Teacher appreciation week’s unsung heroes – adjunct college instructors

by Jessica Martin

As I haul a Costco-sized bag of chocolate truffles to help celebrate my son’s elementary school teachers and staff this week, I’m reminded that I, a college educator, never actually considered myself a part of teacher appreciation week. For some reason, I associated this week with preschool and K-12 education.

My notion of “teacher appreciation week” changed last year when I had a student bring in a small note and gift of appreciation. I was honored and completely blown away by this unexpected gesture of gratitude. Then again, why didn’t I feel like I deserved this token of appreciation during this week? How about my colleagues – do they feel the same as me? Do we forget the role we play in potentially making a difference in the lives of our students? Is it that we only have three short months with any given student instead of nine months? Maybe it’s that adults are seen as having a greater responsibility for their own education compared to children? Whatever the reason, I hope we start honoring our college instructors for the unsung heroes among our ranks.

I am an adjunct biology instructor – part of the “76%” of adjunct faculty at Portland Community College (PCC). While my students see me no differently than a full-time instructor, there seems to be a great financial and benefits divide between adjunct and full-time instructor status. Last term, I talked to my students about what it means to be “adjunct” faculty. Most truly had no idea that any extra office hours or time spent outside of the classroom isn’t technically compensated. My pay technically comes from time spent in the classroom with students – or “contact hours” – with a vague expectation that a reasonable amount of time outside of the classroom is devoted to activities like grading, writing quizzes and exams, making lecture slides, answering emails, etc. While it’s often said that teachers don’t teach for the pay, it’s certainly true for adjunct faculty. By the way, this isn’t just a PCC problem, this is systemic across higher education in our country. As tuition for students continues to climb, more unstable adjunct faculty join the ranks with fewer stable full-time positions. It seems that this “system” snuck up on us gradually over the course of several decades as a cost-savings measure by the business of higher education. So, where is all of that extra tuition money going if not to the educators? The adjunct position was never intended to be “76%” of faculty, yet here we are. If I honestly add up all of my contact hours and non-contact hours, my hourly rate isn’t much different than many jobs that don’t require a college education. Yet, I have a Ph.D. What does it say to our students, who are paying for an education in hopes of a better paying job, when their highly educated instructor’s hourly rate is comparable to not even bothering with college in the first place?

I don’t know what the answer is for solving the current adjunct crisis in higher education, but I hope to get the word out to students and taxpayers alike, who financially support and rely on public higher education. Instructors, students, and taxpayers deserve more. We need everyone touched by higher education – which is arguably everyone in our modern society – advocating to fix this problem. Do we keep a high fraction of adjunct positions, but better compensate? Do we shift back toward more full-time faculty positions over adjunct positions? Is it some combination of both? Does the government fully subsidize community college education like K-12 education? If so, will instructor compensation improve? While we can’t easily quantify quality of instruction, intuition tells me that appropriate compensation – i.e., a livable predictable wage with benefits – makes the difference between an instructor who spends the time to give constructive feedback on a written assignment meant to challenge critical thinking versus an instructor who runs a standardized, fill in the box, multiple choice exam through the Scantron machine.

In spite of it all, I LOVE my job. Nothing brings me greater pleasure than sharing my passion and feeling like I am truly making a difference for my students. I honestly get goosebumps when I tell my students the story of how former PCC Biology instructor, Donald Defler, was a key inspiration behind Rebecca Skloot’s New York Times Best Seller, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. College instructors can and do alter the trajectory of lives – not only for those individuals who grace our classrooms, but those individuals who later go on to make ripples throughout our communities and beyond – as is the case for Rebecca Skloot. Higher education plays a much greater societal role than ever before as the demand for highly skilled and trained workers only continues to rise. Community college instructors especially –whether adjunct or full-time – are truly at the heart of training this workforce. So, this teacher appreciation week, thank a college instructor. Just one email from a previous student can fill an instructor’s mostly empty cup. Even more important, this teacher appreciation week, be part of righting the wrong in our current higher education system. Become aware of the problem in higher education. Write letters to our state and national legislators to better fund public higher education and ensure that additional funding helps compensate its educators at a level commensurate with their education. Heck even start asking more questions up the chain of command at our higher education institutions. Students who are paying and going into thousands of dollars in debt for their education deserve a higher quality education that comes from instructors who don’t have to worry about whether they have enough “contact hours” to pay the bills next term. And to all my amazing colleagues in the biology department at PCC, you all have my sincerest gratitude and a Costco-sized bag of chocolate truffles headed your way.

