Like most university teachers today, I am a low-paid contract worker. Now and then, a friend will ask: “Have you tried dog-walking on the side?” I have. Pet care, I can reveal, takes massive attention, energy and driving time. I’m friends with a full-time, professionally employed pet-sitter who’s done it for years, never topping $26,000 annually and never receiving health or other benefits.
The reason I field such questions is that, as an adjunct professor, whether teaching undergraduate or law-school courses, I make much less than a pet-sitter earns. This year I’m teaching five classes (15 credit hours, roughly comparable to the teaching loads of some tenure-track law or business school instructors). At $3,000 per course, I’ll pull in $15,000 for the year. I work year-round, 20 to 30 hours weekly – teaching, developing courses and drafting syllabi, offering academic advice, recommendation letters and course extensions for students who need them. As I write, in late June, my students are wrapping up their final week of the first summer term, and the second summer term will begin next week.
I receive no benefits, no office, no phone or stipend for the basic communication demands of teaching. I keep constant tabs on the media I use in my classes; if I exhaust my own 10GB monthly data plan early, I lose vital time for online discussions with my students. This, although the university requires my students to engage in discussions about legal issues and ethics six days a week, and I must guide as well as grade these discussions.
Three of my Philadelphia-area friends are adjuncts with doctorate degrees. One keeps moving to other states for temporary teaching posts. The others teach at multiple sites to keep afloat financially – one at no less than seven colleges and universities.
Having heard all my life about solid “government job” benefits, I figured I might have more stability, and still be able to handle teaching, if I worked for the Post Office. I started carrying mail in early January. As a City Carrier Assistant, I earned less pay than regular postal carriers do, though I did more than “assist”: my job was to handle absentee carriers’ routes. I had no medical insurance, no sick leave allowance and had to agree to work as much as managers deemed necessary for 360 consecutive days (whereupon I could sign up for a second 360-day contract, with no promise that it would bring me any closer to a permanent job offer). I worked on Sundays too, under the US Postal Service’s contract with Amazon.com. With human flaws – I fell on ice more than once – I was no match for the drones Amazon intends to deploy. After two months on the job, which was long enough to develop a lifetime fear of Rottweilers, I was behind in my university work. I turned in my cap.
In late March, I started a retail job. It offers real days off, and I expect to be eligible for health and dental benefits soon.
Last week, a friend came in to shop, saw me, and exclaimed, loud enough for all to hear: “What are you doing here?” Friends who know I hold two law degrees and teach at a university can’t fathom that my teaching doesn’t cover rent. Some writers have discussed adjuncts waiting tables or bagging groceries alongside their students as though it’s the ultimate degradation. I see things differently. I’m trained by the people who deliver parcels, serve meals and bag groceries and who might, any day, apply to take my courses. I am their equal, and I know it at a level most established faculty members do not.
Faculty members do not even interact with each other as equals. Most adjuncts aren’t included in regular faculty meetings, let alone conferences where ideas are exchanged and explored. A concept called the inclusive fees campaign seeks to make conferences affordable for adjuncts. (It focuses on PhDs, but could encompass teachers whose positions require law degrees or other alternative qualifications.) “Inclusivity” for a systematically exploited group is only a patch. But it’s good to see established professors challenged to acknowledge contingent workers, who now comprise the preponderance of the faculty community. Yes, of the 1.2m instructional staff appointments in US higher education, 76% – more than 900,000 – are now contingent.
We are working for institutions that claim to open doors to career opportunities even as they etch contingency into their hiring practices. The significance of the inclusive fees campaign lies in its implicit question: how will the schools hear our voices over the silence of the tenured?
Even more daunting than the dearth of dollars is the fragmentation of the adjunct’s time. Recently, an editor at the University of Oregon School of Law asked if I’d be a conference panelist. Can I travel, yet still clock enough hours at my second job to stay above the threshold for health insurance?
Every day I live two people’s lives, and it’s fatiguing. Every day I need more time with students while being pulled away from them.
The best that could come of the adjunct crisis is a teaching community broadly committed to the civility and inclusivity we’ve been missing. This could lead to a new kind of education, based not on ranking, not on status, but on genuine guidance for living with decency and respect on this planet.
A conference on this is well overdue – and I don’t want to miss it while watching the time clock.
There’s no doubt that the internet has been a boon to students around the world. With research materials posted or scanned online, students researching papers no longer have to spend hours at the library simply searching for relevant information. Sharing assignments online saves paper and printer ink money. There are numerous other benefits to the internet—but there can also be a few drawbacks.
No, we’re not just talking about the addiction of Netflix, or the distraction of Twitter (though teachers are starting to implement the social media site into their classes). Misinformation or biased information can be an Achilles’ heel.
So what about professor-rating websites? Where do they fall on the helpful vs. hurtful divide of the internet? No doubt that having a bad professor can make a class miserable and even hurt your grade. It makes sense that students would want to screen their teachers, then, rather than going in blind and risking getting a bad instructor.
But are rating-websites the answer? Maybe, maybe not.
The people who post reviews on these types of websites fall into two categories: They LOVE that teacher or they HATE them. There is rarely an average—or objective—middle ground. A peek at the extreme ends of either spectrum is not entirely helpful for you when deciding whether or not you want to take a class with that teacher.
One of the reasons there’s such a split is that every single student will have a different relationship with or perspective on that teacher. Some might see a professor as one who assigns way too much homework, grades too harshly, and is a relentless taskmaster. Others might see that same teacher as one who challenges and encourages their students to be the best they can possibly be.
If you have an older or younger sibling that happened to have shared a teacher, you’re likely familiar with this problem. My senior year of high school I had a teacher that I absolutely adored—he was hilarious, passionate, sarcastic, and challenging. My brother, several years later, got the same teacher and hated him—my brother thought he was stiff, overbearing, unrelatable, and rude. We didn’t have a similar outlook on this teacher and thus had vastly different experiences. And that’s the key—different students will have different opinions.
So if you’re going to be using a professor-rating website, we have a few things to keep in mind before you make a decision.
Take Everything with a Grain of Salt
If you want to take a sneak peek at a potential professor, just keep in mind that a review will be subjective, and personalized to the reviewer. If you happen to take that class, you might find yourself thinking “Huh, that post was way off!” and enjoying the teacher. Or vice versa. Maybe you read a glowing review and then found yourself totally incompatible.
And who knows, maybe someone wrote a scathing review about how “this professor is a total jerk” right after that student got a bad grade on a test they hardly studied for. Keep this in mind and make sure you formulate your own opinion when it comes to it.
Don’t Just Read One Review (Or Look at One Website!)
Scientists will tell you that sample size is important. If you zero in on just one particular review (or one review site) then you might be getting slanted feedback. Look at a number of reviews—if they are positive or negative across the board, or different reviewers post about similar teaching tactics or pitfalls, then there might be a bit more credit to them.
Difficulty is Inevitable
If you think you can use a professor-rating website to avoid the hardest graders or courses, you’re out of luck. Eventually you’re going to take harder classes. Even great professors can give out tough tests or have high expectations for grading. College is a time to challenge yourself, so don’t try to weasel out of those chances! Embrace them.
All in All
If you’re going to visit a professor-rating website, use common sense and know that reviews can be entirely subjective. You may not see things the same way a different student does. While these sites can be used as a sort of loose guideline, maybe don’t use them as the final decision on whether or not you take a particular class.
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