For Adjunct Professors, Winter is Break-ing (A re-post on Ph.D. poverty)

I encountered this story by Caprice Lawless through A New Faculty Majority Facebook page, and was so struck by it, that I contacted her to ask permission to put on the TPII blog.  She graciously agreed.  It is an account of adjunct poverty that is devastating in its specificity and candor. It was originally posted here, on the website of the Front Range (Colorado) Community College Chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

To give some context, Caprice’s post went up January 3.  The post preceding it, dating from September, includes this photo:

Food bank display for adjuncts in Colorado

Food bank display for adjuncts in Colorado

The photo is accompanied by this text:

“To meet a pressing need, our FRCC AAUP chapter has begun weekly visits to area food banks along Colorado’s front range. It’s been remarkable to discover that staff at some food banks are already aware of the situation with Colorado’s community college faculty majority. We placed the displays shown above in adjunct workrooms to inform adjunct faculty who may not yet know about our visits, but who need food. We are finding that going to food banks with peers forestalls some worry, removes the stigma from food bank use and contributes to solidarity among peers. The visits are especially welcome by adjunct faculty who have children at home. We are posting a photo of one of our displays here, as well as the copy for the sign below, for others to consider using if such a campaign might be helpful at your college or university campus. Boxes of crackers and jars of peanuts seemed appropriate props.

Fall semester, 2013, the annual average wage for FRCC adjunct faculty remains thousands below the minimum living wage for Colorado’s front-range communities. This low wage qualifies many FRCC adjunct teachers for food stamps, food-banks, indigent health-care cards and other resources.”

The post continues:

“Many adjuncts tell us they feel ashamed to be teaching, as if they have made a mistake in choosing to teach our students. They take as proof of their mistake their low wages, lack of health care, etc.

Many are deeply in debt, using credit cards to purchase necessities. They feel they have failed.”

It concludes:

“You have not failed; the system has failed you. Changes are underway. Meantime, you need to eat. You may need medical care. Contact us. We care. We can help.”

(As of today, I am creating a new category on the blog:  Shame)

Thank you, Caprice, for fearlessly telling your story.


Most of my peers are afraid to tell you their stories, afraid of what will happen to them if they do. They are drowning in the shame of their stories. Because its effects are so widespread, and its effect on students undeniable, I am going to tell you my story. Take it as representative of the stories of my peers. It describes a particular type of shame that breaks spirits this time of year, especially.

This is not the story of a person addicted to drugs or alcohol, or of a person who can’t find work. Mine is the story of a typical community college adjunct professor. Multiply it by 4,012: That is how many of us teach 60-85% of the courses Colorado’s Community College System (CCCS) offers (the percentage varies by campus).

I have two advanced degrees and 15 years of experience as a newspaper reporter, magazine editor, and communications director. I bring hard-won education and experience to teach, each year, 250 or so of Colorado’s economically struggling youth, its adults looking for new careers, and its top-performing high-school students who are ready to take on a college course. However, for all these contributions, the “happy holiday” season brings with it an avalanche of shame, because I live in poverty.

At year-end, as do most of my peers, I begin to charge the bare necessities on a credit card. I won’t see a paycheck until the end of February, and will be charging expenses well past Valentine’s Day. I have done the same since 2009, and I am deeply in debt for doing so. Like most adjunct professors, I live paycheck to paycheck. Of course, I pick up other writing and editing as I can, but it has never been enough, in this economy, to change my situation. My college will not approve unemployment benefits for adjunct professors between semesters; I’ve tried to get it. Although I teach the same, or more, number of classes per year as “full-time” faculty, giving more than a decade of top-notch service to the college, and I am scheduled to teach my classes every semester, year-round, I’m classified as part-time faculty. Like the earnings of countless other adjunct professors, my annual earnings are below the poverty level.

“You are just a part-time worker!” the campus HR clerk explained to me in an exasperated tone, the only time I applied, and was immediately denied, unemployment at the start of winter break a few years ago. She had to pause to chuckle, as she enumerated all the reasons the CCCS would not pay me “or any workers like you!” unemployment during winter break or any other break. I had not yet learned of food banks and energy-help hotlines, and was already coming down with bronchitis from sleeping in a nearly unheated house. After her call to my cell phone, I sat in my parked car in the desolate school parking lot with the engine running, trying to stay warm until I could stop crying and drive home in the snow.

