At Home with the Kids and My Ph.D.

I’m home schooling. Perhaps that is a bit strong. My daughter is almost four, and my son is only fifteen months old, so the only home schooling involved is teaching my daughter phonics and some basic math. The reason I am staying home with my children has nothing to do with ideology or worry about their education—rather, it has to do with the financial realities of being a Ph.D. in the humanities without a tenure-track position.

My work history in education could be viewed as a list of horror stories for anyone who values education. I have worked at a community college teaching English composition, a charter school teaching seventh-to-twelfth-grade English literature, a university teaching interdisciplinary studies, and then back again to community colleges (two of them that time) to teach English composition.

While I was at the first community college, I was told that I needed to dumb down my classes (I was teaching rhetoric using Plato’s Phaedrus). Actually, I was told, “We don’t expect you to dumb down your class, but …” and then I was essentially told to dumb down the class. This occurred even after I received a letter from a student’s mother thanking me for having such high expectations and saying I had been recommended by another student.

I stopped teaching at this community college because I had obtained a full-time position at a charter school. While there, I was told that I should not be teaching poetry or novels because they wouldn’t appear on the TAKS test (the Texas standardized test). I ended up resigning from my position because some financial misbehavior by an administrator resulted in a financial crisis they decided to fix by firing all their Ph.D.s (since we were paid the most). I decided to quit before I was fired. So the following fall semester I found myself teaching interdisciplinary studies as an adjunct at a local university. It was there, though, that the admonition to lower standards and expectations came in the form of the least ethical statement I have ever heard uttered by an educator: “The best and brightest will just have to be bored.” That one was too much. I resigned.

Which brought me right back to the community colleges, in the fall of 2009. That time, I taught classes at two different community colleges—three classes at one, two at another. The pay for English composition classes basically comes down to a little over $400 per class per month. For five classes, that is about $2100. In September 2009, my son was born. Daycare for him and my daughter came to around $2000 per month. So I was working for daycare and a bill or two, while my wife, who is an elementary school teacher, worked for the rest of the bills (a significant percentage of which are our student loans).

In the spring semester, the financial strain was such that I started working as third-shift front desk clerk/night auditor at a hotel. I had morning classes—which worked well, since I could get off work at 7 am, then go teach at 8—but I also taught two late-afternoon classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. So I was working three jobs just to get by. And none of them required a Ph.D.—my M.A. in English was sufficient for the community college classes.

The crisis occurred this fall, 2010. One of the colleges I had been working at hired three full-time faculty. Since I was the last adjunct they had hired, when they ran out of classes I didn’t get any. That meant I was only working at one community college and, even though it had given me four classes, I could not afford to teach only four classes and put my two children in daycare. The math is simple:

            4 x $400/month = $1600/month

            $1600/month – $2000/month for daycare = minus $400/month

I cannot work to lose $400/month. Who can? Who would, even if you could? Thus, the decision was made to drop the four classes I had and to withdraw the children from daycare so I could stay home with them.

Most days I get four hours of sleep before the children wake up in the morning; I get my second two-to- four hours of sleep once my wife gets home from work, after we’ve eaten. When I wake, I go to work at the hotel from 11 pm – 7 am.

Please note that while at each place I worked I was faced with some questionable ethical situations in terms of educational philosophy, I only resigned over one of them. The rest were financial considerations. But the financial considerations also touch on the ethical as well. Certainly the situation at the charter school did—but such money mismanagement is neither unique with that charter school, nor even rare, especially among public schools.

But what about the community colleges? I hate to use such a Marxist term as “exploitation,” but for someone with as much education as I and many others who work as adjuncts in community colleges have, how else can one describe the pay? The community colleges take advantage of the overproduction of English and humanities Ph.D.s by paying extremely low salaries. One can argue that this is simply supply and demand, and there is some truth to this, especially since Ph.D.s are competing with those with master’s degrees for the same adjunct teaching positions. Many of us stick with it because we get into our heads the idea that teaching experience will help us to get tenure-track positions elsewhere. But that’s not true. The two are unrelated. Publishing papers gets you a tenure- track position, not teaching experience.

In the meantime, colleges that pay adjuncts low wages are getting what they are paying for. As any economist will tell you, higher wages will get greater productivity out of your workers (up to a critical level, of course, which varies from job to job), while lower wages will get you employees who do as much work as they think the wages are really worth. There are exceptions, but one has to look at the average; the problem is structural, not personal.

To be honest, I’m not sure what the solutions are. Sometimes it’s good just to get the problems out there to be discussed. But I will say this: According to Austrian business cycle theory, a bubble results in the misallocation of capital. If a Ph.D. working night audit at a hotel isn’t misallocated human capital, I’m not sure what is. It becomes obvious, however, that that capital is misallocated only when there is a recession—when the bubble bursts.

I have been hearing more and more buzz about a pending higher education bubble. My experience is that people talk about the bubble bursting and the subsequent “upcoming recession” only when we’ve landed in the recession. We are now in a housing/manufacturing/mortgage/banking-sector recession; but we may be facing a serious education-sector recession as well. The good news is that in the aftermath of recessions, we get a housecleaning—of those engaged in unethical practices—and a reallocation of capital. I don’t think I have to tell anyone about what happens in the meantime, though.