For The Love of Teaching

I took my car to a car wash because it had been way too long (if you know what I mean) and my car was looking like dirt on wheels.  After the wash there was still a big stain that didn’t come off, so I asked the owner of the car wash what could be done about it.  He said that it was a water stain and that it would cost at least $60 to remove it.  I told him that I didn’t have $60 for this and maybe it would come off if I kept scrubbing it.  He said that I could damage the paint by scrubbing and that I should try to use some white vinegar.

Anyway, the guy was really nice.  As we were talking, he noticed that I had a license plate holder with my university name on it.  He asked me about what I did for work and I told him that I was a part-time professor at FRRU*.  He then began telling me about his daughter and how she was actually a student at FRRU and that she was currently studying abroad in France under the direction of world-renowned filmmakers.  I told him that she was lucky and that I wished I had gone abroad when I was her age.

He then began talking about careers and asking my opinion about which direction his children should go.  I told him to encourage his children to do anything except getting Ph.D.’s and becoming college professors (jokingly but really).  Anyway, he was surprised and he asked why, so I told him that 76% of all faculty were adjuncts and that we didn’t get paid much, had no benefits, had terrible working conditions and no hope for things improving.

So then came the zinger…he said: “But you do it ’cause you love it right?  It must be amazing to mold young minds! You’re doing it for the kids, etc. etc..” So I told him that I didn’t love anything THAT much and especially anything that was going to leave me destitute** at the end of it.  I also told him that he would never say that to medical doctors and surgeons–that they’re doing what they’re doing for the love of it, because they want to save lives so they should be ok with minimum wage because their work is their calling.  The guy totally agreed and said that he had never thought about it that way.

I think I made the guy feel guilty because at the end of our conversation, he said: “You know what? I’m just gonna do this for you and take care of the stain on your car.”  It took him 2 minutes (a few sprays of a cleaning product and a few rubs) to take care of the stain for which he was going to charge me $60 (which is more than what I would make for giving an hour long mathematics lecture at the university, which takes many free hours of labor to prepare).

*FRRU stands for Filthy Rich Religious University, a pseudonym for where I work.

** Caveat: I know destitute is a relative term and particularly in the context of seeing the day laborers at this particular car wash, who were actually doing all the hard work of cleaning cars for low wages.  I realize that their stories are completely absent from this narrative and I am much more privileged than they are as I have a Ph.D. and am having my car washed by them.  I believe that everyone needs a living wage, including day laborers and adjunct faculty.  Given this, I also have about $150,000 in debt and I make about $18,000 a year with no health or retirement benefits, so IF (because my privilege affords me choices) I continue on this path I will be destitute by the time I retire.


Ph.D. for sale

I am doing my usual spring cleaning/garage sale by getting rid of all the unnecessary clutter in my life.

Here is one of the items on sale:

A Ph.D. in the social sciences from one of the best tier 1 universities in the country, in mint condition, never been used for real work.

Price: only $200,000 OBO (or best offer)

The Ph.D. Bubble

I recently applied to a position in a university that I would have never actively sought under normal circumstances. I had to try really hard to imagine myself at this university in order to motivate myself to apply.

I had the hubris of thinking that this job was below me but apparently I wasn’t even in the running. The person who received the job had twenty publications.

I had one solid publication and two under review, which was considered at one point very respectable. Also, I graduated from one of the top universities in my field of study and I had some of the leading scholars in the field on my committee. But apparently, that’s no longer enough.

One does not need twenty publications to get a job in a tier 3 university. In fact, a tenure track faculty in a tier 1 university needs about 12 publications to GET TENURE, not to get a friggin job!

The adjunctification of faculty has lead to a Ph.D. bubble where there are more and more “highly qualified” candidates (where it’s a game of numbers and not quality) and less and less tenure track jobs.

The Academic Conference

I recently attended an academic conference to maintain my connections in academia, catch up with my colleagues from graduate school and perhaps make some new contacts who might help me in “the job search.”

