Thirteen more days to go.
No class on Thursday, grâce á Thanksgiving break. That would be “thanks to Thanksgiving,” a little overkill in the gratitude department. Because of the break, we have seven more 102 classes and only six more 101 classes.
The 101 students exhibited a great burst of competence this week. I was impressed. When faced with a piece of writing that is really very bad, they recognize what’s wrong with it and they can articulate, within limits, where the logical flaw is.
I came across this post at The Adjunct Project, whose proprietor has apparently decided to let the site function as a bitching board. He seems to be accepting just about any squib from anyone, come who may, as long as it contains a complaint about adjunct teaching.
On the surface, Mr. Domino’s post looked like a good essay to use as an example for their last paper, 750 words of argumentation. At 1,323 words, it’s twice as long as their requirement; however, it addresses the course’s overarching subject matter (education in America), it demonstrates the use of research sources to support the author’s thesis, and it defends a point about the desired subject: that staffing college and university classrooms with grossly underpaid adjuncts degrades the quality of education in this country and over time erodes full-time faculties in a number of ways.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? In my experience, his first point at least is true. The second very well may be true in some institutions, because as administrators continue to respond to rising costs and shrinking budgets, they naturally will try to keep their institutions running with part-time help working for Third-World wages: the academic equivalent of outsourcing work to Mexico and Bangladesh.
The young pups were shocked when they realized how much adjunct faculty are paid; when they learned what I earn to run their course over an entire semester and that my pay is relatively generous compared to adjunct wages in other parts of the country, they were beyond shocked. An uneasy silence descended (briefly) over the room as they digested what it means to earn even less than $2,400 to design, teach, and assess a course over four months, and how many such courses one would have to teach to cobble together a marginally living wage.
As we progressed through reading the post aloud, though, they began to question elements of its author’s argument. In the first section, for example, where he holds forth about salary, Domino starts with a mention of the Chronicle‘s report that young PhD’s who imagined they would go from graduate school to entry-level academic jobs routinely find themselves buying groceries with food stamps. Then he jumps to the huge increase in underemployed Americans that occurred in the wake of the Great Recession, pointing to the number of Americans—all Americans in jobs of all kinds—who have been forced into part-time work. From there he complains that he hasn’t even been able to get an interview for the modestly paying full-time jobs that have come open in his district.
Asked, at the end of that section, “What do you think of this?,” the freshmen studied the copy on the overhead screen.
“Waitaminit,” one kid said. “One of those sources was published in 2009. The other is dated 2012. Is that legitimate?”
“Could be,” Virgil said to the budding Dante. “If they were talking about the same thing. Are they?”
Kid 1: “One of them is talking about what happened to all workers right after the recession. But by the beginning of 2012, the recession was over.”
Kid 2: “People with PhDs are not the same as all the other workers in the country.”
Kid 3: “A lot of people can’t get great jobs fresh out of college. Isn’t that different from being laid off your job?”
Conclusion: apples were being compared to oranges. Fallacy: faulty analogy!
Moving on to the post’s next section, “Benefits,” we find Mr. Domino complaining that money is withheld from his part-time pay for a 403(b) plan, that he has no choice in this, and that he needs every penny he earns to put food on the table. Says he, “When I questioned Human Resources, I was told schools do this to avoid contributing to employees’ social security [sic], in other words, save the college money [sic].”
The young visitors to the Inferno paused to gaze at this wonder.
“How can putting money from his paycheck into a retirement plan save the college money?” asked one of them. “It’s his money that’s going into the retirement plan.”
“Is a 403(b) the same as a 401(k)?” asked another.
“Yes,” I said. “The employer generally matches the employee’s contribution. But not always.”
They mulled this over.
“Well, wouldn’t it mean that if they were taking pre-tax money out of his pay, the college would have to pay less FICA on what would remain of his salary?”
“It would depend,” I said. “Anyone an accounting major or work in HR? Do you pay FICA on gross or after-tax salary?”
One student thought both the employer’s and the employee’s share of FICA are paid on gross earnings. Another thought it had to be on after-tax pay.
SMART PHONES OUT!
Lo! FICA is paid on gross salary, not on whatever is left after retirement, healthcare, and other deductions. And our author is caught in a muzzy misunderstanding, if not a downright factual error. The crime is compounded by the sentence fragment near the top of his paragraph.
Kid 1: “Does this guy really have a PhD?”
Virgil: “You don’t need a PhD to teach adjunct in a junior college. A master’s degree will do.”
Kid 1: “He has a master’s degree? In what?”
