Episode 21: Adjunct Commuter Weekly

This episode of the n+1 podcast goes on the road with Paper Monument co–founding editor Dushko Petrovich to talk about adjunct labor in universities and his new project the Adjunct Commuter Weekly.

Hosted by Aaron Braun, Malcolm Donaldson, Moira Donegan, and Eric Wen
Audio Engineer: Malcolm Donaldson
Produced by Aaron Braun, Malcolm Donaldson, Moira Donegan, and Eric Wen
Graphics by Eric Wen
Music from Arthur Russell, Oneohtrix Point Never, John Fahey, The Magnetic Fields

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Episode Transcript


ERIC WEN: Dushko Petrovich is a Brooklyn-based artist, writer, and co–founding editor of Paper Monument. He has also, for the past eight years, taught courses as an adjunct professor at Yale University in New Haven, the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, and Boston University. And for the past several years, he’s taught at those schools concurrently. In the fall he teaches at Yale and BU, and in the spring he teaches at RISD and BU. His fall-semester schedule has him teaching at both Yale and BU on Mondays, so Dushko drives from Brooklyn to New Haven in the morning. Then after teaching his classes there in the afternoon, he drives up to Boston to teach at night. And then after all that, he’ll drive back to Brooklyn, making it home around one in the morning. In the spring, he drives to Providence on Monday mornings, teaches at RISD in the afternoon, then continues up to Boston to teach at BU, returns back to Providence to spend the night, teaches classes at RISD Tuesday morning and afternoon, and then finally returns home.

While this may sound extreme for some, these long commutes are actually a fairly common phenomenon for many adjunct professors. For those not familiar with the issue, an adjunct is a non-tenure-track professor hired to teach one or two classes at a given school. They do essentially the same work that goes into teaching, grading, and preparing lesson plans, but they do it on a contract basis, sometimes year-to-year, and sometimes semester-to-semester. And because they are not full-time employees, they don’t have job security, benefits, or, oftentimes, grievance and complaint procedures. There are estimates that as many as 76 percent of college professors are contingent labor; many adjuncts have to string together teaching jobs at different schools to find enough working hours and make enough money to support themselves.

So this past summer, Dushko launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to publish a new magazine called the Adjunct Commuter Weekly, to highlight these issues. For this segment, Dushko invited me to record the interview with him in the car as he drove up to Boston, where he was attending the magazine’s launch event at the Institute of Contemporary Art back in July. Considering the subject matter, we thought this was the most appropriate way to do this segment: part of the adjunct commuter experience is spending long hours in transit, so what better way to understand the experience than riding along in the car? We apologize in advance for any inconsistent audio quality. But here’s Dushko Petrovich on adjunct labor in universities.

SEGMENT: The Adjunct Commuter Weekly

DUSHKO PETROVICH: Adjuncting presents a few particular difficulties. One is that the hours worked can be measured in various different ways and the universities of course often measure them in exploitative ways. So, you know, your class hours aren’t necessarily that numerous, but you’re prepping and grading and in my case and in many other cases you’re also traveling. And those hours don’t get factored in. The other question is what you brought up, which is job security and contracts, and you know, universities rarely give adjuncts longer-term contracts, so they’re usually on semester or year-to-year contracts, which is incredibly stressful and difficult in terms of working. And then yeah, in terms of benefits and things like that, there are very few things that reward loyalty and commitment to the school or university. So it’s really a very, very exploitative system, and it’s damaging to the people that are teaching and of course to the quality of education that those people who are teaching can deliver to the students, because the people who are teaching them are just being asked to work incredible hours, oftentimes for below minimum wage pay when you factor in all the prep and grading time that goes into it. The only good news is that I think now it’s gotten so bad that people are fighting back, starting to join unions, starting to organize for better conditions.

EW: On February 25, 2015, adjuncts across the country held National Adjunct Walkout Day to protest these unfair working conditions. It was the first of its kind because appealing for better working conditions and organizing ran into various obstacles in the past. Many adjunct professors operate on semester-to-semester contracts, sometimes not even knowing if they’re returning to teach at their respective universities until just a few weeks before the new semester starts. And the lack of long-term contracts creates a situation where they can lose their teaching job simply because the department chair chose not to renew their contract.

