The Hypereducated Poor – Adjuncts in Elle

In Elle, Alissa Quart has a piece she calls The Hypereducated Poor. It explores the adjunct crisis by looking at the life of a Chicago-area professor, Brianne Bolin. She teaches composition. She has a son with cerebral palsy named Finn. I’ve met them both as we live in the suburb of Brookfield, though until this article, I didn’t know her situation.

She’s an adjunct. She teaches a lot of composition at Columbia College in downtown Chicago. My understanding is that around 80% of all classes at Columbia are taught by adjuncts, but I cannot verify that number and will be glad to correct it. It’s an arts school, so many of the classes are taught by artists in a sub-discipline, rather than full-time faculty. English composition, however, does not have that excuse.

I think the phrase – hypereducated poor – is useful. It points out the ways in which we’ve created an educational system in which both students and their educators are learning a lot and earning less and less than previous generations.

And it’s hard. The article goes through the calculations that Bolin has to make to get by, and I know that some of my friends will sneer at her and question her decisions, her shopping venues, her aspirations towards a comfortable middle class life. Here’s what the article says:

The point of the social-psychology research is that when so much mental
activity is devoted to basic survival, little is left to engage in
long-term thinking or to muster willpower—which Bolin well knows. “I
need to smoke to relieve the pressure,” she tells me as she feverishly
rolls her own cigarettes one evening when I take her out to a bar, where
she also finds relief in the form of plentiful margaritas. She’s
self-medicating, she says; other times, she uses Xanax for anxiety. She
also takes a daily antidepressant. As Linda Tirado, whose rawly honest
blog post on her own minimum-wage existence catapulted her into the
national spotlight last year, bluntly writes in her new book, Hand to Mouth: “Being poor while working hard is fucking crushing.”

Finn is just a few months older than my son Nico. I saw him last at a birthday party for a local boy with Down syndrome, and liked both him and his mother a lot, though I didn’t know her situation.

There’s a place in the higher education firmament for adjuncts, paid by the course to bring their expertise (or come out of retirement) to teach a class or two for per-course pay. But anyone who is good enough to work full time for an institution should be paid for full time work at a living wage, with benefits.

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