Within weeks I had contracted shingles.

“You need to eliminate all stress,” the physician’s assistant at the Walgreen’s walk-in clinic said to me, spelling out the risks of the life-threatening disease. I thanked him, and limped back, through another blizzard, to my car. I was already stressing about how I was going to cover $70 for his consultation and $300 for the medications I had just charged with my Visa, since adjunct professors don’t qualify for the college’s group health-care plan.

Since that time, I’ve discovered a few resources. This year, before they closed for the holidays, I took adjunct professors with me to food banks. We were grateful to get as many apples, and even greens, as we wanted, for fresh produce is usually in limited supply at food banks, as anyone who frequents them knows. On Christmas Eve the utility company called to notify me of a scheduled disconnection, given that I am already in arrears on my gas and light bill. I am working with a low-income program to get those bills partially paid, but meantime I sent them a fraction of what was due to keep the heat on for me and for my housemates. (If it weren’t for rent from housemates, I would not be able to afford a place to live, given adjunct-professor wages.) Because it also was overdue, I drove to City Hall right after Christmas and paid my water and trash bill with my credit card. My aging car needed repairs (new struts and an alignment). I was fortunate to get some help from a local charity for half the cost. A family member paid the other half. Because my financial picture is too complex, I suppose, my application for health care kept stalling. Fortunately, after classes ended on Dec. 9, I had the time to make three trips in person, over a two-day period, to the county human services offices to meet with staff there, and to give them the requisite copies of my pay stubs and bills. It looks like I will qualify for subsidized health care starting Feb. 1.

Those who have never sought government assistance can’t imagine the shame of going to food banks, of asking for help with a bill, of standing in line for health care, always alongside many desperately poor people. It’s hard to fight back tears while standing in these lines; not to beat myself up for working so hard through undergraduate school and then two graduate degrees, for spending tens of thousands on tuition and for spending so much time over the years helping students learn. Such altruistic intentions appear to be a character flaw in the eyes of my employer, however, and I don’t understand why.

As I stood in a line at the county human services office before Christmas, I realized that, in order to keep the administrative class afloat, this is the reality for me and for my peers. Our college system, for example, has hired two new administrators per day for the past three years, and has grown from 13 to now 41 campuses/centers. Its financial profile is rated at the top of the scale by the metrics of Standard and Poor’s or Moody’s, as a revealed in a recent analysis of CCCS finances conducted by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

As I inched my way forward in that line, I reflected on that AAUP analysis and what a highly paid CCCS lobbyist shot back at me during a meeting at the Capitol in October. At the meeting I had just finished explaining to those gathered that my colleagues and I are earning below-poverty-level wages, and so are asking the Legislature for help.

“If the wages are so low, why do you keep teaching?!!” he demanded to know.

I countered that we adjuncts keep teaching because we care about the success of our students. Such kindness is recognized as a personality flaw by successful consultants like him, who are paid to respond, as he did that day, that the college system “has to be run like a business!” He went on to describe how CCCS adjunct faculty (the backbone of the entire enterprise) are a hapless lot who stumble into teaching because they can’t find work anywhere else. He explained how, due to our lack of intelligence, we are unable to read job descriptions thoroughly and to realize that ours are “just part-time jobs.” He finished his description by reminding the audience how adjunct professors can’t find work anywhere else because they are so inept. (His description of CCCS faculty differs markedly from that listed in college promotional materials.)

As a line-stander, I feel like an absolute failure, repeatedly. My only solace, on a personal level, is to know that by going through these experiences, I can better teach my peers how to cope with the shame and how to grasp at the edges of the frayed safety net still available to us.

Knowing I’ll have to use that safety net before the start of the winter break, when I am buried in semester-end paper-grading, is supremely demoralizing. It is imperative that I read student assignments carefully, and comment thoughtfully. The personal interest faculty like me take in our students is the hallmark our college. Although I am told repeatedly that this work is highly valued, I receive no compensation for time spent grading. My unpaid hours of work, I have been told repeatedly, are a consequence of the dire financial situation of Colorado’s community colleges.

However, just last week Colorado’s Joint Budget Committee reported the CCCS financial health is twice the average among all Colorado higher education institutions, ranking 6.0 out of possible 7.0; far above the financial health of any other higher-education institution in Colorado. According to its most recent financial audit, the CCCS is putting into reserves annually $50 million and $6 million into a category it calls “other.” It currently has more than a quarter billion dollars in reserves.