DP: I’ve heard horrible stories of people getting groped at a faculty dance or something, and then they’re groped by their boss, and they reject the boss, and suddenly they’re not hired back next semester. Just really nasty things happen because the situation is so precarious. And you know, what unionization provides is something of a structure, some form of representation and collective bargaining, all those kinds of things, which can lead to structural changes, which then, of course, hopefully, leads to people being treated better. The fact is there is money in Universities; there’s a tremendous amount of money in universities. And as with any industry one has to fight for the money to go to the people who do the work. The tendency for the university is to exploit the people who are doing the work.

EW: Dushko compares adjuncting to the intern psychology, where some people see it as an opportunity to work hard and get a foot in the door. Although I ask Dushko how regularly adjunct teaching jobs lead to tenure-track professorships. He says it depends on the situation, the school, and the program. But generally, not often.

DP: That’s not what happens regularly, and I think it’s happening less and less, because what universities are figuring out is like, “Well, if we have this person, and we know they’re good, and we know they don’t have other options, then we can just keep them as an adjunct,” because they’re getting the hours taught, and they’re getting the effort and energy and intelligence of the adjunct without giving the adjunct anything back in terms of security and compensation.

EW: With this arbitrary stratification of tenure-track professors and adjunct professors, I ask Dushko if the difficulties faced by adjunct professors have any effect on classes and student experience.

DP: Well, it’s hard to say. I think that obviously if someone who is a full-time salary member who is getting a regular decent salary, who gets sabbatical, maternity leave, has a retirement plan, all those kinds of things, that kind of person is in a position to focus more on their teaching to build up the way they teach and their course work over years and decades and provide a level of quality and depth to the education. I think adjuncts on the other hand are oftentimes squeezed to the extent that the quality of the education that they can provide suffers. It’s clear that if you’re not being paid and treated well, as much as you would want to teach very well—and that’s one of the tensions in the adjunct life, is that one believes in the thing that one is teaching, but at the same time if you’re tired, if you’re worried about making rent, if you’re shuttling from one school to another and working at various different kinds of environments all at the same time, it can be unnerving, and I think it can make it hard to actually focus on teaching and grading and connecting with students, which is obviously what people who are adjuncting would want to be doing.

EW: Despite some of the serious concerns about the working conditions for adjuncts, Dushko thinks that the working environment creates certain obstacles to organizing.

DP: One of the difficulties is the psychological position of the adjunct, which is that there’s a certain amount of shame attached to it because there’s a feeling that people talk like you’re playing in the minor leagues. People tend to be quiet, but they also tend to be fairly isolated. You just go to your class; you don’t go to the faculty meetings. There’s no place for you to meet the other adjuncts and talk about your experience. So again, people are trying to figure out ways to change that. I think it presents a problem politically for organizing, but it’s been surmounted in other situations, and I think it can be surmounted with adjuncts.

EW: Now that we’ve gotten some background on adjuncting in general, what made you decide to start, or what was the idea behind starting the Adjunct Commuter Weekly publication?

DP: Well, I guess it’s this idea that we were talking about that oftentimes people, in this kind of situation where they’re being exploited or where it’s difficult, it’s hard to come forward and form communities around that kind of experience. The idea with Adjunct Commuter Weekly is that it’s a periodical that can allow people to come forward with some of these stories. Which of course we all tell each other in private, you know, commiserating or worrying or trying to figure out what to do next. I’m often talking to other people who are in that kind of position. So yeah, the idea just struck me it’d be interesting to have a magazine and also to imagine a world in which that community of workers was given status as a demographic to the extent of having a magazine.

