Low-wage professors battle "adjunctivitis"

From Aljazeera America:

In a narrow waiting room at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Melissa Degezelle shimmies a plastic bin holding the stranger’s placenta into her Thermos tote. A new mother has just delivered the bloody, membranous mass, and Degezelle, today a placenta cook, will prepare it for the woman’s consumption — to “help stave off postpartum depression,” she says.

Degezelle is a 5-foot-2-inch wisp of a woman with a nonchalant bearing and Amélie haircut. She’s a poet by training but a professional dabbler by necessity: a sometime doula, women’s health counselor, medical model, placenta preparer — and an adjunct professor. For three and a half hours the previous night, she submitted to a series of pelvic exams performed by nine would-be doctors at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. At least one “had never been near a vagina,” she recalls. Her pay: $30 per medical student, for a total of $270 that evening.

Back in South Philadelphia, Degezelle washes the fresh placenta before making it into a lemon-cured ceviche and putting it through a food dehydrator, like “beef jerky,” she says. Another placenta — this one steamed, dried and ground into sand-colored capsules — is already packed into a Chinese-food takeout container for a new mom in the Germantown neighborhood. Degezelle will charge $200 for pickup, processing and delivery.

This income is crucial, particularly over the summer, when her pay as an adjunct professor dwindles. Though Degezelle’s occupational pastiche is more idiosyncratic than most, she is very much an adjunct poster child. Like three-quarters of instructors in higher education, she has none of the benefits of traditional full-time employment or even a steady income, let alone tenure, though she was recently awarded a prize for “excellence in teaching and service.” She was lucky in the spring, landing two courses at Temple and three at Philadelphia University for about $3,600 each, and staffing a women’s health clinic and doing “placentas and vagina modeling” on the side. With all her jobs combined, Degezelle, a single mother, typically earns about $35,000 per year — too little to pay off her student loans or purchase health insurance. 

“Adjunct” derives from the Latin for “auxiliary,” but with part-time, contingent, nontenured faculty and graduate students constituting the majority of teachers in higher education, adjuncts are anything but marginal. Of the 1.8 million faculty members at two- and four-year colleges, only about 30 percent are on the tenure track, and 700,000 are part-time. A 2010 survey of 30,000 faculty found that part-timers earn a median wage ofjust $2,700 per course and that fewer than a quarter receive health insurance from their academic employers. Since the mid-1970s, colleges of all sizes and levels of prestige, public and private, have relied more and more on low-paid, nontraditional faculty: 76 percent of instructors are now non-tenured, up from 55 percent. Over the same period, these institutions haveincreased the ranks of their administrative staffs at a rate five times that of full-time professors.

All this has provoked a widespread rebellion among adjuncts and graduate-student instructors, the bottom rung of academia. Teachers at private and public colleges and universities are demanding recognition and winning unexpected pay hikes and job security. And at a time of major losses for organized labor, an array of unions — from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the United Auto Workers and the United Steelworkers — have vowed to transform adjunct and graduate-student working conditions for good.

Read the full story here.