Total B.S.: The Resurrection

whyprof
Careercast.com, joining the multitudes with an unnatural fixation on professor-bashing, has declared “University Professor” to be the least stressful career because of “high growth opportunities, low health risks and substantial pay.” High-level corporate executive jobs – yes, the ones that gobble up bonuses and sail away in golden parachutes, even when they lure both their companies and taxpayers into economic netherworlds  – were for some reason declared among the most stressful.

As with David C. Levy’s editorial claiming that faculty at my college are underworked and overpaid based on spurious information, the Careercast article is notable both for for its disconnection from reality and the Schadenfreude with which it is forwarded by people with much cushier careers. I love my job, and I’m not going to argue that it belongs on the Top 10 most-stressful-jobs list, but déjà vu moments are becoming more common than apocalypse predictions. Once again, the good writers have based their claims on faulty assumptions:

  1. Professors have high pay.  For support, Careercast cited the (yes, dizzying) compensation of faculty from Harvard, University of Chicago, and UCLA, ignoring the fact that most full time faculty at middle-tier institutions earn about half this amount and full time faculty at two year colleges earn about a third of this amount, even using the mysteriously inflated data in the study. My own institution, Montgomery College, only includes salaries of full time faculty and doesn’t list adjunct salaries, which are measly.
  2. Faculty jobs are multiplying. Careercast misleadingly declares, “To maintain the quality of education while meeting the increased demand, universities are expected to add 305,700 adjunct and tenure-track professorial positions by 2020.” The article briefly mentions that competition is fierce for full time faculty positions (at MC, we usually receive at least 100-150 applicants for every opening) and cites the “new emphasis” on adjunct positions. However, most of the growth in faculty hiring has been in low-paid adjunct positions, with a good proportion of full time hiring to replace retiring faculty who were hired during community colleges’ hiring heydays in the 1970s.
  3. The job has few physical risks. I don’t have any official statistics, but with the massive teaching loads at institutions below the top tier of colleges and universities, overuse injuries and stress-related illnesses (like migraines) are rampant among faculty teaching more than 100 students a term. I’m not talking whining about headaches, but instead injuries that have interfered with work and have needed ongoing medical attention. We’re not saving lives here, but my neck, wrist, and shoulders are never going to be normal again, and huge numbers of my colleagues say the same thing. (Also, if the wacky proposals to require guns in classrooms are successful, the lethality of the job could increase quickly.)

Careercast considered these other factors in calculating stress levels, although they didn’t provide scores for each category:

  • Travel. Most of my long-distance travel is nominally optional, but necessary to stay current in my field. My short-distance travel is almost always reasonable – but if you’d asked me when I was an adjunct driving 500+ miles a week to different campuses, you would get a much different answer.
  • Deadlines. As far as I can tell, our faculty lives are one big calendar of deadlines – for conference proposals, articles, reviews, committee work, collaborations, class preparation. Most notably, courseload directly determines the amount of deadline pressure to respond to student work. A professor who assigns 25 pages of writing during a semester to 125 students is going to grade more than 3000 pages of writing in a semester, not counting homework.
  • Working in the public eye. Even when the public eye is mostly closed – as for this latest article – our work is scrutinized. Public speaking is the #1 most common phobia, and when faculty step in front of a classroom, scrutinized by dozens of skeptical students and sometimes by their helicopter parents, it feels very, very public…witness the persistence of teaching nightmares.
  • Environmental conditions. Environmental risks vary by discipline, ranging from picking up illnesses students pick up from their children to dealing with toxic chemicals and toxic people.
  • Hazards encountered. We’re not exactly on the front lines, but considering that most of the mass shootings have involved students and colleges in some way and that we’re “first responders” for a variety of situations, I wouldn’t say our jobs are hazard free.
  • Own life at risk. Thankfully, our lives are usually not at risk, but occasionally domestic violence, gang violence, or mental instability can create some dangerous situations. These are handled confidentially so I don’t have statistics, but at my own college several threatening situations arise at campuses each semester.
  • Life of another at risk. When I worked in advertising, I can say with absolute confidence that nobody ever came to me afraid that she would be killed by a spouse or ex-spouse, that he or she was about to attempt suicide, that he had nothing to eat, that her parents had kicked her out, or that an addiction made him a danger to himself. Now that I am a professor, these situations come up several times a semester, and once in a while I’ve even probably had a small role in saving a handful of lives. That doesn’t even count the kinds of lifesaving that happens when the support of a faculty member helps a student escape a soul-killing future, which is what I consider to be a good-sized chunk of my job.
  • Meeting the public. What is it that Careercast thinks we do at the start of every semester?

