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.
Getting a tenure track job, in your city of choice, is a lot like being a desperate suitor for an ugly, socially challenged, filthy rich jacka$$. You wouldn’t even think of looking at some of these jobs had they been in a different location like the Midwest (sorry Midwesterners, it’s not personal). You wouldn’t even sneeze at any other profession that offered you the same working conditions and pay. But you, and a hoard of other extremely accomplished and talented academics, are willing to gamble your highest earning years, sacrifice your family & loved ones, jeopardize your health and mental wellbeing, compromise your principles, degrade yourselves and pull each other’s hairs all for the chance of being picked by this ugly filthy rich jacka$$ who might marry you with a prenup agreement, and dump you in 5-7 years (if you are not putting out enough…publications) with no penny to your name and no future prospects.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been teaching in my department for four years. Yet, most of the tenured or tenure track faculty don’t acknowledge my presence, make eye contact or say hello to me when they pass by me in the hallways. The people who truly care to know how I’m doing are the receptionist and another fellow adjunct instructor with whom I share an office. My guesses regarding the reasons behind this aloofness are: 1) the faculty in our department lack basic social graces (no reifying stereotypes of mathematicians intended) or 2) they are deathly afraid of catching the adjunct bug. I sometimes feel like wearing a T-shirt saying “I promise, I won’t bite and turn you into an adjunct if you look me in the eye and say hello to me once in a while. I’m a human being. Acknowledge my presence. It’s the least you can do.”
I have not had a raise in four years, not even a cost of living adjustment/raise to keep up with inflation. Instead, the university gave us a pay cut last year by making us pay for our parking (about $180 per semester) when we didn’t have to do that before. Taking public transportation is not an option in my city so I don’t have a choice but to drive. I drive 1.5 hours a day to teach one or two classes and then drive another 1.5 hours to get home.
My salary for teaching a class is the same amount that ONE student pays to take my class. I teach anywhere from 20-30 students, bringing in 20-30 times the amount of money that the university pays me. If the university doubled my pay, it wouldn’t make much of a dent in their pockets but would significantly improve the quality of my life (even though it would still be nothing for the work that I do).
During what is supposed to be my highest earning years, I am earning less than I’ve ever earned in my whole life. I am making $18,000 a year but bringing in anywhere from $18,000 x 20 to $18,000 x 30 (that is somewhere between $360,000 to $540,000) to the university. If they paid me $60,000, they would still make somewhere between $300,000 – $480,000. This would give me a living wage and it would still make the university a lot of profit…even though it’s a non-profit. The irony!
They are invisible. You can’t find their names or contact information on department websites. They appear on campus during odd hours when no one’s looking and they teach the classes no-one wants to teach. When full time faculty pass them by in the hallways they almost never notice them or greet them because they are here one semester and gone the other. Good thing they are fairies and their only sustenance is their desire to serve students, the university and the full time faculty. That’s how the universe made them. And good thing they have no lives, expenses, ambitions, feelings or families of their own because their salaries are only good enough for mythical creatures who fly from campus to campus, eat like birds and sleep in trees.
You think after working four years at a university you would at least have your own office. However, if you are an adjunct, chances are that you share a windowless, dingy office with two or three other adjuncts. You’re not given a computer or your own desk. Maybe, if you’re lucky, you get a drawer in a desk to store your belongings.
This has been my situation for sometime. Often, during my office hours, there is another instructor in my cubicle-sized office. The space is not big enough for both of us, so I conduct my meetings with my students in the commons or the hallways.
There have been times when I couldn’t find a private space to sit down and speak with my students about confidential matters such as their grades and disability accommodations. This is shameful for a wealthy private university where students are paying an arm and a leg for their tuition.
Not having my own office or even my own desk doesn’t make me feel like a professional and doesn’t motivate me to be invested in my work.
At first, the higher education gambling industry lets you win a little by giving you a full ride for a year and telling you not to worry about subsequent years because you’ll find some source of funding. So you think “Wow, I’m getting paid to be a student! I can do this!”
