The state of college education is broken.
As a student, this is obvious. As a grad student, it was even more obvious. As an instructor, I’ve passed the point at which I can just ignore it, or act like it doesn’t impact me on a daily basis. So here we go.
This past February, I was invited to present at a symposium my alma mater. I love speaking, and I love sharing ideas, so this was a great opportunity. I arrived at the main campus to find two notable things: main construction absolutely everywhere and a string of parents and high schoolers stringing about the campus. The construction was focused on the new “townhouses” the school is building — which, if I’m honest, look beautiful, which of course, by “beautiful” I mean “expensive.” There will be living quarters for students there, as well as a bunch of shops. Sounds neat. The parents and would-be-students seemed impressed, at least.
I walked into the basement of the old business building, where the symposium was being held. A pipe had burst, water was everywhere, and they were considering re-locating to a different building. A grad assistant and a professor had to clean up the mess.
As far as I could tell, the event never made the front page of our college’s website. Scholarship, it seems, isn’t quite as sexy as updates on the construction, NCAA highlights, and obvious SEO-snatching blog posts.
There are so many fragments of stories I could use as metaphors, but none serve my purpose better than this one. It was like so many different microcosms were colliding at once. It was sort of poetic.
But that’s where we are headed.
College has become business. Everything is a “selling point.” I was told during my grad time there that they happened to be very proud of the fact that no classes were taught by grad students. Just adjuncts. That was a selling point. The location was, too. Those new buildings? Of course.
My wife’s school is in the same bag. New buildings everywhere — to the point I overheard her talking to a friend about how none of the buildings from her time at the school are even around anymore (she graduated in 2010). Colleges are merging and closing, shuffling and renaming, and desperately bidding for students’ dollars. None of this is new, mind you. Well, okay, except for the looming student debt bubble. How much is college, again?
Somehow, despite this boom of colleges becoming bigger and better luxo-resorts, the staff have withered.
Okay, okay. Not everyone — the administrators are doing fine.
I mean the professors.
Oh. Not the ones in the ivory tower, all the way up there.
Adjuncts. Yeah, those guys.
Everyone knows the statistics, so I’ll spare you them again, but over the last decade adjuncts have taken more and more of the teaching load off the shoulders of tenured faculty. Why? It’s cheaper. It requires less planning (you don’t have to worry about that infamous spring drop). Oh, and they’re disposable, too! All of those academic freedom issues? With adjuncts, you can just drop ’em after a semester if you disagree with their politics.
But hey, let’s focus on the most important one: they are cheaper.
Once again: I’ll spare you the specifics, but Glassdoor is your friend. Take a look-see at what adjuncts are paid, per course, compared to tenured professors.
“But oh,” Professor of Whouldntchaknow Stevens says. “They are paid less because they teach easier classes, and because they don’t have as much responsibility.”
Are you dead yet? If you aren’t, it’s because you probably aren’t an adjunct. To wit, every adjunct professor (if NOW is when you’ve had your stroke, because I’ve dared to combine those two words, you are the problem) I know, have known, or likely will know, teaches at least as many classes as full-time faculty. I say “at least” because I have friends working 8 (eight) classes a semester. I don’t want to do the math for you on how much work that is, but let’s say a lot. A lot of work. Too much work.
And then — and then! The professors (often the same ones who sold you on Marxism) at the same university will often offload work on to you, or special requirements. Nooo, you aren’t REQUIRED (loool) to show your face at this meeting, but… you know… if you want that position… (ps: there ain’t no pay here, chief)
No, we don’t get paid to research (but we know that if we want your job, we have to do it anyway). No, we don’t get paid to take part in departmental meetings (but we know that if we want your job, we have to do it anyway). No, we aren’t paid to sit with students and help them through their problems because you have garbage office hours (but we know that if we want your job, we have to do it anyway).
Oh! And back to that “difficult class” thing.
I’m going to let you have it. I’m going to let you believe that teaching the subject you’re psyched about (or, that you were psyched about enough to get your doctorate in it) is hard, and something only you could do. I’m going to let you think that teaching an audience of juniors and seniors is totes hard, especially when the class you teach is in their major. I’m going to let you think that your specially designed class you (ahem) ~earned~ is a very difficult thing.
Ah, fuck it. I can’t do it. You’re wrong.
Now, okay, I’ve never TAUGHT that class (oh wait, I *did*, I just wasn’t PAID for it eeeeeeeeeeeeee), but…
Okay, so here’s the deal. I know that you hate teaching 101. I know it. How? You told me. You snickered to me about a student you had. You looked me in the eye and made a comment about how teaching this class was hell, because oh my god you had to grade PAPERS from STUDENTS on THINGS that weren’t the one thing you’ve spent your whole life researching. Oh no!
I hear you. I heard you talk about how whoever gets stuck with the 101 class has gotten the short end of the stick. What, is it too easy to teach? Is three classes just too much for you?
I once had a professor who told me how he’d designed all of his classes just so he was the only person that could teach them — so he never had to deal with those horrible 100-level classes ever again. Those were for adjuncts. Ha! What a good joke!
Here’s a message to you, students: no matter where you go, the majority of your education will be sold to you by people making less than you will working college jobs. That’s almost not even hyperbole, depending on where you work.
You’re being taught by people who are scared. This class might be their last. Not because they are bad at teaching, but just because. Last semester, every (seriously not hyperbole now, this is literal, I’ll even say it again) *EVERY* adjunct friend I have (there’s quite a few) had classes cancelled. MOST (once again, see above) had ALL of their classes cancelled. I was lucky enough to retain one class.
Now, that’s not necessarily the fault of the college. In my case, at least. My workplace has been great to me, at least for an adjunct.
But other friends? Two students short? Cut the class, stuff ten students in your other class so it’s beyond full. Pay you for the one. Enjoy.
Another? Hired. No classes, though.
Another? Had to get a job working retail. Nothing against those in retail, but I’m not sure of another line of work that occasionally requires you to work three jobs in order to make ends meet while, hopefully, building up enough of your CV so you eventually don’t have to worry about starving (after 6 – 8 years of education).
Students: you are being taught by people who love what they do. That is the only reason they are there. They want to be there. They want to teach you. They’d literally beg to do it.
Most are one step away from homelessness, unless they are independently wealthy, or are supported by someone else.
But most aren’t.
Becoming a professor, honestly, isn’t about skill. It’s about attrition. The reality that we’ve figured out, those of us that remain, is that fewer and fewer people are coming out of grad programs now (they’ve finally heard the message). We clutch our Derrida and Foucault close, waiting. We watch our friends find lucrative (above minimum wage) positions elsewhere. Slowly dropping off. Market shrinking.
Indecency will happen. We know the fate of some of our friends. We’ll watch others literally (honestly) torture themselves, because this is all they know, because academia does that to you.
We’ll watch them, because we believe in it.
The system is broken, and I don’t think my stress will fix it.