The Underemployment Crisis and Me

The Underemployment Crisis and Me August 28, 2012

I met Zakiya Muwwakkil as we were both receiving our PhDs from Fordham University on our graduation day in 2010. We hit it off right away. She was receiving her degree in theology and she went on to deconvert from Christianity shortly thereafter. She made this video to raise consciousness about the problem of unemployment among young college graduates and underemployment among people with advanced degrees. She and I are both among many underemployed people with advanced degrees. If you can support her project of creating a documentary on the subject, her website is Degrees of Separation. Please check it out to learn more. Zakiya appears in the video about the project below, at the 2:25 mark.

Last school year I taught 17 sections of college classes across six universities in three states as an adjunct professor just to make ends meet in New York City and deal with my student loan debt and accumulated credit card debt from when I was living at subsistence level as a graduate student for a decade.

Adjunct professors like me are drastically underpaid for our levels of qualification, years of schooling, classroom experience, and years of committed service to our institutions and to our students. By the end of this semester I will have taught 82 classes at the University level over the span of ten years, including during 7 years while I was also writing my dissertation. I have a Teaching Fellow of the Year award, excellent student evaluations and faculty evaluations, and numerous schools willing to hire me semester after semester year after year. Though my PhD is from Fordham University, my dissertation on Nietzsche’s ethics was written with John Richardson of New York University, one of the most elite scholars of Nietzsche teaching at one of the highest ranked philosophy programs in the country, as a reader on my committee.

Yet I only make between $3,600-$4,200 per section depending on the school and, until possibly this semester, have had no health benefits through my employers. One school paid me less than $3,000 for a section even after I had served there for several years and had attained to my PhD. Meanwhile many of these schools charge students at a rate of over $3,000 per section, which means that out of the 25-35 students in my classroom typically only one or two pays my salary for the semester.

I know that there are people more impoverished and in greater danger of immanent economic ruin than I am. I know that to some significant extent that this is the result of a choice I made to do what I loved and believed was meaningful at the risk of decreased income, rather than to do what was more economically profitable with the risk of doing difficult work that I found meaningless. I also know that I am not the only one who has to put in a 60 hour week if I want to make $60,000 a year. I also have the summers off to compensate for the extra hours during the school year and could conceivably just commit to working a full 12 month year, as long as I found something I could do seasonally for summers–maybe even something related to my skill set.

And even though schools pay me badly per course, they are each part time jobs which require little enough on-campus time commitments that I am able to squeeze in up to 9 sections in a semester sometimes. And I was even able to find enough time to blog dozens of essays last fall while still meeting my academic obligations.

I could also yet net a tenure track job in the future–though it gets harder to do that the longer I am out of school and have little time to do the kind of academic research and publishing that at this point in time is practically a necessity to even get consideration for such a position. I know I could cut out blogging and maybe make some progress in that direction. So maybe I’m just stubborn. If I only have extremely limited time to do my own writing and reading, I would rather write pieces with a broader appeal and relevance outside the ivory tower than the kind of specialized, narrowly technical kind of work that alone is respected in professional philosophy.

And, honestly, I had always said that I did philosophy for its own sake and not as merely a means to a career, and so it would feel a bit whiny now if suddenly I disparaged my time doing academic philosophy because it has not gotten me a stable career. I made choices that I knew in theory had some serious risks involved even if, in my youthful overestimation of my own skills and invincibility, I assumed that they would never befall me. I decided at the time though that the life of philosophy was simply for me, whatever the economic consequences of that commitment would be. I doubted the choice only briefly, during my first year of graduate school when I struggled academically for the first time in my life.

But by the time I was in the classroom, nothing could either tear me or entice me away from life as a teacher. I thrive in the classroom like nowhere else in my life. And writing and talking about philosophy are like eating to me. I feel starved, lethargic, and depressed when I haven’t done them in a while. Philosophy is my raison d’être. I am dogged, hardworking, and resourceful enough that I am optimistic about my chances of finding unconventional ways to make a living and a positive impact on people as a philosopher, outside of the traditional tenure track system, both inside and outside of academia.

But even were tomorrow the various ventures that I pursue in order to make my career as a philosopher to utterly flop financially and I were forced out of professional philosophy completely, I would nonetheless always have had at least 16 years spent studying, teaching, and writing about philosophy. That’s 16 years of living with barely any felt distinctions between my passion and my work. 16 years being paid to be who I am and do what I love.

And that’s really something. And it’s something I’m grateful for. And maybe were the guarantees to success in my profession greater and the expected compensation for tenured professors greater, the competition would have been greater and I would never have had these opportunities at all. If pay were more equitable or profitable, maybe I would not have any teaching opportunities available to me, rather than an overabundance, all of which I have to take.

So, fundamentally I am neither resentful nor unappreciative. In many respects, I live a far better, far luckier, and far more fulfilled life than many others. If nothing else I get to express myself to fairly sizable audiences, through writing and speaking and dialogue, practically from the time I wake up until the time I fall asleep. You would be amazed how therapeutic and how much more at peace this leaves me than when I had less to do. It is more exhausting, but then surprisingly it becomes more exhilarating and more reenergizing at the same time. I have less time for sleep but feel less need for it as I am buoyed by overwhelming excitement at all the ideas racing through my head and all the means at my fingertips to express them.

So, I am not complaining because I cannot bear this life or because I wouldn’t choose this life over countless other options. I complain about my underemployment because it involves various forms of unfair exploitation that seem intrinsically wrong to me. And this kind of life has more deleterious effects on countless of my peers than on me. I also highlight this issue because it gives lie to the myth in this country that the economy as currently structured inevitably rewards hard work and that economic struggles are a sign of weakness of character. When it is this hard for people with graduate degrees and new BA’s to thrive financially, what does it mean for the statistically average person who has even less educational advantages.

And, finally, it pains me that numerous of my talented, graduated students are among those facing such severe unemployment, underemployment and student loan debt in this economy. I also admit that I am a bit chagrined to think of how much more predatory lenders make off of my students than my students individually ever actually paid me to teach them. Actually, worse than merely chagrined, I’m rather sickened at the thought–especially as the interest accrues on student debts I can’t pay, while I get taxed at higher effective rates than millionaires, and that taxed money is invested in the military ten times more than it is in education.

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