Project ACCEPT: A dream deferred—but not for long

This past Wednesday, February 25, 2015 was National Adjunct Walkout Day, a day for contingent faculty across the country to walk out of class to increase awareness of the plight of part-time college instructors across the country. PCCFFAP asked its members not to walk out; instead we and sympathetic PCC employees wore buttons and stickers with “76%” on it to show support for the 76% of PCC instructors who are part-timers.

On that same day, PCC’s Project ACCEPT was scheduled to deliver their report to the EAC, after many months of discussion and deliberation, for approval and forwarding to PCC President Jeremy Brown.

Instead, Chris Chairsell, PCC’s Vice President of Student and Academic Affairs, announced moments before the meeting that PCC’s lawyers had examined the report and decided that the EAC should not vote to put the report on Dr. Brown’s desk while contract negotiations were ongoing.

Coincidentally, those negotiations had just begun the previous Friday.

Additionally, she forbade all PCC managers (which included many at the EAC meeting) from not only voting on the matter but also discussing the issues at all. Some hesitant dialogue about the report—but not its contents—ensued, including several who stated their support of adjuncts and the work of Project ACCEPT. Then, the EAC voted to table the report until the end of contract negotiations. In the meantime, it will remain on the Action Item section of the agenda for each meeting so that it is clear that the report would not be forgotten.

PCC’s lawyers had examined the report many times. In addition, Chairsell had been involved with the drafting of the report, affecting its final language and shape; several recommendations were rephrased as “findings,” and language was inserted in order to avoid any appearance of bargaining outside of contract negotiations.

She could have brought this particular issue up many times, either in her private discussions with Project ACCEPT or in the EAC meetings during which the Project’s report was discussed. Her move was timed to be dramatic and surprising, and it certainly involved a generous reading of labor law surrounding this matter.

The timing was also ironic for PCC’s part-time instructors, since it came on Adjunct Walkout Day. On the same day that PCC’s part-time instructors showed their support for PCC by not walking out of our classes, the PCC administration reciprocated by blocking progress towards greater inclusion and acceptance of the adjuncts who represent the majority of their faculty.

We, the part-timers, offered reconciliation and support; the administration offered obstruction and silence.

While it’s easy to get discouraged by the news that the report will be deferred, it’s also clear that Chairsell and the administration are concerned that the EAC will vote to support this report, which would force the administration to take action on adjunct matters—or to at least acknowledge that PCC isn’t helping the majority of its faculty, and the students whom we teach, succeed.

PCC, it should be noted, treats its part-timers better than comparable institutions in the Portland area. (And, yes, that’s thanks to the efforts of PCCFFAP in contract negotiations). Our pay is better, and the benefits are easier to obtain, but more can be done, particularly in the area of job security.

Even assignment rights, our only assurance of ongoing job security, only guarantee us one class per quarter on a rolling basis, and that class can still be cancelled, or we can still be told “We have no classes for you” with little notice at all. One-year or two-year contracts would be a great step in the direction of job security and increased respect.

Whenever contract negotiations are concluded, the report will be again brought up for a vote. Indications are that it will be approved and forwarded on to Dr. Brown, who will then have to act on its recommendations—or explain why he cannot.

In the meantime, there’s plenty you can still do about adjunct issues. Come to EAC meetings to voice your support for Project ACCEPT or for adjunct instructors, or speak at PCC board meetings about adjunct rights.

Most importantly, if you’re a part-time instructor at PCC, be sure that you’ve joined PCCFFAP. Your voice and vote are always vital, but they are never more important than during contract negotiations—which are happening right now. Even though PCCFFAP always represents every member of the faculty, its power is magnified when it has more members.

In the case of adjuncts, low membership numbers diminishes your federation’s power at the bargaining table. When PCCFFAP tries to put forward a proposal that might benefit part-time faculty, the administration can just point to low PCCFFAP membership numbers for part-timers and say, “What do you know about part-timers? They are saying you don’t represent them.”

So increase awareness of the plight of adjuncts however you wish—speak to your students, your colleagues, to the administration—but please join us at PCCFFAP, your federation. Your voice matters.