From Adjunct Faculty to Korean Faculty

Flags in front of the Korean War Museum, actually flying at the same height

One event that was been very much in US social media lately was the National Adjunct Walkout Day, a nationwide strike and education project on February 25. Stories had appeared of someone teaching as an adjunct faculty member dying in poverty, homeless PhDs living in their cars, teachers not having the time to go over students’ exams or homework, people living on food stamps without health insurance. (Link) (Link) (Link

The stories resonated with me because even way back in the late 70s I’d been unable to find a permanent job after getting a PhD in German literature and cranking an impressive list of scholarly publications. In 1983, I gave up and went back to graduate school for an MA in linguistics and certification in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. I then taught at universities in China and Korea. I eventually got tenure at Dongguk University in Seoul.

Recently I had the opportunity to talk with a former adjunct faculty member from California who is now teaching at a Korean university. We spoke over Skype from Korea to the Philippines. I asked her to talk about her experience in the States and in Korea.

Gwen’s story

I’d originally planned to teach English in high school. I hadn’t thought about academia until one of my professors said I was suited for graduate work. I decided to do the master’s degree in English language and literature. During my second year of graduate school I had the opportunity to teach two composition classes. That’s when I decided teaching in college was an option for me. I was accepted as a PhD candidate at a university on the east coast, but at the time I was married and living in California.

I really enjoyed teaching composition. As soon as I graduated, my department rehired me as an adjunct. I thought I’d just teach a few classes. The next year I started teaching at a community college as well. I liked the differences between the two student bodies. The community college was in a lower socioeconomic part of town, and the students came from more diverse backgrounds. I taught at the two campuses for my last five years in the States. I had between four to six sections, usually composition, but sometimes a Developmental English class, which made my workload quite a bit lighter.

Can you give me some specifics in terms of how much money you were making and what conditions were like for you and your colleagues?

Absolutely. I had a somewhat different perspective than some of my adjunct friends who had kids to support. They tended to complain more about the wages. In 2012, my last full year in California, I grossed just over $50,000 between the two campuses.

By my last year, my workload was quite significant, but not totally overwhelming. I had full healthcare coverage from my university even though I only taught two classes. A colleague of mine had full coverage for herself and her two children. That’s California, and clearly some of the circumstances are different in other states or within other university systems.

What percentage of faculty members were adjuncts?

Our department had close to 50 adjuncts. The number of classes taught by each adjunct varied from one or two, up to four. Four was considered a 0.8 appointment, the maximum appointment for an adjunct, but not full-time, or 1.0. Because of the way our contracts were written, all adjuncts were considered “part-time, temporary employees.” What that boiled down to was that if budgets for are department changed or enrollment was down, they could cancel our classes at any time without having to give us another class to compensate for the loss, as they would have had to have done for full-time faculty. Technically, five classes would have given us full-time work, but because we were teaching composition classes of up to 25 students each, our department head said, “You can’t have five classes because of the overwhelming amount of work.” As a result, adjuncts would teach four classes at my campus and then teach more at community colleges. I heard of one guy who had eight composition classes one semester.

We were appalled. We’d hear horror stories from students about his never returning students’ papers and never providing any feedback on their writing. Eight composition classes is ridiculous. Four is a lot, particularly since our students were required to produce 8,000 words each semester, usually divided into eight essays, four in-class and four out-of-class. Later for some courses we could consider revisions toward that 8,000-word count. Over time I fine-tuned my course so I was not absolutely killing myself and still getting my students to do the work required of them. They were also doing a lot better work because we used the revision process.

Each semester I used similar reading materials based on current social issues. It got boring, which was a big job dissatisfaction issue. And, I hate to sound like an old person, but in California I even noticed a difference between my first year of teaching in 2003-04 and my ninth year in 2011-12. There was an increasing sense of entitlement. A handful of students would not be jazzed about having to take composition. They figured if they just showed up and turned something in they should get an A. Because of the economic issues in America, they realized they were spending a lot of money on a degree and they probably still wouldn’t get a job when they were done. Their disheartened attitude translated into a bad attitude in the classroom.

