The Life of a Part-Time Instructor
Story + Photo by Adam Mann
If you’ve ever taken a class with Nicole Wilson, anthropology instructor at Berkeley City College, you probably know she’s a busy woman. For several semesters, she has spent her time not only teaching, but also commuting between four different campuses. Last February, she bought a Volkswagen Jetta with just 19,000 miles on it; a year later, thanks to her commute, the odometer is now clocked at 54,000. She says she spends upwards of nine hours a week driving to campuses at four different districts: Berkeley City College, Santa Rosa Junior College, Solano Community College, and Monterey Peninsula College. And this is her easy semester.
“I had probably the craziest semester last semester,” Wilson said in an interview with The BCC Voice. “I was teaching a total of eight classes in four different districts, so that was kind of insane.”
In academia, part-time adjunct faculty who teach at multiple districts are so common that they’re often referred to as “freeway flyers.” Unable to make ends meet teaching the limited number of classes assigned to them at one school, some instructors teach classes at multiple campuses and often spend a substantial amount of time commuting between jobs.
In a survey of Peralta Colleges’ 738 part-time faculty (to which 166 faculty replied), 38 percent of respondents reported teaching at two or more districts, and a third of respondents said they commute over 100 miles a week for work. The survey was provided by Brad Balukjian, faculty member at Merritt College and representative for the Peralta Community College District’s part-time faculty.
“Part-time faculty are barely scraping by in the Bay Area,” Balukjian said. “A lot of our faculty are working in multiple districts, and a lot of them don’t want to be doing that. They want a full-time job.”
In a time of soaring student loan debt and a highly competitive market for academic jobs, full-time academic positions hold the promise of financial and professional stability with a living wage and steady work. Yet only 33 percent of Peralta teaching faculty are full-time — a number that, according to the American Association of University Professors, is on par with the national trend.
After graduating from University of California, Berkeley with a degree in English, Amy Zink, an English instructor at BCC, wanted some time away from academia. She took a job in retail and became a manager at the Discovery Channel Store, where she made a comfortable living before deciding to attend San Francisco State University for her master’s degree.
“I left because I felt mentally stagnant,” Zink said. “I wanted to do something where I was using my brain and getting to engage with people. And I love that aspect of it. You get to be creative.”
Zink says she loves working with students. She enjoys watching them develop confidence and pursue things they didn’t think were possible — like, for example, getting accepted to a college with a personal statement she helped them write. But when it comes to the economic reality of teaching in higher education, she admits she didn’t know what she was getting into.
“Funny enough, I actually thought this would be a good thing because there’s always a need for teachers and I’d be able to get something full-time. I didn’t think I’d still be part-time after teaching for eight years. And as I’m getting older, it gets tougher.”
In terms of scholarship, tenure has always been an important academic institution. It guarantees a great deal of security and permanency to teaching faculty, who might otherwise be subject to dismissal for propagating controversial or politically inexpedient ideas. But increasingly, regardless of the school or district, tenured, full-time jobs are becoming a rarity. According to the AAUP, over 70 percent of teaching jobs in the U.S. are non-tenure positions. Adding to this disparity is the fact that part-timers are paid less for doing the same work. For instance, while newer Peralta part-timers make almost the same wage as new full-time faculty, the wage gap increases with seniority, topping out at a salary gap of nearly 20 percent at the top of the pay chart. Part-time instructors who have been in the district for years, who may teach the same classes and the same number of hours as full-timers, are paid substantially less.
This has a direct influence on the quality of instruction. Any instructor who spends two hours a day commuting is going to have less time to dedicate to grading and preparing lessons. The lack of stability perpetuates a shifting, itinerant throng of academic mercenaries who go where there’s work, but aren’t allowed to dig in and fully contribute to the hidden aspects of academia that students don’t see or think about — things like curriculum, budget, hiring, campus planning, recruitment and diversity policies.
“The amount of time I spend in the car takes away from the time I could spend revamping classes, prepping classes and doing more in-depth grading,” said Wilson. “I try my best, but I’ve been in traffic before on the 880, and I’m grading exams, which is just not safe, but I have done that.”
Education is often seen as a non-profit enterprise for public good, but many who are part of the profession bear the burden of a hidden cost that students will never see.
“When I share this with students, they’re shocked,” said Balukjian. “I was on a panel for the Laney College teach-in committee, and they were talking about teacher poverty and student poverty. And when I told students that 16 percent of their part-time faculty are on welfare, their jaws dropped. Because it’s really hard to believe there are people with master’s degrees and Ph.D.s that are highly educated, that have paid their dues in their training, and now they’re on food stamps and MediCal.”