationships with their professors, but, as Childress observes, they are the least likely to get it, since more of their professors are adjuncts. Ironically, it is students at elite colleges, among the least needy, who get the most professorial attention.

Meanwhile, and not coincidentally, this devaluation of teaching parallels the profession’s feminization. Many adjuncts are women. Childress cites “rising discrimination against occupations after the entry of women.” This has happened in medicine, education, law and veterinary practice. Research “shows college grads entering male-dominated fields at starting salaries far greater than those of college grads entering female-dominated field.” Women’s work is not considered important. This explains why when women enter an occupation, the pay and the standing decline.

The public-school model provides the best approach. Early on public education became feminized, thus devalued and underpaid. But it unionized completely. Adjuncts in higher ed should do the same, because barring the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, no help other than unions awaits them.

The Adjunct Underclass lists five ways that universities have whittled away teacher pay: fewer people, longer hours; workers redefined as independent contractors; de-bundled professional activities and the creation of paraprofessionals; outsourced non-core functions; replacement of humans and space with technology. And of course, the glut of Ph.D.-credentialed teachers puts downward pressure on pay.

Yet colleges and universities still crank out Ph.D.s, tens of thousands ever year. And every year many, many of those people don’t get jobs. They join a pool of surplus educational labor that constantly swells: There are more unemployed adjuncts every year, their increasing numbers putting downward pressure on pay.

Years of study, papers, exams, the dissertation, followed by ferocious competition for academic employment scraps: It’s high time this sector of the work-force unionized widely, got some benefits for its precarious piece-work and recognized that tenure is, for most, an impossible and destructive dream.

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