More love, less labor: adjuncts and the hierarchy of labor in higher education

Teaching is, for those of us who are lucky to have figured this out, a joyful and deeply rewarding profession. I’ve been teaching for over 12 years, and have worked with adults from 18 to over 70. I have taught classes on English as a Second Language (ESL), professional communication skills, computer literacy, citizenship, bilingual education, second language acquisition, and other topics. Every class is like waking up to a new way of thinking and problem-solving, as my students and I find new ways to make connections between the material we are engaging with and our worlds. I tell friends and family members that it is seldom that I leave class feeling worse than I did when I got there. I regard it, perhaps a bit selfishly, as the best therapy I’ve ever had.

The problem with therapy, unfortunately, is that unless you have the right circumstances, it’s extremely costly. While I don’t pay, per se, to teach graduate students at two colleges in the City University of New York, as an adjunct, I am compensated little for the amount of work I do. True, some of it is in exchange for a generous teaching fellowship that I receive to do my PhD at the Grad Center. However, I also teach a class at another school in the CUNY system, where, when you break it down, I make what I first made as a new ESL teacher for the labor I put into class for class prep, meeting and communicating with students, and correcting and maintaining student grading and support. “Unthinkable!” my family would say if they knew. “But you have a masters degree and over 12 years of experience…and you’re getting your PhD!”

All true. This is the way of higher education nowadays, the slow and steady fight to save budgets through the ‘adjunctification‘ of colleges and universities across the country. As in other educational contexts, the rise of neoliberal thinking in higher ed – essentially the claim that market values like efficiency, accountability, and bottom-line thinking produce healthy businesses schools and satisfied customers students – justifies the trimming back of faculty and the use of contingent labor to pick up the slack. Read: adjuncts.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m happy to put all of this great experience on my CV. It’s nice to know that when I am interviewing for jobs as a professor in the next couple of years, I will be able to say I’ve worked with undergraduate and graduate students teaching a range of courses that would make me a smart hire for their department. This is seen as a sort of rite of passage, a paying of one’s dues when professionalizing as a professor-in-the-making.

Nevertheless, this situation can be improved once we move past the mystification that is attributed to Being a Professor in higher ed. Yes, it can be argued that all teaching is a labor of love, a point that I will be the first to make. I love this work, because it means I am doing something important, something that has, I hope, a significant impact on the world. Yet I also want to think of myself as more than a low-level laborer in the service of an erstwhile dream of what higher education should be.

We can poke all the fun we want at people pursuing what seems like a wild dream of being a thinker, writer, and educator for a living. However, all individuals have a right to be compensated for their work. And saying that the budget won’t permit such a change, while an expression of the numbers on a page, also justifies the status quo arrangements that divide the haves from the have-nots on faculties across the country. All of us who work in higher ed need to work together to make changes toward a more just arrangement for adjuncts in higher education. It’s time for more love, and less labor, for conditions that are just and compensation that reflects the reality of the work being done. Hierarchies can change and move into new arrangements, so long as there is agreement that justice is a goal that all must share.

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