Service Employees International Union released a report Friday detailing the financial struggles of adjunct faculty at institutions across Boston, as part of its ongoing effort to unionize adjuncts in that city. The campaign is part of a national SEIU effort, called Adjunct Action, to organize adjunct faculty at individual institutions and regionally.
According to the report, called "High Cost of Adjunct Living: Boston," 67 percent of faculty members -- some 15,000 people -- in the Boston area were employed as adjuncts in 2011. Based on median pay per course in New England -- from $3,750 at private, master's-level institutions to $5,225, at private, doctoral-level institutions -- SEIU finds that an adjunct would have to teach 17 to 24 courses annually to enjoy median-priced housing and utilities in Boston, where the cost of living is 32 percent higher than the national average. Teaching 12 courses per year at those rates -- an unusually large course load -- an adjunct may earn $45,000, the report finds. Comparatively, full-time faculty earned from $113,000 to $154,000, on average, in 2011, depending on institution type.
The report is based on data from the U.S. Department of Education Digest of Education Statistics, among other sources, as well as SEIU interviews with adjuncts across Boston. Some tell of living off inexpensive food such as fried potatoes and onions for an entire semester and using credit cards to pay for basic costs, such as Internet and groceries. Many tell of feeling buried by student debt. According to SEIU calculations, an adjunct would have to teach one or two courses per semester to pay back average doctoral student loans alone. SEIU notes that adjuncts who are unionized enjoy on average 25 percent better pay nationally, as well as other benefits, such as increased job security, and, in some cases, access to health insurance.
Many aspiring faculty members complain that search committees ask for lots of information they will never use (or even look at), with vague explanations of what to send. Rebecca Schuman, an adjunct at the University of Missouri at St. Louis and a blogger who writes frequently about job issues in academe, has proposed an unusual way to take a stand about such requests. On her blog, she has announced a contest in which she will pay $100 each to the first two people who send a photo of their butt to a search committee (mixed in with the other materials -- to raise the question of whether anyone would find it). Schuman is requiring that contestants provide her with proof, and that they apply for a job in their discipline for which they have the basic requirements. She also has offered to up the payout to $200 for applications to Ivy League search committees.
Via email, Schuman said that several people have indicated that they will send tush-shots to search committees, but so far no one has provided proof.
A group of Northeastern University students stormed the library quad in a flash mob performance of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” Thursday, in support of the university’s adjuncts’ union drive. About a dozen Empower Adjuncts Student Coalition members broke out in dance and song, changing the lyrics of Jackson’s creepy classic to reflect their cause. Here’s the first verse: “It's after midterms, and we're all gasping sighs of relief/But across campus, injustice has its claws sunk in deep/They're everywhere: teachers without proper compensation/Poverty wages, no offices or job security -- and we don't agree.” And the chorus? “It's time for adjunct, adjunct rights/We're building up momentum, the fuse is set alight/We've got to stand up, fight the fight/Let's organize together to make things better, better tonight.”
Similar events took place throughout the week at campuses nationwide, as part of the United Students Against Sweatshops’ “Hallo-Week of Action” against what it calls low-wage worker “exploitation” in higher education, and Campus Equity Week, a national, adjunct-driven campaign to raise awareness of their working conditions.
But Northeastern students said they were protesting in particular the university’s recent hiring of Jackson, Lewis, a New York-based law firm specializing in “labor and preventive practices,” among other areas, according to its website, as outside counsel for a union drive there. Sophomore Troy Neves said the student group hoped to encourage university administrators to “remain neutral” as adjuncts attempt to organize under the Service Employees International Union. Tufts University adjuncts recently voted to unionize with SEIU, which seeks to organize adjuncts across Boston, but Bentley University adjuncts recently voted down a union effort there.
Mike Armini, a Northeastern spokesman, said the university had met with concerned students recently, telling them the firm had been hired to help the university “navigate” the intricacies of labor law related to the union drive. He referred questions about the university’s position on the drive to a letter to part-time faculty from Stephen Director, the provost. “Ultimately, the decision about whether to support SEIU or not is yours,” the letter reads. “We do want to emphasize that the issue of union representation is of critical importance to every faculty member, including you, as well as to the university as a whole. Therefore, we urge you not to remain uninvolved. However you may feel about this issue, please make your voice count.”
“Now bear with me, Gentlemen, if what I am about to say has at first sight a fanciful appearance.” --John Henry Cardinal Newman, from “The Idea of a University”
Imagine your job is to help students get into college, and one of the students you’re advising says to you, “It has always been my dream to study philosophy at Harvard.”
