It was late-December cold but I put the Miata’s top down for the seven miles of highway separating campus and home. The occasion called for it. I cranked up the volume and sang along to Catherine Wheel’s "Happy Days," my soundtrack for life’s big moments. Tucked inside my bag was a signed copy of the contract that attached my name to three classes — two sections of intro, one contemporary social issues — in spring 2002. Even as the chair of the department had apologized for the pay, I could not help but feel lucky. I had been given the opportunity to do what I loved: teach sociology. What I would receive in exchange for this seemed almost beside the point.
And like that I began my career as an adjunct.
From the start I understood that my position was precarious. Contingent. And so my primary concern was always that, at some point, there might not be a spot for me on the schedule. Each time I was invited to return for another semester, I breathed a sigh of relief. To do anything other than agree to the terms offered never presented itself as a possibility. Even as I lost the health benefits that had been part of my initial contract and absorbed annual increases in parking costs without corresponding increases in pay, it did not occur to me, at least not in any real way, that there was an option other than acceptance. The administrative assistant, knowing that I am terrible with paperwork, always affixed a little red arrow beside the line where my signature should go — the place where it always went — in the space indicating my agreement to the terms.
I considered myself fortunate. I still do. I do not have the kinds of complaints that are all too common to those who work as adjuncts. I had my own office space, computer, and printer. Library and copying privileges were automatic and unlimited. With rare exceptions, I received my course assignments months before the start of the term and was often asked which classes and sections I would prefer. On those occasions when students challenged my (admittedly demanding) grading or attendance policies, the department supported and affirmed my position and authority. I had control over the content of my courses and the freedom to present the material I believed to be most valuable and in the ways I found most effective. Faculty and staff members treated me well and I count many of them as dear friends.
Though I was aware that I was not a part of the university in the same way as most of my colleagues, the distinction always seemed more technical than personal. It was only in the area of compensation that I felt excluded.
In November of 2011 the university announced that staff and faculty were eligible for a 2 percent salary increase, but adjuncts were not. I understood that the slight was simply another unfortunate side effect of the ways in which universities operate. It was, as the saying has it, just business. But understanding the economics and politics of higher education did not keep me from feeling hurt and angry. As I read the "good news" that had been distributed through the listserv — that had been delivered to all members of the department, without respect to the terms of the individual recipients’ employment — I was forced to re-evaluate my situation.
I took a hard look at the facts: $2,500 per course, no health coverage, no job security, no unemployment insurance. And then I considered the likelihood that my circumstances would ever improve. It was difficult to admit to myself that, if anything, my real earnings would likely continue to decline even as my expenses increased. The word that came to mind was “unsustainable.” It was an epiphanal moment.
Three weeks later I made the difficult and painful decision to leave academe. When I was presented with my contract for the upcoming term, I declined.
In the months since I’ve had the time and emotional distance necessary to assess my losses, to reckon with what I gave up when I returned my contract with my signature scrawled in what I still cannot help but think of as "the wrong place." And not surprisingly the activity has furnished the answer to how I had been able to avoid the decision for nearly a decade.
The classroom is an exciting place. One where magic can happen. For me, the magic came in those moments when, in the course of explaining a graph or statistic, someone asked a question that I had not considered — often one for which I did not have a good answer — and suddenly, there in the dry data points, I could make out the shapes of living, breathing people. It happened when I unearthed long-dead theorists and watched as they came back to life, as if reanimated by the simple act of being introduced to another generation. But it was most powerful on those mornings when things took an unexpected turn, when the lecture or discussion was rerouted to a place that was richer and more productive than anything I could have planned while sitting alone in my office.
On those enchanted occasions I felt like a modern-day alchemist. My enthusiasm for sociology was rekindled and I felt the same way I did when I first chose it as my area of study. I was reminded of why I had wanted to immerse myself in it, of why I had chosen it, in the first place. But the classroom is magical in other ways. It can also act as a fountain of youth. My students allowed me to peek, if just for a second and through a keyhole, into their worlds. They inhabit worlds that look very different from my own, and that bear little resemblance to the one I knew as an undergraduate. I found that talking with — no, listening to — students offered a chance to better understand the beliefs, values, hopes, and fears of the next generation in a way that the Beloit College list and Pew surveys cannot. And this seemed to reduce my risk for those two common age-related maladies, ones to which I seem naturally predisposed: ossification and dogmatism.
