Why I didn’t walk off the job last week

On Wednesday, thousands of adjunct professors across the nation walked out of their classrooms.

They were protesting the lack of full-time jobs available in higher education today. Tenured positions make up only 27 percent of college instructor jobs nationwide. At Tacoma Community College, we have fewer than 100 tenured professors and around 400 “adjuncts.”

My own department has seven tenured faculty and 49 who … aren’t. The rest of us are limited to “part-time,” “temporary” work with no security from quarter to quarter. I work 10 weeks, have two weeks off with no pay, work another 10 weeks, may have three months off without pay, etc. In order to protest these conditions, I was tempted to walk out, but I did not.

Those who did not work this Wednesday protested that their contracts are outside their control. They are right.

I work at TCC and Pierce College Puyallup. At both campuses, I am assigned classes in the weeks before the new quarter begins, but those classes may be withdrawn if enrollment is low, if a full-time professor wishes to teach the class for extra pay or if one of my superiors decides that I am not performing as I should.

An adjunct has no redress in these situation. I find it frustrating, but I didn’t walk on Wednesday.

The protesters maintained that they are not paid a living wage; many adjuncts work for less than the Washington state minimum wage when their true hours are calculated. I try to piece together a full-time salary and fill gaps with unemployment.

When I am not teaching, it’s no spring break. I must prepare for classes I may never teach, apply for jobs I hope I won’t need and correspond endlessly with Washington Unemployment. In February, I am still negotiating with them about Christmas break. It is infuriating. However, I did not walk out Wednesday.

Union membership for adjuncts often is mandatory, but those same unions represent tenured department heads, who determine my schedule, and tenured faculty, who may want my classes to supplement their (still pretty low) salaries.

Unions vary, but at TCC I am required to pay dues of $264 a year, even though adjunct representatives are not allowed to be present during contract negotiations. I object, strenuously and vocally, to this practice, but I didn’t walk on Wednesday.

Adjunct professors are subject to humiliating putdowns from tenured faculty. I once spoke up at a departmental meeting concerning curriculum changes. My unpopular questions were not greeted with respect. In fact, one full-time professor said with hostility, “Who is that? Does she get a vote?”

I did not walk out because more than 100 students across two college campuses were expecting me to be there to instruct them. Some students were expecting a quiz on Robert Frost. Others were drowning in research, and I knew they might need my help.

My students are not responsible for an educational hierarchy that undervalues me and treats me and those like me as first world “untouchables.” Indeed, my students appreciate me; they admire, and despair of, my academic rigor. They usually get my jokes; they praise me in evaluations.

My students greet me in public places – decades after I taught them – to say that I changed the way they approach the world.

“You taught me how to think,” one TCC mom said. She said it over and over in several of my classes – until she graduated, moved on to a four-year college and thence a real job, with a contract and paychecks 52 weeks a year.

As things stand, I do not have a long-term contract with either of my colleges. That is unconscionable. However, I do have an unwritten contract with the students who were in class Wednesday, and I honored it.

Barbara Parsons of Tacoma has taught at Tacoma Community College, Pierce College, Green River College and Arizona State University.