In the next section, the author trots out our favorite chestnut about students, “widespread deficiency in basic skills and cultural literacy,” as an example of the atrocious working conditions under which adjuncts must labor. To prove his point, he claims none of the students in four sections of freshman comp had ever heard of Thoreau’s Walden Pond. More oppressive still: they don’t even know who Freud is!
Virgil: “Who has read Walden Pond?” Four of about 17 students raised their paws.
“Anybody taken psych 101?” No one responded. “But have you ever heard of Sigmund Freud?”
Random kid: “Well, yeah!”
Supporting random kid: “Yeah. He’s the guy who started it.”
The rant about the bull-pen offices and the lockers (poor guy) elicited an observation from me that Heavenly Gardens adjuncts have no office space at all and can’t even stash a lunchbag in the departmental refrigerator, to say nothing of having a locker to hold coats and purses. Come to think of it, that $11 to $12/hour pay rate our author cites, the one that so shocked the 19-year-olds who earn more than that slinging burgers and managing retail outlets, is a little off: I pointed out that my de facto pay comes to about minimum wage, after you figure in the unpaid course prep time, the unpaid teacher prep workshops, the unpaid faculty meetings, and the unpaid grading time. Come to think of it, in the past I’ve calculated a rate that came to slightly less than minimum wage.
The $39,000 base starting pay for starting full-timers shocked them, too: they felt that was absurdly low for a college graduate with a master’s degree, to say nothing of a PhD. I pointed out that new full-time faculty at Heavenly Gardens start in the mid-50K range.
Now they began to question facts throughout the thing.
Kid: How can a 39-hour-a-week Walmart employee be classified as “part-time,” when 40 hours a week is full-time? You have to be working less than 50% time to be a part-time worker. Could our author mean a 49%-time employee? In that case, does he really think 49% of 40 hours is 39 hours?
Kid: What’s this “two-thirds model” thing?
Virgil: In theory, two-thirds of college faculty are adjunct. But I’ve heard it’s more like 80 percent…
SMART PHONES OUT!
In public four-year colleges, the percentage of instructional faculty who are part-time ranges from about 30 percent to about 60 percent. In two-year schools, the figures range from about 65 percent to about 77 percent.
This very month (November 5, 2012), the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that in 2010 some 85 percent of community college instructors nationwide were ineligible for tenure (i.e., adjunct), and according to the same report, ratios in many university departments are almost as high.
That’s a whole lot different from one-third full-time and two-thirds part-time.
The author again declines into moaning at this point, which is toward the end of the post: “The two-thirds model (adjunct staffing percentage) can be described as analogous to the Feudal system, where the peasants and serfs constituted the majority and wealth and power were concentrated in the minority ruling class.”
While none of the students noticed that the word “feudal” is not a proper adjective, they did pick up on something more important:
Student 1: “Were serfs paid anything at all?”
Student 2: “I thought they were part of the family. Wasn’t serfdom some sort of family system of farming?”
Student 3: “Are peasants the same as serfs?”
Virgil: “Of course serfs weren’t paid anything. They were basically slaves. You could say they were attached to certain families in that they were attached to the land owned by a family of a wealthy aristocrats. They had no choice as to where they could go: they lived and worked wherever they happened to be born.”
“So,” said one young woman with devastating adolescent accuracy, “that is stupid!”
As the discussion turned to the post’s overall implication, the class reflected that the argument contained a basic fallacy: adjuncts are not serfs. No one is forced to work as an adjunct college instructor. If a college kid in a part-time job can earn more than an adjunct instructor over 16 weeks (a Walmart cashier working 20 hours a week earns $300 more than I do in the course of a semester, and a Costco cashier would earn $3004 more), then surely a person with a master’s or doctoral degree can do better.
Once one grasps the extreme unlikelihood that working for such ridiculous pay will ever land you a full-time academic job, a person who persists in teaching adjunct would have to be stupid as a post. A Costco supervisor earns significantly more than the starting full-time faculty wage cited by Mr. Domino—for a position presumably gained by dint of years spent in graduate school and then even more years spent working as a “serf.” And the Costco supervisor is not expected to put in unpaid time or to take work home with her.
Unless you have a source of independent income that allows you to regard your adjunct job as a hobby, continuing to work in the job under the present conditions—in which various circumstances discourage colleges from hiring full-time faculty and encourage them to hire part-timers—continuing to hold such jobs is pointless.
I was pleased with the 101s. They’re not as dumb as everyone claims. Given the opportunity and minimal ushering, they spot fallacies, they spot factual errors, and they even display a high degree of logical thinking skill.
There’s hope for America yet.