I didn’t officially register for the conference because I couldn’t afford the $400 fee on my adjunct salary. I used to register every year as a student because I could pay the reduced student fee. But, now that I’m done with my Ph.D., I have to pay the regular fee which is very steep for someone on my salary. The conference registration fee was higher than my airfare to the conference, so I decided that I’d rather risk the humiliation of being told to leave the conference because I didn’t have a conference badge rather than pay the fee. I was also lucky because one of my very generous and gracious friends allowed me to crash in her hotel room.  My friend was a postdoc and she was given funding for the conference from her institution. Thanks to her, I was able to offset the biggest conference expense– the hotel fare.

Also, I was able to crash a few receptions and grab a free meal here and there. Although this was a bit humiliating for me, because I am in my late thirties and am too old to live like this, I had to swallow my pride and “rough it” to attend this conference and try to stay connected.

In addition to these issues, I also had to explain to people over and over again what I had been doing with my life and why I didn’t have a “real” position. I had to explain how I had applied to thirty-some jobs and had gotten no response. I also had to endure comments by some well meaning people about how I should ask colleagues to look over my CV and how I should try to network at the conference…like I hadn’t been doing that for the past four years. I had to nod and then thank them for their invaluable “advice” because, I’m sure the reason I didn’t have a job was because of something I wasn’t doing correctly or something that I hadn’t thought of before. It couldn’t possibly have been the fact that only 15% of Ph.D.’s get tenure track positions and that means 85% don’t.

I don’t know how many more of these conferences I’ll be attending. I used to feel hopeful at these conferences, but that hope has long eroded. I guess I’m damned if I go and damned if I don’t (which means 100% damned).

Condemned to the Core Requirements

One of the joys (dripping with sarcasm) of being an adjunct faculty is teaching core requirement classes, year after year. This joy is particularly accentuated if you teach a subject like mathematics for liberal arts majors–a core requirement imposed on non-math and non-science majors (Also a class that the tenured or tenure track faculty avoid teaching like the plague).

Most non-mathematics and non-science majors (I know I’m making a sweeping generalization but one that has been backed by many years of anecdotal evidence) tend to have an aversion to mathematics because of the difficulties or the lack of engagement that they have experienced, year after year, in their traditional K-12 mathematics classrooms. Also, the topics that they are required to learn in these classes are not always useful or applicable to their particular fields.

Hence, I have the insurmountable task of engaging students who either have absolutely no interest in or have developed an aversion to the subject over a long period of time. This task is made even harder for me because I am bound to teach in a traditional manner (mainly lecturing) because that’s what my department requires. Also, we have to “cover” many different topics but we don’t actually have enough time to meaningfully delve into any of these topics.

So students often resent coming to class, they resent being assigned anything that requires thought and work and (no matter how helpful, encouraging and patient you are) they eventually (usually by the end of the semester) resent you (with a few exceptions of course). Furthermore, if you happen to be a non-white woman, then certain students question your credibility, intelligence and abilities…adding salt to injury.

Because of the way that these courses are designed, the content often is not intellectually engaging or challenging for the instructor (I’ve taught far more intellectually challenging classes at the high school level). So I neither get satisfaction from engaging with the subject matter nor from seeing my students excited about learning.

Today I hit a low point when some of my students asked me what a basic term meant during a test. I had defined this term in my lectures over and over again. I had given H.W. assignments addressing this term. I had given a question on this term in a quiz and reviewed the quiz before the test. However, to some of my students, it was as if I had done none of the above. It seemed that all my efforts had come to naught…it was totally depressing.

When someone works for nearly nothing, one expects to at least get fulfillment from one’s work (which could come in the form of respect, “love,” and intellectual engagement)…but no such luck here.

Because I Am More Ethical Than The University?

Although our university is an institution that purports to have a commitment to social justice, diversity and the promotion of mutual respect and understanding, there is no justice in the way that it treats its contingent faculty. Grossly underpaying faculty (and any other workers), making a killing off of their labor and treating them like disposable cogs is neither just nor respectful. However, regardless of the immorality of our university, I try to do my best for my students who are often from underserved backgrounds and are struggling in mathematics. I often hold long office hours and provide my students with as much tutoring and support as they need, even though this means that I’m getting paid even less per hour of work. But don’t applaud me just yet, because I’m actually contributing to this whole abusive cycle. My “ethical” actions are at the same time affirming the university’s unethical practices and I’m modeling to my students that it’s ok to be treated like garbage and not be adequately compensated for my labor because I’m committed to “the cause” of empowering them, albeit with my self-disempowering actions.