Women In Academia

Adjunct Land: Why Didn’t I Think of That?

I tend not to respond to op-eds, columns, and blog posts about adjuncting. I’d never have time for anything else. But Charlotte Allen’s recent op-ed for the L.A. Times contains a worn argument that I can’t ignore anymore: “Don’t be an adjunct.”

On Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, I follow several adjunct justice groups; mainly, they report about news affecting adjuncts and advocate for unions. One group posted a link to Allen’s op-ed. Why I clicked it, I don’t know. The title was troubling enough: “The highly educated, badly paid, often abused adjunct professors: The only way to stop colleges from exploiting them is to cut off the supply.”

But usually newspaper writers don’t get to choose their own titles, so I decided to give the column the benefit of the doubt. Maybe Allen really did have a valid proposal.

The article discusses a specific incident where an adjunct was fired two weeks before the final, discusses the low pay and poor working conditions adjuncts face, discusses the whys (so many MAs and PhDs). So far so good. Then, abruptly, the op-ed ends:

But I have a better suggestion for Stefan Veldhuis and other ill-treated part-time faculty: Just say no. Don’t be an adjunct. Or rather, be an adjunct only if you have a day job, or you’re retired, or if you have a family to raise and a breadwinning spouse. If you love to teach, teach high school. Or get some other kind of real job. Let the law of supply and demand do its work, because drastically reducing the supply of academic victims is the only way colleges will stop victimizing them.

This is an argument I’ve heard before, even from other (non-adjunct) faculty members. Allen ends here, with no suggestion for how one might acquire a “real job.” This is a simple answer to a complex problem.

1. Don’t be an adjunct.

That’d be great! How do I not be an adjunct? I’ve applied for full-time and tenure-track positions. One such position, with Portland Community College, had 500 applicants. Another position, with Clackamas Community College (a much smaller community college), had more than 100 applicants.

I’ve also applied for: cashier at Starbucks, Panda Express, Office Depot, and PetSmart; editing; technical and other kinds of writing; administrative assistant/receptionist/etc; data entry; legal assistant; PowerPoint specialist; data entry; bio-chem technician; baker; floral merchandiser; restaurant hostess; SAT/GRE tutoring; and more.

That’s a random list, but they were all positions I thought I’d do well at, and tried to make that clear in my cover letter.

2. If you love to teach, teach high school.

That requires a certificate, although that can be waived in some cases (if your specialty is math or science, and even then, you still have to get that certificate, you just have more time). Certificates cost money. And generally one has to continue taking courses to remain certified, which also costs money (and time).

And it’s not like public schools are hiring. The Occupational Outlook Handbook says that growth is slower than average (expected to grow 7% from 2010 to 2020).  The Houston Chronicle adds:

Despite increased student enrollment and brimming classrooms, high school enrollment is expected to grow less than other grades. The South and West will see the greatest increase in student enrollment — and potentially have the best job outlook for high school teachers.

Finally, Campus Explorer goes into more detail about the challenges facing those seeking employment as high school teachers:

Job opportunities will also be better in rural areas and inner cities rather than suburban districts. Minority teachers will also have more job opportunities due to an increase in minority enrollment. The need for bilingual secondary school teachers will also grow.

Due to better pay and an active interest in education, there will be a larger supply of secondary school teachers. Substitute teachers and those changing careers can also be drawn from the pool to become secondary school teachers, as long as they meet the proper requirements.

So besides the South and West, one must look to rural or inner city schools for the best chances of employment. And one will have to compete with substitute teachers, who will have more experience. People who don’t want to/can’t move could be left out. And someone with college teaching experience might be considered over-qualified or too expensive… or perhaps lack experience compared to long-term subs.

US News points out that upward mobility for public school teachers is below average. Not everyone seeks promotions, of course, but few of us, I think, take on a job and say, “Goodness, I hope my pay and responsibilities remain the same forever!” And teaching responsibilities rarely remain the same or decrease over time.

And finally, while it might seem like teaching is teaching, different skill sets are needed for teaching college and high school. Maybe there’s not a huge difference between college frosh and high school seniors, but there is certainly a difference between high school frosh and college seniors. Certainly one can learn how to teach to different populations, but it isn’t easy or automatic.

3. Or get some other kind of real job.

Adjuncting is a real job. It’s not always a great job, but it’s real. I work hard. I get paid for it.

But as I mentioned before, it’s not that simple to just change jobs. I’ve applied to so many different jobs, ones I genuinely think I’d be good at. But with the unemployment rate still at 7%, employers have their pick of applicants.

I’m grateful for my adjunct job. I’m glad to work and to do something I generally enjoy. That doesn’t mean I can’t want better working conditions, or desire systemic change in the American educational system.

Suggesting all the adjuncts quit is naïve at best. Many people need that job, no matter how low the pay or long the hours. If we all quit, we wouldn’t suddenly all get full-time or tenure track jobs, or suddenly find other full-time jobs in other fields. We’d just be unemployed.

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