Rachel Silverman and Laura Bergeron are Ph.D. students acting as graduate teaching assistants (TAs) in the Department of Communication. Like other graduate TAs, they share a cramped office filled with two desks, filing cabinets, bookshelves and various class supplies.
“Across the hall there’s three people to a space this size, but they have a window, so it balances out,” said Silverman, laughing.
Like the other nearly 600 part-time instructors, also known as adjuncts, working at USF, Silverman and Bergeron underscore a broader trend in the United States.
The U.S. Department of Labor reported that postsecondary teachers held nearly 1.7 million jobs in 2006, and more than half of the nation’s postsecondary teachers are part-time instructors, said Sherman Dorn, associate professor of psychological and social foundations in the USF College of Education. Because of these high figures, Dorn said more attention is being paid to these instructors’ lives and working conditions.
In the fall of 2007, 578 adjunct instructors were employed by the University, including part-timers, graduate TAs and some full-time faculty members who stepped in when there were more sections of a class being offered than faculty available to teach them. Some are concerned that adjuncts are not afforded the same rights as full-time professors.
Dorn said that, traditionally, there are two types of adjunct faculty at most institutions.
The classic case is when institutions enlist community members with expertise in specialized topics as instructors. Dorn said this is especially common in fields in which full-time professors are not available to teach uncommon or niche courses.
The other, more common case is when institutions substitute adjuncts, as “contingent academic laborers,” for full-time professors. Dorn said a university can “pay very low rates” to these instructors without agreeing to long-term commitments.
Dorn said that, after graduate school, a person might explore adjunct work and wind up taking on more than one course at a time, often at different universities.
“The life of an adjunct faculty member is, for example, if they can’t find a full-time job, they will put together five or six courses per semester at different institutions,” he said.
Silverman said her position as a graduate TA is not quite the same, because her department hires its doctoral students to teach in exchange for tuition wavers.
“What I do is very different than an adjunct, just logistically speaking,” Silverman said. “I’m a full-time student who, in exchange for tuition, teaches classes and gets a small stipend. And the idea is that in four years of doing this, I’ll graduate with a Ph.D. and I’ll go get a job as faculty.”
She said a friend of hers was in a situation much like the one described by Dorn.
“She got a master’s in women’s studies, didn’t get into Ph.D. programs, and now she’s an adjunct and gets paid twice as much as I do, but gets absolutely no benefits, no health coverage, and possibly no office,” said Silverman.
A 2002 survey of nearly 300 part-time and adjunct instructors in history departments throughout the nation conducted by the American Historical Association (AHA) and the Organization of American Historians (OAH) echoed this scenario.
Almost 70 percent of respondents had never held full-time employment in higher education and offered various reasons for teaching part time. The inability to find full-time work constituted 67 percent of respondents’ reasons for pursuing adjunct teaching, followed by ties to a particular locality (45 percent) and full-time employment in another profession (21 percent). Respondents were able to vote for more than one reason.
The survey revealed that many part-time instructors felt they were “relegated to ‘second-class status,’ attributing this to academic elitism,” according to one report on the findings. Equal pay for equal work was one major point of contention.
Silverman does not think she has been disenfranchised in this way, but she recognizes the concerns other adjuncts may have.
“People always complain,” she said. “I think we’re very lucky at USF – due to the fact that there are so few faculty, we get the opportunity to teach (higher-level classes or classes we design ourselves), which is pretty unheard of. (Other TAs) will never get to be in a 30-person class teaching in a subject of interest.”
Dorn said that at USF, full-time instructors who are not tenure-track often teach three courses, while tenure-track faculty generally teach two. Full-time tenured faculty class loads vary, depending on whether they are in a graduate program, in which the assumption is that much of a professor’s time is dedicated to mentoring doctoral students.
“Whether or not you are a full-time faculty member or an adjunct, you have a busy life,” Dorn said.
For graduate TAs like Silverman and Bergeron, the teaching workload is compounded by schoolwork of their own.
“It’s a full-time job, but we don’t get health care, we don’t get benefits and we aren’t paid very well,” said Silverman. “They pay my tuition . . . but it’s a point of contention, because I probably would have never paid that tuition in the first place. ‘If you get accepted into a Ph.D. program that you’re paying for, you shouldn’t be in it’ is kind of the attitude.”
At USF, adjunct faculty are typically paid somewhere between $2500 and $3500 per course, Dorn said.
