Countdown to Freedom: 12/8/2012

One class down, one special studies section down, two more class meetings to go.

Voilà! The magazine writing course is finished, done, lost and gone forever. Grades for that bunch are filed and I’ll never have to think about them again.

I hope.


One always comes back to haunt. Especially when you’re feeling smug about getting finished.

That section started with twenty students. It ended with five.

Think of that: an attrition rate of 75 percent!

Actually, it ended with eight, since three people who stopped participating never bothered to drop. I gave them W’s with “excessive absences” as the reason. We’re allowed to regard missing an assignment as an “absence” in the online courses. But that doesn’t change the number of classmates who didn’t complete the course.

In general, this class has a very high failure and dropout rate — and it’s not what you’d call  nuclear physics. The hybrid version, which is scheduled in the first eight weeks of each term, hasn’t made at all over the past two semesters. I would expect that’s because students can see there’s a 100 percent online version and prefer that to having to drag into campus once a week.

The person who teaches the hybrid section is full-time, and sooner or later I’m sure she’ll bring a stop to letting some adjunct teach an online section that suctions off students from her section. When hers doesn’t make, she ends up stuck with teaching composition, something she hadn’t done for years until I came along.

(Misery loves company, eh?)

Next semester I think I’ll put this course on Canvas, which will be available to students then. Canvas does have some interactive features that may keep classmates more interested. I could put a listserv on the WP site I’m using, but a) that seems like more hassle than it’s worth and b) I’m wary of  having strangers wander onto that site. Even though the thing supposedly is invisible to search engines, it really isn’t — one of the librarians had no trouble finding it through Google.

So, that means that  just as I want to gear up for a new life in the Free World, I’ll have to devote some unpaid hours to wrestling with a new course management system. Probably many unpaid hours.

Oh well. I just finished a $450 project, and there’s at least $300 worth of work sitting in the in-box, so Copyeditor’s Desk will make its minimum monthly goal this month. Plus I have another order for one of those cool necklaces…just ordered up a bunch of beads and findings from a wholesaler and will start on that thing as soon as they get here.

So I don’t feel very stressed for money and have little excuse to resent working for free for the community college. Except for it bein’ the principle of the thing…

Two more class meetings to go.

Posted in Community Colleges, Online coursework, Students | Leave a comment

Little Brother Is Watching You: Ridiculouser and Ridiculouser

Really. You can’t honor the bureaucracy of a junior college system with the Big Brother sobriquet. So, let’s just call it Little Brother.

I fly into class this midday, needing to dismiss the noon bunch early so I can get to a doctor’s appointment at an office a good 30 to 40 minutes away from the campus. On the way into the building, I follow a Kampus Kop who is chasing one of my favorite students.

He pursues Fave Student into the classroom and, after a brief discussion, drags him out.

Students file into the classroom, distracted by this spectacle. On the whiteboard, I scribble what they need to do in what will soon be my absence.

Ms. Grandmère limps in, bags of food and drink hanging from her walker. She starts to unpack a gallon of milk, stacks of drink cups, and a big dish of brownies. Other students mill about restlessly.

I am pissed.

Shortly, Fave Student resurfaces, remarking on the depth of his hatred for the Kampus Kop. We kid him about his criminal career and ask him what felony he’s committed this time.

The kid’s offense: Daring to light up a cigarette in the parking lot on the edge of the golf course, as far away from the classroom and office buildings as it is possible to get and still be on the freaking campus.

SWB, I think privately: Smoking While Black.

The District has established a new rule: noooooo smoking on campus, on pain of all sorts of various citations.

The stupidity of this has been pointed out to Those in Charge: ours is a working-class demographic; working-class people smoke; tobacco is more addictive than heroin; one does not blithely drop an addiction, particularly when one is under the kind of stress most of our students enjoy day in and day out; you can’t legislate healthful behavior any more than you can legislate morality. Those in Charge, secure in their righteousness, have chosen to ignore the voice of reason.

