Off the Market

darlene teachingI’ve been a professor for almost 10 years.

I like what I do, but rarely talk about why I essentially left the profession almost a year ago.  Let me explain a little here.

It wasn’t a huge epiphany but was an epiphany nonetheless that made me realize I was in an abusive relationship that had to end.

In the late spring/early summer of last year I received a job offer–overseas–and was excited.  I was excited to live abroad.  I was excited that my professional title and the benefits that came with it would match.

See, many people know very little about university faculty that usually teach “gateway courses”–the courses that students are required to take and pass before they can graduate–about professors like me.

Professors like me are called “contingent” faculty.  The alternate term you may have heard is “adjunct.”  That means that I am an added (ad) part of the body (junct) that is essential to it but not a part of it.  Contradiction that it is, me and many of my colleagues wear our title (usually “Instructor” or “Lecturer” so as not to reveal the truth of the matter) with a pride in the profession. We like to teach.  And all of us are “masters” of our subject matter at least–one must hold the Master’s degree to teach in the University classroom.

When I received the job offer from Overseas University Run By Westerners I learned I would be given great benefits–most contingent faculty receive NONE.  Yes you read right: most contingent faculty are NOT receiving any health insurance benefits, not a stitch of life insurance, and certainly no 401k.  Within our departments we may not have the benefit of an office or may share a cramped space with several other “adjunct” instructors.   I have been forced during at least one appointment to use student computer labs because I did not have my own computer.  Contingent faculty do not vote on faculty matters and may not even be welcome at faculty meetings.

If you think I’m exaggerating, check out the adjunct forum on the Chronicle of Higher Education or else the videos posted below.

So when I received the overseas job offer I was excited since it offered benefits coupled with the kind of overseas living experience I knew would fit my lifestyle and goals.  Yet I was wary.  Something I had learned to be over the years.  I had received offers that promised much less and still failed to deliver.

In the previous year, I had left one job where my adjunct colleagues and I were accused by the Provost of “sullying the department” because we did not have terminal degrees.

The truth is, I have a terminal degree: a Master of Fine Arts.  But in the academe–the same academe that encouraged me take on this 3 year degree instead of the cheaper and shorter 1-2 year Master’s degree–many have decided that degrees in creative fields are not to be taken seriously. Including said Provost who admitted that it is not, in his opinion as reflective of the University, the (he stressed) terminal degree of choice: a Phd.

Even with the terminal degree argument aside I was appalled at the kind of disrespect the “sullying” statement suggested and how my chairperson and colleagues sat idly by accepting it.  If it sounded rude and preposterous to me, didn’t it sound that way to them?

Caring about what they heard or thought was futile; I had to look at myself in the mirror everyday: is this what I had been reduced to  over the previous 4 years that I had served this University?  Even as it had me waiting on a limb each summer hoping I’d get the call that indeed I would receive the coveted year long contract?  The same University that for two  of those 4 years had been unable to coerce Phds into tenure track faculty positions and so gave me and my adjunct colleagues benefits only to snatch them away in my final year of employment there and tell me when I protested the less worthy contract that my receiving them had been an “unfair mistake?”  Unfair to whom I had wondered out loud.  I had directly asked when I received “the call” if my contract would be the same as  in the previous two years–that is, would it include benefits–and had been promised it would.  Suddenly, the “unfair mistake” was an “oversight” in the language of my chairperson.  Really?

Here we were; the department and University depending on our kind of faculty–we teach the most essential of courses for without them students will not earn a degree–and we were being told that we “sullied” the department because we didn’t possess research degrees?  What?  Since when did a qualified researcher equal a qualified instructor?  Obviously at this University such had not always been the case; in the department right then was a faculty member who had only begun working on her Phd two years prior and after teaching as a full time professor for almost 20 years.  Had she been sullying the department too for all that time, and getting paid beans for it?

Since completing my graduate degree I have never not been looking for a job that offered me more than a role as contingent faculty.  Luckily this time, I had one lined up.  I didn’t accept the Provost’s semester long contract/demotion.  Instead, I packed up and moved out of state for another university job with a contract that offered benefits and more money.

