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Adjunct Professors Need a Better Ground Game

It’s no secret. In recent years, there has been a growing concern over colleges and universities increasingly relying on adjunct professors to teach a large portion of their classes. ​​According to some reports, roughly 75 percent of instructors teaching college-level classes in the U.S. are not on a tenure track and more than half of all faculty hires are part-time and paid next to nothing. One report found that nearly 25 percent of adjuncts rely on public assistance programs, with 40 percent unable to afford basic household expenses.

There are already a series of proposals to address the crisis. A coalition of unions that represent teachers and professors called on Congress last month to allocate money to higher education institutions for more tenure track lines. Holly Brewer, a professor at the University of Maryland, wrote in these pages that the government should impose a salary hike for adjunct teachers. While it’s true that we need a serious investment in tenure track lines in academia and that all adjuncts should earn more per course, these proposals won’t address all the problems faced by adjuncts. And they are unlikely to come to fruition anytime soon.

Adjunct professors shouldn’t wait until Congress finally decides to do something about the problem. Rather, they should fight to improve their working conditions now by creating statewide adjunct unions to strengthen their collective bargaining power.

There are already unions that represent adjunct faculty, such as SEIU; but because national unions create chapters for adjuncts at individual institutions, victories are secured on a patchwork basis. A union chapter may negotiate a pay raise for adjuncts at one college, for instance, but the adjuncts at another one a town over may still need to be on food stamps. That’s why we need a statewide approach to ensure that improvements are more widely felt—and to give adjuncts more power in greater numbers.

As an adjunct myself, I know firsthand how contingent faculty are treated. Adjuncts are, of course, expected to prepare for courses with a similar amount of work as tenured faculty. We develop courses, build syllabi, engage in research, order books, and create online course modules before the semester starts. Typically, however, adjuncts are only paid during the time we are actually in class teaching—so not only is a significant amount of unpaid labor built into our contract, but we also usually have to teach (and commute) for about a month before we receive our first paycheck for the semester. This is a particular hardship for adjuncts, because we often have to commute to multiple schools rather than living near our full-time job. Train tickets, gas, car insurance, and tolls all add up.

This semester, for example, my commute costs me $60 a week on the train. I will have to make that commute four times before my pay begins. Meanwhile, the unpaid labor doesn’t belong to me as intellectual property. One school I’ve worked at has taken a course I developed and taught for it multiple semesters. It is now offering that class in the department, taught by someone else. It’s also common practice to show past syllabi made by adjuncts to the current adjunct teaching the course. Last year, I had an adjunct contact me and demand that I help them prepare to teach the course using my syllabus.

Read entire article at Washington Monthly