“If you have an associate professor who makes $60,000, that means that if they get paid by the course – and usually our assignments are split between some courses, research time and service time – it breaks down to about $7500 per course. That’s a big difference,” he said.
Nearly 65 percent of the respondents of the AHA-OAH survey said they relied on the added income of a spouse or partner, and 41 percent said they also needed additional income from jobs outside of higher education to make ends meet.
“Regardless of the payment per class, almost 60 percent of those surveyed said they earn less than $15,000 a year from teaching,” according to the report. The average reported payment per class was $2885, and one respondent said, “It is very degrading to work so hard and to be paid 50 percent of what the full-timer gets for teaching the same course.”
“The grad students who are part-time teachers are responsible for thousands of students and tons of classes. If (universities) didn’t have part-time workers or students like us, then they couldn’t run the program at all,” said Bergeron. “Basically, we’re cheap labor.”
Dorn said the life of many adjuncts revolves around traveling between institutions to teach in addition to maintaining jobs for supplemental income, which can put a major strain on the amount of time they are available for students outside the classroom.
“The freeway is their campus, and the car is their office in some cases,” Dorn said. “It’s not a good existence.”
Part-time instructors must also cope with discrepancies in rights and benefits, Dorn said. Adjuncts typically do not receive paid health insurance, and while most departments try to accommodate their adjunct faculty, “they don’t have the same rights as full-time faculty at USF,” he said.
Because many adjuncts have full-time jobs in addition to teaching, they do not necessarily “have time to participate in academic collegial governance the way that full-time faculty can,” Dorn said.
“Full-time faculty has voting rights in faculty senate; adjuncts do not. Full-time faculty takes part in the annual evaluation of each other in most departments and can vote on annual review and/or evaluation policies; adjuncts are not part of that bargaining unit,” he said.
Many respondents to the AHA-OAH survey reported feelings of “growing despair about poor work conditions, absent collegiality, and the possibility of being relegated to a permanent underclass.”
The survey revealed a pervasive, nagging worry over coverage for medical costs among part-time instructors. Less than 20 percent of those surveyed received health insurance or sick leave.
“Many explained that as they search for time and funding to finish their degrees, they remain graduate teaching assistants in order to keep student health insurance. Others said they were grateful for spousal/partner insurance policies,” according to the report.
Silverman and Bergeron receive partial health insurance because they are still students.
“The graduate student union has been fighting with the administration endlessly, just for anything,” said Silverman. “All we get is half of our health insurance paid for, which really sucks as a benefit, and the pay is maybe minimum wage.”
Access to University resources, including office space, is another benefit withheld from many part-time instructors. Dorn said that while most department chairs try their best to provide adequate offices and facilities for part-time instructors, some departments simply do not have space.
“I know one campaign unionizing for adjuncts (in another state) where the public face of the organization was an adjunct that taught at two or three institutions, and his car was his office. He met with students in his car. I don’t know any adjuncts who do that here,” Dorn said. “There may be some departments that can’t provide office space, but most department chairs will say that if they have space, they will try to make the effort to provide it.”
Silverman said the Department of Communication provides access to computer, printing and copying services and that all TAs have office space, though it is almost always shared.
“I know TAs at other schools who aren’t even allowed to Xerox anything,” she said.
The AHA-OAH survey reported that 73 percent of respondents shared an office or telephone on campus, and slightly more than half had access to a computer in the department.
Emory Pisi-Martinez recently graduated from USF with a bachelor’s in marketing. He said many of his instructors during his freshman and sophomore years were adjuncts, and it was not until he was an upperclassman that the differences between adjuncts and full-time professors became apparent.
“They didn’t always have as much real-life experience or examples when they started explaining. Their teaching techniques were not as polished,” Pisi-Martinez said. “I mean, they did the job, but by my junior and senior years, I had professors where you could tell they had been doing this for a long time. I feel like a lot of students don’t even realize the difference until later on in college when they enter into their concentration and realize that they could have been taught better earlier on.”
Despite this imbalance, Pisi-Martinez said he also had some wonderful adjunct professors.
“I had one instructor that you could tell was putting in 120 percent, and although he may not have had as much experience as other professors, he still really knew what he was doing,” he said.
Silverman said she believes students usually treat TAs and adjuncts fairly.
Dorn said he is confident in the quality of most adjuncts at USF, but he remains concerned about the University’s dependence on contingent faculty.
“There are plenty of wonderful adjunct faculty instructors at USF that I know. That’s different from whether or not we should be relying as much on adjunct faculty as we do,” he said.