When I was a youngster (in the 1960s) going to college was only for the fortunate or for those who had the funds to do so. For the fortunate, it meant if your parents did not have the means and someone saw your potential, and you proved yourself worthy, you were given a hand-up. The rest of us received vocational (office or shop, etc.) training, while others were simply taught reading, writing and arithmetic and became another type of laborer.
My younger sister was the fortunate one in our family. She received both a Bachelors and Masters of Arts degree in the Social Sciences. I, on the other hand, was prepared for a lifetime of ‘clerical’ work and was able to achieve a middle class status doing so. I asked my sister, why not a PhD? Not many people ever felt the need to pursue one and it was thought the few who did, were genius, elevated and untouchable. Overtime, more people have pursued four-year degrees and the measurement has risen even higher by some employers who now demand some of their skill set to have a master’s degree for entry. Given the profession my sister choose, a PhD was not required nor was it something she wanted to pursue.
My daughter interrupted my nap one afternoon and announced (at five years old) she is going to attend college; I laughed and told her “first we have to get you through kindergarten.” I, at the time, did not entertain the thought of her going beyond the first four years of undergraduate. But somewhere in her pursuit, someone made an indelible impression on her and she decided she wanted to teach at the college level – thus requiring a PhD.
Wow, impressive – and even more impressive since not many African American females ever achieve that status. Moreover, in her field of study there were no professors of color and neither were there many female students or people of color at the colleges she attended. The prospect of becoming a professor, she thought, could help diversify and broaden the perspective for many who would study under her. Unlike the profession of attorneys’, her choice was not known or thought to be inundated and oversaturated with students.
Preparation to become a full-fledged professor took approximately ten years and included working as a professor’s assistant, teaching,, research and other administrative duties, all with pauper’s wages (or no wages) and no perks in return. Lack of financial gain at that level is the norm and chalked up to apprenticeship. Surely, at the end of her hard work and sacrifice, she would prevail and it looked promising.
For the most part of my career, I worked in corporate American. And in my world, (by comparison) our worth was measured on skill and the ability to follow. I was not trained nor do I consider myself to be an academic (as I often described my daughter). Given my daughter’s natural talent and gifts, I encouraged her to fulfill her life’s dreams and not to follow in my footsteps because it seemed respectable and was as good as life had to offer most people we knew. Corporate America restructured and shifted from a meritorious to a ‘highly’ competitive environment. With that shift, the need to shake out the ‘old’ vested types for new fresh and innovative – lower paying individuals became paramount. Many loss their positions (deemed no longer needed) and many positions were outsourced at cheaper labor costs. Often, I worked side-by-side with consignment workers, who were trained to do ‘tasks’ at reduced wages. Moreover, the corporate cleanse began during the time my daughter was pursuing her education.
Unknown too many, academia chose to follow the corporate model sometime in the 90s. But, being too heavy with vested professors – who typically do not retired until they have to, they had to engineer a slightly different model. In comparison, an academic’s career could well exceed the average retirement age of 65 as those in my peer group. Although I am not an expert on the restructuring that has and is taking place within academic institutions, I know first-hand the impact it has had on my daughter’s career and the choices she has had to consider. However, I am aware of the diverse opinions and emotion directed towards those who speak out about the plight of the under-valued professor.
When I think about what is being offered our youth today with regards to their academic careers, it bothers me, and I worry that they are not receiving the full benefit of their education because instead of full time PhD’s, these institutions are relying on adjuncts instead. I am not suggesting that adjuncts are not qualified or dedicated professionals, I am suggesting that given their wages and length of visitation, they do not have the resources and often can provide only a condensed educational experience. Yet, many are held to the same standards as the tenured professor. In effect (in my opinion), some institutions have become task oriented employers (like the corporate model) – dolling out bits and pieces of work, thus lacking the ability to produce young scholars or mid-level thinkers.
Conversely, why should more be expected from adjuncts when they are offered pauper’s wages and no benefits? How fair is it that adjuncts spend a lifetime of learning and preparation and the investment of thousands of dollars in pursuit of their desire to educate, only to be reduced to a level of poverty and strife? Furthermore,, until more is demanded of institutions, one should expect to get ‘what you pay for.’
Few understand how academic institutions operate. Few know what it is to be an administrator who pulls in six figures and receive the most perks versus a tenure-professor (nowadays) at an institution. If it were known, I am certain few would condone the variance in wages and hiring practices between the two – given we pay huge fees and entrust our children’s future to these institutions. Few know that when a school speaks about the number of PhD’s per student, the PhD’s they are counting are largely Adjunct Professors.
Few know, these professors are rotated – recycled and not readily accessible to the students. Consequently, continuity, mentoring and the development of students beyond the classroom is diminished.
We should be angry with the institutions/corporations, not the part-time, temporary, contract, adjunct, consignment OR whomever we often misdirect our opinion and anger towards, simply because they are visible, need employment and desire equal wages – with benefits.
I am not “Mary Margaret” (Vojtko)*, but I know of her; she is a vital part of my life as she should be yours.
For more information about the adjunct crisis in higher education see: