How are the pyramids of Egypt and the community colleges of Maine alike?
They are both wonderful concepts built from, essentially, slave labor. No, this isn’t a joke.
The dirty little secret relating to how our community college system is able to keep tuition costs down while expanding in all areas — infrastructure, programs and enrollment — owes significantly to paying salaries that are below poverty level and flat-out insulting to adjunct, or part-time, instructors for their college-level professional skills.
Actually, this “little secret” isn’t so little and not very secret. Colleges and universities all across America do this. But from my own observation of the system in Maine, our folks really know how to abuse a good thing: According to the Maine Labor Relations Board, adjunct instructors teach 45 percent of all courses.
Indeed, all through the decade (2002-2012) that I have taught at Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor, there have been 40-50 full-time instructors and more than 120 adjunct instructors, a 3-to-1 ratio. I have been one of the latter, teaching in the English department.
In a fall 2012 editorial entitled “Pity the (Literally) Poor Adjunct” in The Eagle Eye, EMCC’s student publication, Willow Wyner Martin equated adjunct instructors with “wage slaves” and explained that adjunct instructors at EMCC are paid a maximum of $1,600 for one three-credit-hour class, covering 15 weeks.
Since adjuncts are limited to three classes per term, that’s a maximum of $14,400 any adjunct instructor can earn for three classes for all three possible terms in one year. This is less than the federal poverty level for a two-person household.
In the meantime, enrollments at our community college campuses have risen — 83 percent in the past decade. Today, Maine’s community colleges enroll almost 19,000 students.
More students, more teachers, more classes, administrators with great “bottom lines.” Everyone should be happy, right?
Well, if you’re a student, it depends on how competent that adjunct is, and if you’re that adjunct it has everything to do with how content you are working for peanuts, while most likely hoping for full-time employment.
Meanwhile, presidents and academic deans at these community college campuses are making great salaries just for managing the store. They all march to pretty much the same tune: Fill seats, fill more seats. That’s fine, except when you don’t have the staff or the space to do it.
Administrators all say they want “quality adjuncts,” but ultimately it’s solely up to the department chairs to keep the assembly line rolling. If these administrators really cared about quality, would the pay be so pathetic for every single adjunct, with no regard for years of service to the school, department chairperson assessment or student evaluations? By contrast, full-time community college instructors in Maine are paid anywhere from $29,825 to $70,284.
When thinking about adjunct college instructors, there are basically two kinds.
The first type is, generally speaking, reasonably content: He or she is frequently a career professional with the requisite master’s degree doing a little “moonlighting” on the side by teaching in that field of expertise. I was this type when I first began college adjunct teaching, a career newspaper reporter and editor who taught one basic journalism class at the University of Maine at Orono in 1980. The tiny stipend wasn’t essential income; in fact, I often joked that I used that money for one Sugarloaf skiing trip.
That second type of adjunct instructor is what I am today. Like many of my far younger counterparts, I am, essentially, a “full-time,” part-time instructor, carving out a career by being available to teach at multiple colleges; my record is eight classes in one semester. Most recently, I have taught at the University of Maine at Augusta’s Bangor campus and the New England School of Communications, as well as EMCC. And since I am only paid a basic stipend (essentially for the three hours a week I meet with each class) I must make this as cost-effective for myself as I can.
Thus, I made up my mind, quite some time ago: No more English Composition 101 classes. Why?
Think about it: $1,600 divided across a 15-week term. Now, let’s look at the time commitment your standard, dreaded, freshman, required English class, Eng Comp 101, demands: Probably 25 students, certainly 20, minimum; between four to six essays per student; plus a term-long research paper from each student, minimum. Now, when you take your 20 to 25 essays home with you to grade, let’s say you’re the type to give a damn and do right by the student who wrote this essay. You can’t possibly spend less than 12-15 minutes correcting the grammar, analyzing the content and structure, and offering constructive feedback before grading the paper. So, that’s around 20 hours of grading that you’re doing, for just one set of papers for just one class for barely $100 per week, and you are not being paid for your time or quality of work.
Not “slave labor”? What would you call it?
Ed Rice of Orono is a retiring adjunct college instructor, journalist and author of “Baseball’s First Indian.”
Correction: This Op Ed has been corrected to accurately reflect a quote from an essay it cited from Eastern Maine Community College’s student publication. The quote previously read “slave wages.”