Original: PBS NewsHour
It was a nice spring day in 1999 — my second semester of teaching. I was walking past a campus tour group and saw one of my students leading it. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect: as I was passing them, a parent asked if all university faculty were full time. “Yes,” my student said. I was taken aback, because I’d told my classes about being adjunct, as well as a bit about what “adjunct” meant and how many of us there were in the English department alone teaching freshman writing.
The next day, I pulled him aside after class and asked him about it. “I’m not mad at you; I’m just curious: Your class knows I’m a graduate student, not a full-time professor with tenure. I don’t even have my doctorate yet. Why did you tell that parent all university faculty were full time?”
“That’s what the university wants us to say to parents,” he replied.
This is one of many moments in my career I’d like to revisit with the knowledge and dedication to activism I have now. Granted, things have improved a bit since then: another former student told me in 2013 that tour guides tell parents the school employs a variety of professors, and that some of them teach at other schools. This is slightly better, but still not ideal at a school whose tuition is among the highest in the country — yet whose senior administrators receive CEO-level compensation.
I’d love to visit as many colleges as possible during spring tours and back-to-school move-in time. Fifteen years of adjuncting — six as a Ph.D. student, nine as a scholar and hopeful jobseeker — has given me a lot of rich, sometimes troubling experiences that I’d want to share with parents and students. I wish, for example, a parent was with me that time I was in the elevator with my department chair, who quasi-complained about having to teach one class in a semester when I had four first-year writing courses across two schools. (To be clear: I’m not questioning how much work and how many demands chairs have. I’m questioning the myopia of this person’s comment.) “I guess I shouldn’t complain about this to you,” the chair said. “Yes, but it’s fine,” I said. “I manage, and I’m gaining good experience.”
Had some parents been with me, I could’ve added this: “Maybe you can explain to them why the university thinks it’s good to give students — especially freshmen — a string of part-time professors who may be teaching at other schools to make ends meet. Can you or one of the provosts meet with their children while I’m teaching somewhere else to approach a livable wage?” At the time, I was playing nice because I’d hoped (naively) that I could move up the ranks in the department to a full-time position. Perhaps I should’ve damned the torpedoes and just spoken my mind. Playing nice rarely helps adjuncts move up at any school.
We are all a part of higher education’s culture of contingency, regardless of whether we’re students, parents, staff members, graduate TAs, administrators, professors, former academics, and so on. The precarious working conditions on American college campuses mean that adjunct and other non–tenure track faculty must often choose between their desire to teach and their desire to deal with the financial realities of what is, fundamentally, full-time part-timing. In such cases, students suffer when their adjunct professors have to curtail office hours, spend more time traveling between campuses than preparing lectures, grade and comment on writing assignments when they have 70-80 (or more) additional students across several campuses, and otherwise splinter their time and attention.
If you’ll indulge me, parents, I’d like to assign some tasks to any of you both interested in learning more about your children’s schools and willing to help change American higher education. (After 15 years of teaching, I apparently can’t resist assigning homework.) Ultimately, you have every right to know exactly where your tuition dollars are going, how university administrations and policies are harming your children’s learning conditions, and how your children’s teachers are not always treated professionally and equitably.
Want to be more active and engaged in helping improve your children’s college experiences? Think your voice needs to be heard? Here are some simple yet effective ways to get started:
- Help my fellow advocates and me petition David Weil, the administrator of the Wage and Hour Division at the U.S. Department of Labor, to investigate higher education. (I wrote more about our petition in this previous Making Sen$e post.) We hope to reach 10,000 signatures by Labor Day.
- Read (and then share) these recent pieces by John Warner and Mary Grace Gainer about what you should know and you can do.
- Encourage your children to know more about the contingency of their adjunct professors, as well as how that status affects their learning environment. Remind them that financial necessity leads many of their professors to teach at other schools, and perhaps do extra tutoring and editing on the side to make ends meet.
- Ask your children to contact the university newspaper about writing stories or op-eds about their adjunct professors. (If they need a model, have them read this nice piece from a freshman at my former school.)
- When your school is trumpeting the new facilities (but perhaps not telling you about those for their leaders), the newly hired star professors (who probably won’t teach undergrads), and view campus “business” as that of a luxury cruise (huh?), ask instead about the working conditions and job stability of their non-tenure track faculty — i.e., the likely majority of professors your children will have. (You’ll get some sample questions in a second.)
- Follow the advice from other professors (see below) about what you need to know, what you can do, and how you can do it. Learn more about these and other writer-activists dedicated to improving American higher education. Share their work with other concerned, tuition-paying parents whose children might be facing record levels of student debt after they graduate.
The next time you’re on campus, you can ask someone in charge — dean, provost, admissions director, and so on — questions like these:
- What percentage of your faculty are adjuncts? Approximately how many of your faculty have to teach at other schools?
