The New University Underclass 

As a three-day walkout threatens to shut down UC Berkeley, the nation is awakening to a brand-new crisis in higher education: the plight of the temporary professor.

Welcome to the University of California at Berkeley -- now go stand in line. It's the first week of class for more than 30,000 students, an administrative challenge under any circumstances. But this year, the campus' 2,300 clerical workers walked off the job for the first three days of class to protest what they consider bad-faith bargaining on the part of UC negotiators. It's the first staff walkout in thirty years. Amid the chaos, few may have noticed that a second group of university employees also walked off the job: the men and women who teach at least 37 percent of undergraduate courses throughout the UC system -- the most vulnerable and marginalized class in modern academia. Men and women like Julian Bourg.

As a Cal graduate student, life was reasonably good for Bourg. He made a modest living teaching classes and studying French politics in the aftermath of the 1968 uprising, living on ramen and the writings of Guy Debord in a studio apartment in the Berkeley Hills. He always knew the system depended upon roughly 4,386 graduate student instructors to keep the business of educating 23,269 undergrads afloat. It was part of the deal: Leading discussion groups and grading term papers was a component of his continuing education, and the paltry wages and temporary contract went along with his career track.

Then Bourg got his Ph.D. After he filed his dissertation and started hustling for faculty positions around the country, he took a position as a lecturer in his old department to pay the bills, teaching European intellectual history. He became one of the 612 members of UC Berkeley's "non-senate faculty," an army of lecturers and adjunct professors without whom the entire educational system would collapse -- Ph.Ds who often earn next to nothing and inhabit a twilight world of neglect and disrepute in the halls of academia. Bourg instantly felt the effects of his new status when he realized he was earning less per course as a fully vested Ph.D than he had as a mere grad student.

During the 2001-02 academic year, Bourg taught two classes per semester. Although technically he was working two-thirds time, he claims he often put in ten-hour days assembling the syllabi, preparing lectures, and leading discussion groups that burned through a book a week. For this, while teaching at one of the nation's most prestigious academies, he earned no more than $1,500 a month, $850 of which was eaten up in rent. Then his student loan repayment schedule kicked in, and Bourg was mailing $300 checks each month until he managed to reschedule the payments. After eleven years of higher education, and with $32,000 in debt, Bourg had $350 a month for food and bills.

"As a grad student, you're accustomed to a basic, nonextravagant lifestyle, so I'm used to that," he says. "The difference is for a grad student, you set your own schedule and you're not regularly accountable to anyone. The ratio is time and money; as a grad student, you don't mind not having a lot of money, because you have a lot of time. The crunch isn't eating mac and cheese. It's working ten-hour days and coming home to eat mac and cheese."

And Bourg soon realized the other downside to being a lecturer: the potential end of his ability to rise in academia. Stick around as a Cal lecturer for more than a few years and your career stalls out forever. When faculty search committees look for new professors, research and original thinking generally is prized more highly than one's ability to teach. Lecturing takes so much time, and so few colleges help their adjunct faculty pursue their field of study, that after a few semesters of working the undergrad circuit, lecturers cannot keep up with their competitors and are simply not seen as tenure material.

"If I found myself as a lecturer for a second or third year, I'd probably change professions," Bourg says. "I know I'd never enter into that cycle, because for those who do, it's a point of no return. In the humanities, so much of position is about perception. It's important where you got your degree, it's important that you publish, or your dissertation resonates with current trends. Anything that undermines the perception that you're not the best of the best undermines your chances to get on a tenure track. For example, if you're about to get your Ph.D, your status goes up, because you're pure potential. But the longer you go after you file your dissertation, questions are raised about why you haven't gotten a tenure-track position yet. Time is not on your side, and people who lecture for two years or more get caught in a permanent subclass."

Bourg ultimately secured a postdoctoral fellowship at Washington University in St. Louis, breaking him out of the lecturer cycle. But as he prepared to move east, one last indignity awaited. As Bourg assembled the material for his final classes this summer, he learned that faculty who hail from outside the UC system were paid $1,000 more to teach the same course. He threw up his hands in disgust, and admits that he was less than enthusiastic when he returned to class. "I tried to adapt my teaching to the new pay rate," he says. "I wouldn't say I slacked off, but I did not go the extra mile. When the day was over, I didn't go home and put in the work I would have if I felt I was being invested in."


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