For three years in the early 1970s, journalist Studs Terkel gathered stories from a variety of American workers. He then compiled them into Working, an oral-history collection that went on to become a classic. Four decades after its publication, Working is more relevant than ever. Terkel, who regularly contributed to In These Times, once wrote, “I know the good fight — the fight for democracy, for civil rights, for the rights of workers — has a future, for these values will live on in the pages of In These Times.” In honor of that sentiment and of Working’s 40th anniversary, ITT writers have invited a broad range of American workers to describe what they do, in their own words. More “Working at 40” stories can be found here.
In the 1970s, communications professor Jack Hunter told Studs Terkel that his was an “invisible industry.” “Since the Second World War,” Hunter explained, “We’ve had phenomenal growth. There are seven-thousand-plus strong teachers in this discipline.” The centrality of communication and persuasion to human society meant that “communications specialists do have a sense of power,” said Hunter. He was “high on the work.”
Forty years later, Maria (a pseudonym), who until recently taught English composition classes at a Texas community college, similarly describes her work as invisible. But she does not have the same sense of power — as an adjunct professor, she says that she is treated as disposable, even though her work teaching incoming students communication skills is still just as crucial. Maria says that drastic changes have occurred in higher education since Hunter’s day — most notably, tenure-track faculty now constitute just 24 percent of the higher education workforce, according to the American Association of University Professors.
Before I started as an adjunct, I was in publishing for 20-odd years. A long time ago, I was getting my Ph.D, and I had finished everything but my dissertation. I had gone out for a job, and I was in the final group out of three hundred applicants, but I was pregnant at the time and they didn’t pick me. So I went into publishing. But I always loved teaching, and when my kids grew up, I knew I wanted to go back into it.
I started teaching two classes at the local community college as an adjunct. When you first start teaching, you are very idealistic. You think that it’s all hunky dory and things will work out. The following year, a full-time position opened and I applied for it. It seemed to go well, and then all of a sudden I didn’t get it. After my second year, I realized that I wasn’t going to get anywhere.
Adjuncts get paid nothing here in Texas. In places like New York and Boston, and other places where you have unionized schools, you have a better chance at increasing your pay. In places where you cannot have a union [under state law], the pay is abominable. The average pay for adjunct faculty right now, according to the Coalition on the Academic Work Force, is $2,700 per course without healthcare. That’s not a living wage. Here in Texas, the average pay for community colleges is $1,791 per course. With Ph.D. A.B.D. [“all but dissertation”], I was getting $1,800.
I didn’t usually tell my students about what my working conditions were like. When I did tell them how much I made, they were shocked — “You mean a week? A month? Really, a semester?” They couldn’t believe it. “But I make more than that!”
When you don’t have a chance to unionize, you have to go into other modes of trying to be creative about pay. But it’s very hard. I realized that it wasn’t going to ever change unless we did something actively to change it, so that’s when I started looking into what we could do.
I started a petition — quietly because I was still working, but people did start finding out. I started getting this reputation as a troublemaker. The following year, I had two classes that had 35 students each in them. I was teaching English composition, and I told them, “There is no way I can teach students well if I am teaching English composition with 35 students per class. You have to break up my classes and give me more classes, or something, but I cannot have 35 students in an English composition class.”
So they said, “Okay,” and took two of my classes away. So that semester, I was teaching half the courseload I’d had before.
They thought I had learned my lesson, and that I’d be a good little girl. The following year, they knew I was a good teacher, so they hired me again full-time. I was teaching dual-credit English, which means my students were seniors in high school taking college classes.
The school kept adjuncts apart. Especially when they found out that I was kind of a troublemaker, they kept me away from other teachers. Since I was teaching dual-credit English, I was at a high school, and I was not even in the high school, I was in a portable trailer outside of the high school. I was all by myself. I did not see the high school, I did not see college faculty, I did not see anyone.
At first, I was kind of upset about it. I had started off in the high school, but then they said one of the other teachers needed the classroom, so they stuck me in the trailer. But I loved my students and my students loved me, and that was the point of it; it wasn’t about money or anything else. Getting paid $1,800 a semester course, I was practically giving my work away — it was charity, basically.
I was working 60 hours a week because I had all these papers and prep work to do with two comp courses and British lit. I had to bring my own computer, my own everything. If I had to use audio-visual materials, I’d bring those. No one taught me anything, so I’d have to have my students help me.
With the lack of money for education here in Texas, the school system is trying to push students into these college classes. They were kind of pushing off their students, and two-thirds of the senior class was taking college credits — even though many of they didn’t belong there. I told one student, “You should really consider going back and taking your regular English high school class, because I am afraid you might not do well.”
And I just told her to go see her counselor, and she said she would. So I thought it was fine, and I went on preparing my classes for the next day. At 5:30 in the afternoon, I got a call from the school saying not to come in the next day; they had rearranged my classes and I was no longer teaching. It was the second day of the semester.
I had basically been fired [for criticizing the dual-credit classes I was teaching]. I called about 30 lawyers to see if anyone would take my case, and I wrote all kinds of grievance letters. I got no response, and I had no money to pay a lawyer. Most of the time, adjunct faculty are just not rehired the following semester. I was actually teaching and they told me not to come in the following day. But they got away with the technicality that it was the last day of late registration.
And so I finally said, “This is not going anywhere.” I could not do anything. So I finally decided this past year that I just could not go on alone.
The administration was thinking about the bottom line, not about the students. I think that’s the problem with academic and higher ed across the United States with the corporatized university. It comes down to costs and money. But education is about critical thinking skills and making connections. Parents don’t know that this is going on. Parents pay big bucks for college. Seventy-six percent of [those teaching college classes] are contingent workers [non-tenure-track faculty or graduate employees]. That doesn’t make any sense. The academic worker is being pummeled, and we have to fight back.
There’s an invisibility factor among adjuncts, and everyone was even more afraid after I got fired for speaking out. I’m still doing what I can. Adjunct faculty are the most vulnerable teachers, and the population is often made up of disadvantaged students. We can’t form unions in Texas, but we can form outside coalitions. “Adjunct” really means someone or something that’s superfluous, so “adjunct” implies all the other people who are treated as superfluous — it includes low-wage workers, the undocumented, refugees. I’ve been working with these groups, and trying to connect all of these issues.
Do you think you’ll start teaching again?
I teach every day. Whether I get paid a wage is another thing. (Laughs). I’m not sure that anyone will offer me a teaching position again. But I teach every day.
Rebecca Burns is an In These Times contributing editor and award-winning investigative reporter. Her work has appeared in Bloomberg, the Chicago Reader, ProPublica, The Intercept, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.