Leaky ceilings, dim lighting, roaches, mold. Those images don't evoke the ideals of higher education, but for the growing number of professors posting pictures of their rooms and offices to the social media feed called "Classrooms of Shame," they're an everyday reality.
Karen Kelsky, who runs the academic career counseling website "The Professor Is In," and who is a former tenured professor of anthropology at the University of Oregon and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, started the Tumblr feed. She did so several months ago, "after hearing so many anecdotal stories from my clients and readers of the deplorable conditions of adjunct teaching facilities – offices with no phones, leaking roofs, mold, bugs, etc.," she said via email. The idea was to give academics a place to "vent and share, and know they are not alone."
And share and vent they did. “Classrooms of Shame” is full of pictures of leaky ceilings, some with makeshift fixes, such as a sheet of plastic funneling water into a trash can at what’s labeled as a “liberal arts college.” (Most posters don’t label their institutions by name, for fear of damaging their careers or – among adjuncts in particular – losing their jobs.) There are photos of classrooms with dead insects, leaking windows stuffed with rags to keep out the rain, and holes in the walls. Other professors have posted photos of their “office space” – in one instance, a group of three chairs at the end of a hallway.
Others have shared stories in lieu of photos. One professor who served as an adjunct at a "private college in the Midwest" before resigning (presumably due to the condition of the classroom) wrote: "There were many things terrible about this classroom, including insufficient and unreliable lighting, technology that would not work with my Mac (‘too bad,’ I was told by IT), fixed seats unsuitable to a discussion-based literature course, and a basement location."
The former adjunct continued: "But what made it truly a ‘Classroom of Shame’ is that it was infested with mold. The facilities folks put in two dehumidifiers as a response to the problem, but it was impossible to run them and also hold a discussion, due to the noise. Every time I had to teach, my ears turned bright red and itchy (a reaction from the mold) and my allergies and those of students acted up. It was a health hazard, and the administration knew about it, and all they did was offer two dehumidifiers and told us to deal with it."
But the Tumblr isn’t just a place to commiserate – it’s starting to effect change. One recent humanities Ph.D. serving as an adjunct at a private Midwestern research institution saw her office fixed after she posted a photo of its leaky, moldy ceiling on the Tumblr. Beyond just the cosmetic issue, she said, water droplets were “ricocheting” off a section of the wall onto her computer screen in the basement offices reserved for graduate students and adjuncts. A previous maintenance request had been met with a stopgap measure – a bucket, to measure the extent of the leak, according to maintenance personnel. But more than a week later, fed up with the pace of repair, the adjunct allowed Kelsky to post it to “Classrooms of Shame.” Nearly immediately the ceiling was patched.
The adjunct, who is on the job market and did not want to be named for that reason, said she received an admonishing email from her department head for taking the matter outside of formal communication chains. But she said the repairs to what she and her officemates call “the dungeon” were probably worth it.
"Other adjuncts who have been in that office talk about how they’re embarrassed when students come in because there are cockroaches and bugs and missing ceiling tiles, and maybe there was some kind of critter up there because there’s white powder coming down in some of the corners,” she said. But after her post, “The pesticide guy even came to my office, asking me what they could do and what I had seen.”
Although the Tumblr feed was conceived as an outlet for adjunct professors, Kelsky said she soon realized that tenure-track professors had their share of shame-inducing classrooms, as well.
One tenured professor teaching film studies at a Northeastern public flagship institution wrote: “At the start of every semester, students pass out in the un-air conditioned classrooms (which regularly get over 95 degrees), but we wear our coats in the winter because the broken windows were repaired with cardboard and duct tape.” The ceiling in the professor’s office has been “oozing” an unidentified pink liquid for five years, but maintenance requests have gone unanswered due to a dispute among unions as to who is responsible, the professor adds. “Indigent individuals live in the stairwell and sponge bathe in the restroom.”
This semester, the professor said, “I’m teaching in the old gymnasium, in the classroom next to the swimming pool. It stinks of chlorine and is incredibly humid. It also has a window that looks out onto the pool. Last time I taught in this room, it was during swim team practice; fortunately, the pool hasn’t been in use (yet) this semester. The room has no technology, unless you count the old overhead projector chained to the wall.”
Although Kelsky said even science classrooms have achieved “Classroom of Shame” status, the vast majority are humanities classrooms. She said humanities facilities and programs languish because they don't attract external funding and must depend entirely on institutions – many of which are struggling with revenue shortfalls – for money.
East Carolina University is among the few institutions mentioned by name. A professor posted a photo of a science lab with the note: “Nothing wrong with this perfectly nice chemistry lab….. EXCEPT THAT IT WAS BEING USED FOR FRESHMAN ENGLISH COMP!! With no blackboard, or chairs for students.”
Via email, an East Carolina university spokeswoman attributed that photo to a human scheduling error that has since been rectified. "Our analysis [of the photo] suggest that this was a slip-up in one department due to last-minute demand that resulted in scheduling an add-on section of a course in an inappropriate room," Mary Schulken said. "Regardless of enrollment pressure, using a geography sediment lab for freshman composition without appropriate modification is not a practice we employ at East Carolina University."
But "Classrooms of Shame" as a whole speaks to much more than scheduling errors. Kelsky also attributed substandard humanities facilities to the "the growing anti-humanities" bias in the larger culture. "People will not pay for what they don't value," she said, which in turn perpetuates the idea that learning isn't important for students, and that teaching isn't important among professors.
The adjunct whose institution responded to her “Classroom of Shame” post agreed. “It just gives the impression that we don’t do important work here,” she said.
Gary Rhoades, professor and director of the Center for Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona, and a frequent critic of budgeting priorities across academe, called the Tumblr "genius."
"[It] captures the tangible results of misplaced priorities that lead to disinvesting in instruction even as institutions invest in non-instructional amenities," he said via email.
It also makes visible "another dirty little secret" of U.S. higher education, he said: "adverse faculty working conditions for significant segments of the faculty (note the many examples of adjunct faculty space in the pics) compromise students' learning conditions."
Purdue University also is named on the blog, with a picture of a leaky ceiling tile in an adjunct professor’s office. A paint can has been placed beneath it. In an interview, President Mitch Daniels said that Purdue’s adjuncts make up a relatively small portion of the teaching faculty, compared to higher education over all, and that he remains devoted to that model. Nevertheless, he said, Purdue adjuncts are generally respected, including by tenure-track faculty who frequently bring adjuncts’ concerns about maintenance and other matters to the attention of the university on their behalf.
But, Daniels said, “Sounds like we’ve got a leak to fix.”