Adam Davis calls it his "corner office."
Actually, it's the corner of a hallway at the Community College of Allegheny County, where Mr. Davis, an adjunct science professor, teaches without the benefit of an office.
Students can get extra help outside class if they don't mind finding him and standing in an out-of-the-way section of a corridor that is quieter than meeting in the cafeteria but hard to find. "It doesn't go anywhere," Mr. Davis said of the corridor.
He acknowledges that the same could be said for his career. After all, the 34-year-old professor ekes out a living teaching eight classes this semester on three different campuses with no long-term prospects for health insurance or a retirement plan. "The metaphor doesn't escape me," he said.
The struggles of adjuncts such as Mr. Davis usually play out largely unnoticed on campuses. But starting today, their stories take center stage at a three-day conference organized by the United Steelworkers aimed at drawing attention to what has been dubbed the new campus majority: temporary instructors.
They are hired at low pay without hope of tenure or the academic freedom protections that go with it.
As of 2011, 70 percent of college faculty worked outside the tenure track, according to the American Association of University Professors. That's up from 58 percent in 1995 and 43 percent in 1975.
It's no coincidence that this weekend's conference, "Countering Contingency: Teaching, Scholarship, and Creativity in the Age of the Adjunct," is taking place in Pittsburgh at the United Steelworkers headquarters Downtown. The steelworkers are working to organize Duquesne University adjuncts and have said they want to do the same on campuses citywide.
Conference topics include pay, gender's role and workplace exploitation.
Along with gathering information, adjuncts attending will connect with colleagues they otherwise might never meet, said Robin Sowards, an adjunct professor at Duquesne and a volunteer organizer with the Adjunct Faculty Association of the United Steelworkers.
"As an adjunct, you're very isolated," he said. "You're on campus briefly, then you're running off crosstown to another campus. You don't get to make those sort of water cooler connections."
Some campuses do not offer part-time adjuncts an office, while other campuses require the space be shared. Mr. Sowards said his English department office at Duquesne has three desks, two computers and is used by himself and 10 other adjuncts.
"It's obviously not a place where you can work," he said.
It's not hard to understand the economic incentive to hire part-time instructors course by course at a fraction of what even assistant professors make. Adjunct faculty give schools flexibility to fill vacancies quickly and respond to shifts in student demand. And faculty cost savings can be put to other uses, including enhancements to compete for students.
But supporters of the organizing effort say overtaxed adjuncts mean less attention paid to students, not only at low-priced community colleges but at public and private universities where tuition is thousands of dollars higher.
Beyond greater job security, they contend tenure means freedom for instructors to broach topics that may be unpopular but important for students to learn.
"What quality of education are students receiving if the people teaching them are fearful of being fired for saying the wrong thing?" asked Jennifer Nichols, associate secretary in AAUP's department of academic freedom, tenure and governance.
Mr. Davis said he often works on his own time assisting his nearly 200 students but feels they do not get the service they would if he did not have to travel among campuses to cobble together enough courses to get by.
On CCAC's Allegheny campus, Mr. Davis' Monday/Wednesday/Friday classes include anatomy and physiology at 9 a.m.; introduction to biology at 10 a.m., human biology at noon and introduction to anthropology at 1 p.m.
He advises CCAC's student anime and video game club from 2 to 4:30 p.m. Monday, then heads to Duquesne to teach a 6 to 8:40 p.m. history of science class.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, he is at Point Park University teaching three sections of introduction to natural sciences.
He also has an independent study student with whom he spends an hour or an hour-and-a-half a week, for $150 extra per semester.
He said parents paying the bills probably would be shocked to learn the conditions under which instruction often is delivered.
He said he works 80 or so hours a week, mostly outside class, on tasks from grading papers to fielding calls from students that he tries to limit to no later than 10 p.m.
He typically makes $2,250 per class at CCAC, $3,050 per class at Duquesne and about $2,100 for a course at Point Park. His teaching load would equate to a yearly pre-tax gross of about $36,700 if he kept the same workload each semester, but that's unlikely.
In January, CCAC cut the maximum adjunct course load from 12 semester credits to 10 to avoid having to consider them full-time workers eligible for health insurance under the Affordable Health Care Act. The college said it cannot afford the added cost.
But Mr. Davis said the school in mid-February asked him to step in for an instructor who could not finish a course, and the additional credits made him a temporary full-time instructor. It temporarily elevated his pay and gave him health coverage and a 401(k) plan just for this semester, he said.
Some schools, including CCAC, note that adjuncts seeking a full-time load are the exception and efforts are made to give them support. "We certainly do value their contribution," CCAC spokesman David Hoovler said.
In June, instructors in Duquesne's McAnulty College & Graduate School of Liberal Arts voted to join the steelworkers union, a move affecting 125 part-time employees. Duquesne wants the vote nullified, saying that as a church-operated school, it is exempt from jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board, which oversaw the election. The NLRB in Pittsburgh rejected the argument and Duquesne is appealing.
Even if the union prevails there, Mr. Davis would lack protections on the other campuses. But he said adjuncts are in for the long haul.
"This is our calling," he said. "This is what we are good at doing."
Bill Schackner: email@example.com, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG.