Sharecropping is a system of agriculture in which a landowner allows a tenant to use the land in return for a share of the crop produced on the land.
“Sharecropper teachers,” I heard a colleague say last week at a teacher orientation, “That’s what they call us.” She was referring to a term by Wendell V. Fountain in his book Academic Sharecroppers: Exploitation of Adjunct Faculty and the Higher Education System, published in 2005.
He says in the book, “Adjunct faculty have no formal standing in the institutions for which they teach. They are powerless — used and abused by a flawed system and are paid a third to a quarter of what a full-timer receives for teaching the same course(s), while teaching nearly half of all courses in higher education. . . .
“Many today are quick to criticize companies for outsourcing jobs and work to lesser developed countries (LDCs). Yet, higher education in the United States accomplishes essentially the same thing by using adjunct faculty to teach courses.”
At the community college where I teach, there are 38 full-time faculty and 200 adjunct faculty members teaching approximately 3,000 students. The school is on a 10-year lease in two buildings that were originally commercial office space.
Enrollment is up 30 percent, and $2 million was recently approved for resizing of classrooms, a new biology lab, installation of a sink and prep area for catered events in the community room and remodeling of administrative offices.
Community college enrollment spikes when the economy is down, but recent legislation also streamlines the process of transferring credits from a two-year to a four-year institution.
A student can attend ABC Community College for two years but receive a diploma from XYZ University. Less tuition is paid over the four-year period.
I teach 24 students. One third of the class is in health-care, returning to school to seek job skills in higher-paying fields. But two-thirds are attending with plans of transferring to a four-year institution.
Adjunct faculty members make $2,000 a semester, which means we bring home about $100 a week. As Fountain points out, community colleges charge less because they depend on adjunct faculty members to teach the bulk of the courses for less pay.
I stayed out of teaching for years because I had so many friends teaching at two and three colleges a semester trying to make a living.
At the orientation last week one teacher said, “Some community colleges offer adjunct faculty members health insurance. We’re 200 strong now. We need to have a voice.”
I also work for a city newspaper that filed for bankruptcy in April. As it restructures, our employee numbers shrink. We’ve gone from 24 to 18 to nine. I’m the only person left on the editorial staff other than the managing editor. As print media becomes the dinosaur in the communications arena, I watch a small staff struggle to keep a local newspaper alive.
Yet, I wouldn’t trade my degree in writing for a career in a more lucrative field. I hope to instill some of my passion for writing into my students. College administrators and publishing companies may bank on my appreciation for my teaching position and publishing job and pay less, but I still don’t regret my career choice.
I’ve been told before I was being exploited for something I chose to do — for my expensive MFA writing degree, for my job at the newspaper and for this teaching job. But as someone said to me once, “It’s your intentions that matter, not anyone else’s.”
It’s not my intention to be exploited. Receiving my MFA was one of the best experiences of my life. Our newspaper bonds our city in a way a national newspaper can’t. And teaching gives my life more purpose. As valuable as Fountain’s book is, it leaves out something very important, how much life gives back to us for giving to the community.
I have friends who teach in third-world countries where teaching isn’t allowed. They are paid nothing and risk their lives to teach migrant children who work in fields all day. The children sit bundled in coats trying to stay awake at night to learn how to read. It’s their only way out of situations poverty and their governments have placed them in.
That’s what I think of as I stand in my classroom, how lucky I am to share even remotely in that experience.
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