As I said, I am certainly not arguing that my job is the most stressful, and in fact, because my work is so satisfying, the stress doesn’t seem to matter as much as it would in a job that was empty of social value. On the other hand, knowing that I am doing something important in a population whose last best hope is often education carries its own sort of stress, because every day I must weigh my own needs against the needs of others and balance all sorts of competing projects that represent competing values.

It is interesting to me that level of responsibility, amount of prioritizing necessary to get the job done, and public bias (few have knowledge of what we do, but everyone has an opinion about it) weren’t considered in the criteria, since they’re known stress factors, but I’m not a pollster, so whatever. As I tell my students, I am privileged to have the best job in the world. It’s just not the best job in the world for the reasons some people think.

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My Great Freeway-Flying Adjunct Apprenticeship Adventure

When I was an adjunct, I was always mightily annoyed when full time faculty fell into a piteous lament about the “plight” of part time faculty. It wasn’t just that these moments of disingenuous sympathy often occurred just after the full-timer in question had just bumped me from a class; more, it was the idea that my fellow freeway flyers and I were helpless victims of a system that neither we nor the tenure-track faculty could influence.

In some ways, of course, this assessment of the over-reliance on part time faculty in higher education is absolutely accurate. Part time faculty are underpaid, and hence they often overwork – often at several colleges, often long commutes apart – in order to pay the bills. Students, in something like at least half the classes at most institutions, end up with exhausted professors whose energy must be scattered among some more-than-reasonable number of classes. The faculty themselves, moreover, are expected to provide a quality education even though they do not have a permanent workspace, dedicated computers, or even, sometimes, a file cabinet for stashing their stuff. If these disadvantages were not enough, in many institutions the adjunct offices are housed in overcrowded Siberias relegated to the most distant edges of the campus, where they are conveniently removed from the life of their home departments.

In these Siberias, legend has it that adjuncts never get full time jobs, that they sometimes get full time jobs but never where they have worked as part time faculty, and that they sometimes get full time jobs, but only if they are anointed to these jobs within a certain number of years, which varies depending on whom one asks. When I started as an adjunct, it seemed to me that the dusty, grayish film that coats everything in these offices had penetrated deep into the morale of my colleagues, who were dedicated and skilled teachers staggering underneath a massive lead cape of injustice.

It is true that the numbers of part time faculty vastly eclipse the number of full time positions available, and that this situation will persist until public higher education receives adequate funding. It is also true, however, that nearly all the full time faculty everywhere I have ever worked – six different community colleges and a for-profit, but who’s counting? – were once part time faculty. If part time faculty never get full time positions, how can this be?

Before I got into teaching, I worked in the private sector, where, at least when I entered the workforce, there were two prevailing views: one, employees should get promoted for loyalty and seniority; or two, they should get promoted for doing superior work, regardless of seniority. Well, we all know how that dichotomy played out.

Before I worked in the private sector, I was a student, paying dearly (with the help of my parents) for the privilege of slaving over papers and scribbling notes in overpriced books. Why do we students pay for an education, even though we’re overworked and largely uncompensated? Because we’re not uncompensated. We’re getting an opportunity to learn things, and from people, we would otherwise not be able to access. A degree itself has no particular value; as I’ve occasionally quipped to whiny students, “If you don’t want to learn, just make a diploma in Photoshop.” It is the ability to apply and synthesize an education that makes it valuable.

I have written in a different blog entry about the incredible mentorship I received from full time faculty during my adjunct years. I was amazingly fortunate to work with colleagues who were so generous with their support. At the same time, though, I was the consummate freeway flyer, routinely zipping to three campuses and teaching five or six classes in a day, sometimes covering 200 miles from the time I left in the morning until the time I returned at night. I kept a file box behind my front seat, since I usually didn’t have file space; at one campus, I held office hours in the copy room because I didn’t have an office or a desk. It was only when I became full time that I realized how much time had been usurped as I sorted and moved files from campus to campus. Several times I had classes taken away at the last minute. More often, I accepted more classes than I could handle because I was afraid that if I said no I would never be hired again at that college. In a given year, I worked 166% of a full time load to make less money than a full-timer.

But I still refused to call it “plight.” In colonial times, fourteen year-old boys signed up for seven-year stints with master craftsmen, their only compensation the skill they would take with them when they completed their apprenticeships. Early child labor laws limited workdays to twelve hours, at least on paper, the implication being that the actual work hours were probably longer.

I found it helpful for both my professional growth and my morale to think of adjunct teaching in similar terms: apprenticeship, not servitude. As in college and graduate school, I was paying to gain knowledge, experience, professional development, and familiarity with the discipline. I could use the time passively, teaching my classes and then going home; or I could use my scattered existence as a pretext for learning how different colleges solved common problems. Teachers constantly talk about “stealing” ideas from colleagues. How amazing that I could steal from colleagues at six different campuses! I might have limited opportunities at any given college, but by doing so, I was able to piece together a fairly rich professional existence.