Fortunately, Kampus Kop elected to give Fave Student a warning rather than gouging him with a fine. I wonder how many white 19-year-olds have been hassled for lighting up on the farthest fringe of the campus, but I bite my tongue.

My patience for stupidity has been especially thin today.

Isn’t it past Little Brother’s bed-time?


Posted in General Miseries, Students | Leave a comment

Countdown to Freedom: 12/5/2012

Three more days to go!

By golly. That’s one more regular class and the two Phaque Phinal days.

Adjuncts are required to show up for final exam periods, willy nilly, or else we don’t get paid. Doesn’t matter whether your course is one for which a final matters or not: you have to meet for the final exam period. I’ve been told we don’t have to give an exam, or make them do anything meaningful. We can have a pizza party, and many slave faculty do exactly that. But one way or another, if we’re not physically there, we don’t get paid for that day — and since most classes meet only twice a week, that means we lose 1/4 of a paycheck!

And that is where I first got the message that adjuncts at Heavenly Gardens Community College are not paid for the totality of the work we do. Our pay is only for the hours we spend in the classroom. If an adjunct gets sick and can’t crawl into the classroom, pay is docked. If the car’s battery won’t start that morning, pay is docked. If a wreck on the freeway stops traffic and makes the person an hour late, pay is docked. If an adjunct can’t get out of jury duty, pay is docked.

Thus, clear as day, all of the work we do in course prep, grading, mentoring students, attending faculty meetings, and killing half-days in required teacher-training workshops is unpaid labor.

At any rate, to get the comp stoonts to show up at this admittedly pointless meeting, I offer 50 extra-credit points for the Phaque Phinal, a ten-question review of substantive issues they should have paid attention to during the 16 weeks in which they idled away their and my time. For anyone whose score is on the plus side of a grade range (say, 86 points, where 89.999 is the top score for a B), 50 points can boost the person up to a higher grade.

Specifically, the questions cover

critical thinking;
rhetorical structure of specific essay genres;
assessment of research sources;
techniques of citation & documentation; and
a few of the most egregious matters of grammar & style.

The Phaque Phinal is a fake final because it’s an open-book, open-handout, open-mobile device, open-laptop affair. They can bring any- and everything they can haul into the classroom to help themselves maximize their scores on this silly little thing.

And I can guarantee this: not many of them will score the full 50 points.

Here’s your chance to score five phaque points:

The opinion of an authority has as much weight as an established truth: true or false? Whichever you select, explain why you think this is so.

Posted in General Miseries | Leave a comment

Crazies in the Classroom, Crazies in the State House

ABC News reports on yet another violent incident on a college campus. This one was all in the family: A demented man decided to kill his father’s live-in girlfriend at home and then visit his father’s classroom and take a crossbow and hunting knife to him.

The father tried to fight off the lunatic son as students fled the room. One commenter on this story wonders why the 18-year-olds didn’t try to protect their professor.

Every day as I drive out to the campus, I wonder if something like this will happen in my classroom. In any such event, the last thing I’d want students to do is try to help me — I would want them all out of the room and out of the building, as fast as they could run.

Teaching in a community college, you find at least one unbalanced person in your classes every semester. This semester I’ve got three in one section. Every time one damaged soul goes off, it stimulates another one someplace else to go berserk.

Eighty percent of US community-college faculty are adjunct, paid $1250 to $2500 per sixteen-week course, an amount that often works out to less than minimum wage. The risk is just not worth that kind of pay.

Here in Arizona, our esteemed legislators’ idea of a response to this situation is simple: arm every  man, woman, and child who walks onto a college campus. They’re serious. Every year or two they advance legislation to allow students and faculty to carry concealed weapons onto campus.

Picture the scene:

Demented Student: ARRRRRGHHHHHHAAAAAA! Ratta-tatta-tatta-tatta-tatta-tatta-tatta-tatta….

Professor Boxankle: Now hold that thought, Mr. Demento, while I dig this Glock out of the bottom of my purse!

Holy cripes.

Legislators who are crazy as loons, presumably elected by a citizenry as crazy as loons in a culture that provides little or no mental health care and warehouses the mentally ill in prisons,  and whose idea of coping with people who are a danger to themselves and others is simply to arm everyone. What a place!