What to make of millions in reserves, while devoted professors stand in line for food in December, their spirits breaking from the standing? I can only devote a bit of time to such confusing thoughts, however, as I have to prepare for teaching next semester. I have a mountain of reading to tackle, and two syllabi to refine and update. I cannot avoid this task, or my students’ learning next semester will suffer. They will be relying on me to be an informed, engaged, well-read professional who models for them what it means to take a job seriously. I have to plan to be a top-notch teacher while fighting off the feeling that I am a lower caste of worker administration struggles to tolerate.

In contrast to their view of professors now, the world opened up to me when, as a 19-year-old, I first encountered college faculty. They were excited, engaging, intelligent, well-read, well-dressed and dazzling personalities, each in his/her distinctive style. I had never before seen people who had so many ideas, who strode with confidence everywhere as they made their way among us. It was easy to catch them in the cafeteria or in their offices. They were always eager and willing to chat about anything under the sun, always bringing the topic back to scholarship, research, social responsibility, and optimism.

I feel sorry for this generation of community college students, who encounter, instead, a weary army of impoverished professionals, shuffling from here to there, trying to keep their heads down and their paychecks coming in. Regrettably, seldom do we have time to chat with students, as we rush from place to place, job to job, worry to worry.

If adjunct faculty are not paid fairly and treated with the dignity their work merits, how will we be able to recruit qualified faculty in the community colleges? What will happen when adjunct professors apply the business model to their work, to their time? Will the soaring vision I caught a glimpse of as a young student go dark? Indeed, for many aspiring students, and certainly for the faculty majority in the community college system, it already has.

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For Adjunct Professors, Winter is Break-ing (A re-post on Ph.D. poverty) — 31 Comments

  1. I have to wonder why Caprice Lawless stays in this profession. Does she envision her circumstances improving? If so, how? Certainly, the system is not going to change anytime soon. Reading this piece is like reading about a battered spouse, and while the fault lies with the abuser and there are complex psychological issues involved, all I can think is, “Get the hell out of there!!”

    • Why don’t people get out? Because fighting to survive saps one’s time, energy, and cognitive abilities. Consider how much time and energy Caprice Lawless has to expend just to keep her heat on, for instance. That’s time and energy she doesn’t have for job-searching.

      Indeed, recent scientific research shows that living in poverty affects a person’s decision-making abilities ( Re-tooling one’s CV/resume for a different type of job requires time, energy, and thought which a person in poverty may not have available.

      However, I happen to think this question is the wrong one. Why do we tolerate this as a society? Why do we allow state legislators to fund at poverty-level wages the very people entrusted with teaching the next generation of Americans? Where is the social outrage?

      • Also the academic year makes it hard. You sign contracts twice a year and can’t necessarily pick up and quit if/when another job comes along. And for many of us, job opportunities are so rare in our fields that we would have to move across the country to take one.

      • I don’t agree that it’s the *wrong* question — it’s just a different one than those you asked. I agree 100% that this is a structural and societal problem and that the system needs to change radically. In the meantime, however, we as individuals need to assess the situation as it exists. I too am contingent faculty so this is not a theoretical issue for me. I am lucky enough to be in a f-t position, but it’s only a 1 year appointment and after that, who knows? I’ve been thinking a lot about what my threshold is in terms of staying in the academy and while my energy is focused on teaching and publishing and applying for positions, a small part of my brain is working on an escape plan…just in case.

    • How are we to get out? My CV is woefully similar to those Karen talks about in her “Don’t Get Your Career from Costco” post – so similar that I cried when I read it, because I have spent years getting CV lines for things that were quick, cheap, and in bulk: conference presentations, invited book chapters (neither quick nor cheap but treated as such by hiring committees), etc. because I am so overloaded with teaching just to keep my bills paid. Even when I HAD a full-time teaching job, they gave no support for research or publishing, and expected a teaching load of 16 graduate classes per year with only a week off between many quarters.

      I have been trying to get out for several years now, but I am in the classic catch-22: I can’t get out, because I don’t have the achievements to get out, because I don’t have time in my current job(s – I have 5-7 at any one time) to get the achievements, so I can’t get out.

    • “I have to wonder why Caprice Lawless stays in this profession.”

