A Daily Scene
“What do you think?” I ask my overly contented college freshmen on any weekday afternoon. They stare back with tired, yellow eyes still drowning from their newly found independence, fake IDs, and older friends who buy them booze.
“You must think something. You pay for this education,” I say. The auditory emptiness continues. “Just raise your hands. How many of you are here just to get a job?” They all raise their hands. “You know this piece of paper doesn’t guarantee you a job anymore?” A few look around at the others in a panic. Some still gurgle through last night’s barley and hops. “What are you guys paying for? At the end of the day, even if you don’t get the job of your dreams, or even any sustainable job at all, you can at least say you have an education. No one can take that away from you.” They giggle. “Okay, you can burn the paper with our Governor’s signature on it and our University can crumble to the ground at the slightest hint of an earthquake, and you probably won’t talk to most of the people you’ve met here after you graduate, but you learned something.”
My Daily Scene
Wake up. Check and respond to emails from three separate accounts. Drive to state college. Sit through office hours and grade or meet with students or talk to administration about all the paperwork they’ve lost or didn’t explain and you need to fill out. Teach for an hour and fifteen minutes. Drive to University. Park half a mile away from campus. Eat a PB&J for lunch. Teach for fifty minutes. Office hours while meeting with students and grading. Check and respond to three separate email accounts. Go home. Feed the cat. Eat some Ramen. Panic over finding out that I won’t get my first paycheck from the state college until October when I’ve been working since August. (At least I’m working though. They told me I’d have a job teaching over the summer. When I emailed them about my paperwork for the summer, they told me they never said I had a job despite the fact that a member of full-time faculty and the COAS dean were present during the meeting. But this college won’t let you sign a contract with them until you’ve been teaching at least two months within that semester, hence two months without pay.) Grade. Grade. Grade. Create lesson plans for tomorrow. Review lesson plans. Finalize lesson plans. Look for other colleges and universities to teach online and/or in person to teach. Apply for a job as a grader for Pearson or scoring for the SATs. Read another article about how adjuncts don’t get paid a living wage, nor do they qualify for full-time employment or benefits regardless of the advanced degree in their fields required to even apply for their positions. Listen to another presidential debate where everyone screams “free college tuition,” as if that will fix everything when most of my freshmen can’t write a complete sentence. Think to myself, “At least I’ve learned something,” as I lay down on my mattress in the apartment I share with a friend.
If you carried on a candid conversation with most people in academia, you’d realize “education” has become a business in which politicians try to make it appear as though education is their top priority. In order to make their utmost sensitivities towards education apparent to the common voter educators now assess and pass and fail until our students are standardized in a way that looks believable on paper. “No child left behind.” “FCAT.” “SAT.” “ACT.” “Florida Writes.” For some of us it was “CTBS.” They pass. Maybe they took an AP class or dual-enrollment. They pass. They filled up their days with extracurricular activities. They joined all the clubs. They volunteered at the animal shelter, the local Celtic festival, and, on Thanksgiving, at the Food Pantry. They apply to their dream school, a regional university or two, and the state college just in case. They get accepted to a regional university and the state college. They go with the regional university because who would go to the state college if they got into a university?
They get to university, “I passed all my honors classes with flying colors, why should I take a gen. ed. Course in writing?”
Their academic advisors responds, “Because it’s a requirement for your AA.”
They come to my class. They don’t read. They don’t re-submit any of their work, no matter how low their score was. Half the time, they refuse to show up for class. The other half of the time they’re emailing me as to why they can’t make it to class, or office hours, or submit their essay on time (because everyone’s grandma dies at the same time, or their roommate has to go to the hospital the night before it’s due).
I learn my role is first to get students to learn how to be in college. For the first time in their lives they are responsible for their actions in a situation where they can lose money (college tuition in the US goes up by 6% each year) and time (as my students say, YOLO). Teach them the facts of life: You don’t turn in an assignment, you receive a zero; you don’t show up for a pop quiz, you can’t make it up (hence, “pop quiz”); you don’t write a rough draft, you lose points; you don’t read the material, you can’t pass the exam; if you don’t write your name on your essay, you lose points; you refuse to use proper formatting, you lose points; I’m your audience, consider who you’re writing for; you can’t write an entire paper with no periods; don’t write your paper the night before and expect to get an ‘A’ on your first draft…All the little things that become common sense by your second year of college (assuming they make it that far).