Since completing my graduate degree, my responsibility and compensation had steadily increased.  I began my career teaching what is considered a full time load–4 classes per semester–for what turned out to be less than minimum wage because I was only getting paid “per class” rather than a salary.  I had moved up to “salaried” teaching wherein I was given semester long contracts such as the one the Provost was now offering.  That took some seriously savvy budgeting to make my checks cover the winter and summer breaks in which I did not get paid.  I taught overloads to compensate but was “rewarded” with not being paid until a semester after teaching the extra class so I stopped trying to help the University since it didn’t seem interested in helping me.  Finally, I had made it to the pinnacle  of adjunct teaching–the title of “Lecturer” with a year long contract–usually as you’ve already read sans benefits.  The Provost was not going to knock me back down with his disrespectful offer.

With my new appointment, I was confident that I was just moving up the ranks as I’d done all along; isn’t that how it happens in most careers?

I was a little melancholy about moving; you know you develop relationships and come to understand the dynamics of a place after awhile; you find a comfort zone.

But I hoped this move was gonna be good for me; for my career and personal life and all of that.  My new appointment at my new University offered the year long contract–this time with benefits and the rights and responsibilities of full time faculty like showing up to meetings and actually voting, participating on department committees–and being recognized as a part of and essential to the department.  And it housed a Phd program that I could enter while teaching; in fact, the Chairperson boasted, many of the lecturers in the department were working on theirs.

After several trips out of state to select an apartment and pick up texts I learned that in fact the benefits that had gotten me to sign on the dotted line did not exist.  Huh?

It had been a “mistake” according to the chairperson.  A “mistake” similar to the one my previous chairperson had claimed to make.  Both of them had not informed me of the “oversight” until I was too far in to reasonably turn around.  The first time I had been teaching for nearly a month already (contracts and paperwork always take a long time to get processed for contingent faculty and we are often teaching for at least a month before we receive our first paycheck.  So I wasn’t as worried as I should have been).

Now here I was. I had refused the Provost’s contract at my current school.  Cheesy as it was I could’ve saved the thousands I would spend in associated relocating costs.  But I had signed a lease for a new apartment.  In another state.  I was way-y-y-y far in and my new chairperson knew it.  His apologies for his oversight were over-acted and I knew I had been got again.

So I spent the year at the new school under the same kind of unfair contract I had been receiving all along; not getting paid for nearly two months despite turning in my HR paperwork on time.  The minimal salary increase was quickly swallowed up by the more expensive cost of living and relocation expenses as, frankly, I knew it would be.  And even though I was permitted and required to show up to faculty meetings and participate on committees, I still had no job security I quickly realized.  This move was not better for me at all.

So I accepted the job overseas that offered everything I had been missing out on and the kind of line for my resume that would hopefully open up new opportunities outside the academe.  Yet I was wary as the past nine or so years had taught me to be.

I wanted every promise and benefit in writing–which is where the problems began.  My contract came to me missing several of the benefits that had been offered during my interview and later reaffirmed when I accepted the position.  I had to push for an emailed “addendum” to the incomplete contract. Even then was told not to worry; that rough patches were always worked out in a timely and mutually beneficial fashion by the University.  That contract and hardly professional email addendum was only the beginning of  the discrepancies but quickly became the end of them.  Before the train wrecked before my very eyes, I turned away.

I had to say NO MORE.   In the meantime,  I finally received a contract from the University where I had been teaching for the upcoming year.  This was late July.  Still no benefits.  I ignored it and pressed on for new opportunities.

When no other appointments panned out in my still-new-to-me-city–it’s always cheaper to stay than to leave–I made the tough decision to move back into my parents’ home after living independently for nearly 16 years.

Regrouping has not been as easy as I expected.  This is a tough economy.  Living with people, especially parents, is tough.  Feeling like a failure, a loser, gullible and foolish is a constant battle.

And I like teaching more than I’m ever able to really admit.  So I found myself right back in the bad relationship/ classroom at a University here.  I was covering for an instructor who resigned unexpectedly; perhaps she too had said “enough is enough”  and didn’t wait, like me, for a clean closure.  I was quickly reminded of why I’d left higher education when I found myself having to fight for my pay after the University decided to send my checks to an address I had lived at as an undergraduate–14 years before.  They had never processed my paperwork in HR!

The attitude towards contingent faculty, university-wide, is that ugly.