Six  more days of class. Hope I make it through them…

Posted in General Miseries | Leave a comment

Countdown to Freedom: 11/29/2012

Six more class meetings to go.
Three 101 meetings.
Three 102 meetings.

Four more 2,500-word term papers to read; seven to score and assess.

A set of the 101 exercises preliminary to their final 750-word paper awaits on the server. The 750-word argument essay is due December 6. We have 6 days in which to read them.

Three more assignments are incoming from the magazine-writing students.

Fortunately only about five of the latter worthies survive. That’s down from 20 at the outset. Online courses. Ugh.

Oh well. At least one doesn’t have to drive to campus and hang around for 90 minutes to meet online students.

Seventeen of the original 25 Eng. 101 students survive — not bad, all things considered.

Six more classes to go.

Posted in Idle essays | Leave a comment

Countdown to Freedom: 11/27/2012

Eight more days to go.

Four class meetings for each composition section. A week and a half of instruction left, with two assignments remaining for the online magazine writing section and the final essay for the 101s; after that two final exam meetings for the f2f courses, to be occupied by the extra-credit Phaque Phinal, a device created to persuade a few students to show up for the required, redundant, time-wasting final exam meeting, to which adjuncts must show up on pain of not being paid.

Up at 4:00 a.m., grading papers. It’s after 8:30 p.m.; just finished entering grades for the most recent in-class time-filler.

Soon as offices opened on the campus, it was on the phone to the counseling department, where I had to explain the situation with Ms. Annoyance not once, not twice, but three times as the story escalated upward through increasingly responsible levels of supervision. Finally ended up with someone who apparently was as elevated as they get in that office — another adjunct.


She recognized Ms. A’s name but could not recall the context in which she’d heard it. Plowing through her department’s records and looking up our stressed student’s records by her ID number shed no light on that question. However, she did discover that Ms. A is enrolled in a course taught by one of the counselors, one of those “Welcome-to-College-Now-Grow-Up” things that have become all the rage in higher education.

She said she’d explain the situation to said colleague; the teacher-student relationship should at least open that door in a convenient way. The words “an adult student with four kids of her own said she’s afraid of her” and “might harm herself” helped a great deal in this endeavor.

So. At least I’ve alerted some authority somewhere about whatever risk, if any, exists.

Entertainingly enough, when I remarked that this has been a particularly difficult semester in the behavioral department, she said things have been crazy all across the campus. She said they had never had so many behavioral issues in one semester, in the entire history of their department. “We’ve heard some stories that you wouldn’t believe,” said she.

Ohhh-kayyy. I guess I should feel happy that the 101s have only come close to fisticuffs.

Ms. A did not appear today. One of the veterans riveted classmates’ attention by discussing his struggle with PTSD and describing how he felt, to paraphrase mightily, like an outsider. Our future police officer revealed that he didn’t even know what assignment was due next, to say nothing of having even vaguely thought about a topic for it.

It’s hard to think of a subject for an assignment you don’t know exists, eh?

I can’t stand it.


Posted in General Miseries, Students | 2 Comments

Lord, Is This EVER Going to End???

Cripes. What an endless semester. This has been one of the most difficult semesters I can remember.

In the magazine writing course, which mercifully is online — meaning I don’t have to confront at least one nut case face to face — a woman plagiarized not one but two assignments, all the while bleating that I was not returning her papers. Each of her papers had been returned to both of the e-mail addresses she’s been using, and, when it appeared that they may have been intercepted by her system’s spam filter, I re-sent every paper and her current score spreadsheet from not one, not two, but three e-mail addresses.

She finally gets the message that copying and pasting a web page into a Word document and turning it in as her work results in a grade of zero. Now she e-mails and asks if she may be allowed to rewrite the plagiarized assignments for a grade.

I should do a lot of extra work because you decide to cheat in a college course? Right! Let us leave aside the fact that I consider it deeply insulting that you think I’m so stupid I can’t figure out that you’re cheating. Give me a break!