EW: The national average pay rate for adjuncts is only $2,500 per three-credit course, which creates the need to go to the extremes that many adjuncts do in order to make ends meet. I ask Dushko if adjunct commuting is more prevalent in the Northeast because of the higher concentration of schools. Here’s what he said:

DP: It definitely happens around the country, but you’re right, I think it’s more prevalent in the Northeast because of the concentration of schools. And I think one of the things that’s important to point out is that the condition of adjunct commuting arises because the universities don’t commit to the adjunct commuter. So the school offers you a class, or two classes, or three classes, but it’s not enough for you to move to that place. So it’s not enough to build a life around. Maybe it’s $15,000, maybe it’s $17,000, it’s that kind of thing, so you’re not going to move to New Jersey, or Philadelphia, or Boston, or Providence, or wherever for that subsistence income. So it creates this whole network of people; you know, it’s called the “gig economy”. People are constantly moving from gig to gig. I think it’s made possible by the Northeast corridor. From Washington, DC and Baltimore all the way to Boston.

EW: Still, Dushko is quick to point out that adjunct commuting happens around the country and around the world.

DP: One of the things that was featured in Adjunct Commuter Weekly were situations from England and Scotland where a reporter was reporting on people in Great Britain who were taking year-long positions and renting an apartment in another city and traveling there. And in Australia, people doing three- or four-hour commutes between Sydney and Newcastle on trains and airplanes. And I know people in California who go up and down the coast to teach whether from LA down to San Diego or up to San Francisco. So I think there are definitely areas where this happens.

EW: And then there are some extreme cases that can be found in the magazine. Artist Sam Messer describes traveling from LA to New Haven via New York every week for nine years to teach at Yale. Trinie Dalton wrote about flying regularly from LA to New York to teach at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. And photographer Alix Lambert travels eleven hours each way once a week to Indiana to teach. And all for adjunct teaching jobs.

EW: While the Adjunct Commuter Weekly highlights some of the extreme working conditions adjunct professors have to put up with, there is still a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor to it. There is an Ask the Doctor advice column, a quote-unquote “Adjunct Sudoku” where the only numbers you can use are one through three, and a recipe for packing all of your meals for the day into a single mason jar. I asked Dushko about the sardonic tone that runs through the magazine.

DP: I have no idea what you are referring to.

EW: No?

DP: No, yeah, of course. I mean, you have to laugh not to cry, right? It’s uh . . . I think the humor, it’s kind of a dark humor. You brought up the recipe, the recipe was provided by Charlotte Glynn, and it’s a recipe for filling a mason jar with food kind of in tectonic plates where you put the dinner first, and the lunch second, and then you put in your breakfast at the top. So as the day goes on, you eat your way through the whole container starting with breakfast, and then going down to lunch, and then ending up at dinner. And it’s supposed to be like a nutritional arrangement, but of course it’s disgusting. It just points out the fact that when you’re commuting and you’re going away from home having to be on the road and being in all these situations, you end up—you know, to get three meals a day is kind of a trial. You end up eating things that are not good for you or not what you want to be eating and it’s difficult. I mean, it’s one thing to pack a lunch on your way to work and go to work, but it’s another thing to pack three or four or five meals when you’re on the road. And what ends up happening, of course, is you buy all this stuff and you eat crappy food and stuff like that. So, you know, the humor is there, but it’s pointing to the actual conditions that people are in.

EW: What was the production process like in making this issue?

DP: I’d talked about Adjunct Commuter Weekly for a while to the extent that I think people just thought it was a conceptual joke, to talk about making this magazine. So for a long time people knew that I was thinking about this. And then Ricardo de Lima, an artist who lives up in Boston, contacted me in the Spring and said he’d been chosen to be in this Foster Prize exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Boston and he asked me if I wanted to be part of his show, because he was including other people in the show. And it struck me as a great time to actually do Adjunct Commuter Weekly, because we could have this event in Boston, which is what we’re driving to right now. And so once that was scheduled for July 30, I started contacting people and saying, “Hey, you remember when we talked about writing a piece about audiobooks? Well, I actually need it for this particular date.” So I started commissioning pieces in June and then went to design, and then went to print last week. So that was kind of the process.

EW: Did you learn anything new or surprising from compiling the stories that people told?

