Tuesday, April 15, 2008

When Our Working Conditions are Your Learning Conditions

I’m TAing for an adjunct, someone who’s just graduated last year. Right now she’s teaching the large lecture course and two other classes. That wasn’t covering the bills and the student loan payments, so she had grabbed an adjunct class over at the local community college as well --- since they’re on the semester system she should drop back down to three classes before the year is out. It sounds like last quarter was way worse --- she was so swamped with her three classes that she couldn’t grab another, so she just put everything that she couldn’t cover on the credit card, including some medical stuff. The secretary mentioned she saw the adjunct in the office 9-5 every single day over spring break getting the grading wrapped up. She picked the textbooks and wrote the syllabi for this quarter on the Friday before the term started.

Other than the grading for three 70-student classes with no TAs, what could possibly have been taking up all her time? Why is this quarter already filled with canceled lectures, movies, and (bad) improvised lectures by the TAs?

Why, the flyouts and phone interviews. So far, this adjunct is a hot prospect, although the only definite offer so far is yet another visiting position, back across the country. Given the limited number of hours in a day, given the choice between snatching up a tenure-track position and dedicating enough time to poorly-paid lecture work, who could blame her?

Now, even the most teaching-intensive schools and the most student-centered of SLACs could give a fuck about how well you are teaching your current students. They want proof you can be a good teacher, not proof that you are doing a wonderful job with your students right now in your current situation. What are they gonna do, call random students from the current classes? There are no evaluations from courses still in progress.

They also, no matter what they say, never rate teaching evals over an actual degree awarded, publications, conference presentations, and general engagement with the profession. Evidence of teaching effectiveness can be gamed, spun, massaged, anyway. You can put your heart and soul and time and preparation into a couple courses at one point in your grad career and use those as evidence ---- they’ll never know about the semester you let everything slide because you were retaking exams, or fighting to have grad status reinstated, or completely frantic about going on the market, or exhausted and miserable and lonely on some one-year visiting gig.

The UC system has an additional clusterfuck in that everyone who adjuncts full-time accrues credit toward getting a permanent gig, a lecturer with security of appointment. It’s one of those ideas that seems great but inadvertently backfired, as now departments track your quarters taught and simply cut off everyone before they can accrue full-time status. And I guess that makes sense --- who would want to accidentally get saddled with a full-time teacher who you never budgeted a line for? What would you have to cut to make up that money?

This means that at the UC, huge numbers of classes are being taught by people who know they are here only temporarily and who already have an eye on the future and one foot out the door, frantically scrambling to grab a permanent position. Because the adjunct positions are there permanently, only with different individuals cycled in and out of them, what the university ends up with is instructors who are permanently job seeking and distracted. If you put 30 hours a week on an intensive and draining job search, how much time are you going to put in additionally to a job that pays you crap wages? How will that time break down per student given the class sizes?

In short, why invest any more time or effort or collegiality or service into a university that is investing practically nothing in you?

I haven’t weighed in on the tenure conversations all over the academic blogs because I don’t have it. But I can see how decreased professorial mobility coupled with near-lifetime job security* can be beneficial to both the students and the university at large. Even if you asked our adjuncts to do service, they’d have no local knowledge of the university and wouldn’t be around for more than a couple years.

And elsewhere, people like Dean Dad are asking what accreditation has to do with percentage of adjuncts --- how, exactly, is the adjunct situation a question of educational quality for the students?

I was thinking about quality of education the other day when the adjunct dropped an assignment off the syllabus, and then described the other assignment, with a newly-pushed-back due date, as being a five paragraph compare-contrast essay.

A motherfucking five paragraph essay! All they have to do is compare and contrast two excerpts on a blindingly obvious topic when the articles have already been extensively outlined and summarized in lecture?

The students sound excited. Sweet! Easiest A Ever! Let’s go drinking!

Students don’t want rigor or quality even if they know that’s what they should want. It takes not only time and effort and experience as a teacher to push them to what they really can achieve rather than what they want to get away with ---- not only these qualities but also a certain sense of security, a willingness to be tough, to be respected rather than loved. And that’s not going to happen if next quarter’s employment rests on getting great evaluations and next year’s rests on getting out another article and 50 more applications out this month.

Now I can see why I get so much resistance from students when I push them to do better or hold them to high standards. It’s a reversal of holding the line ---- all across the university, instructors at various levels are putting in as little effort as possible or are completely swamped or don’t care or are begging for high evaluations. The instructors who have no investment in the university undermine the efforts of those who do.