Moving on, when I had a few minutes to sit quietly and think while stringing beads for a living, the weary mind turned to the issue of Ms. Annoyance.

Her behavior becomes more bizarre as the days pass. On a couple of occasions, she has walked into the classroom, sat down, sulked, and after about 15 or 20 minutes has gotten up and walked out. The last time the class met, though, she didn’t even sit down. She walked in, stood there, looked slowly around the classroom, and then turned around and walked out.

One of the students in that class, a grown woman with several kids of her own, told me that she was afraid of Ms. Annoyance, who, she said, telephoned her in the middle of the night in some sort of manic state. I didn’t question her in any detail, because I tend not to encourage neurotic or exaggerated concerns. However, in light of the way Ms. A is behaving, I wonder.

Statistically, it’s unlikely that she’s dangerous. Strafing classrooms with a street sweeper is a guy thing.

However, my concern is that she could be a danger to herself. I’m becoming increasingly concerned that she might harm herself. And I’m not sure what to do about it.

I’ve already made such a flap about this woman that I hate to draw more attention to her — which could be harmful, too — or to myself. I’m sure the chair already thinks I’m plenty eccentric — last week I had to let him know about the exchange between me and the plagiarist, which entailed forwarding her papers and cc-ing  him with e-mails bearing the plagiarized copy. Earlier in the semester I dragged Ms. A into his presence so we could sit her down and make her understand that she can’t engage in disruptive behavior during class time. If I create another scene over Ms. A, he’ll likely think I’m crazy as a loon.

That conclusion may be correct, but I’d just as soon he didn’t know it.

On the other hand, what if she commits suicide? Of course, it’s not my fault if someone else chooses to off herself. But it could be my fault if I sense she’s about to harm herself and do nothing to intervene.

Her class doesn’t meet until next Tuesday. No one is on the campus over the Thanksgiving weekend, and that includes the counseling people. There’s not a thing I can do about it until Monday. The question is…what, if anything, to do on Monday?

Posted in General Miseries, Plagiarism, Students | 9 Comments

Countdown to Freedom: 11/21/2012

Eleven more days to go.

In about four and a half hours, it’ll be ten more days. Right this instant, at four in the morning, we have six more 102 class meetings and five more 101 meetings. So that’s two more weeks, both spent treading water while we try to shovel the horrible 2500-word Eng. 102 position paper off our respective desks. The 101s have an argument paper left to do.

That makes for 52,500 words of drivel to be read, commented upon, and assessed in the next two weeks. BARF!

And that doesn’t count the query, interview, and two articles coming in from the magazine-article writing students. Fortunately, only about a half-dozen of those students survive.

One of them turned in a copy-and-paste job for her how-two piece. Score: –10.

Ten points off for not bothering to even so much as type her own name, contact information, target publication, and word count into a heading. One hundred points off for copying an entire web page and pasting it into a Word document.

I can’t even tell you how tedious I find this kind of thing. As much as I hate grading students’ illiterate original efforts, to my mind turning in something that you’ve copied word-for-word is profoundly insulting. In addition to the little sh!t presuming to waste my time by expecting me to grade it, the implication that I am so stupid I’ll never notice is just infuriating.

Speaking of stupid… Frankly, I’m beginning to think that anyone who would persist at this job for more than a year or so is none too bright. When you read sites populated by adjuncts and even by full-time faculty, you see the woods are full of people complaining incessantly about the exploitive conditions under which some 80 percent of U.S. university and college faculty work. And yet, you know…those conditions exist because people put up with them.

Okay, I’m grateful that I had the skills to get something, no matter how underpaid and frustrating, to keep the wolf from the door when I was laid off my job.

But what I’ve earned really did not keep the wolf away. All it has done is delay the day when inevitably I would run out of money. I started with $28,000 of emergency savings in the bank. Fourteen grand was transferred to a brokerage account, some of it put into a Roth IRA and some into non-tax deferred investments. The remainder was used to keep me going when my adjunct income plus Social Security did not pay the bills, which was most of the time. Today about $5,500 of that remains.

