Between & Beyond: College

At one point, on Facebook, for fun (yes, this is my idea of fun), I tried to see how many American industrial complexes we all could name. I did a whole episode of this column about industrial complexes. Eisenhower coined the term military industrial complex in order to speak to the fact that profit had corrupted the moral integrity and fundamental purpose of the military. So, we can see clearly how the force of profit corrupts many aspects of our society that should be geared toward the greater good: prison industrial complex, pharmaceutical industrial complex, agricultural industrial complex, on and on. My friend brought up a good one though: the college industrial complex. It’s incredibly sad, but also incredibly true. It was highlighted recently by the breaking of a scandal at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

It was revealed that through the willful collusion of both faculty and administration-level personnel dummy courses were created that required no attendance and only one research paper. That paper was not even scrutinized and students were well aware that they could hand in completely plagiarized material and still receive decent grades. The accused personnel claim it was all out of compassion for struggling students in the athletic programs. The athletes faced dire consequences if they didn’t keep their grades up, and these courses were designed to keep them enrolled and advancing. Forgive me for being cynical, but I can’t ignore the fact that it’s the athletic programs that rake in tremendous sums of money.

Even short of official “scandal,” colleges across the country for a long time have been moving away from standards that set them apart from the rest of the culture as a safe haven of altruism and humanism and moving instead toward standards that echo corporate models more and more. Obviously one arm of this is student loan debt and all of the absurdities therein have been getting more and more public attention. But one thing that doesn’t often get the same level of attention is how colleges manage their faculty. I am speaking about adjuncts.

An adjunct position used to be for a scholar who was deeply involved in full-time research and development in his or her field somewhere outside the university, but he or she just loved teaching so much, and took one or two classes on out of compulsion. Now a staggering 70 percent of faculty at colleges nationwide is composed of adjuncts. Adjuncts are considered part-time workers. The college would rather hire a ton of part-time workers instead of a handful of full-time workers because part-time workers don’t get benefits. This is checkmark number one in terms of how the college saves money. Adjuncts are also paid an hourly wage, not a salary. That hourly wage is based on classroom time only. Paper grading at home, counselling students outside of designated office hours, developing lesson plans, all these things are done pro bono. Therefore, the wages are incredibly disproportionate to the amount of work done. Check #2. If that weren’t enough, since adjuncts are hired via a contract, they are technically neither true part-time nor full-time workers. That means the college doesn’t have to share the federal tax burden on their paychecks. So that paltry sum becomes even paltrier after Uncle Sam gets his cut.

I know all this very intimately because I am an adjunct. In order to make ends meet, I have to work at two institutions at the same time. When I calculate the hours of my work week to include the time that I tutor for extra cash, my office hours that are required by the institution, class time, and commute time, I am working 42 hours a week before I even begin to factor in the time it takes to grade the mountains of papers I receive on a weekly basis.

The ultimate point I want to make here is something beyond the plight of us adjuncts. In my one class this semester, we are reading The Death Of A Salesman. It’s the first time I’m delving into it myself since I was a junior in high school. I had forgotten how much I appreciated it back then, and I can see why, but I also can see beyond my own perspective so to speak. In the play, Willy is a tired old salesman being screwed by his company after a lifetime of loyal yet less than lucrative service. He is obsessed with validation in all facets of his life and gets lost in long spells of hallucinatory nostalgia. He often refers to the way his neighborhood used to be before it became overcrowded. He refers to the trees that used to be in the yard, and the fact he can’t see the stars anymore, and the way the moon moves between the buildings. It’s a kind of romantic sentiment that I likely gravitated to when I was younger. But, now it seems to be tinted a bit darker. Willy pines for a more authentic relationship with the natural world, but the thing that is actually getting in the way of that is more and more people taking part in the American Dream. It’s the oversaturation of the middle class. Is the American Dream possible for everyone?

This is the other side of the coin when we talk about the popularity of college. Granted, I teach at community colleges, but by and large, my students just don’t care. They are there in my classes because they don’t know what else to do. It is the assumed next step, but they are not actually invested. They don’t care about doing work; they don’t even care about the material. They couldn’t care less about poetry, and they don’t even seem excited by the philosophical ideas contained therein. It’s a kind of oversaturation that poisons the well. There are too many people going to college. And, when I think of the dire importance of learning how to analyze and think critically, the future seems quite dark. Sure, not everyone cares about analyzing a short story, but when no one can analyze a political campaign, then the results of the recent election don’t surprise me at all.