Don’t Forget The Academic Underclass on Independence Day

A friend at one large university told me he’s been watching the eerie spread of administrators at his school: they’ve been taking over office space and even parking spaces like something out of a horror movie. Meanwhile, just like most other colleges and universities around the country, his school spends less money every year on tenure-track faculty, hiring adjuncts who do the same work at much less than half the pay.

More than 50% of the faculty at many schools are adjuncts. At some, it’s closer to two thirds, and without them, colleges and universities wouldn’t function. As NPR has reported, “to get a full course load, many adjuncts have to teach on multiple campuses, miles apart. Like academic nomads, their cars are their offices, and their backpacks are their filing cabinets.”

These “contingent” faculty form a vast underclass. Without real offices, many end up having to meet their students in lounges or cafeterias. Not only do they have piss-poor working conditions and health insurance, but they lack respect. That might seem low on the list, but it’s actually very important. Tenured faculty and department chairs often treat them like servants–or worse.

One adjunct I know was rudely dismissed from a one-on-one meeting with the department chair as if she was a Victorian-era maid who had begged her haughty mistress for an extra day off to take care of her sick mother. Her sin? She’d inquired about teaching a certain course she was actually over-qualified for.

Another reported being lied to about being reassigned from upper level courses and finding out later that the real reason was resentment from tenure-track “colleagues.” The psychological atmosphere is consistently draining, but too many adjuncts can’t quit because they need the jobs and have to swallow the insults—and teaching is their passion.

Day to day, adjuncts don’t just deal with arrogant and inflexible administrators. Sometimes even support staff treat them badly, because they know they can, and not enough campuses have fixed-term faculty unions that will stand up for them. And when there are unions, if tenure-stream faculty aren’t unionized, those faculty can regard the adjuncts’ unions with contempt, and may even feel threatened.

Adjuncts can have just as many credentials and publications as their tenured colleagues—but that doesn’t matter. The magical word “tenure” bestows an exalted status that they lack and reduces them to second-class citizens or worse in the madly hierarchical academic world.

College and universities profit obscenely from this cheap labor source. The system is arbitrary, corrupt, and unjust, nestled in the heart of an institution which supposedly enshrines humanistic values.

Are you an adjunct?  Have you been mistreated or discriminated against?  Feel free to share your story in the comments section below.

Lev Raphael’s Nick Hoffman mysteries are set at the fictional State University of Michigan and have been praised by the New York Times Book Review and many other newspapers and magazines.  A veteran of university teaching, he now teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.  Registration for his memoir workshop closes very soon.

In Praise of Passionate Professors

I did an MFA in Creative writing and English at UMass/Amherst when it was rated the third best writing program in the country–not that I picked it for its status. I wanted a school that was close to my New York home but not too close, which ruled out many other programs.

dubois_pond_chapel_620x305UMass was where I got my start as an author because I published my first story while still a student, in Redbook, which had 4.5 millions readers at the the time.  This was after having won second prize in the department’s writing contest my first year, and first prize my second year.

Each semester I had a writing workshop, but some of my favorite professors were actually literature teachers (we had to do thirty credits of lit classes). I still think about them years later because they passed on the most precious teacher’s gift of all: excitement. They were so passionate about the writers they taught that they set off fireworks in my mind that still glow whenever I think about those writers or read them.

Paul Mariani was a Hart Crane expert and while I’d read a biography of the doomed poet and some of his letters before signing up for Mariani’s Symbolist poetry seminar, Crane’s work seemed inaccessible to me, arcane and closed. But Mariani made the poems intimate, open, immediate, and I still quote lines from “Voyages,” “Chaplinesque” and “The Broken Tower” today. Crane feels like an old friend and I re-read his poems more than any other poet’s.

white buildingsThe late Ernest Hofer taught Contemporary British fiction and brought over English paperbacks for his students because we couldn’t buy them in the U.S. in those pre-Amazon days. Under his tutelage I read writers I probably wouldn’t have found on my own: Iris Murdoch, Susan Hill, Alan Sillitoe, Anthony Powell. Hill’s Strange Meeting is still one of the best WW I novels I’ve ever read. Hofer was also a Henry James expert and he let me co-teach a James class with him in which I also supervised an honors student. That gave me even more teaching experience than I already had.

susan hillCynthia Griffin Wolff was just about to publish her psychological biography Feast of Words about Edith Wharton which would change Wharton scholarship forever. Her seminar was rigorous and exciting. She knew Wharton so well that she never consulted her manuscript or any notes.  Even though I was already in Wharton’s thrall, I left Wolff’s class with a deeper respect for Wharton that led to three books of my own connected to that author.

feast of wordsEach of these professors was dedicated, focused, patient, good-humored–and in love with their subjects. You can’t fake that last quality.  It’s why I try my best to only teach books and classes I’m enthusiastic about now that I’m a guest at Michigan State University.  My hope is to pass on some of the gifts that were given to me in those formative years with such grace and generosity.

Lev Raphael is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 other books in genres from memoir to historical fiction.

Teaching is Not a Blood Sport

I do a lot of speaking at colleges and universities around the country and faculty tell me many behind-the-scenes stories.  Properly disguised, they make great material for my Nick Hoffman academic mystery series: tales of petty infighting, squabbling committees, ridiculous vendettas–all the simmering snarkiness that Borges called “bald men arguing over a comb.”

But I also hear stories from students that aren’t as amusing, stories about what it’s like for them to be in a classroom with a professor who sees teaching very differently than I do.  Teachers who aren’t at all bothered by shaming students in front of the rest of the class, as if they’re coaches whipping an under-performing player into shape.

teacher as coachCreative writing is one of my passions and I’ve heard of professors in these classes who stop students while they’re reading aloud and say, “That stinks!” or worse.  I’ve never done that.  I do stop students to ask them to slow down or read more distinctly, or to say something positive if I was blown away and couldn’t wait till they’re finished.  And sometimes I just start laughing if the work is really funny.  As for dissing a student’s work, seriously, who does that help?

I’ve heard of some professors who can be so intimidating that they make students shake with fear when they challenge what the students have to say.  I’ve also heard of professors in creative writing classes who don’t let everyone read their work aloud, but keep picking their favorites, creating resentment and embarrassment.  In my creative writing classes, everyone reads aloud or nobody does; the class should be a creative community, not a jungle.

I see it that way because I had an amazing creative writing teacher freshman year at Fordham University; she became my mentor and model.  She ran her workshops with good humor and warmth.  She spurred us all to write better by pinpointing what we did best and helping us improve whatever that was.  She never insulted us, humiliated us, made fun of us, or played favorites.  She encouraged us all with grace and good humor.  I’d even say she enjoyed us; she definitely enjoyed being in the classroom and made us feel that way, too.  Nobody ever dreaded being there.

Teaching isn’t combat or coaching, especially teaching creative writing.  We’re not in the classroom to humiliate and harden our students as if they’re going into the cutthroat world of business or getting ready for the next football game against a team with no losses.  Our role should be to help them grow as writers, identify what they do best and where they need to do more work. As reporter Charles Kuralt put it simply: “Good teachers know how to bring out the best in their students.”  Who needs shame to do that?

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk and 24 other books which you can find on Amazon.