In a similar way the need to present concepts in language to which students could relate and furnish examples that they would not only understand but find relevant, forced me to continually update my vocabularies and points of reference. (I learned this the hard way. Let’s just say that it involved a lecture on the role of style in musical subcultures and a reference to A Flock of Seagulls.) Without this as motivation, I would not have had either the inclination or the wherewithal to keep up with rock and rap music, major box office and game releases, the exploits of reality television personalities, or other elements of pop culture. I’m certain that I wear my (cultural) age a bit more heavily now that I no longer have any need to keep up with the Kardashians.
Though just a fraction of my work time was spent in the classroom, I was, in small ways, always preparing for it. When I read books or articles, watched films or listened to radio programs, there was always a part of me that was alert to their potential for later use — a piece from The New York Times on gender and sport, an episode of "This American Life" that dealt with impression management, a "Frontline" documentary about marriage. Because I collected these odds and ends as a matter of habit — almost unconsciously — I did not realize the extent to which even seemingly unrelated activities were, in some manner, connected to teaching.
There were times when I found myself wondering whether the effort was worth it, if I was investing too much, if I could get by with doing less. The answers always came serendipitously, when they were most needed. They arrived in my inbox with subject bars that read "From a former student" or "Remember me?" The messages were brief, updates and announcements that consisted in just a line or two: Irene had joined Teach for America, Joy had received her nursing certification, Justin had successfully defended his dissertation. I still keep these.
This is not to say that I have forgotten all of the frustrations and irritations: The Scantron machine that seemed always to be out of ink. Vulture-circling the parking lot, waiting to swoop in at the first glimpse of reverse lights. What I paid for the possibility of a parking space. Students who wanted to "discuss" grades. Nights spent reading through essays and trying to find something personal and original to write in the margins. Answering questions about the book: Yes, you need it and (anticipating what would come next) you need to read it. Cell phones that rang in the middle of class discussions and those who left the room to answer them. Days when I flubbed statistics. Temperamental AV equipment and the embarrassment of attempting to cajole it into cooperation whilst standing in front of an audience. Blurred vision from staring too long at spreadsheets. Judgment calls about missed exams that would have given Solomon pause. Lectures meticulously prepared that fell flat. Mornings when I’d rather have been somewhere — anywhere — else. I remember these.
But with all of it — the good and the bad — came a sense of identity. I do not mean the kind that comes with a title or institutional and disciplinary affiliations. It’s something deeper and more complex. It’s the sense of purpose and belonging that comes with having and doing meaningful work. I was reminded of it each time I answered the question "What do you do?" with "I teach." So much of myself was contained in those words.
Teaching — doing sociology with my students — was a passion. I don’t think that I am alone in the sentiment. I suspect that there are many of us who believe that the best way to practice our respective disciplines is through passing along its insights, ways of thinking, and questions. We choose to make our mark as scholars primarily — or even exclusively — through sharing our knowledge with our students. Yet we seldom admit to this. We may even deny it to ourselves. It is little wonder that we downplay, or deny altogether, the satisfaction that we derive from our roles as educators.
Within academe there is the belief that one’s contributions as a scholar — specifically, the degree to which one shapes and advances a discipline — occur, without exception, outside of the classroom. The ability to make a field accessible to students and to inspire in students the interest and curiosity necessary for deep learning is held not only in low regard but, in many ways, in contempt. For adjuncts, to acknowledge the rewards of teaching makes us suspect, doubly outside. But adjuncts already wear their passions on their sleeves — thinning at the elbows, fraying at the cuffs, missing buttons. The sacrifices made in service of desire already show.
Teaching felt like work. Certainly. But never like a job. Here I will use the words I have been avoiding: It was akin to a calling. It was not about the money. The real payoff came not on the 15th of each month and as a direct deposit to my bank account, but unpredictably and in forms not so easily quantified. Still, as valuable as those benefits are, they will not cover my mortgage, pay my health insurance premiums, or stock my pantry. And so while money was not the central issue, it was, in the end, the one that proved decisive.
Last December, with the contents of my office boxed up and sitting in the passenger seat of my 15-year-old sedan, I drove out of the lot for the last time. The windows were up, the radio was off. The heater blasted at the only setting that still worked — high — and from the only two vents that remained operational. I told myself that I had made the right decision and that my eyes stung because of the heat. And like that I ended my career as an adjunct.
Harvest Moon is an essayist currently at work on Mental, a memoir.