The Broad is Back!

August 8, 2014

The End is Near

I am writing this with something of a heavy heart: this is one of my last The Broad is Back columns. Faithful readers won’t be shocked to learn that the Broad is going to be abroad again. After seven years back in the US, I’m leaving again for a job.

My heart is heavy because I don’t really want to leave. Once again, I’m being pushed to leave my family, my friends, the familiar, but I’ve done it before, and I can do it again. I don’t have much of a choice, because since I’ve been back in the US, I have not been able to find full time work. I’ve been working two, three, sometimes four jobs at a time trying to make ends meet. There have been a few “flush” times, but for the most part every year I’m back in the US I fall deeper and deeper into debt.

Luckily, much of that debt is to the National Bank of Mom, so the terms are easy and it doesn’t impact my credit rating. The only other debt I have is my student loans, another debacle facing Americans. Every time I have to get a low income payment adjustment or that double edged sword, the deferment, the interest added to my debt goes up and up and up. In fact, my debt is now twice what it was when I graduated, purely on fees and interest. I paid for years, but then hit a stretch, going on 10 years now, of financial difficulties. I could pay off the principle, but the interest and fees are killing me.

Full disclosure: I have to admit that I did get two job offers, both in the NYC area, where I am from and where I’d theoretically like to stay. Both offered salaries that would have meant my rent would have been over 50% of my gross income. A doctorate and experience were required for both, but neither was going to pay a living wage. I had to turn them both down for economic reasons.

The dean at one school, a publicly funded one, mind, actually admitted in the interview that their salaries were geared for people who were in a dual-income situation—someone’s spouse or partner. I had a teenager and a husband working on getting a visa with no promise of a work permit for at least nine months. That’s just bad policy. I should be paid what I’m worth and what my job is worth. I have a doctorate; fewer than 3% of Americans have that degree. Tells you what Americans value, doesn’t it? We say we value education, but we don’t. I didn’t go into teaching to be rich, but don’t insult me. If I can’t afford to house, feed and care for my family in a reasonable commuting distance, I can’t possibly take the position. This past year, I commuted 20 hours a week, so my idea of reasonable is rather generous.

Again to be frank, if I were offered a position at that salary now, I’d take it and moonlight. But why should I have to? My doctor keeps telling me that I am destroying my health working 60-80 hours a week. And I am, so this must change. But if I worked less, I’d be homeless.

So I applied to a position in Dubai, and three days later was given an interview. A few interviews later, I was offered the position with a salary and package that blows away anything I’ve been offered in the US. I won’t be anything like “rich,” because I’m still a humanities professor, but I’ll be able to pay bills and support my son.

To be brutally frank, I feel like I’m being exiled from my country. I’ve applied for US teaching positions all over America, so it’s not like I didn’t try. I’ve sent out over 300 applications in the past seven years, and actually had a number of interviews. I’ve been a sub a few times and a visiting professor, but nothing permanent. I’m an award winning professor with 25 years of experience and a PhD from a very highly regarded school. I’ve done scholarly work, as much as I can, while teaching seven to eight courses a term, usually 11 months a year. Believe me, every term, I turn down adjuncting work because I’m that good at what I do. That’s not hubris. It’s the truth.

Am I angry that I can’t get a full time position in this country? Of course I am. On some levels, I’d even say resentful of a system that is destroying higher education and taking advantage of people who have a vocation for teaching. I am not a nun! I’m not a missionary! This is a profession, but I’m certainly not being treated like a professional. I’m not alone in this. It’s a national disaster that I’ve written about many, many times.

But there’s no use crying for water from the moon.

I’m off to start another adventure. I’ve never lived in the Middle East before, and now that I’m reconciled to leaving behind my family and friends, I’m looking forward to new exploits. Nothing beats living somewhere for learning about the culture. And Dubai is a very international place, I hear, so I’m sure it will be exciting and vibrant.

The Broad is Back is a reference to my original blog, A Broad Abroad. I will be starting A Broad Abroad Again in order to record my adventures overseas, and I look forward to seeing you there. I will post the link when it’s up and running!

I came back to a very different America, and sadly, more and more I feel like a stranger in a strange land. Sometimes it’s easier to feel like that when I truly am the stranger.

Thanks for your time and your faithful reading!

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May 3, 2014

It’s the Worry that’s Killing Us

“Work is healthy, you can hardly put more upon a man than he can bear. It is not work that kills men; it is worry. Worry is rust upon the blade.” ~ Henry Ward Beecher, quoted in The Teachers’ Institute, Vol. 18, No. 1 (September 1895)

I used this quote today in my inspirational blog, and as I was writing, I knew I had to come over here, because this reflects something that’s been on my mind a while. Of course, I don’t have a lot of time to develop it today, but it’s a taste

I’m one of those people who works on weekends–that’s when the majority of my grading gets done. So work is on my mind today. I saw this quote, and it resonated greatly.