Let’s say that this student is graduating from a private prep school and you know that money will not be a major worry for her either during or after the college years. She has a deep hunger for knowledge, connections who can help her figure out a career path after graduation, and a family safety net that will catch her if she slips. How would you respond?
Now let’s say that, instead of graduating from an elite high school, this student is graduating from a local ESOL program, where she has been a student in night classes for the past three years, working her way up from near illiteracy to a decent command of spoken and written English. Let’s say that she came to the U.S. alone as a refugee from a war-torn part of the world, and she worked with an employment counselor upon arrival to land a job in the fast-food industry before her tiny assistance allowance from the government ran out.
Let’s say her counselor also helped her to find a room in a small apartment in a cheap part of town that she shares with two women she’d never met before she moved in. Let’s say she works nearly full-time on an irregular schedule and sends money back to family members in her home country, hoping that her husband and young child will soon be able to join her in the U.S. She, too, has a deep hunger for knowledge.
How do you respond now?
Or let’s say that your prep-school student comes to you and says she wants to enroll in a patient care technician certificate program at a nearby community college. What do you say? How about if your ESOL student says the same thing?
If studying philosophy at Harvard seems like an extreme example, what if we changed it to studying international relations at a state university? Or what if both students wanted to start out studying history at a community college, with dreams of law school down the line? Would you encourage one and not the other? How different should advising be for different populations of students?
This is the question I struggle with every day, the dilemma that makes my head ache with an ethical clench. The idealist in me wants so badly to say that the students I advise – adult students in ESOL classes and alternative high school programs – deserve to be taken seriously when they express the same dreams and desires as those in more privileged positions, that they should be challenged to consider educational programs that may not, on the surface, seem to be appropriate for their life circumstances.
After all, I got into the education game because I believe it to be a great equalizer – it opens up opportunities of all kinds, and everyone gets a place at the table where the ideas that shape the world are being discussed, debated, and refined. If we start selecting who gets to sit at that table, however well-intentioned we may be in doing so, what are we really doing? And what are the consequences?
I understand why, within the adult basic education world in which I operate, advisers, administrators, instructors, our national and state governments, even the students themselves tend to consider only those educational pathways that offer near-immediate payoffs: job-training programs; short certificate programs at public colleges; anything that bears the label “work force development,” the pragmatic antithesis to a highfalutin “liberal arts education.”
Older students, students with children, students with jobs, students with bills, commuting students, students who have already spent years sacrificing to acquire language skills and high school credentials … none of them have time or money to waste, so they need to know that an investment of their time and money will yield a very concrete, very quick return.
They need to earn above the minimum wage, and since college is really the only way to reach that end these days, we help them get to college. Or at least, we help them get to those colleges and those programs that serve specific vocational goals. Get ‘em in, get ‘em out, get ‘em to work. We score one for the completion agenda, and we’ve done our jobs.
But have we? Or are we diminishing the students we claim to care about as well as the concept of higher education itself?
This is a source of internal tension for me, because I’m sold on John Henry Newman’s idea of the university as the place where the primacy of a liberal education is upheld, over and above technical training.
He does not deny, and I do not deny, that a college education can (and probably even should) result in a good career. What he does deny, and what I also deny, is that this should be the only and principal result, for, as he argues, “education is a higher word; it implies an action upon our mental nature, and the formation of a character; it is something individual and permanent” which is truly useful, not “in any low, mechanical, mercantile sense, but as diffusing good, or as a blessing, or a gift, or power, or a treasure, first to the owner, then through him to the world.”
Education, if done right, confers a treasure – first to the student, then to the world.
Newman likens this educational treasure to physical health. No one would dispute that maintaining physical health is a good unto itself, which may even be worth a sacrifice of time and money. We can easily identify the innumerable things we are able to do when our bodies are healthy, even though we cannot pinpoint an exact, specific use of good health. So, too, with a liberal education. Its practicality lies in the infinite unpredictable ways in which it will enhance all of our endeavors. “A cultivated intellect, because it is a good in itself,” writes Newman, “brings with it a power and a grace to every work and occupation which it undertakes, and enables us to be more useful, and to a greater number.”
