By Lee Kottner
Adjuncts have been called Freeway Flyers and Roads Scholars. I’m the Public Transportation Prof. It costs me about $3,000/year—a little less than 10% of my income—to get to work eight months of the year, between a monthly unlimited subway pass (reasons for which will become apparent momentarily), a pass for the commuter rail, and cash for the bus or a taxi. And that’s when I’m only teaching at one college. When I’m teaching at more than one institution, I may use that unlimited subway pass 4-6 times a day. The month at the beginning of the semester when I can’t afford one is a brutal and dicey scrounge for loose change in coat pockets.
If you’ve got a college within a 50-mile radius of my home, I can get there by public transportation: trains, buses, subway, commuter rail, ferry, cab, or light rail. I love that about the Northeast Corridor, that it’s so easy to get places without owning a car. It saves me car payments, parking fees, insurance, gas, and maintenance. But unlike my full-time colleagues or the staff, unlike other non-academic jobs I’ve worked, nobody offers me a before-tax Transit Chek with which to buy my transportation passes, so I don’t even get that small break. (Unions, take notice.)
The biggest cost here, though, is actually lost time. I’m not complaining about regular commuting; I’ve rarely been less than 45-60 minutes away from work, although my current gig is usually 90 minutes if not 120. It’s lost time I’m not paid for and in which I can accomplish nothing, or must pay extra to regain, that’s my complaint. Because the bus service is so unreliable on the last leg of my current commute, it regularly adds anywhere from 40-90 minutes for the two miles from station to school unless I opt for a $10 taxi to make sure I’m on time. Because the commute is multiple short legs (subway to commuter train to bus or cab), there’s only time to read, not grade, and not much or too deeply if I don’t want to miss my stop. I’ve written elsewhere about the wage theft involved in the one-to-one fallacy of paying only for in-class contact hours; this is a separate, related issue but just as critical. Forcing adjuncts to shuttle between several institutions to make a (barely) sustainable living robs us of both leisure, sleep, and productive time for scholarship, not just fair wages.
That’s just one example of the hidden costs of being an adjunct; the others align with the typical costs of poverty, including healthcare we must pay for ourselves; the physical and psychological stress of the chronically under- or unemployed; the accrued usurious cost of credit card interest we’re forced to shoulder because unemployment is unavailable to us; the burden of equally usurious educational loans we’ll never pay off on our low wages; time lost to applying for social services to tide one over, and to perpetual reapplication and job searching. There’s also a steep emotional cost that no one talks much about. Shame and/or rage take a heavy toll on many of us, and poison our will and ability to be the kinds of educators we want to be.
So get out, you say? Easier said than done. And that, too, is a hidden cost.
As Barbara Ehrenreich writes of minimum wage jobs, “What I discovered is that in many ways, these jobs are a trap: They pay so little that you cannot accumulate even a couple of hundred dollars to help you make the transition to a better-paying job. They often give you no control over your work schedule, making it impossible to arrange for child care or take a second job.” This is often just as true of academic jobs, which may trap us unless we disguise or disown our degrees, while crazy schedules make a second job outside academe difficult to manage, especially if you are a single parent. Many of us are older, too, and making the jump from the academic life to a new career can be hampered by our late arrival on the alt- or post-ac job market. If there are few decent jobs for new grads, imagine how hard it is to make the change from teaching to, well, almost anything else. The cost is lost intellectual productivity, and lost earning years for retirement savings.
When our education is wasted or underutilized, society also pays for it, not just by subsidizing universities much like we subsidize Walmart and McDonald’s workers through social services. We pay for it now in the loss of new discoveries, technical advances, or generation of new ideas. We pay for it in the dumbing down of our students, future voters, future employees. We pay for it in the slow, lingering death of democracy due to lack of institutional memory and critical thinking skills. We pay for it in the future increased stratification of society into well-educated elite haves and “trained” have-nots with job skills instead of educations. We pay for it with a growing generation of impoverished retirees. We will pay for it in the future when a cohort of educated and impoverished former middle class knowledge workers, like our minimum wage-earning working class brethren, decide they have just about had enough of the neoliberal austerity gospel. The hidden social and human costs of employing adjuncts instead of full-time tenured faculty far outweigh the so-called wage savings and may scar not just individuals but our society for several generations to come.
Lee Kottner is a New York City area activist for contingent faculty, and social media director for New Faculty Majority. She is an adjunct in the English Department at New Jersey City University, where she and others are fighting to keep the university Writing Center from being closed by administration. @leekottner