I do love my job, and even the grading doesn’t bother me overly much. I’d rather have fewer classes or the same number of classes with fewer students, and that’s where the worry comes in.

Am I spending enough time on each student’s paper? Will I get it done in time? Will I have time to spend with my son? Will I have time to sleep? Probably similar questions to what others have.

Education has changed in America, especially public higher education. As teachers, we know that the optimal number for a composition class is around 15 students or so. You want enough for a lively discussion but few enough so that the professor has time with each student. Depending on where I’m teaching (as one of America’s permanent adjuncts, I teach at up to three different schools at a time), I have between 29-45 in a composition class. Most of the time I have to teach six sections at a time to make ends meet.

So on average, I have about 150-170 students a term. And every one of them writes a paper, usually one a week. And some of those papers are 1200-1500 words. So in a heavy week, I can read 238,000 words. But I also grade them. Each paper takes me 10-20 minutes. Sometimes it’s longer if I have a particularly weak student; sometimes it’s shorter for a brilliant job. But even if I average 15 minutes a paper, that’s 2550 minutes during a heavy week, or 42 hours or so. I’m in the classroom 18 hours, have four hours of office hours (where I can often get some grading done), and so there you go. Welcome to the life of a composition adjunct.

So that worry about my students? I think you can see where that’s coming from. I went into this field to empower people with communication skills. That’s the theory, at least. How much am I really teaching them?

And like all positions, I worry about work related things that have nothing to do with my job. Because I’m not a permanent worker, every 15 weeks, I worry whether I will have work in the next term. Summers and January are the hardest times as jobs are scarce but the rent is still due. This is my reality. The vagaries of the student population and the state budget impact whether or not I’ll have work, but my friends in all fields face similar worry. I don’t think I have a friend who hasn’t either been laid off or had a spouse laid off in the seven years since I’ve been back in America.

Many have gotten new positions, but always at lower pay with more hours and no job security.

No wonder we are a nation of obese, unhealthy people. Our stress levels, worry levels, are off the charts.

Beecher is right. It’s the worry, that’s getting to us.

As a nation, we say we want to combat our national poor health and obesity, but we have created an employers’ paradise in which individual Americans have fewer days off than workers in most other industrialized countries. The Far East Asians beat us on hours worked, but they are about the only ones.

If we all just died from stress-related illness, that would be bad enough. But mostly we don’t die. We’re left on medications, or medically handicapped, and that is where it starts getting expensive.  According to Cornell University, obesity accounts for 21% of US health care costs. Now there are many reasons for obesity, but stress is a major factor, as is eating junk food or fast food as it’s called, which many who work long hours rely on.

I know that this term I have packed on pounds because I don’t have time to cook all the time, so dinner is often a peanut butter sandwich or two. I don’t like to eat fast food, so as a result, I eat far too many carbohydrates because they are quick and easy. No time to eat? Grab a bagel and go. Not the best of diets for a woman of my age, let me tell you!

So just putting this out there as some points to ponder.

 

January 3, 2014

But Why Did You Come Back?

Yesterday I had a conversation with a stranger (I will talk to anyone, really) who is currently waiting for his green card to settle in America. We were doing the “food talk” (where to get good tea–he’s English) and chatted a few minutes.

Then he asked me: “Why did you come back?”

I can’t tell you how many times I’m asked that once people learn I’ve lived overseas.  Family is the answer. But sometimes I think, “I have no freakin’ idea. Seemed like a good idea at the time.”

I came back to an America I don’t fully recognize and it’s one that is crushing the life out of me.  I hobble together a life from three part time jobs; I’ve had no health care for the past year; my son is ill and even though I pay for insurance for him, medical bills are mounting because insurance refuses coverage; and I’m one of those middle class people who falls through the cracks. I make too much to get help but not enough to easily make it.

 

Luckily, the National Bank of Mom has easy lending terms and doesn’t mind missed payments, but being my age and needing the NBoM is demoralizing to say the least.

I am a highly educated person who is very good at what I do, but while I was gone my society decided to change the rules. It decided that money was more important than quality eduction, and it’s slowly but surely destroying one of the best systems of higher education in the world.  It’s already destroyed the k-12 system, so higher ed’s demise was a foregone conclusion. And no, this isn’t hyperbole.  Google “destruction American higher education” and you’ll find information on both sides of the political divide.

