Today I am thinking about the tens of thousands of adjunct faculty across the nation who are working MORE than full time hours for poverty wages, and no benefits. This issue was sadly brought to national attention after the death of an 83-year old adjunct who was destitute: Margaret Mary Vojtko. Her plight re-energized a national discussion around the continuing practice of hiring more and more part-time faculty to teach at universities. In some places, the ratio of full-time to part-time faculty is 3:7, meaning that there are primarily part-timers teaching the bulk of the students.
In a previous blog titled Too Many Jobs, I wrote about the insane year I had when I was teaching full-time (off the tenure track, and on a contractual basis) and working several part-time adjunct jobs. It was exhausting, but I at least had health benefits from the FT-job, even if it didn’t pay enough to keep my head above water. I have a cellular memory of that exhaustion, and by cellular memory, I mean that I remember how my body felt as I drug myself from one job to the next.
I turned 50 this year, and thankfully don’t work for poverty pay any more. While I still enjoy the occasional adjunct position, I know that I do not HAVE to burn the candle at both ends, and if it gets to be too much, I can say “no thanks” the next time I am offered a position and not risk going hungry or having my lights shut off.
This is NOT the case for a number of my colleagues of similar “vintage” who also have high loads of student loan debt, and whose primary job is often something like working retail for just above minimum wage so they can get SOME health benefits; or others who are just piecing together a string of adjunct jobs and hoping/praying they won’t need health care services.
Margaret Mary Vojtko wasn’t 50 as she struggled to piece together her life. In her 80’s, she lived in abject poverty, as described in the original Op-Ed piece that took her story viral.
“She could no longer keep her electricity on in her home, which became uninhabitable during the winter. She therefore took to working at an Eat’n Park at night and then trying to catch some sleep during the day at her office at Duquesne [University].” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
For those of you unfamiliar with Eat-n Park – it’s a local diner. At 83, this woman was working as a waitress on the midnight shift, so she could sleep in her office (and be warm) during the day.
For me, this story is maddening, sad and yet validating on many levels. I left FT academia for several reasons, one of the main ones being the poor pay – before my story became another statistic in this sad drama. I’m grateful that I had options, and while I often miss my students and the relationship we shared in the teaching/learning/coaching process, I know that I am worth more than that kind of life.
There are several keys to solving this issue and some reside around the policies and practices at the colleges and universities. I’ll leave that to the numerous forum posts out there that are still lighting up around this topic. What I will address, however; is the practice of speaking the truth. This is in no way my original theme, as evidenced by the plethora of articles on the oversupply of academics in a shrinking market. Margaret Mary’s plight is (unfortunately) not unique. Although her advanced age and her unseemly death – collapsing in the lawn in front of her dilapidated home – make her story most compelling, the fact is that many people are entering college programs (and borrowing tons of money) just to find that they are doomed to a life of poverty to pursue that dream. In other words, for different reasons (I don’t think that Margaret Mary was a victim of student loan debt), many students are pursuing a dream that they are willing to finance at a very steep cost and steering themselves to a Margaret Mary-like tragic life.
Telling the Truth
In my next book in the Finding Your Way series, I address the disconnect between high school students’ college dreams and the realities that most of them will inevitably will face. We need to begin telling the truth about college: how much it costs, the real jobs that will be waiting and the hard work that it will take once you get there (in most cases).
I have witnessed the high school valedictorian from Small Rural High School struggling to pass Freshman Chemistry and ends up being coached by the average B/C-student from the large and academically-rigorous suburban high school. It seems that we get caught up in where we are in our own high school space and never stop to consider the larger world.
I’ll illustrate the great need for speaking the truth to students in high school using an example I have seen over and over: Junior or Senior high school girls swooning about becoming an Obstetrician because they “like to hold babies“.
Instead of encouraging this, we need to engage them in a dialogue that goes beyond “liking babies” to make sure that they understand:
- there’s a lot of chemistry and advanced biology between now and delivering newborn babies
- there’s at least 8 years of college – probably more – before anyone is going to hold babies as an obstetrician and more importantly,
- Obstetricians don’t do much “baby holding” and maybe (just maybe!) the career path should be Early Childhood Education and working in a day care if “holding babies” is the primary career motivator
A recent NY Times article (“Losing is Good for You“) highlights a lesson that can (and should) be applied as we mentor high school students toward college. The extrapolation of this concept is that just as we have done a disservice to our kids by pronouncing “everyone a winner!”, not everyone is cut out for medical school, engineering school, business school or law school (law school is a whole other issue), and that it’s not only OK to think about more mundane professional goals, aligning your true abilities and interests with an achievable plan is MUCH more life-affirming that cheerleading a doomed dream because it’s easier to clap and say “how wonderful!” than it is to say, “you might want to think about that a different way, and here’s why…”
Of course there are those who will chastise this approach for being too negative. I’m a BIG fan of finding what you love to do and making that your career, as I have outlined in my first eBook, Finding Your Way: uncover your path to a better job. BUT…you have to be smart about your choices.
Love health care and holding babies? Check out the tuition at your local community college for nursing school or some other health care profession where you can hold babies without major student loan debt
Love teaching & medieval history? Perhaps a reasonably-priced bachelor’s degree (that you can begin at your local community college) leading to a full-time job in a museum or work for a non-profit that supports education initiatives.
There are changes that need to be made at the top of these institutions (colleges, universities, government, student loan agencies) but we have the ability to make our dreams work for us, and not against us and frankly – no one else is going to do it for us. As long as people are willing to teach for no benefits and $1,500 – $3,000 a class, universities will continue to hire them. Be your own advocate; figure out what you love to do, and make a path toward that goal that does not include tens of thousands of dollars of debt or a life of indentured servitude and poverty.
For more information on the plight of adjunct faculty and the people working hard to raise their standard of living and change the system, consider checking out the work being done over at ‘Junct Rebellion (blog) or emerging from another group, the New Faculty Majority.
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Final days of the 99-cent discount on Finding Your Way!
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Coupon good through October 1st
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