It’s been three years since layoff day, and you have to allow that living on $14,000 for three years was not a bad little accomplishment. The lifestyle hasn’t been great, though. And needing to use five grand of that money to shore up the house’s defenses after the garage invasion episode, having spent two years living like an anchorite and holding down a miserable job I just loathe so as to stretch that money as long as possible, was, shall we say, discouraging.

So truly, it is a pointless effort. I would have done better to have applied for a federal job, as one woman at the Social Security Administration advised, or to have gone to work for Costco, as one of their employees suggested.

Costco employees are amazingly happy in their jobs. Adjuncts, by and large, are not. Administrators pretend to or, possibly in some cases actually do, agonize about working conditions and exploitation of adjuncts, but if anyone in college and university administration gave a damn, obviously these conditions would not prevail.

At Confessions of a Community College Dean, proprietor Dean Dad wonders rhetorically, “What would it take to give every adjunct who wants it a full-time permanent job?” This gives him an opportunity to say, in effect, it costs too much to treat employees fairly.

I said it there, and I’ll say it here: There’s a simple way to resolve this problem. Let me correct myself, though: actually, there are two ways.

First, people who think they want to teach full-time and find themselves unable to land full-time work must quit doing this. Don’t teach on an adjunct basis under any circumstances. Work is not a vocation. We are not nuns and priests. We do not serve God — far from it, obviously. Work exists to put food on the table and a roof overhead. For the individual, that is all it is good for.

If people would not put up with ill treatment, it would not happen. So, fellow adjuncts: GET A JOB.

Second, the whole issue would become moot if colleges and universities quit producing MAs and PhDs in disciplines whose teaching faculties are overrun with adjuncts. Most of these are in the humanities. If faculties in an academic discipline are largely staffed by adjuncts, that discipline obviously represents a dead end for young people who think they want academic careers.

Graduate programs in these disciplines should be shut down or cut way, way back. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that we need federal legislation to make this happen, since you can be sure universities will continue to churn out MAs and PhDs as long as they can find suckers to go into their programs. To cut their graduate programs would be to force full-time senior faculty to teach the gummy, frustrating, and endlessly annoying lower-division courses presently foisted on adjuncts and junior faculty. We need legislation to establish a nationwide limit on the number of PhDs and MAs that can be granted in, say, English literature or rhet-comp. And stick to it.

It will take time, but after about twenty years, many fewer people will be eligible to teach on the college or university level. Thus, eventually all faculty in the humanities will be full-time, because there will no longer be a surplus of qualified applicants.

Yeah, it’s nice that a job of sorts was out there to break my fall when the recession yanked a decent job out from under me. The only reason that was true, though, is that Social Security and a small savings account made it possible for me to scrabble together a living on what is nothing even remotely like a living wage. How much better off would I have been had I never gone into academia at all? The full-time job at the Great Desert University was nice while it lasted (15 years!), but it was underpaid compared to what I could have earned in public relations or, for godsake, at selling real estate.

You don’t need an academic job to be an intellectual. All you need is a library and a publishing house. I would have been better off had I gotten a real estate license or taken a job at a PR agency at the time I divorced.

Much, much better off.

Posted in Adjunct Poverty, Education in America, Plagiarism, Students | 1 Comment

What’s Wrong with Freshman Composition, and How to Fix It

My having mellowed the other day (briefly, no doubt) when the 101 students showed a flicker of intelligence led frugalscholar and Sandra J to remark that I may secretly like my students.

LOL! Well, I do: it’s not the students I dislike. In fact, if I didn’t have to read their marginally literate papers, I would happily hang out with them for an hour or two a couple of times a week.  Preferably in some venue that offers something decent to eat.

What I dislike most about teaching freshman comp is freshman comp: the futility of it, the bureaucratic stupidity of it, the wrongheadedness of the pedagogical theories behind the teaching of writing in general. Freshman comp is a waste of time for about 99 percent of the students who are made to take it. If they’ve not learned how to write competently in their native language by the time they reach the college level, they’re not going to learn it in one or two semesters; if they have, then the course is a pointless hoop-jump. And consequently, freshman comp is in general a waste of faculty time, student tuition, and taxpayer dollars.