When I started teaching in 1966, it was a lot of fun. But by the late 70s, attitudes had changed. I remember an article called “Whatever Happened to the Class of ‘65? They’re in the Classroom with the Me Generation.” The illustration showed a balding, long-haired hippie in jeans with a peace symbol around his neck and a sad-resigned expression on his face. Beside him were rows of students in business outfits, all looking straight ahead with fixed expressions, like “I’m looking right through you at the money I’m going to make after this stupid foreign language requirement.” It mirrored a lot of my experience.

Right. In the States for some students I was just an obstacle. Also, the digital native generation had arrived in college. These students didn’t see communication as something needing thought or processing. They communicated instantly. They were so used to saying anything, in any form, at any time to anyone that it made an impact on how they viewed a course in composition or critical thinking. In that nine-year period I mentioned, Smartphones became more prevalent, and along with them were texting and gaming. It didn’t register that writing was a process or that communicating effectively and clearly and succinctly was important.

I can see how that could greatly change teaching composition.

Composition carried the heaviest workload in the department, which is why the majority of adjuncts were teaching it. Of course I’ve heard of adjuncts feeling exploited. I never viewed myself as exploited because teaching comp was something I’d chosen to do. But it would have been nice to teach a literature class once in a while. I could play the devil’s advocate and tell dissatisfied adjuncts to teach at another campus like I did, but I’m from a densely populated area with lots of universities and community colleges. For someone in a small town that might not be an option. Maybe that’s why a lot of people are living below the poverty line. I know one of our faculty members was living in low-income housing. Actually at one point my salary would have qualified me for low-income housing in California—until I started teaching at the other campus.

Getting back to when you were thinking about getting a PhD, what happened to the graduate assistantships? Those used to provide a university’s cheap labor. I had teaching assistantships the whole time I was in grad school, so I emerged without debt. I understand that nowadays that is not possible.

There are a lot fewer of those positions because the market is saturated with PhDs who can’t get appropriate positions. Schools have cut back on the number of people admitted to their PhD programs and even more on the number of people who get funding.

Well yeah. The job market was bad even several years before Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980.

But in 2004 you could see a massive shift happening, where tenure-track faculty positions had become rare. Literature seminars would get cut because they weren’t filled.

Actually, I also came out of graduate school without debt. I was married at the time too, so I wasn’t the sole financial earner in the household. In 2002-04 graduate tuition at my school was about $3,000 a year, which I don’t find an obscene amount. Since then it’s skyrocketed. As a potential PhD candidate I wasn’t offered any financial assistance. Out-of-state tuition would have been $10,000. I felt it was one thing to go to law school and get $50,000 in debt, then make $80,000 or $90,000 in the first year after graduation and more money after that, while it was quite another thing to get $20.000 or $30,000 in debt for a PhD in the humanities, then come out and make $30,000 in the first year—maybe. I decided I wasn’t going to go into debt for a PhD in English literature.

Well, in Korea my colleagues at Dongguk University appreciated the fact that I had a PhD, but it was my master’s degree in linguistics and the TESOL certification that was paying the bills.

Exactly. My graduate school also had a TESOL master’s, but at the time it wasn’t even on my register. I’d thought of living abroad for quite a number of years, but I’d never thought I could do it. Then for personal, and I guess you could say soul-searching, reasons I decided to move to East Asia. A friend said she thought Korea would be a good fit for me, and she helped me through the process. When I came to Korea I was teaching for EPIK, a government-run program which places native English speakers in the public schools. I’d also been offered a university position, but I turned it down because EPIK was more supportive in helping teachers get their feet wet. I’d never lived anywhere other than my home town. So I taught at a high school for the first year in Korea, which was totally different from anything I’d done in California. My whole life was turned upside down, but in a good way. That was what I had chosen, but a year and a half later I left the high school for a university position.

Are you in the English Department or in the institute?

No, I’m teaching English Communications in General Studies. It’s quite easy and pretty much set up. I could have gotten a class in the English Department, but I declined. I haven’t taught writing from a strictly ESL perspective, although at my community college most of my students were not native speakers. In Korea I wouldn’t want to teach a writing course at my current university because the workload would be astronomical and they wouldn’t pay me any more for it.