I also blame that political divide. The US is more polarized than it has been in a long time, with idealogues on  both sides so deeply entrenched that I fear compromise and cooperation are words that have been lost in our political discourse.

As faithful readers know, I have been trying to leave again.  I have realized that for right now I’m here for a reason, so moving has been shelved for a while.

I really do want to stay here and make America better–to serve people who need me–but I may not be able to. American society loves people who serve, but just be willing to live hand to mouth like everyone else.

Feeling a bit hopeless today.  That’s why I write, because as long as I’m writing, that means I must be hoping–hoping that there are enough people out there who are ready to take America back, to steer us to a better way.

And this doesn’t mean moving more Right or more Left. It means letting go of those labels; letting go of entrenched politics and policies and seeing that we need something else, something new.  Because right now America is on a collision course with destruction, but too many people are too harried trying to survive to notice it.

September 19, 2013

The Sad and Lonely Death of Margaret Mary Vojtko, Adjunct

A story has been circulating academic newsletters and forums this week, a column called “The Death of an Adjunct” by Daniel Kovalik. It’s terrifying, to me at least, for it tells the true story of 83-year-old adjunct professor of French Margaret Mary Vojtko who died last month in abject poverty.  You can find the story here if you would like all the sad details.

I found the story terrifying because it’s the future I face. Teaching at 83 is not unheard of. I know many people who are working long after retirement age because they can not afford to stop.  In the comments, someone posted, “what about Social Security?”  I was very surprised to learn that there is actually no minimum monthly benefit, but for administrative reasons, the SSA won’t pay less than $1 a month.  And we all know, or should know, that benefits are based on salary. If Prof. Vojtko was an adjunct for 25 years, her yearly salary was low.

Why adjunct? It used to be the domain of grad students or people who wanted to keep their hand in or make a little money. Now I know a number of full time adjuncts, but obviously not all at one school.  I am one, something I’ve bemoaned for a while. I left America (because a Taiwanese school was the only full time job I could get) and was out of the country for well over a decade. Since I’ve come back, nothing full time permanent.

I have glowing reviews from peers and students, and frankly, I am very very good at what I do.

But my income varies and my health coverage is spotty, in spite of my union.  The SSA very helpfully sends me what my social security benefit is currently projected to be when I retire. It’s in the three digits per month still. I have a very very very small IRA because one temp job I had was a year long, so I was part of the Massachusetts Retirement Fund, but when I left I had to roll it to an IRA.  And that’s about it.

I would love to sock away funds for my future, but right now I’m not making enough money for living now. So Prof. Vojtko’s story? This could very well be me in 30 years.

I have hope, of course. Hope of a full time job somewhere in the near future. Or of moving out of America again (which is getting harder and harder to do–everyone’s economy is bad). Or I will finally have time to finish my book and sell it. And then maybe publish another.

I’ve written about the adjunct situation before. Schools have figured out that they can hire “contingent faculty” with little to no benefits, no job security and very little pay. In that way we’re no different from many who work in corporate America. Except most of us have advanced degrees. We’re some of the best educated and least appreciated people in the country. We hear the pundits and the politicians say “We need more educated people in this country.”  But why bother if there will be no jobs?

I didn’t go into this field blindly. When I was deciding between a PhD or law school, I did my research. I talked to people in both fields. I looked at the market research. According to statistics, there would be a 13-20% increase in college teaching jobs. The law field was facing a glut of graduates. Seemed like a wise choice.  And there would have been that uptick in jobs. The hirees of the 60s and 70s were getting ready to retire when I was finishing grad school in the mid-90s. But instead of replacing those who left with other full timers, schools hired two or three adjuncts instead and saved a lot of money.

I can’t totally blame not-for-profit schools, especially the public schools, whose budgets are being slashed. But quality is hurt.

But here I am, living one paycheck away from poverty. I can’t afford to be ill or hurt because I’m allowed one paid sick day per term.  And anything that would entail a few weeks of healing time? They’d get someone to replace me. I get it. Students can’t miss the class time.

Something in this country has got to change. Our colleges and universities were some of the best in the world, but running schools with a majority of adjunct labor is not a sustainable situation. Students suffer; education suffers; America suffers; and the adjuncts suffer.

I cried for Prof. Vojtko when I read the article. She died in miserable conditions, in spite of working hard all of her life. She died alone, stressed, and frightened. I would cry for anyone in that situation. But quite literally, there but for the Grace of God go I.

To anyone thinking of an academic career in America, I have one piece of advice: don’t do it. I love teaching. I don’t teach; I am a teacher. But I can’t live a sustainable life and I know many many others who are in the same boat.

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