- How much do you pay adjuncts per course? How do adjuncts’ salaries compare to those of full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty?
- How many, if any, tenured professors teach first-year students?
- What are the salaries of the school’s upper-level administrators, and how many (if any) courses will they teach this year?
- How is there funding to install posh new facilities or pay star professors who probably won’t teach my freshman, yet not enough to pay the majority of our children’s professors a living wage or give them meaningful full-time positions?
You can also ask campus tour guides these questions, but remember most of them are undergraduate students making a little extra money; they’re not the ones remaking higher education in a corporate, almost anti-intellectual image. If anything, they’re victims of the new college campus, not the creators of it.
Even if you’re not visiting campus, you can call or email the school. You might get the truth. You might not. You might get some spin or adminspeak about “valuing all faculty equally,” “financial realities,” and “some faculty teaching at multiple schools.” If you contact your schools, take notes about whom you’re speaking with, what he or she says, and so on. Then, let me know what happens, so I can write a follow-up piece. When more of you start asking these kinds of questions, university administrations will realize that their actions to undermine higher education are not going unnoticed.
I’m far from the only person eager to talk with you. I asked my professional network what they’d most like to say to parents. I got some smart, wonderful responses:
Natalie Dorfeld: I’d ask them how they would feel if they knew some of their children’s professors were on food stamps.
Brianne Bolin: I’d tell them that at my school, 78 percent of classes are taught by adjuncts who get 8 percent of the extortionist tuition that they’re shelling over. I’d also ask them if they were more concerned with an education or a piece of paper.
Debra Leigh Scott: Don’t blindly send your children to college without informing yourself about the corporatized university of 2014. Don’t apply to colleges without getting the real numbers of adjuncts who will be teaching your children. Know that the universities lie about this. Look at the adjunct-run lists, and get the numbers and the details from somewhere other than the universities themselves.
Desirée Sunshine: Don’t go into debt. If you can’t pay as you go, it’s not worth it.
Gordon Haber: Parents should lock their kids in the basement rather than let them attend for-profit colleges.
Miranda Merklein: Do not send your kids to schools with a pattern of low-wage contract labor, budget cuts to faculty (reduction in costs to instruction), and tuition increases. That pattern demonstrates a lack of concern for education.
Amy Lynch-Biniek: Ask about labor conditions; insist that working conditions equal learning conditions.
Seth Kahn: Make the effort to understand contingency. Know the differences among different kinds of academic jobs. Senior administrators (president, provosts, chancellors and deans) and faculty are very different; there are ranks of faculty even within tenure track, and those titles mean some concrete things.
Melissa Bruninga-Matteau: Absolutely know the ratio of tenure-track faculty to adjuncts, and ask what percentage of classes are taught by non–tenure track faculty, including if there are any grad students teaching classes.
Amy Leggette: Discuss the purpose and expectations of higher ed: i.e., is it job preparation? An “experience”? Or something else?
“Parents need to know they are getting state-of-the-art stair machines instead of well-compensated professors.”
Professor Never had even more to say: As a parent of a rising high school senior, I have found touring colleges with my son a sort of revolting experience. I wasn’t the rebel I’d planned to be on the tours as I found the all-smiles-come-to-our-college/resort atmosphere sickening and oddly oppressive. While I was disappointed in myself for not doing a better job of educating the other parents on the tours with me, I take every opportunity I can to educate all the other parents I know who have kids of similar age about how universities are spending their money. Parents need to know they are getting state-of-the-art stair machines instead of well-compensated professors. They need to know they’re getting luxury dorms instead of professors who have office space and health care. They need to know most universities care more for attracting students than they do about educating them.
Touring colleges should be a lot of things, but “a revolting experience” should never be one of them. (Ever.) These pieces of advice are the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Remember, this comes only from people in my social network. Surely, the tens of thousands of non–tenure track faculty across the country would have more to say. The more you encourage your children and fellow parents to follow your lead in asking tough questions, the more American higher education can change.
Parents: college students and faculty need you on their side if higher education is going to change. Know where your tuition dollars are going. Know more about how the “budget shortfalls” at your children’s schools affect their learning but not senior administrators’ bloated salaries. Know also how many of these administrators are making efforts to further erode professors’ job stability and academic freedom through restrictive social media policies, rejections of tenure cases, and controversial decisions to rescind job offers. Ask the questions your children’s schools may not want to hear.
You can help, parents. A lot. College semesters are starting up again. You might be on campus to help your son or daughter move in, or you might be figuring out how tuition payments are affecting your yearly budget. Either way, you can help fix higher education by following the above advice, asking questions, and otherwise taking an active role in understanding the truth about your children’s education. Students and faculty are on your side; they want you on theirs.