By: MORGAN STARK ’17
A women and gender studies adjunct professor at Pacific Lutheran University (PLU) is hired on a semester-to-semester basis to fulfill her passion for helping students to become socially aware of oppression and inequalities, despite low salary and lack of job security.
Coming from a long background of education, Laurel Rayburn, an undergraduate professor of women and gender studies has an undergraduate degree in English from Harvard and a Doctorate of Philosophy from Brown University. But these top universities did not create a sustainable income or job security for Rayburn. Instead of being on a tenure—track, Rayburn spends her days back and forth from Seattle, to Parkland, to Gig Harbor, to Ballard. Rayburn said she does all she can to stay busy and find multiple ways to make an income because as an adjunct professors she makes far too little to only work as a professor.
Walking into the office Rayburn inhabits it is hard not to notice the ball of hair hanging from the bookcase, multiple green flags for the Sounders soccer team, and posters of colorful Hindu temples. She was assigned this office to take the place of a permanent professor who is visiting another university for the semester. Rayburn giggled as she said, “None of this is mine. I don’t even know who the Sounders are.”
Surrounded by unfamiliar knickknacks, Rayburn dives into talking about her busy schedule. She teaches a yoga class, tutors students, teaches an online class for Harvard, and teaches classes at the Washington Correctional Center for Women.
But Rayburn is far from the only professor facing this reality of no job security, low salary, no medical benefits, extremely busy schedule and disconnect from the communities that she teaches in. Rayburn is part of half of all professors in the United States who are adjuncts or contingent faculty according to the American Association of University Professors.
According to an article in The Atlantic, “Nearly a quarter of all adjunct professors receive public assistance, such as Medicaid or food stamps.” This is because according to an NPR report in 2013, the average annual pay for adjuncts is between $20,000 and $25,000.
Even with all these negatives of being an adjunct professor and hired only semester—to—semester basis, Rayburn still expresses how passionate and dedicated she is to being a professor. She assigns diverse readings that highlight the inequalities and oppression that exists in society. By pushing her students to find relevant examples of these inequalities in their lives, she helps her students critically analyses how they are contributing to some oppression and also part of others.
For Rayburn this passion to better understand the inequalities in society started when she traveled to Bolivia while she was pursuing her undergraduate degree at Harvard. In Bolivia, she visited a women’s jail and saw a glimpsed into the oppression of those most marginalized in our society.
Rayburn said there were 500 women locked in a compound that should have held 200 people. Along with these women, their children also lived in the compound with them. As young Rayburn walked around and interacted with the women she saw first-hand the extreme poverty that existed.
“It was not about justice, it was criminalizing those most marginalized,” Rayburn said.
Most of these women were convicted for drug possession, but Rayburn explained how most of these women were convicted for having anything that could be made into cocaine. For example having paint thinner in their cars and had no evidence to actually support that they were making and selling cocaine.
When Rayburn returned to Harvard to finish her degree it was hard for her to make sense of this oppression and how she could make a difference even though her interests were rooted in English, critical analysis and gender studies. She grew to be passionate about the social issues that exist in the prison system and gender oppression. But instead of going into law or politics Rayburn decided to dedicate her life to academia.
“Language is productive,” she said.
To Rayburn teaching students how to critically analyze and better understand language is her way of making social change.
She said, “I believe professors are doing political work.”
Through teaching about gender differences and oppression that exist in our society, Rayburn said she is able to highlight political issues to her students.
One of Rayburn’s students commented on how Rayburn has impacted her life. Haley Gredvig, Senior, at PLU said, “Whether in her class or in her office Doctor Rayburn has been really inspiring and I feel as if she could be a really great mentor to me. It is very disappointing to know that she might not be here in the future to share and discuss our passions for gender studies.”