|Professor of Desperation
Bad pay, zero job security, no benefits, endless commutes. Is this
any way to treat PhDs responsible for teaching a generation of
By Eric L. Wee
Sunday, July 21, 2002; Page W24
As dreams go, Larissa Tracy's is
simple. She'd get up and head to
work at Georgetown University.
She'd stroll to her wood-paneled
office lined with her medieval
literature books. Light would stream
in through the windows as she'd
wait to teach one of her classes
later in the day. But before that
she'd have time to chat with
colleagues about work and teaching
and life. Maybe she'd get lunch with
one of them. Or maybe she'd work
on an article about the lives of
female saints in the Middle Ages,
her specialty. In the summers, she'd
travel and attend conferences. Life
would be good.
She often thinks about that dream
on days like this. On this chilly
October morning she's merging
onto Interstate 395, near her
Shirlington apartment, and heading
south on her daily 50-mile trek to
Fredericksburg. It's 7 o'clock as
her black Mazda Protege slides into
the fast lane at 80 mph. She pushes
hard on the accelerator and begins
eating her toast. She needs to pass
her first marker, the Quantico
Marine Base, by 7:30--otherwise,
she'll be late for her first English
composition class at Mary
Washington College. The clock
doesn't stop ticking after that: She'll
teach four classes at three different
colleges today. And those are just
some of the six classes she's
teaching this fall term, double the
normal load of a college professor.
Or what used to be normal.
Tracy's itinerary today has the
precision of a train schedule: English
101 at Mary Washington from 8 a.m. till 8:50 a.m. Office hours from 9 till 10
a.m. Another English class from 10 until 10:50 a.m. Back in the car by 11
a.m. Up I-95 to George Mason University. Another class from 12:30 p.m. till
1:20 p.m. Talk to students for a few minutes. Back in the car by 1:45 p.m.
and race to Georgetown University. Grade papers and prepare for class while
eating lunch. Class on Shakespeare and film from 3:15 p.m. to 4:05 p.m.
Back in the car before the meter expires and head home. Then she grades
more papers until midnight. Six hours later it all begins again.
It's not what she hoped her life would be like, but it's what she's gotten used
to since finishing her PhD in medieval literature two years ago at Trinity
College in Dublin, Ireland. Since then she's become an academic nomad.
Unable to find a full-time job in one place, she needs to do this if she wants
to teach and pay her bills. She tells herself that it's temporary. But in the new
academic job world, she's running out of
time. If she doesn't find that increasingly elusive full-time
job soon, she could live this transient life for the rest of her academic career.
There once was an unwritten deal. If you were smart and willing to devote up
to 10 of your most productive years studying for a doctorate, certain things
would likely happen. A college or university somewhere would hire you. And
if you did well there, there was a full-time tenured job in your future. The
money wouldn't be great, but you'd be part of an academic community. You'd
do research in your field. You'd live a life of the mind.
Then the deal changed.
States started to cut their higher education budgets. Costs at all universities
began to rise. And as a growing percentage of the population began attending
college over the past few decades, universities changed the way they
operated. Critics call it the corporatization of higher ed. Colleges prefer to call
it a shift toward greater efficiency. Either way, colleges started looking for
places to make budget cuts. With personnel costs consuming a huge chunk of
a university's budget, administrators across the country found their money
problems solved by a type of teacher few people have heard of: the adjunct
Adjuncts originally were local professionals who would teach an occasional
college class on a part-time basis. The journalist would teach a course on
news writing, a retired judge would speak about jurisprudence. Then colleges
saw them as something else: cheap labor. Many had doctorates and were
willing to teach a class for as little as $1,500. Often they'd accept less. They
got no health benefits, and they were hired by the term. Colleges could let
them go at any time. And they taught the general education courses the
full-time faculty largely dreaded. Colleges across the country, primarily in
urban areas, hired them in droves. Outsourcing and higher education teaching
had finally met.
At the same time, universities have been cutting back on the percentage of
full-time tenure-track professors on their faculties. With each one often
costing more than $1.5 million over a career, colleges began to balk. Why
pay a full professor $80,000 a year with retirement and health benefits when
you could hire a part-timer at a fraction of that? Many universities concluded
there was no reason. In 1970, part-timers made up 22 percent of higher
education teaching staffs in the United States. By 1999, they were 43 percent,
as their numbers swelled to 437,000. And one recent national survey of
humanities departments found that about one-third made less than $2,000 a
class. Meanwhile, in the 1990s, the number of new humanities, language and
literature PhD graduates flooding an already saturated market grew by more
than 50 percent. The result: Too many PhDs and not enough real jobs.
A new underclass of college teachers emerged. The "freeway flyers," like
Tracy, turned their cars into mobile offices. Since each college offers them
only a few classes, they cobble together four, five or even nine courses a term
at two, three or even five campuses. They might be classified as part-timers,
but their teaching loads are very full time.
The new deal is a crapshoot. You might make it to academic nirvana, but you
could end up trapped as a permanent adjunct forever fighting traffic before the
next class. Still, each year new graduates like Tracy come onto the market,
thinking they're the ones who'll get lucky. "I ultimately believe that I will get a
job when I'm meant to," says Tracy. "If I felt that this was what I was going to
be doing for the rest of my life, I'd probably go crazy."
She once imagined she'd land a full-time job as soon as she graduated. Along
the way, she did everything she could to improve her chances. She focused
on the more marketable Anglo-Saxon rather than Irish medieval literature.
