Thursday, January 29, 2015


A few years ago, the larger department stores (Sears, JC Penney's, Montgomery-Ward) in a major cost-cutting effort, decreased the number of full-time employees and replaced them with part-timers. In addition to being able to pay them less, they didn't have to pay for benefits, which can be as much as a third of their payroll cost. And for a time, it seemed to be working. But there's one measure of difference between people for whom the job is a career and those for whom the job is not part of their life's ambition: attitude. Shifting to part-time from full-time employees produced a shift away from loyalty, dedication to the work, and pride in what they do.

Around the same time, a similar shift occurred in higher education. In 2012, the National Center for Educational Statistics reported that the use of part-time (aka adjunct) faculty in U.S.higher education institutions increased from 23% in 1971to 50% in 2011. Most part-time instructors have no job security, no health benefits, and no office. In a classic example of the abuse of adjuncts, Margaret Mary Vojtko, who taught French at Duquesne University for 25 years, was dismissed in Spring 2013 at 83 years old. She never earned more than $25,000 a year, even when she taught eight courses. In her last year she was only teaching one class a semester. And when she was dismissed, she had cancer. She did not have a pension and did not receive any severance. She died that August.

Early last December I received a notification from the local community college where I teach that I had been assigned to teach three classes for the current semester--two 'live' and one on line. I also received assignments to teach two online classes for another school located out of the state. All of these classes were different, so I declined one of the latter and told the local school I would like to keep the live classes, but drop the online class. That would leave me with three assignments--plenty to do since I'm involved in other projects outside of teaching.

The schools complied with my request and so I spent the last half of December and the first two weeks of January preparing for the remaining two live classes. That means setting up a schedule, getting ahead in the reading for the courses, and coding my Dr. Write web site with all of the material the students would need: syllabus, schedules, assignments, calendar, resources, etc.

A few days before the beginning of the current semester I received an e-mail saying that one of my live classes had been taken away and given to a full-time instructor who had a class that didn't 'make.' My assignment was reduced to one class. This is a common practice at most schools. (The e-mail from the dean simply said: "I apologize for the inconvenience.")

I see that situation as analogous to the free-lance writing I used to do for various magazines. That  process involved submitting a proposal for a piece, having it accepted, submitting the article, and getting paid upon publication. Sometimes, though, the article was cut; however, recognizing that the writer has spent the time and effort to produce the piece, the magazine provided what's known as a 'kill fee,' a portion of the payment. It's a much-appreciated courtesy.

But there is no 'kill fee' or compensation for an adjunct who does the preparation work for a course only to have it 'cut.' The implication is that a full-time teacher is worth more than a part-timer. And that's true if you consider that they are paid more, easily five to ten times as much per class as an adjunct. Furthermore, adjunct salaries vary widely from one school to another. (My pay for teaching online for that school in another state is one-third higher than what I'm paid for teaching online at a Tennessee community college.) But are they worth more to the student?

Full-time faculty often have had little or no experience in "the real world" of their subject and they are often unfamiliar with what's happening in their discipline outside the academic environs. (I know of only a few English teachers who were ever employed as writers or editors, history teachers employed as historians, math teachers as mathematicians, etc.) Syllabi for courses often include goals relating to real-world situations, but quizzes, exams, and other evaluations are often lacking that connection.

Frankly, I don't see any of this changing soon. I do my best to bring my experiences in business and industry into my classes and connect it to the skills I teach. But it's hard to generate enthusiasm and loyalty to an institution that doesn't reflect that value-added feature. And how will Obama's free community college plan be funded? Did I hear someone say "More adjuncts?"

The other day I asked the full-time teacher who was assigned the class I had taken away if the administration gives her a choice of adjunct classes to choose from. She shook her head. "Sometimes they do," she said, "and sometimes they don't." And added with a shrug: "I'm just a peon."

I smiled and nodded. "Well," I replied "if you're a peon, what am I?"

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