      Good point MD! Why DOES she stay in the profession? I mean, she should go to the Job Handing Out Place, where they give out jobs that pay a living wage. The Job Handing Out Place is especially happy to give good jobs to women in their 40s with PhDs in the humanities who have little experience outside academia. Good jobs are just GROWING ON TREES, hasn’t she heard?

      Snark aside (but seriously, that was a profoundly ignorant question that reeked of privilege and unexamined assumptions): if Caprice Lawless leaves, then someone will take her place.

      That person will then be forced to visit the food bank and live in a home with no heat.

      Then if that person dares to write about the experience, you and others like you will ask “why doesn’t s/he leave.”

      The problem is not about Caprice; it is about a society that can always find money to pay administrators and athletic coaches six figure salaries but can never quite get it together to pay anyone else a living wage.

      • I applaud you for pointing out assumptions and blame of professional teachers. There is no other profession so misunderstood, underpaid and stressed. It is corruption that is allowed in this culture. Parents do not care who is teaching their students, or what those teachers are getting in return for teaching the next generation. This situation (profit in academia) has been swept under the rug, and now adjunct professors have been turned into fast food workers. But many fast food workers get benefits.

      • Aren’t adjuncts supposed to be working professionals that enjoy teaching at night, and that is why traditionally they get paid so low, they weren’t supposed to be doing it for the money? At the of the day it is the law of supply and demand. There is an oversupply of people qualified to be adjuncts, and no complaining about how unfair the wages are is going to change it.

  2. Caprice stays because she loves what she does and she is fighting for change. The analogy of the abused spouse does not work because it completely skirts the real issue — how have colleges been able to get away with this for so long? Because of Caprice’s willingness to share her story and to put herself at the forefront of this issue, many of us have joined in and will support HB 14-1154. Why should we get the hell out? We should continue to do our jobs well and advocate for what is right and what is possible.

    • Ironically it is because people like her that refuse to stop being an adjunct despite the poor conditions is what is enabling the colleges to take advantage of the oversupply of people willing to be adjuncts.

  3. Some have asked why Caprice Lawless continues with her profession, as a former student of hers I understand. She is a wonderful teacher who cares about her students very much and makes difficult sacrifices to ensure the success of her students. My heart broke as I read this as I didn’t know the seriousnrss of our teachers situation. My heart and prayers go out to each and every member of our faculty at FRCC LUCIO MONTOYA

  4. I have to agree with MD. This is a social, societal problem. It is supremely shameful. Sickening, even. And having been an overworked and severely underpaid adjunct, I can identify with the fear, anxiety, powerlessness, and poverty.

    But I also thought of a battered spouse as I read it. To martyr oneself to one’s profession seems profoundly anti-feminist to me. To continue as adjunct faculty, even if you love your job, is ultimately to enable to the adjunct problem. I don’t mean to write this as a ‘blame the victim’ kind of response. But having adjuncted for 5 years in NYC (in addition to holding down other part-time and freelance work), I came to believe that the only politically effective thing to do would be to quit. Not to quit because it’s “SO BAD,” but because to stay is to be part of the machine. Quitting can be its own way to reform the system — a mode of addressing social inequality — while also taking care of yourself. It’s like negotiating for a higher salary or startup funds or whatever. In a society that is profoundly sexist, I believe it’s a political act for a woman to do this!

    I should add that for the commenters who point out that the writer is working to change the system — there are other ways to do that too. One friend who adjuncts in NYC comes to mind. He works TIRELESSLY for the rights of part-time faculty and holds a top position in the adjunct union. But he also has a day job as a high school teacher, which is how he pays his bills. This set-up enables him to act as a reformer while meeting his own basic needs for food and shelter. And though he’d rather teach exclusively at the university level, the writing’s on the wall – it’s not going to happen.

    • I have to correct one bit of thinking here. If Caprice simply leaves as a way of “social protest” within the system, it won’t do anything but leave her students in a worse situation. As much as we hate to think about it, and as great a teacher as Caprice seems to be, every time we lose one professor because they have had enough, there are 12-200 new people willing to take her place: students who have just graduated from graduate programs (only about 50% of graduates actually get full-time positions when they graduate anymore because the demand is so low for full-time employees), older teachers (from both K-12 and higher education) who have retired and find that their pensions do not pay enough (or they are bored sitting at home all day so want to teach a few classes), or other people in poverty who need a few extra dollars each year to make ends meat.
      The adjunct position is honestly designed for these types of people. The problem is that when the vast majority of classes are taught by this sub-set of professionals, the education system as a whole fails, and the the market for gainful employment for any individual continues to decrease.
      Caprice leaving will not help her case, because her role will simply be filled by others who are willing to take even that pittance over what their other options are. If we lose all the Caprices to high school education, what will be left for college?