I’m hooked on this kind of higher, deeper, broader understanding of education that cannot, cannot be an elitist model, for it’s this type of education that yields a stronger, more useful citizenry. Engineers, paralegals, lab technicians, phlebotomists, all need to be considering and questioning their roles, as professionals and human beings. We all need to understand systems and question authorities. We all need to critically consider our world. The opportunity to do just that is what a college education should provide. To learn, to listen, to reason, to speak, to contribute and be heard. To flatten social hierarchies, to gain and to give social capital. To be equal. To develop marketable job skills in tandem – sure, absolutely – but not at the expense of the greater good to be gained.
I do not want to decide, and I do not want superficial circumstances to decide, which students can pursue a quality liberal arts education and which ones are shunted toward job-training programs. If the immigrants, high school dropouts, refugees, older students, single parents, ex-offenders, and full-time workers who come to see me wish to enroll in college, I want to encourage them to consider programs that go beyond pure skills instruction. They need to be at the table where the big, meta concepts are laid out for ingestion, or we risk filling these positions of power exclusively with people of privilege. We risk losing nontraditional students’ input and perspective within entire branches of knowledge, within countless spheres of influence.
I will admit, though, that I have a hard time advising adult students from this viewpoint when what they need in the short term is preparation for a job that pays the grocery bill. It is awfully hard to say, “Study philosophy!” when they’re desperate for relief from the burden of poverty.
Knowledge may be power, but a paycheck is survival.
I get it, I really do. But I sure do hate it.
Shawn E. Fisher is a pre-college adviser with JVS in Boston.
The cuts continue in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. East Stroudsburg State University has announced that it is eliminating 15 tenured and tenure-track positions, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. The university also plans to close its movement studies and lifetime fitness department and to place a moratorium on bachelor's degrees in music and in French.
If you’re an adjunct, I have a small but important task for you:
Ask your students what "adjunct professor" means to them. You might hear something like, It means you don’t have a Ph.D., or You don’t have tenure yet. (Yet ... if only.) Don’t be bitter or cynical, and don’t barrage them with statistics, stories of unfair working conditions, and vitriol against "the administration." Try to be as calm and diplomatic as you can, and simply listen. Some might understand and empathize, or some may simply brush it off. If you’re a multi-campus adjunct (or "road scholar," as we’re sometimes called), students may understand that their class and campus aren’t the only things demanding your attention. Carve out some time in class, and ask your students what "adjunct" can or does mean. Maybe they’ll like the break from talking about another scarlet A or going over their next writing assignment.
Better yet, ask your students regardless of whether you’re adjunct, tenure track, or tenured. Part- and full-time faculty, regardless of discipline, need to be collaborating -- both as part of this conversation and more broadly across our disciplines and campuses
Whenever I’ve asked my students what "adjunct professor" means, I’ve told them about some of the differences between being on and off the tenure track, how pay can differ, how we don’t get paid as much as other professors or administrators, and so on. Thanks to some Modern Language Association networking I did with New Faculty Majority, I was part of a "PBS NewsHour" story in March, and I mentioned it to a few students in case they wanted to watch. I had hoped the piece would be substantive and lead to others focused exclusively on adjunct labor -- and thus reach students’ parents -- but it wasn’t and it didn’t.
I’m ultimately trying to raise questions and spark discussions -- debates, even -- about how and why to talk about labor conditions with students. I’m not intending to provide a script or list of directives, short of saying that by no means should “Job Information List” or “search committee” be said in the classroom. Our students have a right to know that all professors aren’t treated and promoted equally -- and, more importantly, that this affects how we educate them. Anecdotally, I’ve had to limit my accessibility, office hours, and even designs for more ambitious courses in the past when I’ve taught at two campuses and had 70-80 students. This semester, for the first time since 2006, I’m only on one campus and have 26 students. I have a lot more time and energy for important teaching tasks: slowing down when I grade to write fuller, more meaningful comments; spending more time and energy to design new assignments and "know" my students more fully; and, simply enjoying more time to grade, prep, and meet with students.
Having been an adjunct for 14 years and counting -- the first six while finishing my doctorate, the last eight as job seeker and teacher-scholar -- I find myself thinking a lot about how to involve students in discussions of academic working conditions. Regardless of how we raise the adjunct question in our classes, we need to do so constructively, meaningfully, and diplomatically, and without simply airing grievances or ranting against "the administration." Tone is key. My program director once described me as calm and articulate -- which is typically how I discuss such professional matters in the department or online. There are private Facebook groups (e.g., Con Job), direct Twitter messages, and hallway conversations for the vitriol and the ranting -- which, believe me, is therapeutic.
