The crime of part time

A full-time teacher contemplates life on the other side of the academic divide

Photo Illustration by Don Button

I have a friend who teaches part time at four different community colleges. She is a single mother, attempting to provide a livelihood for herself and two children. She is one of a rather large contingent of teachers sometimes referred to as “freeway flyers,” people who cobble together a marginal livelihood by commuting between schools, often teaching in excess of what would be a full load if they were employed full time at a single college. Because all colleges keep part-timers strictly limited in the number of classes they can teach, it is necessary for people who hope to make a semblance of a living to get on a treadmill that keeps them shuttling from college to college, moving faster all the time but getting nowhere in terms of a retirement package, benefits, job security or any of the other perks granted to their full-time colleagues.

Every time gas prices take one of their periodic spikes, as they are currently doing, my friend takes a hard hit to her already marginal income. Last semester, she was driving some 500 miles each week between those four colleges that employ her. Five hundred miles a week is 10 hours of uncompensated time required to perform her duties, and 500 miles eats up a lot of gas.

In California, more than two-thirds of all community-college courses are taught by people like my friend, part-time teachers who usually are not even provided with offices in which to meet with their students. The stress of making a living in this way builds a quite natural sense of resentment toward full-time colleagues who often work less while making a good deal more. That resentment is fed by the various euphemisms administrators have contrived for part-timers; depending on the school, they are known as “adjunct faculty” or “associate” faculty.

During my first weeks as a full-time teacher at the school where I’m currently employed, I was puzzled and disconcerted by the coolness of the greetings I received from so many of my new colleagues. It took me some time before I figured it out, but the fact was that I had taken a full-time job many of those people felt they more justly had earned. The majority of my fellow teachers were part-timers (or “adjuncts”), and most of them had been teaching at the college for quite some time, often doing highly praised work that led them to believe they would have a good shot at the next available full-time job. But, as so often happens in such cases, part-time instructors have contaminated their own standing because their very definition as part-time instructors has cheapened their credentials and tarnished the assessment of their value. Beyond that, familiarity often has bred a kind of contempt in their full-time colleagues, who may mouth platitudes about the plight of the “poor part-timers” but demonstrate a condescending sense of superiority to them nonetheless.

So, my new part-time colleagues didn’t like me on sight. I was from that other tribe, a full-timer from another college who had come to take away the full-time position they long had auditioned for.

One advantage I had in taking that job from them is that the candidate pool was full of local part-time teachers competing against each other for the position I sought, and in such circumstances, screening committees of full-time instructors are inclined to believe that giving the slot to one of those part-timers will build even greater resentment among the other part-timers. In other words, they cancelled each other out.

The whole system is invidious in a way that serves administrative interests quite nicely. Administrative performance is measured by an “efficiency” of numbers, by students moving smoothly through the gearboxes and by a neat ratio between instructional expenditures and students “served.” Despite the systemic division between full-time and part-time faculty, the bureaucratic language that issues from colleges is always the same. Look at any flier for a teaching position in higher education, and you’ll always find something that looks like this: “Faculty and professional staff are team-oriented individuals who are genuinely committed to creating the conditions that help make students successful. The college prides itself on its collegial environment and a demonstrated level of achievement.” That boilerplate language is the usual fantasy-speak, a make-believe world of language built by committees for administrators to live in.

It is not the world most teachers work in, however. Even in the best of circumstances, teaching is seldom a “team-oriented” endeavor. Teachers are isolated by schedules and by the very nature of the work they do. That isolation is enhanced by a system that divides part-timers from full-timers in a caste system of relative perks and privileges.

But the persistence and growth of this system cannot be blamed on administrators alone. Full-time faculty members have done precious little to forge true bonds with their part-time brethren. While often giving lip service to a sense of outrage over the inequities, most full-time instructors simply have minded their own stores, conducting business as usual with the occasional tip of the hat to their lower-paid brethren. Faculty unions (the California Teachers Association and the American Federation of Teachers) have found, to date, no way to forge a unity of interest between full-timers and part-timers.

Such a unity is difficult to forge, since part-time instructors work as a counterweight to any move by full-time faculty for higher wages or better benefits. Those salaries have remained stagnant for years now, and benefits take a whack with each new year of negotiations, even more so now that Governor Schwarzenegger has taken such an adversarial position regarding public employees like teachers, state workers and nurses. With a large pool of part-time teachers to draw from, administrators can use those “adjuncts” virtually as scabs, people who are willing to perform the same services for a much lower cost. I once heard a part-time colleague exclaim, “This job is so much fun, I’d be glad to do it for free.” The woman in question was the wife of a wealthy doctor, a woman whose income was secure. People like her can readily undermine all attempts to improve wages and working conditions for both full-time and part-time teachers.

While part-timers may earn as much as 80 percent of what the full-time faculty on some campuses earn, they can earn as little as 39 percent on others. There are 35,000 part-time instructors statewide, and about a third of them have been teaching part time for more than 10 years. On my campus, people who have taught part time for that length of time are paid less than $45 per classroom hour, and they are not paid at all for the spent time outside of class on preparation or on grading papers.

The fact that this system has been perpetuated and encouraged for so long is a disgrace to everyone associated with it. It is a disgrace to administrators from top to bottom, people charged with the responsibility of implementing and overseeing an equitable workplace that bears some resemblance to the environment they tout in their mission statements and job-opportunity fliers. It is a system that cruelly exploits teachers, strips dignity from the profession and allows administrators to treat faculty with increasing disdain. It is a system in which teaching cannot be properly monitored and in which the disparity in numbers between part-time and full-time teachers makes it impossible to maintain consistent standards. It is a two-tiered caste system that divides colleagues and denies students easy access to their instructors.

It is a system, finally, that pays its top administrators $150,000 a year or more but pays a single mother less than $36,000 annually in exchange for teaching some 10 classes strung out between four different campuses. It is a system that asks that single mother to drive 500 miles a week; that requires her to teach more students than her full-time counterparts; and that further requires that she live a life that keeps her buried in student papers, swamped by responsibilities and driven to near distraction by the extraordinary pressures of trying to juggle all that work. In the interest of high administrative salaries and balanced community-college budgets, it asks this beleaguered woman and many more like her to subsidize the vast educational enterprise with the sacrifice of her time, her energy and her future prospects. That’s a crime—against her, against students and against the very profession in which she works.