Academic’s life of poverty shows how little society values its thinkers

US$10-an-hour part-time professor of philosophy at American university forced to live like a monk, friend says after his death; recent report found a quarter of part-time academics in US receive public assistance such as food stamps

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 October, 2015, 4:33pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 October, 2015, 4:33pm

When visitors walked into the dilapidated boarding house where Dave Heller lived, the smell alone could transport them back to their college days.

“It smelled like grad student,” jokes Charlie Fischer,  a friend. “Like years of boiled noodles and rice.”

Except Heller was 61 years old and a philosophy instructor at Seattle University in the northwestern United States. Yet he lived in a room in a tenant group house in Seattle’s University District, with nothing but a bed, a fridge and his library of 3,000 books.

When he died earlier this year from an untreated thyroid condition, Heller was making only US$18,000 a year teaching philosophy on a part-time, adjunct basis, his friends say. That’s about one-third the median income for a single person in Seattle, and barely above the federal poverty line.

Dave was like an itinerant philosopher. There’s almost no role  any more for people like him.
Charles Fischer

“He had a beautiful life in that he lived exactly what he wanted, which was the life of the mind,” Fischer says. “But it had a cost. It was sad to see how little value society places on what he did.”

Fischer, who teaches English on a contract basis at Everett Community College in Seattle,  wrote an account of Heller’s life and death in Seattle Magazine  earlier this month. Heller was described as being part of America’s “invisible faculty” – part-time or adjunct professors who increasingly do the teaching work at colleges but who often are paid little better than a cleaner.

Heller’s story is that he was a gifted teacher but had achieved only the level of a master’s degree, in American literature, from the University of Washington. That’s not advanced enough to get on the full-time tenure track. After years of paying back his college debts by working at a bookstore and teaching composition classes at community colleges, Heller finally scored an adjunct teaching gig at Seattle University.

The syllabus for one of his classes reads: “In this course, we will follow Socrates’ injunction to be perplexed about the most important matters.”

For 11 years, his students mostly raved about him.

“If you look for ‘easy’ then don’t bother,” one student wrote on  after taking Heller’s course in the philosophy of ethics. “If you wish to learn, then take his class. His feedback has made me a better writer & thinker in all other subjects, not just philosophy.”

But because he was a contract or “contingent” teacher, he was hired only on a temporary basis and usually for only two classes at a time. According to Fischer, Heller nevertheless logged 60-plus hours a week lecturing, meeting students and grading papers during the term. That means his wage pencilled out to somewhere  about US$10 an hour.

“He took to living like a monk,” Fischer says. “He couldn’t afford to go out to eat. But I’ve also never seen him happier.”

He would have lived in a barrel, if necessary, to devote himself to teaching
A colleague of Heller

Still, the poverty took a toll. Fischer doesn’t blame Seattle University: in one sense, the school saved Heller’s life by giving him a chance. But low pay like this and lack of any job security, for adjunct faculty in the humanities, has become a nationwide phenomenon.

 Recently there have been stories about contract professors who are homeless or living on food stamps. Research at the University of California-Berkeley published in April found that 25  per cent of the million part-time college faculty in the US are so poor they are enrolled in a public-assistance programme such as Medicaid, food stamps or welfare.

 Fischer says Heller was a symptom of the commodification of education. It’s increasingly about measurable outcomes or monetary results. Because an engineering degree has so much more economic value than one in say, literature, the former is supported while the latter is slowly devalued.

Dave was like an itinerant philosopher,” Fischer says. “There’s almost no role  any more for people like him.”

 In his story, Fischer quoted a University of Washington philosophy professor saying Heller was so dedicated. “He would have lived in a barrel, if necessary, to devote himself to teaching.” That’s a great tribute to the man, but an indictment of the system that it almost came to that.

Tribune News Service