A Mystery of Academia

Last year, I went into my local art supply store and bought paper on the school account for my class. "You're a professor?" asked the young man who rang up my purchases. "That's my goal, it's the dream, right?" I told him I was not a professor exactly; I was an adjunct professor, which meant that I didn't know from semester to semester if I would be rehired. "How long have you been there, teaching?" I told him ten years. He was surprised. At the time, I told him I was lucky, in a way, because in the past four year I've been assigned a class each semester. Now, it seems reasonable to expect I'll continue, but still hard to know for sure. I told him that my first job out of college was in an art supply store. "What you probably want is to be a tenured professor." Those are hard jobs to get.

Fall 2014, the non-ranked faculty (all of whom are non-tenured) at our school voted to join the union SEIU Local 1021, and we are negotiating a contract in the hopes that we can be compensated for our unpaid work and time (prep, meetings, extra events, panels, exhibitions, etc.), health care, and can be guaranteed job security, among other things. Is this so much to ask?

When I worked at the art supply store, and later at a bookstore, I could pay half and get health care. I got a 40% discount on things I needed and/or wanted. I knew my schedule, got regular reviews and raises, and knew I would be working there as long as I liked, pretty much. I had more job security then. But that was in the 1980s. 

Something has changed. Workers are not as valued: some are seen as interchangeable or disposable. Schedules are flung about. Human rights are not as important as profit. And many people can barely subsist on their pay. It's easy to ignore when it isn't you or someone you love. But it isn't right. 

I'm thinking now about the future generation of teachers. What happens when art students want to become professors? What will their working conditions be like? Social Justice is touted as a new cause. Let's see it in action.


CrowGirl said…
The way things are now, I am deeply grateful that I did not continue into post-graduate studies for anthropology. As much I loved and adored my first major, I think the uncertainty of working in academia would destroy me. My heart breaks for all those who followed their passions and talents into situations where they aren't valued or able to be successful.
Alisa said…
CrowGirl—this is why adjunct professors across the country are unionizing. Through collective bargaining we are able to fight for respect and stability. It changes the balance of power. You understand. But it is so hard to convince people, though, until something unjust happens to them or to someone they know.
I cannot comprehend why, in a field that is supposed to be so enlightened, academia treats adjuncts this way. I can understand administration taking this stance, perhaps, being "numbers" people, though I don't support it - but other tenured professors - how can they condone this? I was a medical librarian in academia, with no Ph.D. Certainly, I had benefits, a steady job, etc but at the same time with no PhD there seemed to be absolutely no opportunity to advance or increase pay. I came in with 2 master's degrees (their policy was not to "count" a second master's) and 20 - 25 years of professional experience. This does not equal having a Ph.D. by any stretch of the imagination in their eyes.
Me said…
Thank you for this.

In addition to many years of being a student and a parent of students, I've always had close family in academia: two who got tenure when it was fairly routine and two current university professors, one who finally got tenure and one still jumping through the hoops so I've had personal experience with what you wrote. I've even been a teacher myself, albeit in high school, when I first graduated from college in 1962. I chose then to join the AFT i.e. the AFL "teacher's union", instead of the NEA because I believed then as I do now in the importance of unions.
Teaching is a huge responsibility. I'm sure most of us can look back and see where a teacher or two had an outsized negative impact. Recently I've been hearing more frequently of poor student experiences blamed on adjunct teachers. This seems to be especially true in the case of itinerant teachers who move to whatever institution is currently short-handed in their fields. This situation has the potential to negatively impact an institution's reputation as well as their students' learning.
I hope colleges and universities understand that Social Justice for teachers is something they owe their students as well their teachers.
Ellen said…
It's obscene the way academia is going. Something has indeed changed, and it's getting worse. I personally know highly educated people with advanced degrees who've found better prospects and more job security stocking shelves and waiting tables than in continually fighting to get rehired to teach as lecturers and adjuncts. (The tenure track, of course, is increasingly not even a possibility for an ever-growing number of advanced degree holders in academia).

Good luck to you and your colleagues on your union efforts!