Then, your second or third year, you loose half or all of your funding, but you are given a T.A. position with tuition remission and a small salary for living expenses. You can’t survive on your T.A.-ship and 1/2 or 1/4 of your previous fellowship alone, because you probably live in an expensive city and have a spouse who is in the same position and needs your support. So you tell yourself “Why don’t I take out a little loan. This is just temporary. I’ll get a better fellowship next year.”
Next year comes around, you have made little progress on your writing because the T.A.-ship is taking up all your time. You feel that you just have to manage your time better with your new “no minute left behind-without work” regiment. You also apply for fellowships again and you get denied – not because you’re not brilliant, but because there are only two fellowships out there and the recipients have already been decided by the academic gods and given to their “favored children.” However, you keep telling yourself “I’m going through a dry spell and something will have to give. I just need to work harder and be more brilliant.”
Although the voices in your head tell you to keep charging ahead and not give up, your gut keeps yelling “run.” So you ignore your gut and take out another round of loans to supplement your joke of a salary from your T.A.-ship. Now, you’re in your fourth or fifth year. Your writing is suffering because the T.A.-ship is taking 30-40 hours a week, pays less than minimum wage, and you don’t have any emotional or mental energy left to give to your own work.
So at this point you’ve actually been paying to work (yes, you have been paying $15,000 a year to work because you had to take out $15,000 in loans to supplement your T.A. income) for the past two years, but you make yourself believe that this is part of being a Ph.D. student– getting teaching experience and paying your dues.
Also, now that you are in your fourth or fifth year, the stakes are higher and you don’t want to quit after investing all this time and $10,000 or $15,000 a year in loans for every year you’ve stayed in the program. You motivate yourself to keep going for another year. And the cycle continues, but now it’s even harder to get fellowships because you’re in your 4th or 5th year. You don’t qualify for dissertation fellowships because you are nowhere near being done, but you are also too far removed from your coursework. So basically there are no fellowships for people like you. But you apply anyway, hoping that your good thoughts will go out to the universe and that the universe will give you a miracle in return. However, the universe responds with a resounding silence.
You finally decide that you need to up the ante, drop your T.A.-ship and take on an even bigger loan just so that you can get ahead in your writing. You think, “This is my last year and I just need to suck it up and get the $30,000 loan so I can finish this damn degree.” However, you are also extremely depressed, have health problems and an unfeeling committee member who doesn’t respond to your emails and when he finally does he thinks your dissertation is nowhere being done.
This way, you keep going for another year or two until you finish. And now you have spent 7-10 years of your life, are $80,000-$120,000 in debt and you can’t find a job because only 15% of Ph.D.’s find tenure track jobs. Even though you went to a prestigious research university and some of your cohort members have tenure track positions, you realize that most of them had to leave the state and teach somewhere in the Midwest. You contemplate doing the same, except that, being an immigrant, a minority and a married woman, you don’t feel comfortable leaving your family and your whole support network to move to an isolating place for 5-7 years, work your a$$ off and maybe get tenure if all the stars align. So instead, you take a local adjunct position, earning less than $20,000 a year, and you keep hoping to be hired for a full-time position at your university.
After a few years, you realize that you are at a dead end job. At this point you have gambled over 10 years of your life (your highest earning years), $100,000 (it’s more like a $1,000,000 if you count lost wages for 10 years), your friends, your health and your chances of ever being gainfully employed, having children or buying a house and so you finally decide to quit gambling with your life because this is a losing game.
I am being punished by the Ph.D. gods because I dared to pursue a field that was edifying for my soul. I did not want to be an M.D., a J.D., a pharmacist, a dentist, a portfolio manager or a corporate executive. I had no desire to work for pharmaceuticals, education profiteers or the war industry. I neither wanted to be rich nor poor. I just wanted quality of life, edifying work and enough money to pay my bills, raise a child or two and leave the country once in a while. I dared to pursue a field that was not made for lower-middle-class, immigrants like me.