Praising her college education, inspired by a professor whom she never knew was an adjunct, Carmen Maria Machado in a recent New Yorker essay tells how little those enrolled in many courses know about the status or the pay (averaging $2800) of what a non-tenure track professor--or is it, I ask, an instructor-- earns. Of course, as we all agree who do this, "it’s true that there are profound pleasures in teaching: seeing your students figuring things out, and flourishing, is like nothing else I’ve experienced." But doubt may creep in.
Machado narrates how she wrote "Prof." in front of name the first day of class, then erased it, leaving a smudge. Students call her by her first name, anyway. She explains a familiar feeling to me, as I tend to refer to myself as someone who "teaches college humanities" as my institution relies on this model of employment for all, full-time "professors" or part-time "visiting faculty" as "at-will"; this to me goes against the assumptions Machado and I agree are part of the way we regard tenure and faculty.
She admits: "I’m not a professor. If I disappeared at the end of the semester, the school would replace me without much trouble, having invested nothing at all in my career. This sensation—a great responsibility, precariously held—is also like nothing else I’ve experienced." Do we merit the title?
I can connect to Machado's unease as a graduate of a "public Ivy" with a top-ten Ph.D. program in my field. Due to the job market where hundreds of us compete for any secure position, we languish while wishing we had security. Meanwhile, we all perpetuate and worsen the situation of contingent labor.
"I don’t want to give away my expertise for so little. But I don’t want to stop teaching, and I don’t want my students to be afraid to reach out to me after we part, either—I don’t want them to do what I would have done. I thrive on their news: they’re heading to graduate school, or they’re submitting work to be published, or are publishing, or have a new project. I don’t only want to teach; I want teaching to be a career, something that I can afford to keep doing." My students do not go into schools, or higher education very often unless an MBA, but as an executive boasted recently at my employer, a BS grad landed a job. It paid more than I make after nearly twenty years full-time there.
Yes, we never go into this for the money. Machado concludes: "The irony of this setup has not escaped me: the adjuncts who teach well despite the low pay and the lack of professional support may inspire in their students a similar passion—prompting them to be financially taken advantage of in turn. It strikes me as a grim perversion of the power of teaching. A key lesson in higher education is that few things matter more than good questions—and, if we don’t speak up, students will never know what to ask." They think faculty everywhere get year-long sabbaticals often, have lots of non-teaching time, low enrollments, light course loads, and perks galore. Machado claims 40% of faculty now are non-tenured, but counting grad students, adjuncts, and full-time non-tenured (the last category often overlooked), it's between 70% and 75% of those teaching U.S. higher education now.
Today my older son presents himself as graduate material, to his classmates and the faculty at the experimental, community-based, liberal-arts college he has had the privilege to attend. My wife's alma mater, and one with which I am proud to have been affiliated if only as a fellow-traveler at two alumni seminars the past two summers, it represents, true, a place with some adjuncts too, and its own financial worries, but it continues to support the intimate ideal of highly qualified, tenured faculty who live and learn among their students daily, a method I wish many more of us could share.