Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Wal-Mart Comes to Campus

There was a time in the not too foggy past when I was perilously under-employed and so broke that the neighborhood dogs had taken to avoiding my yard as if responding to some primal alarm of self-preservation. It was during those darkest of days when my self-respect totally bottomed-out and I found myself interviewing for a position with America’s largest employer: Wal-Mart. Or, more accurately, anxiously sucking up to a store manager who was younger than some of my children and possessed the grating habit of constantly addressing me as “sir”. Things were going along swimmingly, though, until the subject of insurance came up. “Yes,” the kid manager said in answer to my most critical inquiry, “Wal-Mart does have an excellent insurance program, sir. Unfortunately, that benefit is only available to our full-time employees.” I responded by saying that a full-time position would fit quite nicely into my then-current situation. “Sir, I’m afraid you don’t understand. We only have three full-time positions in this entire store, and there is a long waiting list for each of them.”

That was a true story. Here is another:

Having passed on the stellar opportunity to man an oar on a Wal-Mart slave galley, I redirected my job search into more “professional” channels. A university placement center alerted me to the fact that a local community college was seeking adjunct instructors to fill in gaps in its fall schedule. The term “adjunct” had a nice, professional ring about it, even if I didn’t have a clue as to its meaning. But what the heck…bring on them adjuncts, I’d learn ‘em!

And I did. My “career” as a “rent-a-prof” lasted nearly a decade, well into a time of life in which I had become so over-employed that some commitments needed to be jettisoned. My classes, often determined within days or even hours of the beginning of the semester, ranged from various types of history, to geography, psychology, sociology, economics, and that perennial favorite – freshman composition. I taught the young kids who coughed up sentence fragments when paragraphs were the expectation. I taught their grandparents who came for self-betterment, the academic challenge, or simply something to do on Tuesday nights. The learning was a reciprocal process. I struggled to keep up with the older students who routinely stayed chapters ahead of the lectures, and I endeavored with similar enterprise to counsel and cajole their genetic residue into comprehending the importance and necessity of coming to class with textbook, paper, and pen. It was with a surprising degree of reluctance that I finally gave up the privilege of being economically swindled by academia in order to devote full attention to a career that did a better job of paying the bills – daily as well as medical - and provided for an eventual retirement.

Adjunct instructors on America’s college campuses are about as common as condoms at a frat house. They scurry through the halls of community colleges and major universities, rushing from class to class, building to building, often without the benefit of an office, a locker for storing their teaching supplies, and sometimes, in the most egregious of cases, even a mailbox. And while some undoubtedly are better supplied than others, most adjuncts lack the ample measure of esteem that is accorded to their full-time colleagues – if not by their students or peers, almost certainly by the college administration.

A skilled administrator can spew forth reasons for the use of adjunct instructors faster than a committee can turn a statement made in jest into a twelve-pound policy manual. Obviously, being able to hire teachers for one or two courses gives flexibility to scheduling, both in ensuring that plenty of sections of grunge classes can be scheduled (Can you say “freshman comp?”), as well as specialized courses for which no permanent instructors are available. Closely allied to that tangent of need are the “real life” experiences that can come from the world beyond academia. A truly skilled administrator might even be so bold as to suggest (with the obligatory straight face) that adjunct faculty are indeed blessed because they are not bogged down with committee work and the endless hassle of research and publishing. Add to that the fact that some wags (this writer among them) contend that the teaching performance of adjunct instructors is often equal to, or even surpasses, that of their esteem-laden, generously benefited, and better paid colleagues, and justification for their use becomes embarrassingly easy.

The administrative perspective on this matter may clang and clatter with platitudinous locomotion, but the primary reason for the use of adjunct instructors often remains unstated, at least by the administration. Part-time instructors are hired because they are cheap, unprotected, and far more likely to be compliant to the whims and vagaries of administrators than are tenured and/or unionized full-time faculty members. In fact, hiring part-timers can be as much about power and control as it is about cost savings. Not only are adjunct faculty themselves in a weakened position, but their employment also serves to wobble the stance of the regular faculty. From the perspective of full-time instructors, their part-time counterparts depress salaries and diminish opportunities for more tenure-track positions.

The perceived negative impact that the employment of adjunct instructors has on full-time teachers, however, is minimal compared to the negative situations in which adjuncts often find themselves. The two big pluses for administrators, low wages and few-to-no benefits, are, of course, major minuses to those on the other side of the hiring desk. The advantage usually noted for regular instructors, that of having a herd of hungry have-nots ready to swoop in and manage survey courses and the more mundane or monotonous classes, translates into hard knocks for the adjuncts who must shepherd their charges through the academic equivalent of adolescence. (This writer once found himself in the awkward position of having to telephone a college freshman’s mother to inform her that her son seldom attended his Saturday morning class. Mom, of course, soon remedied that situation, much to the chagrin of her errant son who felt that he was suddenly back in junior high school, a perception shared by the instructor who sensed that he was adrift in a sea of thirteen-year-olds!)

The negatives for adjunct instructors, unfortunately, don’t end there. Low wages and few-to-no benefits feed into a sinking abyss of morale and a perception of exploitation. Some of the part-timers probably do fit nicely into the “bored housewife” archetype of a person who needs the diversion of an out-of-home experience more than the money. Many others, however, are motivated by a calling to teach, or, at the very least, a calling to eat. In larger communities, these individuals may adjunct themselves at multiple schools as they struggle to survive - while keeping their names and faces afloat in the event that a crack will suddenly appear in the floor of heaven and allow the ascension of another robed god.

The scariest negative associated with a heavy reliance on adjunct instructors, however, centers on the educational experiences that they deliver. As stated earlier on, most adjuncts do a fine job of teaching. They have to. These part-timers sit out on a precariously shaky limb with no protections. If an adjunct teacher doesn’t pony up his one-hundred-and-ten percent, he can simply not be rehired for the next semester - and replaced by the next hungry and not-too-proud smutz who slides an application under the dean’s door. The problem, of course, is that an adjunct who teaches too well can also be easily removed. If a tenured professor makes a brutally honest statement that offends the sensibilities or portfolios of wealthy alumnae, he can expect to avail himself of certain protections that are built into the system before being hung out to dry. Not so with the adjunct instructor. An off-the-cuff remark or a well-reasoned statement that challenges the status quo can be a quick ticket back to flipping burgers. Bold ideas, it would seem, are best left to the purview of management – those good folks who mindlessly cheered on the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, spying by the FBI and CIA, criminal penalties for smoking pot, and community-destroying super centers.

In retrospect, the heavy use of adjunct instructors may not be such a bad move after all. If one views education not as some ethereal garden where scholars congregate to luxuriate in the scents and pleasantries of grandiose philosophies, but rather as a weeding yard for the employment marketplace, the use of a powerless class of instructors to mold a mindless proletariat makes uncommonly good sense. The day draws nigh, one assumes, when the national motto will shift from “E Pluribus Unum” to a more readily recognizable “Thank you for shopping at Wal-Mart.”

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