DP: One of the main things I learned was from kind of the biggest news piece in the essay, which was just from a piece Faculty Forward did about how many professors are actually living below the poverty line and how the rates of poverty for adjunct professors are higher than the national average, which is kind of shocking when you consider that these are people with advanced degrees from universities teaching in universities and living below the poverty line. That was shocking to me. Even though I know that on some level, it was just shocking to me to see the numbers.

EW: Although this is still a significant labor issue in universities, there has been progress in the last year. Dushko points out that he along with other Boston University adjuncts voted to unionize back in February. And last year Tufts University adjuncts negotiated their first contract, getting a 22-percent salary increase, improved job security, as well as first notice and guaranteed interviews for full-time openings. Still, Dushko says it’s difficult for some to talk about their working conditions openly because of a degree of stigma or embarrassment attached to being an adjunct professor, and he wanted the Adjunct Commuter Weekly to provide a more visible platform and hopefully allow people to speak more openly about their concerns.

EW: Well do you hope that now that there is this community, or a community of people talking about the issue, not necessarily in this publication, but now that it is becoming a wider thing that people are talking about openly, do you hope that the embarrassment people might’ve had will go away and people could start addressing the issue more directly?

DP: Yeah, that’s my sincere hope. Any kind of political organization involves—there’s always that stage of talking about what the experience is and what it felt like and why it’s happening and doing that in a group so people can realize A) that they’re not alone, it’s not a personal failure or a solitary experience but rather part of a systemic situation and something that we can organize against. So yeah, that’s exactly what I hope for, and I hope to provide not just the Adjunct Commuter Weekly the publication, but I hope to provide other platforms for people to be able to do that.

EW: I noticed on the editorial page, there was a pretty explicit and direct call to action. Do you hope to see more mobilization around the issue of adjunct workers as a result of the publication?

DP: Sure. The magazine is there to build a community and make an impact just in terms of how people imagine what’s going on in universities. But the real thing has to be political and union organization. There’s no other way of changing these kinds of situations. So yeah, I included . . . There’s a petition to the Secretary of Labor to really do a study and evaluate the working conditions and hours of adjuncts in American universities. And then I also put a link to Adjunct Action so people can sign up and get organized. Because those are, I think, the only ways that people will make real gains.

EW: You mentioned the Commuter Triangle in one of the editorials, but do you just want to just explain that quickly?

DP: It should properly be said in a Boston accent so it like the “Commutah Triangle,” so it rhymes with “Bermuda Triangle.” Initially this was a joke that I told myself and others to explain the fact that I was driving between Boston, Providence, and New Haven. So that was what I referred to as the Commuter Triangle, because people would say, “Oh, why do you live there and not there?” And it was like, well, I’m teaching in three places, so it doesn’t really matter. No matter where I live I’m going to be in this commuter triangle. But my understanding of the Commuter Triangle developed over time, and I realized that it wasn’t connected to any particular set of geographic coordinates, but it was rather a state of being, and it was really a state of being in which you get lost. And many people get lost in this Commuter Triangle, because you’re working, traveling, and then recovering, and those three things really start to eat up all of your time to the point where it’s really difficult to get anything else done. And you start off telling yourself that it’s a good way to make a living or it’s a good way to get benefits or it’s a good way to be involved in academia and have this kind of intellectual community, but it does tend to swallow you up. And right now I’m in the heart of the summer and feeling pretty good. I had a wonderful residency at Yaddo where I could really work on my own stuff. But there are times of the year when I really am completely consumed by this Commuter Triangle. So part of what Adjunct Commuter Weekly is is an attempt to at least talk about that and identify it both for one’s own mental health but also to try to attempt to organize changes so that people won’t be stuck in the Commuter Triangle.


EW: If you’d like to learn more about the Adjunct Commuter Weekly or adjunct labor, you can visit adjunctcommuterweekly.com (that’s all one word). The n+1 podcast is produced by Aaron Braun, Malcolm Donaldson, Moira Donegan, and Eric Wen. We’d like to thank Dayna Tortorici, Laura Cremer, and of course our guest Dushko Petrovich for inviting us to record in his Rav 4 and for giving me a ride from New York to Boston back in July. Thanks for listening!

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