It is the time of year when a lucky few are notified that they have crossed the threshold into full time employment, while the much greater numbers of the not-as-lucky sink into a seasonal rite of discouragement. This discouragement motivated me, finally, to broaden my search to out of state colleges. In the private sector, was a given that just doing my job well was not enough. In the summer months, when disappointment flowed and work opportunities ebbed, I found it helpful to remember how much I was learning from my itinerant existence; and to remind myself that by learning a little bit more, my chances would improve in the next hiring season.

Many of the benefits of my approach weren’t evident until I started working full time and using what I’d learned. Because there are many aspects of contingent employment that are truly exploitative, I can understand why some of my colleagues might find my attitude controversial. I can say, however, that (to paraphrase Simon & Garfunkel) I’d rather be a hammer than a nail…or, in other words, that my apprenticeship had far more dignity than my plight.

The Other Side of the Fence

As I cleaned my office in preparation for the start of the semester, a small yellow slip of paper somehow rose to the surface: a parking permit request form from Highline Community College in Des Moines, Washington, where I spent my first and last quarters as an adjunct. The paper bears my old zip code and the license number of a 1991 Civic hatch that most likely no longer runs.I will leave for another blog entry the story of how I came to leave the Civic in one Washington when I flew off to the other one, but finding an artifact of my adjunct days seemed especially fortuitous this week.

It has been sort of a big week for me. About ten days ago, a wonderful teacher and colleague announced that he would be resigning to follow his wife to the Pacific Northwest. He was the coordinator for our transfer composition and literature courses, which involved mentoring and overseeing nearly thirty adjunct faculty members, conducting assessments of our learning outcomes, reviewing course descriptions and requirements, and working with department chairs and coordinators on our college’s other two campuses.

Those duties have now fallen to me. Nearly ten years have passed since the first day I strode to the front of a classroom, saw a row of faces aimed in my direction, and thought, “Wow, they’re looking at me like they think I’m a real teacher. I guess I’d better teach.”

Similarly, when I went to yesterday’s beginning-of-the-semester adjunct orientation meetings, my part-time colleagues looked at me like I was a real coordinator. Just as I discovered by acting like a real teacher that I could become one, I somehow found myself – despite self-doubt, nerves, hesitation to advise faculty who had been teaching far longer than I have, ambivalence about thinking of myself in a leadership role – unexpectedly transformed from the neophyte who asked all the questions into a professional tasked with answering them.

I realized something amazing this week: To my surprise, I can do the job.

I fielded questions. I commented on syllabi and assignments, offered sample handouts my colleague had left on a disk, suggested approaches that had worked for me, and reassured newcomers. I even said “No” a few times, and nobody seemed to hate me afterwards. I navigated personalities, facilitated discussions, and led a workshop. People treated me like someone who knew what she was doing. It was a little weird.

If I can do the job, though, it’s because of what I have stolen from or have been given by others. When I advocated for stipends for part time faculty who facilitate workshops or serve on committees, I thought of a colleague at Green River Community College who assigned adjuncts to leadership positions for short-term assessment projects and refused to let us work without pay, and I remembered the department chairs at South Seattle Community College who picketed on behalf of adjuncts while I scurried to the parking lot to drive to my next teaching gig.

When a part-timer asked me for help applying for full time positions, I thought of the former department chair who fired interview questions at me, critiqued my responses, and gave me tips on my teaching demo; the coordinator who advised me to learn to teach developmental English and initiate visible projects; and the brilliant tenured instructor who took at least two hours out of her winter break to scrutinize my CV and cover letter. The job search advice I give is their advice.

I think of my fellow “freeway flyers” in our various part-time faculty offices who took hours out of their breakneck schedules to talk through assignments, advise me on classroom management, and let me plunder their best ideas. I think about my first dean, whose response to most of my teaching questions was, “Well, what have you thought about doing?” and an electronics instructor who was my unofficial mentor through the bruising first years of learning to teach. I think of my current department chair, who has tirelessly answered my questions, gracefully negotiated department and college politics, and encouraged me to grow as a professional.

And I thought of the kind words of a colleague who was then a stranger, a compliment that sustained me when I was ready to give up my full-time job search. At the time, I had no idea that a year after I signed that part-time permit request, I would be living on the opposite coast and starting my first semester as a full time faculty member.

This morning, having survived my first week as coordinator, I pinned the slip of paper on my bulletin board to remind me of the generosity of many, many others. I have no way to thank them – except, perhaps, to do my job as they would do it.