Friday, January 3, 2014

For adjunct professors, winter is break-ing

By Caprice Lawless

            Most of my peers are afraid to tell you their stories, afraid of what will happen to them if they do. They are drowning in the shame of their stories. Because its effects are so widespread, and its effect on students undeniable, I am going to tell you my story. Take it as representative of the stories of my peers. It describes a particular type of shame that breaks spirits this time of year, especially.

This is not the story of a person addicted to drugs or alcohol, or of a person who can’t find work. Mine is the story of a typical community college adjunct professor. Multiply it by 4,012: That is how many of us teach 60-85% of the courses Colorado’s Community College System (CCCS) offers (the percentage varies by campus).

I have two advanced degrees and 15 years of experience as a newspaper reporter, magazine editor, and communications director. I bring hard-won education and experience to teach, each year, 250 or so of Colorado’s economically struggling youth, its adults looking for new careers, and its top-performing high-school students who are ready to take on a college course. However, for all these contributions, the “happy holiday” season brings with it an avalanche of shame, because I live in poverty.

            At year-end, as do most of my peers, I begin to charge the bare necessities on a credit card. I won’t see a paycheck until the end of February, and will be charging expenses well past Valentine’s Day. I have done the same since 2009, and I am deeply in debt for doing so. Like most adjunct professors, I live paycheck to paycheck. Of course, I pick up other writing and editing as I can, but it has never been enough, in this economy, to change my situation. My college will not approve unemployment benefits for adjunct professors between semesters; I’ve tried to get it. Although I teach the same, or more, number of classes per year as “full-time” faculty, giving more than a decade of top-notch service to the college, and I am scheduled to teach my classes every semester, year-round, I’m classified as part-time faculty. Like the earnings of countless other adjunct professors, my annual earnings are below the poverty level.

“You are just a part-time worker!” the campus HR clerk explained to me in an exasperated tone, the only time I applied, and was immediately denied, unemployment at the start of winter break a few years ago. She had to pause to chuckle, as she enumerated all the reasons the CCCS would not pay me “or any workers like you!” unemployment during winter break or any other break. I had not yet learned of food banks and energy-help hotlines, and was already coming down with bronchitis from sleeping in a nearly unheated house. After her call to my cell phone, I sat in my parked car in the desolate school parking lot with the engine running, trying to stay warm until I could stop crying and drive home in the snow.

Within weeks I had contracted shingles.       

“You need to eliminate all stress,” the physician’s assistant at the Walgreen’s walk-in clinic said to me, spelling out the risks of the life-threatening disease. I thanked him, and limped back, through another blizzard, to my car. I was already stressing about how I was going to cover $70 for his consultation and $300 for the medications I had just charged with my Visa, since adjunct professors don’t qualify for the college’s group health-care plan.

Since that time, I’ve discovered a few resources. This year, before they closed for the holidays, I took adjunct professors with me to food banks. We were grateful to get as many apples, and even greens, as we wanted, for fresh produce is usually in limited supply at food banks, as anyone who frequents them knows. On Christmas Eve the utility company called to notify me of a scheduled disconnection, given that I am already in arrears on my gas and light bill. I am working with a low-income program to get those bills partially paid, but meantime I sent them a fraction of what was due to keep the heat on for me and for my housemates. (If it weren’t for rent from housemates, I would not be able to afford a place to live, given adjunct-professor wages.) Because it also was overdue, I drove to City Hall right after Christmas and paid my water and trash bill with my credit card. My aging car needed repairs (new struts and an alignment). I was fortunate to get some help from a local charity for half the cost. A family member paid the other half. Because my financial picture is too complex, I suppose, my application for health care kept stalling. Fortunately, after classes ended on Dec. 9, I had the time to make three trips in person, over a two-day period, to the county human services offices to meet with staff there, and to give them the requisite copies of my pay stubs and bills. It looks like I will qualify for subsidized health care starting Feb. 1.

Those who have never sought government assistance can’t imagine the shame of going to food banks, of asking for help with a bill, of standing in line for health care, always alongside many desperately poor people. It’s hard to fight back tears while standing in these lines; not to beat myself up for working so hard through undergraduate school and then two graduate degrees, for spending tens of thousands on tuition and for spending so much time over the years helping students learn. Such altruistic intentions appear to be a character flaw in the eyes of my employer, however, and I don’t understand why.