She made women saints her specialty, an added bonus in a field that currently
prizes all things female. She applied to 20 colleges for teaching jobs as
graduation neared. They all rejected her. The next year she applied to seven
more places. Seven more rejections. After a while, all the letters started to
sound the same. They wrote about having to make difficult decisions. They
wrote about how it wasn't a reflection on her qualifications. But, in the end,
they all said no.
"I have a degree from Trinity
College Dublin, and my supervisor is
one of the most well-known people
in my field," she says. "I'm 28. I
have an article published already,
and my first book is coming out this
year. What more do they want from
Two years ago she showed up in
person at Mary Washington and
started knocking on doors like a
cold-call saleswoman. The
approach paid off--sort of. The college hired her as an adjunct professor.
Georgetown and George Mason did the same. So she hit the road.
The wheels haven't stopped spinning since. Each day she drives at least three
hours. In fact, she frequently spends more time in the car than in the
classroom. This past academic year she taught 11 courses, memorized 250
students' names and graded a thousand papers.
At Mary Washington, she's grateful to have her own desk in a small, shared
office with no window. But after teaching there for a year and a half, she still
doesn't have a clue where the campus library is. There's no time. When she's
done teaching, she's off to George Mason, where more than 20 adjuncts
share a communal room with a few desks. Or to Georgetown, where she
squats in other people's offices, often working on the edge of a desk because
she's afraid she'll disturb a faculty member's papers.
As Tracy finishes her classes and office hours at Mary Washington today,
she's running behind schedule. She tears out of the parking lot at 11:20 a.m.
and soon merges onto I-95. But at Quantico she sees her nightmare unfolding
before her: cars at a dead stop and a backup for miles. Slowly the traffic
starts inching along. It's 13 agonizing miles before she finally veers onto Route
123. She checks her watch. It's already 12:15 p.m., 15 minutes before class
at George Mason. She weaves along the two-lane road as fast as she can but
still arrives 15 minutes late. She parks, then runs across campus. When she
arrives at her classroom door, panting, she sees half her students at the board
scribbling their names before they leave. The others have already gone.
"I'm here! Sit down," she says as she tries to compose herself. Somehow she
gets the remnants of her class to take their seats as she begins her lesson.
A few students linger afterward to talk about an upcoming paper. One student
seeks her advice about transferring to another college. When she finally gets
back on the road it's 2:30 p.m. In 45 minutes, she needs to start her next
lecture at Georgetown. But the bad dream won't stop. In front of her on I-66
she sees more cars backed up bumper to bumper.
When she finally gets to Georgetown, she circles frantically for a parking spot.
Maybe they waited, she thinks as she dashes to her building. Maybe they
waited. She pushes out of the elevator and into the classroom. This time, the
chairs are empty. On the chalkboard she sees the only message her students
left her: WE WERE HERE. WHERE WERE YOU?
She picks up the eraser and clears the board, then heads out the door to get
ready for another day.
The growing reliance on adjuncts, critics say, cheats the most vulnerable of
students: freshmen. They're the most likely to wash out of college from a bad
experience, the detractors argue. They're also the ones most likely to have a
harried part-timer teaching them History 10 or English 101.
Even though there are some excellent adjuncts, people worry that the overall
quality of teaching suffers. Can someone like Tracy, they ask, teach five, six
or more classes a day consistently, spending hours a day in a car, and not cut
corners eventually? Tracy says she hasn't, but those who've seen overworked
teachers like her before say youthful diligence lasts only so long. Eventually
adjuncts with such loads might start replacing essays with multiple-choice
tests. Or start assigning books they haven't had time to read themselves. And
then there's the dislocation and disorganization that comes from lecturing
minutes after fighting traffic.
"The system is created to exploit people just like this," Richard Moser says
about Tracy's situation. As a representative with the American Association of
University Professors, he's focused on the plight of adjuncts. "You get some
young PhD that's all eager and up to date and strong. You get to use them for
a few years, and then sooner or later they'll get frustrated and angry. Then
they get another fresh piece of meat to fill the slot and then use them for a few
years and then they get burned out. You get rid of them, then you get another
one. Is this the way to run a university?"
Many in teaching circles worry this is just the beginning. At some point, they
fear, entire departments will be made up of part-timers hired by the term or
by the year. The result, they say, would be the end of the traditional college
faculty. Many of those same educators think that outcome ultimately may be
decided by parents, who could revolt against paying $30,000 a year to have
their kids taught by someone who's also toiling at the local community college.
Students, meanwhile, seem largely oblivious to the difference between full-
"Someone had to explain what an adjunct was," says Valerie Sprague, a
freshman who had Tracy for two classes at Mary Washington this year. "It's
not even an issue . . . Do they get paid less?"
She wouldn't need to ask that if she'd seen a documentary called "Degrees of
Shame." The film, by Barbara Wolf, came out five years ago, comparing
adjuncts to migrant farm workers. There's also a book, Ghosts in the
Classroom, that compiled essays from adjuncts with titles like "Adjunct
Apartheid," "Adjuncts Are Not People" and "Adjunct Misery."
Despite all their angst, adjuncts are notoriously fearful about speaking out.
They're afraid that one wrong word, in or out of the classroom, will mean that
they won't be hired back. And they know they're particularly vulnerable when
it comes to student evaluations. If they receive too many low marks, they'll be
gone. It's a frequent adjunct dilemma: Be an easier grader and likely get better
reviews, or stick to your standards and risk not teaching at that college again.