      • I don’t think any adjunct should stay in a job for “us” or for “students” to preserve some standard of education dictated (but not funded) by others. Adjuncts are party to their own exploitation as long as they stay in an exploitative system. I know leaving isn’t an option for everyone in every context, but loyalty to some unreimbursed martyrdom to students or to institutions is not a valid reason to stay.

        • “I don’t think any adjunct should stay in a job for “us” or for “students” to preserve some standard of education dictated (but not funded) by others.”

          I couldn’t agree with this more. It makes me think of, ‘I’m staying in this marriage for the kids.’ Dangerous and damaging. I also think that it’s easier for women to fall prey to this kind of thinking because we are trained to be “nice,” “helpful,” etc – and by extension to want to feel needed. Working as an adjunct in a school where the kids “need” us so much is yet another part of the system of violence.

          And yes, not every person in every context can leave. But maybe it can be the focus of a 5-year plan.

  5. This line jumped out at me:

    “His description of CCCS faculty differs markedly from that listed in college promotional materials.”

    about the outside consultant who went on and on about how dopey the adjuncts must be to do the jobs they are doing… as compared with how the colleges market their excellent teaching to students and the taxpaying public that underwrites public higher education. This disconnect is everywhere, and it’s part of a great swindle in which the parts that everyone agrees are the most important parts of higher ed (teaching and research) are touted loudly but quietly underfunded in favour of admin, diversion of public monies to private interests, and a sort of institutionalized graft that doesn’t care about what actually happens to students, knowledge, or any of the rest of it as long as the money keeps rolling.

  6. My state (NC) today hemmed at a request from higher ed administration for salary increases. Token increases since 2008-2009 have been limited to 1.2%. This week, I blogged about undervalued adjunct labor at Adjunctive Noodling, but I’m not sure that across the board increases will change plight of the adjunct.

  7. Another commentator on this blog mentioned the following book, which I just finished reading:

    Bousquet, Marc. -How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation- (New York: New York University Press, 2008).

    I also read in a recent -Chronicle of Higher Education- article that 70% of instructors in U.S. universities were adjuncts. In any case, Marc Bourquet points out that the problem isn’t that there are too many Ph.D.s, but too few full-time tenure-track positions. On p. 104 he writes, “Under the current system of academic work, the university clearly does not prefer the best or most experienced teachers; it prefers the cheapest teachers. Increasingly, that means the creation of nontenurable full-time instructorships and other casual appointments, a casualization that has unfolded unevenly by discipline and is especially pronounced in English and writing instruction.”

    I don’t think parents would want to send their kids to a high school where most of the teachers were part-time workers. Universities/community colleges should be forced to publicize the number of classes taught at their campus by adjunct faculty. I’m also tired of people who berate adjuncts for the “bad” career choices they’ve made. You are blaming the victim. Universities and community colleges need to create more decently paid tenure-track lines and state legislatures need to pass and enforce laws limiting the number of classes taught by adjuncts in institutions of higher learning. By the way, stop paying university administrators and football coaches so much money. Maybe then you’ll be able to pay your instructors a living wage. Our higher education system is so messed up that people think it is perfectly alright that the football coach is the highest paid person on campus.

  8. Pingback: SCSU-AAUP » Blog Archive » Sharecroppers. Migrant Workers. Adjuncts?

  9. Pingback: Food banks rescuing College professors - World leading higher education information and services

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  11. I am an American who left the US to complete a PhD. It is not like this in other countries. The situation is becoming more as it is in the US, but not nearly as horrific. Why not seek employment outside the United States?

    Many universities teach courses in English now and offer support to learn the local language. Obtaining citizenship in some countries is easier than in the US, so one could conceivably remain in the new homeland, never having to return the the US.

  12. Pingback: Adjunct sues University…wins easily - edu blogs

  13. Pingback: Organizing in the non-community community college | ACADEME BLOG

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