Teaching classes and waiting tables: Adjunct finds it hard to make ends meet

If you’re a GW student, Todd Ramlow, an adjunct professor of English, may have taught one of your classes. If you’re a fan of D.C.’s restaurant scene, he may have also served your dinner.

Ramlow, who has taught at GW since 1999, currently teaches classes in English, human sciences and women’s studies, a schedule that he says amounts to a 35-hour weekly workload. At $3,200 per course, the job earns him less than $20,000 annually.

To make ends meet, the part-time professor must also work four nights a week waiting tables at Equinox, an upscale restaurant near the White House, where he earns at least as much if not more in tips than he does teaching as an adjunct.

Juggling two jobs to make a living wage in one of the most expensive cities in the country, Ramlow said it is often hard to devote the time necessary to be an effective teacher.

“I can’t afford (to teach) and support myself without my second job,” Ramlow said. “That certainly cuts into my ability as a professor to be here or to be available at other times outside classes and office hours. I’m not available because I can’t afford to be.”

Like many part-time faculty members, Ramlow aspires to be a full-time professor. He hopes his experience as an adjunct will allow him to make the connections necessary to attain a regular teaching position, and he’s grateful for the opportunity.

However, he and other adjuncts see themselves as part of an exploitative system in which the University relies heavily on part-time faculty without giving them their dues.

Instructors such as Ramlow are at the heart of an ongoing unionization movement among adjunct professors at GW. A two-week election is being held until Tuesday to determine if the Service Employees International Union Local 500 will represent all part-time faculty on campus. Professors who taught at least one course in two of the last four semesters received a mail-in ballot.

Part-time professors believe that forming a union would allow them to negotiate better salaries and health benefits. University administrators are opposed to any union, which they say will hamper their ability to schedule classes and hire professors.

In a short speech at Friday’s Board of Trustees meeting, University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg said a successful unionization effort would bode ill for students and GW. “We’ll see where that goes,” he said.

In addition to financial grievances, adjuncts said that when it comes to departmental and administrative decisions, they are often left out of the loop. Anne McLeer, an adjunct professor of women’s studies and the lead union organizer at GW, noted that part-time professors are forbidden from sitting on the Faculty Senate even if they are longstanding members of the University.

“Someone who’s been teaching in a department for so long should … at least have some way of knowing what’s going on and have some part in the decision-making,” McLeer said. “It’s like you’re part of the University, but you’re not. You’re part of the department, but you’re not. It makes it difficult.”

Adjuncts said such problems are not unique to GW, but part of a growing trend in higher education. According to the SEIU Local 500, 43 percent of all university faculty members in the United States are adjuncts, more than double the percentage from 20 years ago. Nearly one-third are paid less than $2,000 per course.

However, not all observers agree that adjuncts are treated unfairly. Jill Carroll, a part-time professor of religion at Rice University, writes an advice column for part-time faculty in The Chronicle of Higher Education called “The Adjunct Track.” She is also the author of the new book “Machiavelli for Adjuncts,” a how-to guide on making a living as an adjunct professor.

Though she agreed that adjuncts are sometimes disrespected, Carroll said it is important to realize that the role of adjuncts is fundamentally different from that of regular faculty, noting that they do not have the same kind of research requirements and administrative duties as their full-time colleagues.

“We don’t have the same job description as full-time faculty,” Carroll said. “We teach, that’s all we do … All the different service duties that full-time faculty have that take up 30 or 40 hours of their week, we don’t have to do. A lot of people don’t make that connection.”

Carroll encouraged adjuncts to take what she calls an entrepreneurial approach to part-time teaching. The Houston-based professor has made a career out of teaching at several different universities in her area, a strategy she said earns her more than she could make as a full-time instructor.

Though she does not oppose the idea of adjunct unionization, she said that given the lackluster success such movements have had to date, adjuncts must find some other way to support themselves.

“Unionization is a beautiful dream, but it’s so far from the reality of so many adjuncts in this country that you’re going to have to find another solution,” Carroll said. “You’ve got to find another way to make it work.”

Pro-union adjuncts at GW said people such as Carroll ignore the realities of adjunct teaching. They said that students, if not the administration, expect them to perform the same functions as any other professor.

“A lot of students, especially undergraduates, don’t know the difference (between full-time and part-time faculty),” McLeer said. “You walk into a classroom and we’re there teaching like any other professor. It looks like you’re a full-time part of the university, but it’s hard to be that.”

With the vote on unionization wrapping up this week, adjuncts said they have no idea what the results will be. Even if a union forms, they realize it will not be a cure-all solution. Still, given the current state, Ramlow said it could only help.

“We have absolutely no access to any sort of affectivity as not a union,” Ramlow said. “We have no way of having the University recognize our interests, needs and desires. It’s really the best and only tool we have.”

Michael Barnett contributed to this report.

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