There are reasonable questions fielded to someone in my position and here I will provide the most reasonable answers I can think of.  The first one I usually get is:
Q:  Why not get a Phd if that is going to make you a more viable candidate for a more secure position in your field?
A: I have considered a Phd; have even applied for a couple of programs; once getting accepted and once rejected.  The programs are expensive and are mostly funded by loans so I had to decide if the reason/career for which I was pursuing them would indeed justify such an expense.  It does not.

Higher education is saturated with Phds in the Humanities.  That means, I am competing with many Phd candidates for the contingent faculty appointments I complain about.  If I cannot pay my regular monthly bills on that salary, imagine trying to pay them with an additional $600/month student loan bill!

The Phd is simply impractical for me if the only reason I’m getting it is to be a more viable candidate in this field.

The truth is that if I publish a book or two (to any bit of acclaim), my odds would be better.  That has been enough, for some, especially with an MFA, to get a decent maybe even cushy position in the academe.  But if you’ve heard me talk about publishing–or seen my monthly meter–you know what a gamble that is.

Of course the other reason for people pursuing these degrees–and yes I will be one of these people who pursues one eventually– is simply because it is among those big dreams I spoke of having in my previous post.

One of my not-as-big dreams right now is to go back to Brazil.  But I’m not packing up and going there tomorrow either.  Because economically and practically, it’s just not feasible.  So that’s your answer: it’s just not feasible.

Q:  Why not teach in a public or charter school?
A. The easy answer is because I’m not certified to teach.  Which begs the question: why don’t you get certified?

Well, first of all, certification costs money.  From the coursework to the licensing exams, certification costs money.  I’m not suggesting that it’s as expensive as pursuing a Phd.  And surely I know that it takes something to get something but often when you are in the financial position in which I find myself, finding “start-up” money for such endeavors is a bigger obstacle than one might imagine.

There are alternative routes in which school systems pay these fees but I find them odd and rather contrary in this regard: they require a teacher to secure an instructional job first.  Yet, most districts require certification to be given an instructional job.  Ummm, ok.  Now that is the practical answer.  But the real answer is a question turned on the “asker.”

If you like raising pitbulls, would it be fair to ask you to, instead, raise poodles?  Kindegarten teachers are qualified and likely enjoy teaching that age group; they are rarely asked to head to a 9th grade classroom if enrollment is low or if for some other reason they are not able to teach in the kindegarten classroom.

So there you have it: I am not qualified nor do I desire to teach in public or charter schools.  I am qualified to teach and want to teach University students.

Q: If you had more qualifications–like publishing a book as you mentioned–or conference presentations you would fare better, don’t you think?
Hardly.  I have peers whose “degree-age” and publishing accomplishments are equal to or are less than mine and they are in comfortable fairly permanent careers, kind of like my colleague who had been teaching with a Master’s degree for 20 years (and NOT as an adjunct!).  Of course, were I them I would worry that a change in University leadership might find me living on the street.

Higher Education can be fickle; one day it’s all about the Phd, the next day it may be all about University service and teaching awards/evaluations.

And then there are those whose accomplishments are far greater than mine and they have spent an equal amount of time searching for the holy grail that is tenure.  Of the latter, universities are often unwilling or unable to pay such a candidate what s/he is worth.  There is a such thing as being overqualified according to many employers–and not just in the academe.

Such accomplishments are not necessarily a reflection on one’s ability to teach though.  Writing good books and talking to people about your research does not make you an effective instructor, but universities make money when they can list among their  ranks Such-and-Such a Well Known Name even if Such-and-Such a Well Known Name is rarely ever teaching since s/he is always traveling making guest appearances on panels and collecting honorariums for speaking engagements.

However, right now, there is a “publish or perish” attitude permeating the field wherein faculty are expected to publish in learned and refereed journals and present these articles at academic conferences.

The publishing market is as fickle; many great writers are simply great because someone else who considered them great crowned them as such.  And many non-writers saturate the market too.  How many biographies, how-tos, and high school poetry collections reach the front windows of Barnes and Nobles straight from the pens of athletes, entertainers, and politicians?

The subjectivity of it all notwithstanding, the dynamics are fairly simple, almost as simple as way-y-y-y too many things in life.  Sometimes what you know is of far less consequence than who you know.

Finally, I’d like to post these videos because I referred to them in the text of this article.

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