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Susan Wozniak: For one professor, life in higher ed feels low

I hold the title of professor. During term break, I celebrated Christmas without gifts, worked at my retail job, suffered through the flu, kept current via NPR and social media, prepared for my coming classes and applied for food stamps and fuel assistance.

As an adjunct at a community college, I am paid by the class and receive no benefits. The work I do, I do diligently, following the model of a graduate school professor who rewrote his lectures each semester.

I am also part of the working poor. The right would be surprised to learn who the working poor are. Many are “underemployed” college graduates who work retail during the day, wait on tables at night, but need food stamps because they can barely cover the rent on the squat they share with friends ... or people who answered an ad on Craigslist. I worked for a welfare office just out of college. Many of my clients would have loved to have drawn a weekly paycheck but were unemployable due to having one eye or diabetes.

Recently, NPR woke me with an evaluation of Barack Obama’s inaugural address as an endorsement of entitlements. I took the statement not as a criticism of the president but of me.

Charges have been levied against recipients of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, who are verbally abused and are told to “get some education” and to “get a job.”

I have an education, including a master’s degree from a large state university and a second degree from an Ivy. Like others in the fellowship of the working poor, I have two jobs.

I began looking for work when I handed in my thesis during the winter of 1997 as supermarkets and fast food joints flew banners screaming, “NOW HIRING!” As the thesis needed editing and revision, I felt a little retail job, selling something I enjoy — books or cookware — would provide basic work references. “Susan? Yes, she shows up on time, with her clothes on the right way.”

I was convinced that I would take the day off from my position as an editorial assistant at a publishing house to parade in my cap and gown. As the book industry did not want “women of a certain age,” I continued selling pots and pans but picked up a second job, shelving library books.

A teacher’s path

Over the years, I temped at corporate start-ups and radio stations until I realized that a two-hour, daily commute and up to nine hours of work only grossed $60. I became a permanent substitute at a high school 10 minutes from home. I still grossed $60 but had time for a second job, and for writing cover letters. I also received health coverage, something I had gone without for five years.

Although my current position sounds like an improvement, I basically work in four-month increments. If I teach four classes each semester, then teach for the two summer sessions, I can earn $30,000.

In April 2012, when the summer sessions opened, I asked for, and received, one class each session. I would survive until fall, which was another story. I requested four classes, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. I offered to teach four different courses, hoping that I demonstrated flexibility.

I received two classes. I dropped the acting dean a note, saying that teaching is my job, because some full-time faculty regard adjuncts as academic hobbyists who largely support themselves consulting. She said she would keep me in mind. In August, a new adjunct was hired to teach two classes.

Fall is an expensive time of year, with insurance bills and union dues. I did not make ends meet. When the spring semester opened in November, I offered to teach six different courses, again Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Two sophomore classes — “Writing Fiction” and “The Hero in Myth, Literature and Film” — enticed me. I emailed my credentials. “I participate in a weekly writing group ... and helmed by a published poet. I graduated with honors with a degree in Celtic studies and did extensive work in comparative mythology.”

“I will keep that in mind,” was the answer I received.

I was not assigned either class. I was not given four courses, but two classes at a satellite campus, at 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. This leaves me 55 miles from home, with a nearly five-hour gap in my day, in a building with no food service, no colleagues, two computers for faculty and no library.

After receiving the assignment, I read a criticism of adjuncts. The writer championed hiring only full-time faculty to improve community colleges.

I bitterly remembered a conversation with another adjunct, a member of the nursing faculty. A student demanded a conference because her paper earned a B, saying, “I gave the same paper to an English class and got an A. Why did you give me a B?”

“Your paper had no conclusion.” The student laughed. “No, it doesn’t. I couldn’t decide between two conclusions.”

The nursing instructor advised, “Then your conclusion ought to have explained why each answer was partially right and partially wrong.”

The student admitted that this had never occurred to her.

The nursing instructor called the English professor, who said she never reads beyond the first page of any paper. She is a full-time faculty member.

My gross earnings for the last four months of 2012 were $450 per week. The upper limit for fuel assistance for an individual is $600/week. I spent an entire week on my applications for SNAP and fuel assistance. That was four weeks ago. I have yet to hear from fuel assistance but I was denied food stamps.

An entitlement is a legal right which one qualifies for. It is not a handout. It is not easily achieved. It is almost always necessary. Unfortunately, it is often out of reach.

Susan Wozniak, a regular guest columnist for the Gazette, lives in Easthampton.

Legacy Comments1

You raise some important issues regarding adjunct employment. There are a number of forums on the Internet that address these issues, The Adjunct Project, Junct Rebellion and The Adjunct Network on Linkedin. They may be more around. We tend to personalize these issues but they should also be regarded sociologically and politically. Adjuncts are part of a growing field of contingent labor, the nature of which threatens our society as a whole. I believe it’s important we make connections with other labor groups who suffer similar adversity, professional and otherwise.

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