By the same token, I’ve also been thinking about how to reach students’ parents in equally meaningful and constructive ways. I’d never advocate direct-emailing them or aggressively interrupting freshman orientation, but perhaps our conversations with students will trickle down to their parents. Or, perhaps we might find ways to talk with parents at orientations and move-in weekends. They, too, have a right to know that some of their children’s professors have limited availability, minimal financial support, and overbooked schedules across campuses.
Particularly with universities that (claim to) value the first-year student experience, new students and their parents should be aware that the professor of their intro-level course may work multiple jobs -- teaching or otherwise -- while acquainting students with college-level learning, or that s/he doesn’t have a TA to handle some grading. Parents might need reminding that most adjuncts don’t have other full-time jobs and simply teach "on the side" or "in the evenings." For some of us, teaching and working in several part-time positions is our full-time job.
It's crucial that we ask these questions and talk with our students. In my case, the adjunct question has come up in a few different ways with my students. Last fall, one student was a little impatient (albeit well-intentioned) about my replying to an email she sent asking about feedback on a paper idea, so she sent me one of those, "Did you get my last email?" messages. I replied that I’d seen the first one and planned to respond soon -- while reminding her that she was one of about 75 students I had that semester across four courses and two campuses. In a few other instances, students’ schedules have conflicted with my office hours, and I’ve sometimes had to teach on another campus when students requested to meet. We work it out, often with a little finessing of the schedule, but I seize the chance to tell them why I’m not around as much as they or I might like.
I posed the adjunct question to an honors-level Shakespeare course last fall, and it led to a short discussion of some differences in faculty rank and course assignments. Most recently, I asked a student (also a campus tour guide) what the university told her to say to prospective students and their parents about different faculty ranks and working conditions. They do acknowledge that the university has different levels of faculty, and that several professors are part-time and teach at other local universities. (About 13 years ago, another student-tour guide told me he was instructed to say that all university faculty were full-time, even though he knew I was an adjunct without a Ph.D. yet. At least some things have improved.) At this point, though, simply acknowledging that there are different faculty levels at the university -- while still knowingly maintaining an uneven playing field -- is problematic at best, and unconscionable at worst. Don’t just tell students you have different faculty ranks; help the part-timers earn more and move up those ranks.
Clearly, some things can’t be changed by one conversation with students. Tenure-track positions aren’t going to multiply overnight, department chairs and deans aren’t going to automatically promote adjuncts, and students aren’t going to march on the university president’s office. Although there won’t be immediate big-picture effects of such a conversation, we should still have it with our students. Ask them and see where the conversation leads.
I now have another small task for you: Start talking about how we can -- indeed, should -- involve our students in discussions of academic labor. Share and tweet this piece. Comment, answer, even disagree. Remember that there are different kinds of action: from simply reading and sharing this piece, to talking with your students, to figuring out what has and hasn’t worked well. And maybe see how and when you can reach a student’s parents.
Clearly, these conversations are fluid and ongoing. Your job -- our job -- is to take them off the page or screen and into our social media feeds, department meetings, and, perhaps more pressingly, classrooms.
This article is adapted with permission from one part of a series in Hybrid Pedagogy on contingent faculty members. Joseph Fruscione teaches first-year writing at George Washington University; he also works as a freelance tutor and editor. He has taught American literature, adaptation studies, and first-year writing at the university level since 1999.
In today’s Academic Minute, Douglas Kenrick of Arizona State University explains why irrational behavior can appear rational when viewed from an evolutionary perspective. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.
Lou Reed, who died on Sunday, was by any measure one of the most influential rock performers of his time, particularly for his work with the Velvet Underground during the mid- and late 1960s. VU never received much radio play in its day, but re-formed briefly in the early 1990s, playing its greatest non-hits to appreciative audiences throughout Europe.
By then they were part of political as well as musical history. The Velvet Revolution in what was then Czechoslovakia took its name from the band, which had developed a dedicated following among dissidents during the years of Soviet domination. You will not find anything even vaguely resembling a political comment in any of VU’s songs, but it is still easy to understand why the authorities were unhappy about the bootleg tapes of the band that circulated. Some of the melodies were gentle and even lovely, but just as many songs had shrieking blasts of feedback and ominous drones, and you could tell from the recordings that the band itself was very, very loud.
