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Credit: G. Grullón

‘Overworked, underpaid, and undersupported’

For some time now, we’ve been reporting on the parlous situation of the contingent faculty members at the nation’s universities. Now a 66-page report by three sociology graduate students at George Mason University (GMU) in Fairfax, Virginia, shows in copious detail how adjuncts teaching at that public institution—which is located in one of the most prosperous of Washington, D.C.’s many affluent suburbs—are “overworked, underpaid, and undersupported.” Issued 9 October, “Indispensable But Invisible: A Report on the Working Climate of Non-Tenure Track Faculty at George Mason University” is, the authors claim, the most exhaustive look at conditions at a single institution ever published. Contingent faculty members constitute 71% of GMU’s teaching staff, not far from the national rate of 75%.

Authors Marisa Allison, Randy Lynn, and Victoria Hoverman—all of whom have experience as adjuncts—conducted an online survey of GMU contingent faculty, asking more than 300 questions about working conditions, course preparation, career aspirations, personal finances, motivations for teaching, job satisfaction, future plans, and more. The report, they write on a website dedicated to the study, “is a project of the Public Sociology Association at George Mason University, a graduate student organization committed to conducting research that benefits the groups we study without sacrificing academic rigor.

It is a miserable slog.

—a respondent

The data don’t permit us to determine how many respondents are scientists, but some undoubtedly are: According to the data, 14.3 % of respondents teach in the College of Science and 8.8% in the College of Health and Human Services. An additional 9.9% claim affiliation with “two or more” of the university’s colleges, and 19.2% answer “other,” which may include the university’s engineering college. At least 55% are women, but the female contingent may be higher because 12% did not identify gender. The 241 respondents constitute a “true response rate” of “between 20 to 25 percent,” the authors write; “a response rate of less than 25 percent is typical for robust, web-based, academic-quality surveys,” they add.

Here are some findings from the survey:

  • GMU’s contingent teachers are “dedicated educators,” with 85% of them motivated to teach by “passions for teaching and their subject area.” Only a quarter, though, believe that the university appreciates the extra effort they put into their work.
  • They are “suffering financial hardship,” with just under a quarter reporting a household income below $30,000. Another quarter say they depend on their teaching jobs to keep their households out of poverty, and all are earning less than minimum wage for their academic work, in an expensive metropolitan area.
  • GMU’s contingent teachers are “career-oriented,” with nearly 40% aspiring to a tenure-track position or accumulating teaching experience in hopes of advancing their careers.
  • They are “limited [in their] access to resources for their courses.” According to the data, 29% lack curriculum guidelines from their departments, and 67% lack access to a university phone. Forty percent don’t have a university computer, and 21% lack access to library resources. Many lack “access to private spaces to meet with students, and provide their own out-of class resources such as computers, phones, and printers to conduct their office work.”
  • They have inadequate advance warning about what they'll be teaching, so that they can adequately prepare their courses.
  • They lack job security.
  • They are “not receiving training to know how to accommodate students with special needs,” according to nearly 80% of respondents.
  • They are provided only limited “[o]pportunities for advancement, representation, recognition, and other benefits.”
  • They are not compensated for the “large amount” of time they spend on their courses “both before and during the semester.”
  •  They are “overwhelmingly dissatisfied with their wages, and significant minorities have negative opinions of other aspects of their job.”

Beyond copious statistical information on a wide range of issues, the report provides piquant details and striking observations. For example, teaching eight courses a year, a load much heavier than a tenure-track faculty member has to handle even at most teaching-intensive schools, will not lift a family of four above the poverty line.

“It is a miserable slog,” writes one respondent quoted in the report. “I am fortunate because my spouse has a stable job and is able to provide health insurance to our family. Absent this, we would be in a state of absolute squalor, given the atrocious cost of living and the logistical nightmare that is transportation and traffic in this region. Instead of absolute squalor, we are merely squeaking by, living paycheck to paycheck in a one-bedroom apartment built inside someone’s garage. Our aspirations to build a family have been long postponed, we have not taken a vacation in years, and our health is suffering due to the stress and difficulty of working for this ‘well-being university.’”

You can read the report here.

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