And what? What do you want me to do? You know what they call the TA who makes up for this situation by putting in extra time and effort to actually teach the students something about writing and critical thinking and writes lots of insightful, constructive comments on drafts and essays?


* You know that any university can get rid of any professor if they want to badly enough (even if there's a union, even if there's tenure). They just have to prove just cause and go through a huge and excruciating administrative process. And that’s the way it should be ---- it takes a major breach of conduct, like fraud or illegal activity, to convince a university that they want to go through the dismissal process. The easier the process, the more often --- and more lightly --- it will be used.


Acumensch said...

Dang why is she getting cogged like that? She's necessary AND important!

Stampy said...

Great comment, and I know exactly what you mean about the problem of feeling personally responsible. Obviously - and as your post highlighted - these situations are the result of institutional problems, rather than individual inclinations. But, it is very difficult to be part of the process - hard to stand by, because these students deserve better; but impossible to pick up the slack in any small way without feeling like (and probably being) a sucker. How are you resolving these issues?

kermitthefrog said...

Sing it, sister!

Your point about the job search has come up in discussions at my institution about the quality of undergrad education. It's really useful for grad students and adjuncts to be able to say, hey, we may, in the abstract, but fantastic teachers and really know our shit, but here are institutional reasons X, Y, and Z why our classes may nonetheless not be as good as permanent faculty's.

gwoertendyke said...

i have to say i'm kind of digging the pissy sisyphus...and sucker is a fabulous word. the UC system of maintaining a well-spring of cheap labor is horrible.

as grad students in the system, are you always TAs then? and you move to adjunct as funding runs out? are you allowed to adjunct and TA? just curious--it worked differently at my home institution.

Fretful Porpentine said...

I don't have anything hugely profound to add, but I love it when you blog about academic labor stuff.

Actually, I do have something to add -- in my more cynical moments, I feel like my current school's "we'll hire you as a VAP and dangle the carrot of a possible tenure-track offer in front of you for six months, then cut you loose" method might very well be a conscious and deliberate tactic to have it both ways. (It was made crystal clear to me when I was hired that I was going to have to invest lots of time and effort and collegiality and service up front in order even to be considered for the t-t version of my job.) I don't think they were being totally disingenuous, since New SLAC does hire its VAPs on a semi-regular basis, but as it turns out, there are tons more who don't get hired, and those, of course, are the ones a brand-new VAP doesn't get to see.

Flavia said...

Nothing really to say here except--word UP.

(And like your other commenters, I really enjoy your labor-related posts. And your pissiness.)

Q said...

Hi! New to the blog and love it! I'm a third year grad student who teaches a 300 person class (thankfully, they gave me a TA) and make the typical TA stipend. Sure, some may call it exploitation but no one's forcing me to do it and it beats a real job any day (well....almost any day). I would save "exploit" for individuals who do not freely agree to a contract or are somehow mislead. I doubt either holds for the case of TA'ing.

Sisyphus said...

So, I guess I've got a new name: Pissyphus.


(and AW that's so _not_ what I first read when I saw your comment! I was shocked, shocked I tell you ... then I actually read what was there.)

Professor Zero said...

Great post.

Aynrand, I had a grad school situation like that too: one class, one preparation (a couple of times it was a class with hundreds of people in it, but some were seminars of 17). But always one class, one preparation, one stipend which at the time was enough to cover tuition and living expenses.

So, even though after I got the hang of it I wasn't in training any more and the university was benefiting greatly from my cheap labor, it wasn't a hardship situation, and I had TAs and readers for those large lecture classes.

Cog is describing something else. It's one thing to be a TA teaching one class of your own, or a TA teaching under a professor who is pulling their weight. That's not Cog's situation and the point is not just that it's bad for Cog and the person Cog is working under but
that it bespeaks the general rotting away of ... structural integrity in the current academic industrial complex (?).

Bardiac said...

What a thought provoking post.

I'm sorry your adjunct doesn't seem to be really trying, even. It's a doubly sucky position for you as TA.

The Constructivist said...

I nominated you for Education Czar this week. I'm sure Clinton and Obama have already been notified.

LumpenProf said...

Thanks for this wonderful post. It inspired me to write a few comments over on my blog: A Cog's Eye View.

Sisyphus said...

Hee! Thanks for linking to me, peeps! (though if I were given some sort of cabinet position it would take me even _further_ away from what I _really_ want to be doing...)

k8 said...

Exactly! This post rocks!

And it does suck for you (as TA), the students (whether they realize it or not), and the adjunct in question. It really does suck to be barely holding on financially and to be in job search mode.