Brittany Bronson’s résumé is admirable by any standard: She’s a monthly op-ed contributor to The New York Times and an adjunct English instructor at UNLV; she has a master’s degree in creative writing and—like more academics than you might realize—she’s a cocktail server on the Strip. One of these gigs is not like the others, but the combination is what keeps the Las Vegan of four years financially afloat, feeding her literary passion in the classroom and enjoying a more fast-paced restaurant job. The Weekly caught up with Bronson to talk about the state of education and how rude customers react when they find out the women in the aprons are more educated than they are.
Did you think you’d be working more than one job after earning a master’s? I didn’t. My first-ever job was in a restaurant. When I moved to Vegas I didn’t expect to get back into the restaurant world, but I feel the economy kind of shaped me here. I felt like I had the experience and had the opportunity to make decent money, and it was a responsible decision to take advantage of that.
You said you’d like to teach full-time one day. Do you make more as a server than you would with a full-time teaching job? I don’t know. There’s a big gap between what I make as an adjunct and what I would make as full-time faculty. Right now I serve part-time and teach part-time. If I were to work full-time cocktailing on the Strip I would make more money. At least the money I can make is enough to pay a mortgage and a car payment and student loans and all those things. It just wasn’t like that for me, only teaching part-time.
When you get a college degree, so much of academia is telling you, “Now you need to go use this,” and saying that if you’re working a job like I’m working then you’re not using it, which I really disagree with. I feel like my education has made me a better server and a good worker. These worlds aren’t as separate as we want to make them.
Do you think customers would treat you better if they knew you had a master’s? Three out of the four cocktail waitresses I work with have master’s degrees. I’m definitely not the only person who has this experience. When I was working at another restaurant, if it did come up that I teach at UNLV, I immediately felt people treat me differently. I really did. It wasn’t what they were saying, it was the tone of voice, whether they’re looking you in the eye, whether they’re answering politely or curtly. Sometimes if a guest would be really rude, I hoped somehow I could get that into the conversation so they would feel bad and embarrassed. But another part of me is like, why do I think that having an education makes me more deserving of better treatment? That’s the Catch-22.
Is it common for adjunct professors to have to take second jobs to make ends meet? What does that say about the state of education? It is really common. After I wrote that initial piece about teaching and serving [for The New York Times last December], there were all sorts of comments on Twitter from people in the same situation. It’s interesting that our society requires education as a pathway to success, yet so many elements in that pathway put people at a serious disadvantage.
This idea that education is going to open every door is not a reality anymore. But on the other side, I still find education so crucial, and such a vital part of being a human being. However, to say that suddenly your education stops when you leave the university, or this education has more value than the types of things you learn and do in the workplace, that is a false reality most of us have intrinsically accepted as true. Because I’m working in both places, I feel those systematic ideas constantly being challenged in both of my workplaces.
Do you think people are unaware of the plight of adjunct instructors? I don’t think people know or understand. Because so many general education classes rely on low-paid teaching, sometimes as a result teachers don’t do as good of a job as they should because they think, “Why should I spend 20 hours grading papers when if I do that, literally, I’m making $3 an hour.” Students’ education suffers because of that. I also think in Vegas, where our graduation rate is so low, students take those classes and think, “This is what college is like? I don’t want to be here.” All these things are connected.