It was shortly after noon Wednesday, and Karina Bjork was ruffling through files before she climbed into her office — a silver 2014 Honda Accord.
Every minute counts when you’re an adjunct college professor. Bjork was wrapping up a training at Clark College and had just a bit more than an hour to make it to the second college she teaches at — the Harmony campus of Clackamas Community College in Milwaukie, Ore.
Tuesdays and Thursdays aren’t so bad, Bjork said. Those days she’s only assigned to teach at Portland Community College — the third school she teaches at to make ends meet. Some quarters she adds a fourth school in the mix: Mt. Hood Community College. It all depends on whether she can drive there in her paper-packed, file-overflowing Honda with enough time to get to class.
“I need to know exactly how long it will take me to get to (Interstate 5),” Bjork said. “If there’s a car accident …”
She trails off. She doesn’t like to think about the headache that would cause.
Bjork, 28, has been an adjunct professor in the Portland metro area for two years. Suzanne Southerland, president of Clark College’s faculty union, said her experience is common. Adjunct professors trying to make a career in education often piece together a patchwork of classes at colleges throughout the region, making a few thousand dollars working part time at any given college in any given quarter.
Part-time adjunct faculty at Clark College, for example, are paid between $2,925 and $3,037 for a five-credit, 12-week lecture course. Add lesson planning, training and meetings with students, and Southerland said you build a culture of inconsistency that makes it difficult for faculty to be “solid” and “stable.”
“You’re just in survival mode all of the time,” Southerland said. “You don’t have much to give to your students. You don’t have the time or the space.”
Bjork had a taste of what was coming with the adjunct life. Both her parents worked at community colleges. But living that reality was “a slap in the face,” she said.
“I know what it looks like to work on a community college campus, but running around the halls of one versus being a faculty member are two completely different worlds,” Bjork said. “I call my mom all the time like, ‘Is this really what happens?’”
Bjork teaches interpersonal and intercultural communication classes at her three, sometimes four colleges. On Wednesday, running on four hours of sleep, she sat through a voluntary two-hour training on race and equity at Clark College. Then she sped off to Clackamas College, where she taught a room full of high school students enrolled in college coursework about how to give a persuasive speech. Then, like a ping-pong ball, she bounced back to Clark to teach a lecture on privacy, or the lack thereof, in the digital age.
Bjork once considered being a journalist — certainly a no more lucrative or stable career choice — but fell in love with teaching when she was a graduate assistant while pursuing her master’s degree at Portland State University. There’s a special fulfillment that comes with teaching community college students, she said.
“Depending on the time of day, I’ll have students who are home-schooled and taking college classes, to those who have just gotten out of the military and have severe (post-traumatic stress disorder), to students who are just going back to school and they’re in their 50s and seeing what’s out there,” she said.
Adjunct faculty make up the brunt of Clark’s teaching staff; 363 instructors are part time, compared with 188 full-time instructors.
College spokeswoman Kelly Love called adjunct faculty “a vital component of our college community” while recognizing the “strain of being part time.”
“We do value our adjunct faculty,” Love said, noting the college has a $20,000 adjunct faculty development fund to pay for training, conferences and publications for part-time staffers.
But in ongoing salary negotiations at Clark College, the Association for Higher Education is arguing that adjunct salaries should be tied more closely with full-time professorships.
Clark College’s latest offer included a 1 percent salary increase in the 2018-2019 school year, paid retroactively, and a 4 percent salary increase in the 2019-2020 school year to all faculty. Alternatively, the college offered a 3 percent increase to full-time faculty and a 5 percent increase to part-time faculty for the 2019-2020 school year.
Interim President Sandra Fowler-Hill said that’s the college’s “last, best and final” offer after more than a year of bargaining, but the two sides are slated to meet at the negotiating table again on Dec. 5.
Bjork said she’s frustrated by her salary, but what’s more frustrating is the lack of “consistency, stability and security.” She points to the college’s adjunct office, a dark, underground work room crowded with half a dozen computers. She said she often has to meet with students when she’s speed-walking to her car after class. She has no guarantee of how many classes she’ll be asked to teach in any given quarter, or whether she’ll be given a class at all.
Still, in spite of her issues, Bjork said she loves the most important part of her job: the time she spends with students.
“I wake up every day looking forward to go to work,” Bjork said. “That’s what keeps me going back.”