Furthermore, Lou Reed’s lyrics were quite unwholesome, like a Baudelaire sonnet. Some of them were inspired by figures in Andy Warhol’s entourage, with its abundance of drag queens, socialites gone to seed, and people who had turned their lives into one continuous piece of performance art, usually of chemical inspiration. For a while the Velvets were the house band at Warhol’s studio, which was called the Factory. Imagine some Czech bureaucrat -- one eye ever turned, nervously, to Moscow – fuming over that last bit: How dare anyone associate such socially undesirable elements and their hedonistic decadence with anything as glorious and inspiring as a factory!
It must be a fairly common ritual among fans following the news of a musician’s passing: upon hearing that Reed had died, I piled up a selection of CDs next to the stereo and have been listening to them, on and off, ever since. A friend asked me to recommend something by Reed he could listen to while working. Without hesitation I suggested the Velvet Underground live album “1969,” in which once-abrasive songs are rendered in a much smoother but no less energetic manner.
He probably downloaded it, as you do now. The process of finding and assimilating music has changed so radically in recent years that it is unwise to assume that very many readers will now share my experience -- 30 years ago -- of hearing about the Velvets long before hearing their music was even an option.
This was not just a delay but a detour – a matter of reading whatever was available about the group and trying to hear, in the mind’s ear, what they might sound like, based on descriptions of the music. The detour was also literary; the scraps of available information suggested that Reed was interested in certain authors. The VU song “Venus in Furs” takes both subject and title from a work by Sacher-Masoch, for example, while one called “Heroin” almost inevitably inspired references to William S. Burroughs. Reed’s one top-40 hit, “A Walk on the Wild Side,” was named after a Nelson Algren novel. (You’d hear it on the radio every so often without thinking of it as anything more than a jazzy pop tune with a catchy hook -- until the day when you actually paid attention to the lyrics and couldn’t believe the song got on the air.)
Encountering Reed became a drawn-out process of aesthetic education. He served as the guide to a whole counter-canon of the dark sublime. I say that in the past tense but imagine, and hope, that it is still the case -- that “Sister Ray” or “The Blue Mask” will challenge and change the listener’s sense of what counts as music or as a source of pleasure or meaning.
Fifty years ago, Lou Reed himself was a senior at Syracuse University, where he studied with the poet Delmore Schwartz. Reed was 21 – roughly the same age Schwartz had been when he wrote the short story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” In it, the narrator revisits the scene of his parents’ courtship in 1909 as if seeing it in a film of the era.
Simply told and strangely beautiful, it is both haunting and haunted. By its close, any hint of sentimentality dissolves in a moment of painful self-awareness. Its appearance in 1937 in the revived Partisan Review was the stuff of legends. The poetry and criticism Schwartz published after that were more than promising, and he won the Bollingen Prize in 1959 (five years after Auden had received it) for a volume of his selected poems.
Beginning in 1962, Schwartz held an appointment in the English department at Syracuse, despite having become, at some point over the previous decade or so, manifestly insane. The distinction between bohemianism and madness is sometimes a matter of context. With Schwartz the case for nuance was long since past. He had fallen into the habit of threatening friends and ex-wives with litigation for their parts in a conspiracy against him, led by the Rockefellers. While living in Greenwich Village he had smashed all the windows in his rented room and been taken to Bellevue in restraints. He died alone in New York City in 1966.
The following year, Reed dedicated a song on the first Velvet Underground album to Schwartz, and in another song from the early 1980s he imagined being able to communicate with the poet via Ouija board. Last year Reed published a tribute to him that has also appeared as the preface to In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, an edition of Schwartz’s selected short fiction.
Reed’s biographers will have plenty to say about his relationship to Schwartz. It was almost certainly a difficult one, since each had a difficult personality. But it would be a mistake, I think, to treat the connection as purely personal.
In his essay from 2012 -- which is a sort of farewell to the poet, and perhaps to us as well -- Reed addresses Schwartz:
“We gathered around you as you read Finnegans Wake. So hilarious but impenetrable without you. You said there were few things better in life than to devote oneself to Joyce. You'd annotated every word in the novels you kept from the library. Every word…. Reading Yeats and the bell had rung but the poem was not over you hadn't finished reading — liquid rivulets sprang from your nose but still you would not stop reading. I was transfixed. I cried.”
What Schwartz transmitted in those moments was not personal experience, nor even knowledge, but access to aesthetic power that the listener might not have had otherwise. And although he was not a teacher, Lou Reed carried on the process of instruction. It gives more than words can say. Like the song says: "Between thought and expression / lies a lifetime."