How Working at a Community College is Like Working Retail

Adjuncts Unite

Originally published at in October 2011


Expectations are a pain in the ass. There’s an old saying, “plant an expectation, reap a disappointment.”  Yep I did it, planted and am now disappointed. I teach Sociology at a rural community college; I love teaching, but I don’t love that adjunct teachers like me are temporary, at-will employees.

Who knew that the working conditions at a community college would be the same as they were when I was a bookseller, housekeeper, caregiver, fast food worker, and waitress? How did I wind up with the part-time shift again, scrambling for hours (classes) so I can keep up with the fuckin’ bills?

Go ahead call me naïve, I was. I was warned by my profs in my grad program about the local community college, “they never keep the good people,” one of them said. “That’s the ultimate system of social reproduction,” said another. I liked the “good people” comment and was determined to be a “keeper.” Naïve me, I assumed that education was going to be a different sort of work environment, that it would be more fair and equitable than the crappy low-wage service jobs of my uneducated past. It’s hard not to laugh at me cynically and with sadness; perhaps some understanding as you read this. Now I know that labor practices at a community college don’t differ much from what they were at Barnes and Noble–my last job before entering the elite world of the professional middle class.

To illustrate it’s important to note that labor costs comprise the biggest chunk of a business’s expenses; a community college is the same, the fewer benefits and salaried hours paid out the better. In California, adjunct faculty earn about 56 cents on the dollar of a full-time faculty, don’t have benefits, and don’t take up a lot of space except for the classrooms where they do their work; more adjuncts = massive salary savings. Moreover, limited access to resources creates competition, fear, and resentment among employees very similar to what I observed about the divisions amongst the retail employees that worked either full or part-time at Barnes and Noble.

This division benefits the community college (and business) because conflict among the ranks prevents employees from noticing their exploitation. In an academic workplace adjunct faculty manage an inconsistent status, having power and authority in the classroom the same as their tenured peers while also aware that they lack benefits and are working out of their cars instead of offices. This is where labor practices differ. At Barnes and Noble a low-ranked bookseller with limited responsibilities got paid accordingly; at the community college however, all of us faculty share the same level of responsibilities, but 70% of us are paid a pittance in comparison to our tenured peers. Adjuncts are a secret working poor (we know but students and non-academics do not), and we earn anywhere from $13,000-25,000 a year (and that’s an estimate, many earn less and few earn much more). In my last year at Barnes and Noble I earned $23,000.

The common piece of these not-so-different work environments is the fact that we serve “customers.” Faculty dislike being asked to call our students customers, but its part of the new business-tinted lingo of the community college, one that sees students as consumers of a service. It makes me feel like I should thank them for “stopping by” during office hours or tell them to “have a nice day” when they leave class. These days, receiving professional development trainings in customer service skills is the sort of silly bullshit that proliferates at institutions like mine. They (the students) aren’t fooled and neither are we (the faculty). It feels phony just like it does at Christmas when an exhausted clerk wishes you “happy holidays” because their manager gave them a script that they are required to follow.

The inequity itches at me, I went back to school to get away from these types of labor practices. Teaching at a community college is cool, but the working conditions suck and should make anyone think twice. I have no regrets, but I also have the privilege of no regrets; I don’t have children or a mortgage – and besides, I’m working class, I’m used to this.


*Above image by H.E. Whitney. Click this link and follow him on twitter.

7 thoughts on “How Working at a Community College is Like Working Retail

  1. I’ve been adjunct, tenure track, and tenured. The latter two statuses give me freedom to be creative in my teaching and research. I well-remember getting on tenure-track, and realizing suddenly that I didn’t need to spread around my resumes two weeks after the semester started. I could also start projects which lasted longer than the 15 week semester–I knew where I was going to be the following year, and the year after. This is a fantastic luxury which benefits the person on tenure track, and also students and the institution.

    Later I’ll write about how tenure protects institutions from arbitrary bosses…

  2. You touch on the major issue for many adjuncts, a sense of job security.

    You’re right, security benefits the individual faculty member but also the students and the institution. I often wonder why our institutions are relying on what are essentially temporary employees. They fashion themselves after business but have missed one of the most important lessons, which is that happy, secure employees results in a feedback loop. Same could be said that many of the problems in higher ed institutions connect to ongoing labor inequality among the ranks.

  3. You’re welcome Margaret and thanks for your comments.

    Here’s what I think: Stats are nice but they only tell a partial story, being a professional contingent/temporary worker stinks for many doing the job, end of story. The fact is higher Ed institutions are taking advantage of a terrified, adjunct workforce. With little job security and no perks, this is not what adjuncts planned for when they set out to become faculty, but the dangling carrot of a secure tenure track job insures that institutions can continue to exploit their workers (and I include temporary staff and grad assignments in that last comment).

    Moreover, the student debt load of an adjunct is high, especially when real wages are so low. Add in wage theft (unpaid office hours, prep for classes, grading, etc) plus the external costs (freeway flying is expensive in terms of gas, time, and upkeep of vehicle) it seems hardly worth it. Except it is. Therefore, adjuncts are rising up, just as they should. If higher Ed institutions want to fashion themselves after big business, they ought not to treat their faculty employees as Christmas hires at the mall.

  4. Yeah, my teacher kicking ass!

    Julie, isn’t the only one who’s witnessed this exploitation. I’ve worked with some of these part-timers. I’m a student at Butte-College, and I’ve worked mostly with the part-timers in the English department on a little writer’s conference they put on every year in the Spring.

    These part times come to the table, offering free hours to build this conference for two reasons. One, they are passionate about their work and they think offering low-income students and community members a chance to participate in an academic conference is fucking fantastic, and two, because they hope working for free and making their resumes as sexy as possible will help them finally grasp that tenure-carrot Julie was talking about up above.

    They work as hard as anyone at the college, and under significant stress too, because when they’re still held in that place in life where having a problem with your car is a crisis that’ll set you back for the month!

    Bottom line (since we’re talking business here): Is that this is far from acceptable, and these people shouldn’t be scrapping by.

  5. Thanks, David!

    I appreciate your comment and perspective about what you’ve seen. You all put on a great writer’s conference that is well-attended by campus and community, and it is because of the efforts and energy of the student-adjunct partnership. And yes, you called it, it’s great experience but students and adjuncts alike are working for free in order to make that resume a sexy one! Our carrots might look different but the grasping is for similar reasons.

    Plus, for students it’s an opportunity to see the inner-workings by sitting in on meetings and such. It’s good to peek behind the curtain, exploitation operates best in secret.

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