Witness the stupidity of what’s happening to the guy who showed up at Heavenly Gardens with a passing grade in composition from a college on the quarter system. Because he had not physically sat in a classroom the desired number of hours, the District would give him only two of the three required credits for English 101. Consequently, he is having to take a one-credit special studies course with me, in which I am expected to jump him through the hoops of demonstrating that he’s read chapters in the textbook and then make him write an argumentative paper. He’s already done those things at the school whence he came. Nevermind that he turned in a perfectly fine “A” paper arguing that an investor’s risk tolerance (or lack thereof) should not override the need for diversification in a portfolio, no matter what the investor’s time of life. Making this man plod through one extra credit to prove his competence in writing a 750-word paper (about the length of a blog post!) is a pointless waste of his time.

The very idea iconizes what’s wrong with requiring freshman comp for every kid who comes down the pike.

Okay. So like Mitt Romney and his Republican pals, if I’m going to say everything is wrong with a policy, I need to come up with a functioning alternative. Here it is:

1. See to it that all K-12 teachers are literate. Too many people who go into education are about at the level of my freshmen. That’s why students come out of high school barely able to write their names: they’re being taught by rafts of education majors who themselves have never learned basic grammar, style, and punctuation and who may rarely have written a piece of exposition during their own years in school.

2. Train teachers in their subject matter, not in social work. If schools are to be institutions of social work, then hire social workers to do the social work and let teachers spend their time teaching.

3. Teach formal grammar, style, and punctuation starting about in the second grade. Teach standard American English to students in low-SES schools in such a way as to make them understand their own dialect is not “wrong” but that to succeed in the larger world, they need two dialects: whatever they speak on the street and the standard English they hear on the television.

4. Continue to teach students how the English language works — that is, explicitly to teach grammar, style, and spelling — all the way through to the end of the twelfth grade.

5. Teach a second language to all students, beginning in kindergarten and extending all the way through high school. If a student is already a native speaker of a language or is from a home where a language other than English is spoken, give that student formal training in the grammar, style, and spelling of that language and accept formal instruction in English as the person’s required second language, at least until a high level of fluency in writing as well as speaking is achieved. Learning a second language turbocharges logical thinking skills, narrows achievement gaps, enhances skills in mathematics and other core subjects, and, more specifically, leads to a stronger grasp of and skill in one’s native language.

6. Require expository writing assignments in every subject, beginning about in the third grade. As soon as a child can write a short essay, she or he must begin writing about things learned in school and in the world around us.

No matter what their subject, do not allow teachers to get out of requiring at least one expository term paper in every course, assessed according to a set of credible rubrics appropriate to grade level.

7. Do not allow regular English teachers (as opposed to teachers of distinct creative writing courses) to assign students to write poetry, short stories, and dreamy “journals.” Require that English classes teach exposition.

Especially, do not allow schools to substitute creative writing for English exposition under the rubric of “AP English,” as they do here in Arizona.

8. Require students to read all the time. If they live in poverty-stricken neighborhoods where the parents don’t read because they don’t understand why they should read or because they can’t read, then set up the schools in those neighborhoods so that teachers begin reading aloud to students in kindergarten or preschool for at least an hour a day (not necessarily in one chunk), and continue reading to such students every day through the end of the fourth or fifth grade.

9. In all districts, provide after-school day-care for the youngest grades, during which reading aloud — either by the teachers or by the kids themselves in game-like contexts — is a required activity.

10. Ensure that at least 50% of this reading consists of real literature, not “YA” pap.

Do this, and the urgent sense that college students must somehow learn to write competently will go away.

Image: Sir John Lavery, Miss Auras, the Red Book. 1900. Public domain.


Posted in Teaching composition | 8 Comments

Countdown to Freedom: 10/16/2012

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.






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?”

Moving on.

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…






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.



Posted in General Miseries, Students | 3 Comments