The Unemployed Employee
Universities treat adjuncts as if contracts don't matter, writes Cliffton Price, who has had enough.
I am in a bit of a conundrum. It’s a conundrum I’ve never confronted before in 13 years as a contingent faculty member at seven different colleges. But the insanity of daily life as an adjunct — my current position — is something that most in higher education want to ignore, even if we as adjuncts, along with our other contingent brothers and sisters, now comprise the majority of faculty nationwide.
Finals week at the university where I teach first-year writing part-time began on a recent Monday, yet the contract I signed in October technically expired the previous Friday. I guess there's no "technically" about it — my contract, and thus my employment, ended several days ago. Still, there's a pile of essays on my desk that students turned in last Thursday, the last day my classes met before final exams. What to do about them? Do I grade them, even though I won’t be paid to do so? Or was grading essays and calculating final course grades after my contract ends something implied in the print so fine it became invisible of said contract?
Does the $2,500 the university pays me for each class I teach — I teach two — include a week of work not included in the contract I signed? I was given a "Part-Time Faculty Guide" a few weeks after the semester began — a whole semester and then some after I first started teaching for the university. But I can’t find anything in it about all the work I should or should not be doing after I no longer have a job.
I was in this same conundrum in December, at the end of the fall semester, except I didn’t know it. I spent a whole week grading essays, spotting plagiarists, and calculating final course grades and didn’t get so much as a cent for my time. Unfortunately — or maybe fortunately, as ignorance is bliss and relatively conundrum-free — I didn’t take a close look at the terms of my agreement with the university until I entered into another one in January.
The contract I signed — and may or may not be breaking if I refuse to grade the essays on my desk — reads as such: "THIS AGREEMENT is made and entered into between [the University] and Clifton [sic] Price in a part-time faculty status for a period of one semester beginning 1/6/2011 and ending 4/29/2011 [sic]." The next sections says: "It is understood that this Contract defines the only terms of employment, and that nothing in this Contract states or implies continued employment beyond the ending date listed above. In consideration of this agreement, the University agrees to pay the employee for services rendered to [the University’s] established salary guidelines. If this Contract is terminated before its expiration date, the salary is also terminated."
At least that’s what it said when I signed it back in October. Curiously, the copy I requested and received via e-mail last week contains a few minor, yet possibly major, changes. A date in December is stamped toward the top, and the signatures of the department head and the dean were added in November and December respectively; the lines for the signatures of the vice president for academic affairs and the budget officer remain vacant. There are also handwritten slashes through the number of students enrolled in my classes in the box in the middle of the page, and a little 24 sits next to both crossed out 25s. None of these additions, of course, are curious. But the handwritten slashes through the ending dates of the semester in that same box are. Even more curious is the handwriting next to those slashes. The date 5/9/11 appears below the second slashed-over ending date. What are not slashed over, however, are the dates in the first sentence of the contract.
Who made these changes? When were they made? Why were they made? Can you make changes to an employee’s contract after he or she has signed it? And if they went to the trouble of crossing out one date so the semester now included all of finals week as well as the day final course grades were due, why didn’t they cross out the other date as well?
Regardless of these changes, I keep asking the same question I've been asking since I discovered that the dates of my employment do not include finals week, namely, "How in the hell can they do this?" How can an accredited university full of Ph.D.s and lawyers and businessfolk hire someone to teach a semester of college classes and not hire him to also work during finals? I've been joking with my students all semester about the day when my contract ends before all my work is done, but I've known all along this is serious business.
Am I missing something? Maybe what I’m missing, or misreading, is that word "semester." Maybe that word in itself includes final weeks; perhaps that’s part of its definition. If so, I might not have a leg to stand on if I refused to do any work after my contract ended on 4/29 and the university took me to court for breach of contract. But doesn’t the phrase "for a period of one semester beginning 1/6/2011 and ending 4/29/2011" mean that MY semester DOESN'T include finals week? If there were no dates on the contract, all of this would be a moot point, but there ARE dates.
What really bothers me about this conundrum is what it says about the profession. It doesn’t say anything new, mind you, but it sure as hell says it clearly. If I don’t begin work until the first day of class, where does the course come from? As far as I know, it didn’t spring full-grown from my head like Athena (Oh, goddess of wisdom!) when I walked into the classroom on the first day of classes. It took time, it took work BEFORE my contract began — and both time and work mean money, don’t they? And it will take more time and more work to finish what I started now that my contract has ended. The message this university is sending to both academics and the general public is essentially that what professors do outside of class isn’t work. It might be necessary, but it isn’t really part of our job.
The way the university treats adjuncts is curiously identical to the problems that higher education is having with its public image. Nobody can believe that college faculty do much work. Within academe, we apparently don’t believe it either, because we don’t pay the majority of faculty to do this invisible work.
And then there’s this: The trap by which all college and university administrators snare their adjuncts is nothing short of brilliant. Though they may dangle the prospect of a full-time position before our eyes as incentive to keep working a shit job for shit pay indefinitely on down through the years, ultimately their trap is an ethical one. They know that none of us in our right minds would labor as we do if we didn’t really love and believe in the work we are doing. They know that, ethically, none of us would dare give less than our all to our profession and our students. Thus, because adjuncts feel it would be ethically wrong to do anything besides their best, the university has us right where they want us — giving maximum effort for minimum pay. In addition, in this arrangement, as we all know, it is always the teachers who get blamed when something goes wrong in the classroom, never the administrators who put said teachers there without adequate support or investment.
Well, this adjunct says his conundrum has nothing to do with his personal ethics. I didn’t lure my students to this university with promises of an outstanding education. I didn’t hire someone to teach an important skill like writing to those students for a pittance and without benefits for only a percentage of the semester. That stack of papers may be on MY desk, but they’re not MY responsibility, at least not anymore. It’s time someone better paid than me starts thinking about what’s ethically right and wrong for their students. MY work is done.
Editor's Note: The author provided Inside Higher Ed with copies of the contracts referenced in this essay, and they reflect what he writes here. Inside Higher Ed also asked Savannah State University, Price's employer under the contracts for comment, and received the following: "Savannah State University values its cadre of full and part-time professionals who are responsible for student instruction and aims to provide them with first-rate and competitive resources to carry out their important work."
Cliffton Price has been a contingent faculty member for 13 years at seven different institutions of higher learning. He is currently unemployed.
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