As I stood in a line at the county human services office before Christmas, I realized that, in order to keep the administrative class afloat, this is the reality for me and for my peers. Our college system, for example, has hired two new administrators per day for the past three years, and has grown from 13 to now 41 campuses/centers. Its financial profile is rated at the top of the scale by the metrics of Standard and Poor’s or Moody’s, as a revealed in a recent analysis of CCCS finances conducted by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

As I inched my way forward in that line, I reflected on that AAUP analysis and what a highly paid CCCS lobbyist shot back at me during a meeting at the Capitol in October. At the meeting I had just finished explaining to those gathered that my colleagues and I are earning below-poverty-level wages, and so are asking the Legislature for help.

“If the wages are so low, why do you keep teaching?!!” he demanded to know.

I countered that we adjuncts keep teaching because we care about the success of our students. Such kindness is recognized as a personality flaw by successful consultants like him, who are paid to respond, as he did that day, that the college system “has to be run like a business!” He went on to describe how CCCS adjunct faculty (the backbone of the entire enterprise) are a hapless lot who stumble into teaching because they can’t find work anywhere else. He explained how, due to our lack of intelligence, we are unable to read job descriptions thoroughly and to realize that ours are “just part-time jobs.” He finished his description by reminding the audience how adjunct professors can’t find work anywhere else because they are so inept. (His description of CCCS faculty differs markedly from that listed in college promotional materials.)

As a line-stander, I feel like an absolute failure, repeatedly. My only solace, on a personal level, is to know that by going through these experiences, I can better teach my peers how to cope with the shame and how to grasp at the edges of the frayed safety net still available to us.

Knowing I’ll have to use that safety net before the start of the winter break, when I am buried in semester-end paper-grading, is supremely demoralizing. It is imperative that I read student assignments carefully, and comment thoughtfully. The personal interest faculty like me take in our students is the hallmark our college. Although I am told repeatedly that this work is highly valued, I receive no compensation for time spent grading. My unpaid hours of work, I have been told repeatedly, are a consequence of the dire financial situation of Colorado’s community colleges.

However, just last week Colorado’s Joint Budget Committee reported the CCCS financial health is twice the average among all Colorado higher education institutions, ranking 6.0 out of possible 7.0; far above the financial health of any other higher-education institution in Colorado. According to its most recent financial audit, the CCCS is putting into reserves annually $50 million and $6 million into a category it calls “other.” It currently has more than a quarter billion dollars in reserves.

What to make of millions in reserves, while devoted professors stand in line for food in December, their spirits breaking from the standing? I can only devote a bit of time to such confusing thoughts, however, as I have to prepare for teaching next semester. I have a mountain of reading to tackle, and two syllabi to refine and update. I cannot avoid this task, or my students’ learning next semester will suffer. They will be relying on me to be an informed, engaged, well-read professional who models for them what it means to take a job seriously. I have to plan to be a top-notch teacher while fighting off the feeling that I am a lower caste of worker administration struggles to tolerate.  

In contrast to their view of professors now, the world opened up to me when, as a 19-year-old, I first encountered college faculty. They were excited, engaging, intelligent, well-read, well-dressed and dazzling personalities, each in his/her distinctive style. I had never before seen people who had so many ideas, who strode with confidence everywhere as they made their way among us. It was easy to catch them in the cafeteria or in their offices. They were always eager and willing to chat about anything under the sun, always bringing the topic back to scholarship, research, social responsibility, and optimism.

I feel sorry for this generation of community college students, who encounter, instead, a weary army of impoverished professionals, shuffling from here to there, trying to keep their heads down and their paychecks coming in. Regrettably, seldom do we have time to chat with students, as we rush from place to place, job to job, worry to worry.

If adjunct faculty are not paid fairly and treated with the dignity their work merits, how will we be able to recruit qualified faculty in the community colleges? What will happen when adjunct professors apply the business model to their work, to their time? Will the soaring vision I caught a glimpse of as a young student go dark? Indeed, for many aspiring students, and certainly for the faculty majority in the community college system, it already has.

                                                                            #    #    #