Caution, Your Professor Is Broken

From Fugitive Faculty:

While in recovery from last semester’s mania, I am gripped by the understanding that, to stay afloat, I will again have to teach six courses between two institutions next semester, and again I will likely end up no better than I started, just treading water. For the past couple of years I have taught 5-7 courses per semester as an adjunct professor at two colleges an hour’s commute apart. I’ve made it work, despite everyone telling me I was crazy, with one colleague adding, “If I had to teach seven classes, I’d shoot myself in the head.”

The truth is that every cell in my body is screaming, “Nooooo!” Despite what I want or need to do, I find that I am completely burned out with my various intro-level circus acts. Highly credentialed performers—that’s what we Higher Ed instructors are for the most part, pulling off piecemeal, low-wage acts all over town, sometimes across state lines, with no expectation of continued employment and zero benefits. I would like to cling to the higher ideals of education as a means to upward mobility or a rewarding career—for enlightenment’s sake?—but it’s just not the case. It’s getting harder and harder to convince myself that pointing out this contradiction to students is inappropriate or wrong. After all, adjuncts hold advanced degrees and don’t even clear minimum wage. Telling students the truth isn’t “politicizing the classroom” in a negative way.Instead, telling them the truth is my—is our—imperative. 

Yet, many students do not want to be in class in the first place. They are attending for the loan money or program rewards because there are so few jobs or opportunities available now beyond the military. So, there we all sit together, just scraping by building skills that our society doesn’t value while suckling on this anemic cash cow financed by an excessive debt bubble on the verge of bursting, with the majority of funds trickling quite obviously to the executive salaries of upper administrators at the top, not to mention the overall bloat of unnecessary expenditures with no connection to the classroom whatsoever, or the heartlessly exploitative and very lucrative textbook racket.

Interestingly enough, I was approached not too long ago by one of these upper administrators, who proposed that maybe adjunct faculty did not deserve to earn a living wage because numerous students passed our entry-level English composition courses and still could not read or write well. I retorted that we adjuncts are not the gatekeepers to the classroom. We do not set the standards on placement exams, and—although we would like to believe that everyone who passes high school is fairly literate—this is not the reality we face. 

Highly disposable contract professors get fired all the time without due process or recourse if we fail too many students. I, for one, have had administrators come into my classroom and try to convince me to pass students who hardly attended, texted and surfed the Web for entire class periods after arriving late, and didn’t complete assignments. I flat out told one waify admin that they could go ahead and try to intimidate me into passing the student in question by putting my job on the line, but that it would be doing a disservice to the student and the college. Still, she persisted with personal visits and emails until I just gave up trying to hold on to any semblance of integrity in our correspondence. Somehow the student’s papers were quickly created and delivered, and I still have no idea under what conditions this miracle occurred. 

At universities and colleges across the country, professors and their students are losing ground to the corporate agendas of rogue administrations. We have SWAT teams of “student services” ready to connect “customers” to emergency loans and other resources. At the same time, adjuncts teaching intro-level courses for poverty wages are expected to help at-risk students academically, but without the institutional support to do so effectively. Our policies and teaching materials are increasingly dictated from above, and the syllabus as a form of course outline has become more of a legal document for students wanting to appeal grades than an accurate depiction of learning objectives or progression of the course.

We adjuncts teaching intro-level and developmental courses are continually placed in positions of high responsibility with little authority over our classrooms, students, and our own working conditions. Still, every semester we are assigned new fleets of students facing severe hardship: people struggling to overcome violence and poverty, recover from addictions, to rebuild their lives after jail or prison, yet we are not trained as culture workers or missionaries; we are barely surviving ourselves and with massive student debt. There is seemingly nowhere for us to turn but against the forces that are competing to destroy the profession we spent so many years preparing to enter.