They are excited and terrified, and they can do anything they set their minds to. But what do they want to set their minds to? Change majors a few times. Drop the class in which the instructor just has a personal vendetta against them for no apparent reason. Refuse to accept that it’s mathematically impossible for them to pass that one class this late in the term and get an ‘F’. Take out some more student loans.
Whip them into shape. Whip themselves into shape.
I graduated from the Master’s Program at my regional University in May (2015). I currently hold an MA in English with a concentration in Rhetoric and Composition. My resume, for someone going into teach at the college freshmen level, is decent for someone who’s just graduated: presented at five different conferences, Graduate Assistant experience, Blackboard experience, auxiliary writing assessment experience, a teaching practicum, a concentration specifically in rhetoric and composition (gen. ed.’s goal), and a decent GPA. I’m not perfect, but I left my MA program with more experience than 95% of my colleagues.
I graduated on a Friday and was told I had a teaching job at my local state college the following Monday. Two weeks later they told me I didn’t have a job because enrollment wasn’t high enough. Thankfully, I received a class from my alma mater (thanks to my amazing Unicorn administrator). It was only one class, which is lucky for the summer term. It was a six week course, almost three hours a day, four days a week, for six weeks. After I got over my initial fear (thanks to a copy room pep talk with some amazing full-time faculty), teaching was everything I’d wanted it to be.
Since I took my first semester of college, I knew that I wanted to be in education at the college level. For the first time everyone was shedding the familial and local coil that expected them to behave a certain way for traditionally unclear reasons. In college I talked to that pretty girl, I went out with the group of cool kids (only to find out they weren’t so cool), I heard my teacher cuss, I talked about sex in class and didn’t mention abstinence, for the first time someone wanted to know what I was thinking – that I was thinking. At work, no one wanted to know I was thinking at all. I had to stay in college. I would become a college instructor.
Throughout my MA my mentors warned me that teaching at the college level wouldn’t be easy. It would be hard to find jobs, they wouldn’t pay much when you did. I knew this. I read all the articles. I know education isn’t a priority in the South (average adjunct pay in Florida is under $2500 per class, whereas the national average is $3000 per class). So I can’t say that I didn’t know it would be difficult, but this is outrageous. I keep two courses at my University, one at the local state college, and have a part-time office assistant job that I hope can get me through Winter Break. I’ve applied to every college near me with no responses. I’ve applied to grade for Pearson. I can’t apply to score for the SATs because I don’t have three years of teaching experience. A PhD program means more debt and possibly moving. Still, with limited prospects upon graduation. An MFA program could mean more debt and moving with little prospects upon my exit.
So, I sit here in my dream job, having completed my advanced degree while accruing debt and experience, and it’s everything I wanted it to be, and now I have to walk away from it because it’s not a livable wage. I don’t qualify for insurance, I did as a Graduate Teaching Assistant who hadn’t completed my degree. We tell students how important college is. It’s so important for them to continue their education. They go into debt doing it (even if it’s just a BA) just to get that piece of paper. Here I am with advanced education and experience in education, and, to put it in laymen’s terms, can’t even. I receive no benefits, no guarantee of a job two to three months from now, spend all my time on, and doesn’t provide me with a livable wage. How can I tell my students that education is important when I still have to live this way?
This essay isn’t about disillusionment, as discouraged as I may currently feel. This essay is about calling attention to the problem. There are a ton of articles that give you the facts and everyone says, “That’s terrible,” and then they move on because at least they’re not teaching.
But consider for a moment what happens to education systems where people who are not only qualified for the job, but also benefit other people in that position have to leave. I love my students. This is still my dream job (because they don’t pay beach bums). I, and my colleagues, spend time keeping abreast of advances in our field. We meet with students outside of our office hours. We tirelessly create lesson plans and give feedback on our own time. But we can’t afford to live, or even pay back our own student loans. So we leave. Who takes our spots? What does this mean for our students and the value we place on college education? What will we learn here?