Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Adjunct's Epistle

Dear Dr. XXXX,

Unfortunately, I was not able to pay the fee on the day I arrived at The XXXX Conference last week. As a low-income adjunct in the SUNY academic system, my experience of conferences is perhaps different than that of other academics. I include this explanation with my $55.00 registration fee not because I think it will make a difference, but because it seems to me that someone should say it and it might as well be me. There are a growing number of us who, despite our educations, our dedication, and our contributions are treated as second class citizens of the academic world. We work without tenure, without unions, and often without health insurance. We are paid less money to teach the same courses our full time peers teach. We often lack access to basics like computers, campus telephones, or office space to do our work and meet with our students. We have no job security and virtually no future in the academic field we passionately pursued as students. However much we love our work, our students, and our discipline, we are regarded as lesser than our tenured colleagues. In fact, we are the disposable workers of an exploitative system that relies on our poorly compensated labor.

 Because I am an adjunct a conference represents at best a worry and at worst a hardship rather than an opportunity. I teach four courses a semester and am therefore considered a part-time worker. I do not have health insurance through my work so I must rely on a subsidized health plan. It is not, I will tell you, a good health plan and therefore my health care costs are high. I literally had to consider cancelling healthcare appointments to afford to be a presenter in your conference.

 In order to come to your conference, I had to make sure I had child care and then I had to arrange for a ride to XXXX from XXXX. I had to cancel classes which I was loathe to do given the fact that without a union to protect me, I worry about any irregularities in my work schedule and usually work through illness lest I give anyone with power over me cause to complain. My family relies on my income and we could not afford to pay my student loans if I lost my job.

 The round trip to XXXX was almost seven hours long. I arrived immediately before my panel presentation and left at its conclusion. I could not afford to pay for a hotel room and therefore could not stay for the dinner. I could not, in fact, stay for any of the conference apart from my own presentation because of a lack of time and funds.

 So that’s my experience. It felt a good deal to me like I had to pay you for the privilege of researching and writing a panel presentation, cancelling my classes, and traveling for several hours to arrive on your sprawling campus where I spent the next half hour trying to figure out where I was supposed to be. (Signs would have been helpful.) I then had to turn right around and make the trip in reverse. I left the conference feeling very much like an adjunct. I felt ignored, discounted, unappreciated, and exploited.

 I write this not merely to vent feelings of frustration, but because I want my colleagues, whom I value and respect, to see me and to see adjuncts in general. We experience the academic world differently than our full-time colleagues do. We have much to offer, but our lack of resources and our growing numbers are a challenge to a functioning and cooperative scholarly community. Whether we are acknowledged or not, our challenges affect the entire academic community of educators and learners. I do not suspect that our working conditions are ignored by my full-time and tenured colleagues out of malice, but because it is easier to ignore such seemingly intractable problems than to address them. I do not expect a group planning a conference (and I know from experience what an exhausting and frustrating task that can be) to solve the adjunct issue. I just wanted to be a reminder that I am here, that we are here, in an academic system that is not the same as it was, not as good as it can be, and not as fair as it should be. I believe that whenever we can, those of us without privilege must appeal to those with it. I trust other historians and educators as allies and ask you to consider my words as you accept my money.

 Best wishes, etc.


Daniel Wilcox said...

The way that colleges misuse and fail their "part-time" employees is a travesty.

I don't know why this is taking place in New York, but in California it started with the passage of Proposition 13 in the late 1970's.

Hystery said...

It is a national problem for sure. I have not included as much of my focus on this issue here in this blog, but it has been an issue of importance in my life for some time. I am sending this letter to the chairman of the history department at the university that hosted the conference. I am also sending it to the president of my college and the SUNY chancellor. I'm not asking anything of them except that they consider adjuncts for just a moment before they move on with their busy days.

Anonymous said...

One small place to put some pressure. The accrediting body should look at proportion of full time to part-time faculty. One college in my area was put on warning for this.
That does not stop the overall factor that most higher ed is run on part time faculty, underpaid support staff, and outsourced services whose workers are exploited.

Hystery said...

Funny you should mention this. My college has already been warned but has eliminated rather than added full time faculty. They've tried to hide their low full time faculty level by hiring administrators and other staff as "faculty". Very shady. After three out of four unions at the college voted no confidence in the president, he finally "resigned" mid-semester and we now have an interim president. We do not know what happens next.

BlackberryJuniper and Sherbet said...

What an incredibly good letter. Very good to read you again.

fulmoonmajik said...

Unfortunately, having a full time faculty position at a small private HBCU is only marginally better. Yes, I have health insurance and am able to stay at one location; however, the low salary (despite the overcrowded classrooms) coupled with the student loans I now owe mean that I have had to take on part time work at another institution just to make ends meet. I am an assistant professor with a terminal degree and several publications to my credit.
I am not saying that my situation is worse or even the same as an adjunct's. I am saying that, overall, except for a select few at prestigious colleges, a career as a college professor is not the one to pursue if one is looking for money or appreciation from one's "superiors." Nationwide, our teachers and professors are overworked, underpaid, and undervalued.

Hystery said...

Thanks for your comment, Fulmoonmajik. Your add an important perspective that I think lots of folks don' realize.

My father is a full time professor at the college where I teach. He worked as an adjunct for many years before he was hired full time. In many ways his position is better than mine. He is paid far more to teach his classes than I am paid to teach mine. He has health insurance and retirement benefits. However, because the college hires far more adjuncts than full time faculty (In fact they hire no new full time faculty but only occasionally replace those who have died or retired), the full time faculty numbers are dwindling. Those who remain are forced to do more and more work to compensate for their low numbers. My dad is advising about twice as many students as his contract allows. He has been teaching 7 or 8 courses a semester because he is the only full time faculty member in our department and the rest of us are limited to 4 courses a semester. He ends up doing a great deal of work that is actually not in his job description because there is simply no one else who can do it. He works pretty much all the time putting in full days at the college and then bringing several hours of work home each night. All this barely keeps his head above water. There is certainly no time for research or writing. He used to love his job, but he is tired and increasingly demoralized by the situation. He's very sympathetic about my situation and I feel the same about his. We believe that all faculty, regardless of status, do better when we support each other.

Amanda said...

Looking forward to a lightening of days: Imbolc!