by Ian Tingen
As the semester draws to a close, I revisit this work I wrote on Facebook in February. Teaching fulfills many of the things that make me feel best in life: it allows me to share fantastic beauty with people, it gives me a stage on which to perform, it pushes me to keep at the bleeding edge of understanding the world and the people in it.
It also is inherently unstable as a profession for many people. I’d love to hear your thoughts – share them in the comment section below. Also be sure to check out @HamiltonNolan‘s piece on adjuncting.
I’ve gotten a few questions about WTF happened with Santa Monica College and my classes, and I feel like this is a good moment to illustrate a harsh reality that impacts not only me, but thousands upon thousands of people you can find at any collegiate institution.
I am a professor of psychology: an adjunct professor. Essentially, this means I am part-time, unprotected faculty. Though I have access to benefits (health care & retirement), the pay is not commensurate with the cost necessary to participate meaningfully in these things. This semester, I was scheduled to teach two classes, and those classes had full enrollment. Those classes were taken from me to fill out the teaching requirements for senior, tenured (protected) faculty who had classes that did not meet enrollment minimums because SMC experienced lower-than-anticipated enrollment. This happened about 10 days before the semester is scheduled to begin.
The free-marketeers out there are likely asking: why aren’t you pushing for full-time? If the pay sucks, can’t you just go somewhere else?
Short answers: full-time (or tenured) faculty have an entirely different career track, one unavailable to me for a number of reasons (a few being that I really don’t care for political struggles over grade inflation, content censorship, and I that like saying ‘fuck’ a great deal during my lectures.) As far as going elsewhere: my pay is already near the top when comparing similar institutions, even though it’s not much.
Though adjuncts are between 50 and 70 percent of instructional faculty at the collegiate level, they are, as a whole, a relatively voiceless population when it comes to labor policy. People become adjuncts for one of two reasons: they love improving the lives and opportunity of others or they feel hopelessly trapped into the only system they can see a paycheck from. This, of course, works out really well for most colleges, who face higher and higher instructional costs year-to-year yet do not get commensurate support from the state / taxpayers / whatever group is trying to pass the buck. There’s a ton of other academic labor issues I could get into, but suffice it to say that if you’re adjuncting to make ends meet, you’re in a special kind of voiceless untethered hell.
I am lucky in that I have developed skill sets that can be used outside the academy, and that I do not face TOTAL economic decimation in losing this work. I will scramble, and survive: but that is because of you, my network, and not because of what SMC is doing for me. The best they can offer at the moment is to tell me that I can apply for unemployment. My department chair is not a bad person – he is bound by finite economic realities. Cutting adjuncts like me are the quickest route to closing gaps in the budget. We are cogs in a machine that I really believe would care for us if they weren’t feeling the squeeze from all the other stakeholders that aren’t ready to shoulder the burden of an educational system that values their instructors as more than means to an end.
I have often considered why I am participating in this exploitative system, willingly. In short: I LOVE giving people new ways in which to understand and shape their world. I have been honored to be instructor and mentor to many talented individuals, and these experiences have been some of the most fantastic moments of my life. I believe that education is power – a weapon more powerful than any other armament. But is this love enough? More and more, the answer is no. I have been thinking about how to educate people outside of this system that can not afford to care for us, but have not come to any answer that I can achieve alone (who wants to produce a web series?!). If you have ideas, I’d love to hear them.
Adjuncting is not a job that people do for the pay or the glory. A full quarter of us are on public assistance of some kind. I sit here, worried not only about the months to come, but also feeling the recent reminder that despite the best intentions of the system, adjuncts will never achieve security or parity.
I am not unique. We teach the future. We empower you and your children to be something better than you are. We are expendable.
This, friends, is what happened.