Adjuncts in Higher Education: The Other Fast-Food Worker
How an adjunct college teacher can be a worse hourly paying profession than a McJob
Recently the news has been ablaze with fast food workers stepping out of their jobs and into the role of picketers. This has caused some politicians to call for a national minimum wage hike to $10 which is a bit short of the $15 the workers are asking for. Some say the fast food workers should be happy to receive a below living wage for their work since they aren’t skilled workers. That is the camp I would like to address because it is that camp that is holding back more than the average McDonald’s employee.
If I would tell you that there is a skilled – highly skilled – workforce being exploited more than fast food workers in the US, would you believe me? Would your reply be that a worker cannot be highly skilled and still get below a living wage? I think it’s time I shed some light on a lesser known plight in the US – that of the “adjunct instructor.”
What’s an adjunct? Well, imagine having at least a Master’s degree (increasingly a PhD), and wanting to teach, but instead of teaching at just one place full time, you bounce around, sometimes a few colleges per day in order to make ends meet.
These aren’t unskilled workers trying to hold down a job to just survive, these are highly skilled people trying to hold down multiple jobs to survive. How is this possible? Because there is a sickness in American higher education and it is reflected directly from our societal values. Simply put, we don’t value education.
We sure as hell put a huge price tag on it. For example the average US college education costs $22,000-43,000 a year while education for an Out of Country/European Union student going to the UK can be $14,500 a year with many in country people paying far cheaper, but when the whip comes down the value for the buck just isn’t there. Teaching 6 classes at a for-profit institution can sometimes start as low as $25,000 a year in the US compared to 2 classes a semester in Canada for $42,500 a year.
There is another downside for being an adjunct. Okay, I won’t lie, there are several. One is lack of benefits. As a definition, an adjunct is not full time at any institutions, so they are not entitled to benefits from the institutions they work at. Also, most adjuncts do not have an office nor a prep area. This means a lot of work is done from home and out of your car.
The student to teacher ratio is damn right pathetic in many places. I’ve seen both “on site” and “online” courses go over 200 to 1. That’s right, for every teacher who has to teach, grade, and hold between class question fielding (often on the way to their car in order not to be late for their other class across town) there are 200 students to take care of. Let’s say an essay is 4 pages long (not too long at all, but it’s easy math). 4×200=800 pages. That’s right, 800 pages of corrections and reviews to perform by the single teacher by next week’s class.
Oh, and remember, that’s just one of the 5-6 classes that person will teach that week. For the sake of argument, let’s say that Finals all fall under the same week for the different institutions (it usually is a bit close to the same week or within a few days of each other). 800 pages then becomes a “safe” 40,000 pages to correct within a week and this is for part time work – no benefits – and pay barely enough to make rent, own a car and visit those fast food places that get so much news time.
How do I know all of this? Because I was in those trenches. I was one of those who drove to three of the four different colleges I worked for in one day. I was also told by New York State I wasn’t eligible for food assistance because I was an “unemployed employee” of the state due to working at a university and attending classes at the same time. I’ve also been in places that treated their instructors like commodities that could be traded and had their contracts “re-engineered” at will.
Is it all doom and gloom? No. There is a reason why I taught. I believe everyone should have the right to an education at all levels. I want to think that just knowing I was making a difference in someone’s (who was paying the most of any country’s enrollment bills) life is enough gratitude to keep teaching. It is, but gratitude doesn’t allow one to afford health care,own a house, pay for a car or have retirement money set aside.
I hope the fast food industry does indeed get their much deserved pay increase; I hope so out of selfish reasons though. You see, I did the math on hours spent vs salary paid one year while teaching those 7 classes. I won’t tell you the exact outcome, but I will give you a hint on who got paid more per hour. It wasn’t the person asking “did you do your homework?,” but rather “do you want fries with that?”