Once upon an adjunct


I used to look forward to September. I think I was hard-wired from all those years when I looked forward to the excitement of starting school. I was always a good student, always wanted to be a teacher, etc. I’ve been teaching now for a little over ten years, and boy, how complicated it is.

It’s hard to start school. I’m going to dispense with the usual disclaimers (after this one) about how lucky I am to have summers off—I get all that. It’s still hard to start school for many reasons.

I don’t like the way academia works. Even now that I have a somewhat coveted, non-tenure track, full-time teaching position, I get pretty emotionally tangled in the injustices meted out in academia to those teachers with the least power and influence—adjuncts and people with jobs like mine. Universities are supposed to be institutions of education and often, social justice—yet they get away with paying their adjunct instructors tiny fractions of what they pay regular faculty, and justify those decisions by crying about their budgets and how college is a business, etc.

I love to do the math for people: if an adjunct is paid 3K per course and teaches 4 courses per semester for two semesters (This is a heavier teaching load than most regular faculty, who might do 3/3, 3/2, or 2/2), then that adjunct will make 24K a year, no benefits. It’s highly unlikely that ONE school will offer an adjunct 4 classes in a single semester, so the adjunct will probably have to travel and work at at least two schools to make this 24K a year. That’s not much money for a lot of work, high expectations of one’s teaching, no promise of repeat employment past the current semester, and consequently, little felt respect. I mean: people can tell you they respect you all they want, but if they can’t/won’t pay you a living wage and can’t/won’t rehire you, respect means little.

I have heard countless times that faculty in charge of hiring have no power to hire across semesters, no power to raise wages, no power to enact real change, and it’s the administration’s fault, or the economy’s fault, or someone else’s fault who is not them. Honestly, I just don’t believe it. I don’t believe that people can’t make things change, but I do believe that they don’t have a personal enough interest in making things change. So the regular faculty might feel bad about the adjunct situation, but it’s not a priority for them, because they’re not living it. It’s not important enough to them that they want to change it.

Here’s part of the reason why this is so: because the culture of academia allows those who have tenure and who are in the tenure track to think less of academics who are adjuncts and non-tenure track. I’m speaking in general terms here—I know not every person feels exactly this way, but I’m talking about the culture I’ve experienced, and I think it’s a culture that’s pretty easy to recognize.

While it is definitely the case that the academic market in some disciplines has so few new jobs and is so glutted with qualified candidates that only the smallest portion of those people can hope to get a coveted tenure-track position—and only then by doing an expensive and exhausting, often multi-year national search—while that may be factually true, here are a few other reasons regular faculty might think adjuncts don’t have better jobs:

—they don’t do the scholarly work of writing and publishing that regular faculty does

—they haven’t tried hard enough to get a different job

—they’re not as dedicated to the institution

—they’re not as smart as tenured/tenure-track faculty

I mean, if we were as smart as them, we would have jobs like they do, right? So if we don’t have those jobs, we must not be as smart. And maybe if we’re not as smart, it’s okay to pay us less, make us teach more classes per semester, and ask us to be grateful for these low-wage jobs we’ve been given.

I still identify with adjuncts. I can’t help it. I was one for so long, felt disrespected and condescended to for so long that it still bothers me. And of course—none of these injustices has stopped just because I’m no longer an adjunct. It continues to be wrong, whether or not I am personally affected by it.

And I do still feel personally affected by it. Seriously: I think I have one of the better full-time lecturer positions out there—I teach a 3/3 and I have additional duties that are pretty much equal to what’s expected of a tenure-track assistant professor—I just get paid 15K less and am not on the tenure track. Also, I am not required to produce scholarship—though, as a writer, that’s obviously something that I want to produce; and though it’s not strictly required, it’s quite clear that publications have a positive effect on my efforts to be rehired.

All this puts a damper on actual teaching, and is one reason that it’s hard to go back every September. More reasons later.