A Little Raillery: An Open Letter to American Parents From the PT Prof Proletariat

by Kathryn A. Higgins

One day while I was waiting in line for my daily one free cup of coffee – a perquisite of my job of being an adjunct college professor — a colleague of mine surreptitiously stuffed this into my (enormous, paper-laden) book bag. Although the noise and confusion in the busy cafeteria and the pajama-clad students crowding around the coffee urns prevented me from being certain who it was who had delivered this missive, I feel duty-bound to publish it here, as I think he (or she) intended it for you all:

Dear Parents:

I’m writing to congratulate you on having your child attend [expensive four-year university]. We at the University recognize and honor your commitment to your progeny’s higher education — a commitment we know takes the form of vast sums of money: forty to fifty thousand dollars a year plus beer expenses. Either you have scrimped and saved for decades, or you are accruing vast debt, or you are wealthy and can simply afford this kind of expenditure, which we really appreciate.

I just thought you should know that your kid’s college professors might be on Medicaid. How do I know this? Because I am a college professor and I’m on Medicaid.

It has to do with the whole Adjunct Professor thing that’s so popular in higher education nowadays. It’s a trend that’s been written about in The Atlantic (June 2008) and The Nation (May 2011), The Wall Street Journal (“Meddle Management”), and in books like The Fall of the Faculty by Benjamin Ginsberg and in The New York Times, “Decline of the Tenure Track Raises Concerns” (Education; Nov 2007). So I’m sure you already know about this. You read all those publications, right? I noticed your kids don’t.

In short, our universities spend so much money on administration that academics just have to take a back seat.  Faced with bills for marketing plans and Web sites and research studies and defense lawyers for coaches and public-relations crisis management teams, university officials had to cut expenses somewhere. So they’ve chosen not to employ instructors full-time.

Full-time employment means medical and retirement benefits for a quantity of qualified college professors. It means the university must provide the professor with an office which, even though it’s probably about the size of a closet, is additional square-footage that’s unavailable for more important things like holding sports equipment and brochures. They would have to pay for a sign for the door that reads “Professor So-and-So.” It means that the professor is “tenure-track” and thus might be harder to get rid of when legal expenses increase after the coach molests another kid in the locker room.

So the University Administration gets a lot of people like me, employs us part-time (we never get to teach enough credits at an institution to qualify as full-time) and also temporary (we never know how many classes we will get each semester). We are a bunch of overqualified temp workers.

So what we do is sign up to teach at as many universities as we can just to pay the bills and maintain some sort of job security. I have colleagues who are teaching six classes per semester at two or three different colleges. So you can imagine how difficult it is to give adequate attention to your kid, who’s just one of hundreds of freshmen writing (expletive deleted) papers. (Sorry about that. But just imagine reading 100+ papers every week — because the new philosophy of teaching writing is to have students produce as much as possible instead of having them read lots of good literature and write a couple of polished papers a semester. And I’ve noticed that your kids, when asked what they’ve read lately on their own, say “We don’t read.”  What they do do is write their formulaic five paragraph essays (that their high school teachers so assiduously taught them how to do), throw in a few politically correct platitudes, repeat themselves just enough to satisfy the minimum length requirements, and then they expect the A that you paid for.)

Imagine getting paid less than minimum wage (depending on how much time you waste on each paper) for this. That is what some of my colleagues face.

So for us there’s a big downside — lack of job security, lack of money, lack of medical/dental insurance, scrounging for jobs every semester, parking our old beat-up Datsuns next to our students’ BMWs. But there’s also a big upside. Not being actual full-time tenure-track professors, we have little to lose by tweaking the curriculum a bit. I find that this greatly enhances my students’ educational experience.

Just the other day, I was teaching your kid about ethics and morality (Descartes and Dr. ML King Jr. and others) and I quoted some adages that the students were familiar with. . .”do unto others” and all that. And I added “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” My students, although impressed, weren’t familiar with that one, so I told them about the hero Karl Marx and his humanitarian credo the Communist Manifesto. Yeah, I was like, whoops! I’m teaching your kid the virtues of Communism!

Then we had to cancel a field trip because of that freak October snow storm, so I used the unexpected classroom time to show them Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth and explain to them how climate change had fucked up our field trip, among other things. (Yes, I can use the F word in class anytime I want. All my students are adults and, frankly, they use it almost as much as I do.)

That got me on a roll, so I abandoned my “approved” syllabus altogether and mounted a Michael Moore film festival. Your kids really like movies. They especially loved Sicko. I told them about how I’m on Medicaid and how everyone should have government health care just as we have government police, fire departments, libraries, schools, military, transportation, post offices (well, not the best example), roads, sewers, DMVs, airports, limousine cavalcades for VIPs, spies, dams, nuclear bombs and the like. They loved Michael Moore!

But, you already know that, right? Because of the assignment I gave them to discuss Moore with you over the break. Did you have an argument? I hope so, because that was part of the assignment.

Mike-check! My next plan for our class to is go to New York City and Occupy Wall Street, since my students have been asking me what that’s all about and I have been telling them (most vociferously, I might add). On our field trip, I will explain to them about the one percent and what a bunch of crooks they are. I will tell them about how CEOs make 343 times more than the average worker in American companies, and how this compares (dismally) to the ratio of CEO to worker income in other countries. I will show them how to divide a bagel and schmear between eight people and I will teach them how to create a toilet in the middle of New York City with a couple of bits of cardboard and a towel.

And we’ll do the human megaphone. We’ll make a wave of sound when we say in unison things like “down with the one percent!” and “college professors are the new proletariat.”  It’ll be a lot of fun!

First posted to The Faster Times. Used here with permission.


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