What is a Freeway Flyer?
The "Plight" of Adjunct Faculty
So what is a “freeway flyer”? I remember hearing this term for the first time about ten years ago when I first became a “part-timer,” “adjunct faculty member,” or whatever other term you might prefer. It refers to a person like me who teaches at multiple community colleges and finds himself driving from school to school. Personally, I have had schedules in which I went to three schools in a single day, and I have taught at as many as four schools in a given semester. I once met a woman who said that she taught at six different schools.
I did some quick research on-line to find out how long the term “freeway flyer” has been used and to determine if this is a term used nationwide or just here in California. It did not take long to realize that this is a national issue, and not just a community college one at that. Apparently, universities are also using increasing numbers of part-time lecturers to teach lower division classes. The actual term freeway flyer, however, might not be applicable to all parts of the country. I read about one teacher who said that he was a “subway flyer’ because of the existence of something called “public transportation” in other parts of the country. Being a Californian, I thought that the public transportation concept died when Henry Ford developed the assembly line, but that is another story.
So why would anyone choose the lifestyle of an itinerant teacher jumping from place to place. There is a simple answer: it is generally the only way to get into community college teaching. Like many things in our education system (and world in general), economics is the primary factor. It is cheaper for schools to farm out classes to part-time faculty because the schools are not required to pay these teachers wages comparable to full-time professors. In addition, they are not required to offer any kind of medical benefits in most cases. (I consider myself very lucky because one of the colleges where I work lets me pay a reasonable amount of money to be part of their group health plan. The only catch is that I need to have enough units to be considered half time.) This system also creates a certain amount of flexibility for community colleges. Schools are contracted to offer a minimum of five classes to full-time faculty. Part-timers, on the other hand, are offered classes on a semester-by-semester basis. And given the inconsistency of funding to community colleges, particularly during bad budget times like we are facing right now, they are able to adjust the number of classes offered based on their budget situation. Sometimes adjustments are made just before a semester starts, and classes for part-timers can be cut at the last second. I have even heard of cases where a full-time teacher had a class cancelled due to low enrollment and ended up taking over the class of an adjunct professor.
The plight of the part-time teacher has received more media attention in recent years. There has also been a growing movement to unionize adjunct faculty and fight for compensation more comparable to full-time teachers. During better budget times, the state of California even set aside funding to make wages more comparable, and I do admit that I have seen some improvement in part-time pay over the course of my career. (Wages, however, vary tremendously from district to district.) There has also been political pressure placed on community colleges for some time in an effort to have 75% of all classes taught by full-time professors. Most districts in California, however, as far as I know, are not in compliance with this guideline. The penalties for noncompliance are apparently less expensive than the cost of hiring more full-time teachers.
So why do we “freeway flyers” allow ourselves to be “exploited” in this way? Why don’t we go into a different career field or teach at a level where more stable, full-time positions are available? I cannot speak for everyone, but the main reason I do it is because I love teaching at the community college level. (There is also the obvious explanation that I am not qualified to do much more than talk all day. God help me if I ever have to produce anything tangible.) I get to spend my time talking about a subject that I generally find fascinating, and I do not have to deal with all of the annoying discipline problems that you face in high school and at lower grade levels.
One of my biggest fears, in fact, is that the adjunct teacher’s union will call for a strike one day, and I will be obligated to join them. This frightens me not only because I am a generally wimpy person; it would also upset me because, in spite of whatever bitching I have already done in this article, I think that I have a pretty good deal. My job is not only a hell of a lot of fun; I also have flexible hours, lots of vacation time, and make a decent amount of money considering the fact that my work week is only about 20 hours. (Of course, this does not count the time spent driving, grading papers, answering e-mails, and doing everything else required for teaching.) Even the driving around is fairly pleasant thanks to NPR and the invention of the podcast. I get most of my news driving from place to place, which provides excellent material for connecting the past to current events.
So I have a pretty good gig, all things considered. The problem, if it is a problem, is that full-timers have an incredible deal. They teach ten classes per year if they do not teach summer school. I typically teach about 15 or 16. If a full-time teacher has been around for a long time, they can be making a salary of $80,000 to $100,000 while essentially working for about 20-30 hours a week for eight months of the year. No wonder these people are in no rush to retire. Ever since I was getting a teaching credential, I have heard stories of the future increase in teaching positions because of the upcoming wave of retiring baby boomers. So either people are not retiring, or schools are replacing one full-timer with three “freeway flyers.” Unfortunately, I cannot simply blame those baby boomer “hippies.”
Of course, I am speaking from the perspective of a part-timer. Maybe full-time teachers do not have things as easy as I think. After all, they have to go to division meetings, join committees, maintain office hours, and involve themselves more generally in the university program. I, on the other hand, drive in to teach a class or two and then take off for either home or the next work destination. (Or I head off to the racquetball court, of course.) I would like to become more involved in college activities outside of the classroom, but it is hard to do so when I am teaching seven classes at four schools that are scattered throughout the Southern California area.
In a sense, this may be the greatest advantage of itinerant teaching. I get to focus simply on teaching. I have also been blessed by the fact that my bosses, the department chairs and division deans, have allowed me to do my job with little interference. It is therefore difficult for me to see the relevance of the various activities like division and committee meetings. Since I get so little direction from the department regarding what I should be doing in my classroom, it makes me wonder if I am really part of a department with a single, coherent program. I also wonder sometimes how much my bosses know about what I am actually doing. I have heard some stories, which may be academic urban legends, about amazingly flaky people who are sometimes hired to teach as part-timers. I tend to think that if I were one of these idiots, my bosses would quickly become aware of my incompetence. I have not tested this theory, and I am not planning to do so in the future.
Maybe full-timers have to face more scrutiny. Maybe they are required to undergo more faculty observations than the periodic evaluations I receive at most of the schools where I work. Maybe the act of simply getting themselves hired, in addition to the extra duties that they have to perform, entitles them to significantly more compensation. Maybe this whole paragraph is a bunch of crap.
The problem is that I have no way of knowing if the job of a full-timer is tougher than mine. I can definitely say that I would not mind finding out. I would be happy to face tougher scrutiny, go to meetings, have office hours, and do all the rest of it for a year to see if I can cut it. Honestly, none of those extra duties sound particularly difficult, and I would be happy to have people sit in on my class whenever they wish in order to see what kind of a job I am doing. I have a feeling that I, and a lot of adjunct faculty out there, perform as well or even better than many of those full-timers. The main factor, after all, which often determines who is full-time and who is just an “adjunct” is year of birth. If I had been looking for full-time jobs in the 1970’s as opposed to today, I am sure that it would have been significantly easier. I better shut up now. I’m starting to bitch again.
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