The class I teach covers the first four semesters. It’s based on a book that still has some grammar in it, middle-school-level grammar points the students have studied it a million times over. They can ace any test I give them. If I were doing a pure conversation class and I could control it, it would be speaking 90% percent of the class time. But I don’t have that freedom.

Could you go around the classroom and write down grammar mistakes you hear students making and then go over them at the end of class? In my experience students wake up when they realize that grammar doesn’t just mean falling asleep during mechanical exercises, that it actually applies to their own speech or their own writing.

I do have that flexibility, but I’m supposed to cover one unit per class, and they’re tested in a standardized mid-term and final. If I don’t cover all the material my students might feel they were done a disservice. Next semester I’ll be more familiar with the material, and I’ll know the students, so I’ll have a better idea of where there’s wiggle room for adjustments.

One of the mentors for the foreign faculty said, “Look, don’t keep stressing grammar, grammar, grammar. These kids learned all that. If you look at their KSATs, they have been having this stuff pounded in their heads for the years.” So this person suggests being friends with the students and making them feel comfortable. I do that and I tell students that if they just speak they’re creating language. So far I’ve gotten a lot of positive responses from that. And guess what? The more they talk, the better their language gets.

At Dongguk University we spent five years looking for another native speaker with an MA in TESOL. We finally hired someone in 1993, but people with master’s degrees and teaching experience were still very, very few.

And now there are very, very many.

I heard that teachers in Korea were panicking because English departments—or maybe the Ministry of Education—wanted job applicants with PhDs, and they were reducing the salaries.

I haven’t seen that PhDs are becoming a necessity, but I suspect there will be more strenuous monitoring of master’s degrees from online programs or diploma mills. Salaries have certainly been decreased and workloads increased. People who don’t meet the qualifications are scrambling. Last year when I applied for university positions I was told by one of the larger universities that I didn’t get the position because I didn’t have any university teaching experience. I said, “I have nine years university experience.” He said, “But not in Korea.” Now, it’s true that they did have a big pool of applicants to choose from, but they didn’t even look at my US experience. I was shocked. But I’m okay. I’ll be at this university for two years. When I apply again, my resume will show that I have two years of university teaching experience in Korea. I suspect then they’ll see that I also have nine years of teaching in America.

A lot of people are trying to find out where the next place is going to be and what credentials will be needed to get jobs there. People who went back to school for a master’s in TESOL aren’t necessarily getting jobs either. You hear about DELTA certificates and CELTA and all these different credentials. Jobs in the Middle East were once paying over $100,000, but now those salaries have gone way down. Plus there are the significant cultural differences. I think that in Korea more teachers will be ethnic Koreans who are completely bilingual, meaning that they speak both English and Korean at a native-speaker level.

When I first went to Korea in 1988, ethnic Asians weren’t getting jobs because they weren’t white. There was considerable prejudice against them.

I know that there’s a mindset here about learning English from foreigners, rather than English-speaking Koreans. And I’ve heard from the students that they don’t like classes taught by people with strong accents, such as Filipino-accented English, because the teachers’ language is hard to understand.

Of course some Filipinos speak English without a Filipino accent, but Filipino-accented English can be quite noticeable. For example the unstressed vowels are not reduced. So even highly educated people might pronounce “curtains” as core + tains, with two stressed syllables. The intonation and lack of reduced vowels take some getting used to. I can see why those kids might be objecting, but I’m sure at least some of that is an attitude against people from a third-world country.

When I was looking for a job, a friend said, “Oh they’ll love your blond hair and blue eyes—and smiley and happy personality.” I can see that appearance is still an issue with parents especially. I mean, in the hagwons, the language-school businesses, the parents are paying for what they want. I’ve heard horror stories about a hagwon hiring a foreigner who doesn’t look like what the parents wanted. And they had to get another one.

What about your students?

In Korea people’s attitudes are so different toward teachers and education from what I encountered in California. Most Korean students view me as someone who can actually give them what they need. I frequently have students coming to me, thanking me and shaking my hand. If they do something wrong they’ll take responsibility for it. It’s so night and day from the States, which is one of the reasons I’ll probably stay in Korea.