Certified Gatekeeping

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It’s not exactly a secret that a lot of the coffeehouse baristas and restaurant waitstaff you may run into during the course of an average day are people, like me, with graduate degrees. Many of them went through the unadulterated hell of graduate school, and all the associated trials and tribulations (student loan debt being the most pernicious of all), with the intent of staying at colleges and universities as an educator themselves. (This is probably more common in the humanities, but it happens in all disciplines.) Due to the continuing shrinkage of tenure-track positions as colleges and universities are forced to economize (often by business types who don’t have the slightest idea of how education works), most recent graduates are lucky to find even part-time adjunct positions at the institutions around them, and those usually pay so poorly that it’s all but impossible to pay an average person’s bills on such small salaries.

I had to live the adjunct’s life for over a decade after I got my graduate degree, and even when I was working at multiple institutions at once (and having to pay a whole lot in gas and car repair charges as a result), and teaching the equivalent of a full-time load for a tenured college professor (and sometimes exceeding it when I was able to pick up substitute work), I was lucky if I made more than $10,000 in a year. Because I was living with Mom while I was taking care of her after my father’s death (twelve years ago this past Sunday), I was able to economize somewhat, but even at my best, I never felt like I was able to do more than tread water as I tried to get on my own two feet.

It’s been eighteen months since I started this full-time position here in Wisconsin, so obviously I succeeded in the end, but make no mistake: I’m one of the lucky ones. Between the support I had from Mom, and the passion I have for educating, I got through all the obstacles that were put in my path. Many others aren’t so fortunate, though, and there is no doubt in my mind that a lot of top-notch educators, who want nothing more than to help future generations learn the skills they need to survive and thrive in an ever-scarier world, are instead serving frappuccinos at Starbucks because the pay’s just the same as what they’d get as an adjunct instructor at their local community college, the commute is a lot easier, and at least Starbucks offers some benefits.

The scourge of unpaid internships doesn’t get talked about enough, but we’re not that far removed from Oscars season, where the lack of diversity every year always occasions a good deal of outrage. Film studios, and other huge companies working in media such as television, have long been reliant on making young people work for free to even get a foot in the doors of their businesses, and the fact that the biggest media companies work in such expensive markets as New York City and Los Angeles means that only the richest of the rich can afford to spend the first several months (if not years) of their professional careers working for free and paying sky-high rent. Programmes like this not only reinforce, but also reentrench, the forces that have created all the systemic inequality that permeates America. Seeing a bunch of old white males dominate a televised awards show is just one of the most visible results of this.

By making themselves more reliant on criminally-underpaid and frequently-overworked adjunct instructors, colleges and universities are not only lowering the quality of the education that their students get (which is, you know, their main reason for even existing), but they’re practicing a kind of gatekeeping similar to what’s going on in Hollywood right now. I don’t think it’s possible to talk too much about how devastating the ongoing student loan crisis in America is (and make no mistake about the fact that we’re already in a crisis now, and it’s only going to get worse until we address it effectively), and to insist that young people (likely up to their eyeballs in student loan debt already) accept poverty wages for any kind of work, let alone some of the most important work that can be done to better our society, is catastrophically absurd.

I mention this because I recently came across a job listing for part-time online teaching work at a community college, and it showed me just how much worse the situation for adjunct instructors is getting. These entry-level positions are crucial when it comes to getting new people into the teaching profession at the post-secondary level, and while no salary was posted in the job listing, I can only assume that the pay level was commensurate with similar positions I held when I was an adjunct, which is to say poverty-level. The other parts of the job listing were largely identical to similar listings I’ve seen for years, but the listing ended by noting that all applicants had to have a certification in online teaching, which was being administered by a private company. I’d never seen that requirement in any job posting I’d looked at before, and keep in mind that I was still seeking out part-time online teaching work as recently as eighteen months ago.

Out of curiosity, I went to the certification company’s website to see what was required to get the certification necessary to apply for this part-time position. Not only does the certification course run across several months, but it costs over $1,500. To put that in perspective, none of the courses I taught as an adjunct gave me $1,500 in take-home pay for an entire semester. There doesn’t appear to be any other way to get the certification other than to take the company’s own courses, and the community college that was requiring this certification wasn’t offering to pay for potential applicants to take the course.

If I’d had to get such a certification to teach after I got my graduate degree, I’m not sure if I could have done it. I’m positive that if this additional barrier to entry had existed when I was trying to get my first teaching job (after I’d already taught for a year while I was working on my degree at the University of Toledo, mind you), I probably would have gone straight to a local coffeehouse to try to find the best job I could there, my English degrees gathering dust as the two most expensive pieces of paper I’d ever bought in my life.

No one in their right mind would deny that instructors should be trained, and demonstrate their skillsets, in order to get jobs in America’s colleges and universities, but those institutions have always understood that the qualities of a good instructor can’t be gauged by some certificate programme. (Why else have all of us go through graduate school in the first place?) This is why America’s higher education system remains the envy of the world, and why our K-12 system (which has become increasingly reliant on similar metrics over the years) has continued to fall behind as the companies behind all this emphasis on raw numbers (that are often divorced from any meaningful measure of true progress) gain more and more power. The only numbers that go up are the only ones that matter to these companies: How much money they’re making from their various rackets.

Every day that I have the privilege to teach, I remind myself that I’m one of the lucky ones who gets to do something I truly love for a living. For too many people like me — including old classmates of mine — the passion for teaching has been extinguished by having to take other employment just to keep roofs over their heads and food on their plates. It’s already too difficult for the next generation of professors to realize their goals to do the crucial work of educating young people. Adding yet another financial barrier to entering this profession is unnecessary, counterproductive, and ultimately devastating to our institutions of higher education and the students they serve.

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