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Low Pay, Long Commutes: The Plight Of The Adjunct Professor

Eric Westervelt of the NPR Ed team is guest-hosting for the next few weeks on Here & Now, the midday news program from NPR and WBUR.

More than half of the professors in the United States are adjuncts. As largely part-time educators, they're excluded from most of the benefits and security granted to full-time faculty. Even though their numbers have dramatically increased in recent decades, that doesn't necessarily translate into power. Many struggle to attain any recognition at all for their hard work, low pay and often terrible commutes.

Artist Dushko Petrovich is one of those adjuncts, and he has an extreme story. He teaches at four colleges: Boston University, Yale University, Rhode Island School of Design and New York University. That's right, four different states. Talk about a nightmare commute.

But Petrovich isn't just spending a lot of time in his car; he's also working to give a voice to the adjuncts' plight and foster a community. He is the editor of a newsletter, Adjunct Commuter Weekly, that he hopes will raise awareness for this growing workforce. I spoke with him last week about his experiences.

What do you call this commute cycle you're in?

The name I have for it is the commuter triangle, which said in the Boston accent is "commudah triangle," which rhymes with the Bermuda Triangle. That started out as a way for me to soften the impact of telling people that I taught at all these different schools, because when I started to list them off, people would do a double take. I would say, well, it's the commuter triangle. Then I realized that I was on to something, which was that a lot of people are in various versions of the commuter triangle, and they disappear because people don't tend to talk about adjuncts or think about adjuncts when they think of a university.

Why launch a newsletter about this?

Adjuncts are really, largely invisible, even to each other. So, with Adjunct Commuter Weekly, I wanted to give adjuncts a place to talk about the things that matter to them, and talk about what I call an influential and growing demographic, because there are hundreds of thousands of adjuncts in the U.S., and they're not often spoken to directly and they don't often have a lot of opportunities to speak to one another.

In Adjunct Commuter Weekly, you mention some of the perils of that commuter triangle: food scheduling, worrying, relationship woes. It's a challenge.

It is. It's hard because a lot of our contracts and arrangements are very short term and precarious, and so I think a lot of people are in those kinds of situations where they don't necessarily know if they're going to be teaching the next semester or the next year.

There have been efforts by adjuncts to unionize. Tell us about that.

I think it's been largely successful. I'm not a union organizer myself, but my understanding of it is that they're doing it city by city, because one of the goals is to have a city standard, where all the adjuncts get together and then they can negotiate and not be undercut school to school. The situation is just so bad that I don't think it can get any worse. I think people are going to fight back and try to get better contracts, benefits and ways of resolving conflicts with their bosses.

What do you want the world to know about you and your fellow adjuncts?

Adjuncts are doing the majority of the teaching in American universities, and most people don't know that. They have an outdated image of a professor as an extremely stable, extremely well-paid job.

Now, most of us are working on semester-long contracts and trying to piece together a living, which is quite difficult. At the same time, we're teaching at a very high level. These are people with Ph.D.s and master's degrees who have obtained a really specialized skill and body of knowledge and are passing that along.

Do your commuter struggles affect your art at all?

They do. In a way, this project came out of that tension, where I just realized it would be better to address it directly, rather than suffer in silence. It's very, very difficult. For example, my commute on Mondays: I start in Brooklyn. I teach two classes at Yale. Then I drive up and teach another class at Boston University, and then I drive back to New York. I get home around 1:30 in the morning, so Tuesday is largely a wash. I mean, I'm not all there.

What if you landed a nice, full-time, tenure-track professorship at a New York institution tomorrow? Is there anything you'd miss about your commuter lifestyle?

I've learned a lot from podcasts and things like that, but no, I don't think I would miss anything, actually. Someone asked me if I would stay in charge of Adjunct Commuter Weekly, and I think I would have to take a demotion as editor and publisher and hand it over to someone else and put myself on the board of directors or something like that.

You can listen here to the full interview on Here & Now.

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