Life as a Rice adjunct: standing at the front of the class

 lecture hall

The traditional vision of the college professor is that of the tenure-track faculty member: the guy with elbow patches and a tweed jacket who does research, lectures and has tenure – job security that allows them freedom to do research and teach controversial subjects.

That vision is less true today than it has ever been, as universities cut costs on teaching budgets and replace full time tenured professor positions with contingent labor that’s cheaper to employ – and easier to abuse.

More than two-thirds of the faculty members who teach college in the United States are not tenure track – not counting graduate assistants—and that number is rising quickly.

I’m one of them – I teach one course in political science at Rice University this spring. I earned my PhD in Political Science from Michigan last spring and have now applied for more than 100 tenure-track faculty jobs over the past three years with no luck.  The job market is stuffed with desperate PhDs – open tenure-track jobs routinely draw scores or even hundreds of applications in political science, and the situation is even worse in the humanities.

I like teaching at Rice. A lot.  The students are sharp, thoughtful and delightfully quirky. They usually do the reading and participate in class. They take writing assignments and study for tests seriously. They even laugh at some of my jokes.

But as a contingent faculty member (at Rice I am called a “lecturer,” some other places call them “adjuncts”), I have no job security. I get contracted to teach by the course.  This term, Rice has one course for me; next fall, they might not have any.  Like most contingent faculty, my job security only extends until the end of the term.  It’s kind of tough to plan for the future.

I don’t receive any fringe benefits. Thankfully, the Affordable Care Act has provided me with reasonably priced health insurance for the past three months.  But it’s still tough to save for retirement without access to Rice’s well-managed retirement plans or generous matching program the university provides to full-time staff.

By contingent faculty standards, I am paid fairly well — at Rice, I make $6,000 a course – but I am paid far less than a professor to teach the same course.

According to the American Association of University Professors annual salary survey, published here at the Chronicle for Higher Education, an average tenure-track Rice assistant professor (an entry-level position) makes about $90,000 a year. Those salary figures are self-reported and may not include a representative sample of professors, but the number is in line with what the University of Michigan – a prestigious research institution on Rice’s level – pays its own assistant professors according to its publicly available numbers.

Tenure track professors have research and service requirements, which lecturers do not, so comparing my salary with an assistant professor’s directly is misleading.  However, comparisons are possible.  At most research-heavy political science departments, tenure-track faculty generally have to teach three courses a year (two one semester, one the other), whereas in most high-end liberal arts colleges, which focus primarily on teaching, professors teach six courses a year.  At community colleges, where teaching is the largest responsibility by far, most professors are required to teach eight courses a year.

With these baselines in mind, I would make either $36,000 or $48,000 annually teaching a full course load at Rice. That’s about 40 to 53 percent of what an assistant professor would make for doing the same amount of work here. Remember, that figure doesn’t include fringe benefits like retirement contributions – to which many universities will contribute or match up to 10 percent of a staff member’s salary – or health or disability insurance.

Again, I like teaching at Rice, and the university does treat its adjuncts well in comparison to most other colleges and universities in the country.  I have a Rice e-mail address. I have an ID card and access to the library. I have the right to park on campus for the same rates as tenure-track faculty and other staff. I have office spaces and the keys to access it. I get paid on time. I can access the fitness center. Faculty and staff treat me with friendly respect.  I even get invited to department happy hours. I know of situations at other universities where lecturers have been denied some or all of these things. (See for example here and here).

In those situations, the pay is terrible.  According to the AAUP survey, median pay per course for lecturers is about $3,000- $3,500, which makes my compensation look like a princely sum by comparison. That means teaching a full 4-4 load would give a lecturer about $24,000-$28,000 in pay a year – usually with no benefits. Often that 4-4 load involves patching together courses at several different universities on different sides of a city (becoming a “freeway flyer”), often containing both day and evening courses.  Try raising a family with that time or money.

Remember, most lecturers have PhDs; it’s not like we’re high-school drop outs.

There’ also no job security.  True, most states are “at will” states in which an employer can fire an employee at any time, but most workers have at least a de facto presumption of continued employment.  That’s rarely true in the contingent faculty game – if you’re lucky, you’ll have a one- or two-year contract. For most, like me, you’ll have to cobble together a new teaching load every semester and hope for the best.

No wonder why lecturers and other contingent faculty are forming unions in increasing numbers.

It’s frustrating to say the least having to cobble together several part-time jobs that don’t add up to a full-time salary. It’s frustrating to know that the assistant professor down the hall from you earns a lot more than you do per course, even though you both have similar educational attainments.  It’s frustrating to have no long-term job security, and few prospects for advancement – it’s tough to do research that will get you hired and promoted when you have no research support as a faculty member.

And I’m one of the luckier ones.

Look, contingent faculty care about your children – we love teaching so much that we’re willing to engage terrible pay, no benefits and no stability to do it. Many of us are quite good at it. But also remember that our working conditions are your children’s learning conditions.

Keep that in mind when you’re college shopping for your kid, or making a donation to your alma mater.

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