A discussion between two adjunct breadwinners
For this second installment of “Adjuncts Interviewing Adjuncts,” I paired two women I’ve only known through social media. Both are longtime adjuncts, both are mothers, and both are essentially the only earners in their respective households. Both blog very actively and, like so many of us, deserve better professionally.
Mary G. Gainer (@GracieG) did her undergraduate work in music education and English education at Glenville State College in West Virginia; she received an M.A. Lit/Ph.D. in literature and criticism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She’s taught high school English, as well as adjuncted for seven years (currently at two colleges) teaching Composition I & II, Intro to Literature, and Sociology. She’s worked with the union at one of her institutions on its temporary faculty committee, served on the department’s liberal studies committee and served as a department representative on a university committee. Her primary areas of interest in literature are dystopian texts of the 20th and 21st century and Old English. Currently she’s preparing a book proposal and working on an article, both in the dystopian category.
The ever-active Brianne Bolin (@whowewilltobe) has been an adjunct faculty member of Columbia College Chicago’s English department since 2005. Her pedagogical interests include urban ethnography, oral histories, digital media and writing, oral expression, and creating learning collectives. She is an adjunct rights activist who currently serves in Columbia’s Part-Time Faculty Union (P-fac) as a union stewart and co-founder of the In Citations Committee. In 2011, she co-authored “We Are Not Contingent: An Adjunct Manifesto” with John A. Casey of the University of Illinois at Chicago.
BB: I’m rather obsessed with the notion that we must mourn then replace a particular dream when it doesn’t pan out -- for instance, a renowned special-needs families psychologist, Ken Moses, says that we have to mourn the dream of a “typical” child when our own is not what we expected. After that, we replace the unrealized dream with another. I find adjunct life to be this way, as well. Failed dreams, disappointments, struggles. So, would you share your original dream of working in academia, how you mourned its passing (if applicable), and what dreams are now in its place?
MG: I never envisioned myself as one of the academic famous talking heads, so that part of the academic dream always felt foreign. I love learning and teaching, so having that part suffer right now is hard. Both of my schools offer programs about teaching, technology, and student life that I’d love to be a part of — and was as a full-time adjunct — but now I cannot participate as a part-timer. I wanted to belong to and participate in a community of learners but instead I run myself ragged just to do what must be done. At one school I do not even know another faculty member in my discipline except for my supervisors. There is no sense of community there for me at all, and I not only miss it but also feel a void in my professional life from that. Without a physical community of people to work with, I find myself relying more on my electronic communities. I feel slightly less abandoned and absurd knowing how very many of us there are and that many of us are smart, hardworking people doing the best possible. Mainly working on my blog and the words of encouragement and thanks that have come as a surprising result of that adventure has helped me on the worst days. Just having that space to point out the realities of adjunct living makes me feel less of a cog in the machine.
BB: We are both the primary breadwinners for our families — I’m a single mom with a special-needs child, and you’re the head of household for your family. How do you feel your circumstances would be different if you were receiving a salary with benefits? What worries would be eliminated? What would you be able to do that you aren’t currently doing?
MG: If I had full time with benefits I wouldn’t be wondering how to finish paying for my eldest child’s braces, first of all. This concern is pressing because he needs a checkup that I’m reluctant to schedule because I have no way to pay for it. When he began this process I had insurance: I paid my allotment of the braces’ cost and the insurance was to cover the rest. Too bad now! Also, I can’t imagine ever being able to make student loan payments. We make it just barely each month with little wiggle room. Things like replacing the broken TV, my aging computer, or even a family small vacation seem impossibilities.
I can’t even imagine what it would be like to go to pay for something without crossing my fingers in my pocket that the bank card doesn’t get rejected because some bill payment has cleared before I hoped it would. On the days that I commute about 80 miles total I worry that I’ll get into an accident and get injured. I don’t have any insurance right now and I’ve joked that they’d better kill me because I won’t be able to afford surviving with injuries. This frightens me that this has become a normal thought process and what passes for the best possible outcome.
BB: Do you have hope that our precarious, contingent situation as adjuncts will change? Explain.
MG: I do have hope that our situation will change because I think all of higher education is going to have to change. Recently I read an article about “unbundling” education by cutting out the university middle man and making the deal strictly between learners and teachers. I imagine this something like apprenticeships but perhaps digitally for some disciplines. What if students who wanted to learn to write or discuss my field of literature contacted me through my own digital portal, paid their fee or bartered some service or good I needed for a set time, then participated in my lessons? Then I could live where I wanted, perhaps having some students in person.
Seriously, I feel that administrative bloat will kill the contemporary university. Students increasingly strapped for cash will be reluctant to shell out for non-degree related trappings. If employers accept “graduates” holding certificates from these apprenticeships, then the future is ours to take. If the current system isn’t really ours then I feel obligated to help midwife something different and better.
(And now the roles reverse….)
MG: What is most difficult for you when considering what parts of academic life to take part in and what to forgo to meet the needs of your family? Have you a process or mental checklist that you use to weigh options?
BB: Any process or mental checklist that I had in the past has been abolished due to exhaustion. In previous years, I would make intensive lists to make sure that everything from the food trials for my special-needs son’s blended formula to responding to students’ late work was done on a timely schedule every day. On these days, I’d work from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., crash, and do it all over again. I kept it up for three years, and I now have no idea how I mustered the energy. I can’t afford a babysitter on my roughly $20,000 a year wages, so I have to do it all. I’m constantly multitasking.
I have a hard enough time keeping up with the needs of my students and my son, so I’ve had to forgo research, publications, and conferences. I am a teacher, that is all, and because of my struggles, I’ve become a damn good one. The time I thought that I’d spend writing and studying is used for class prep and mothering. So while I’m a lousy academic, I’m a top-notch instructor and caregiver. I wholeheartedly believe that things would be different if I made what a lecturer makes for comparable work: I would be able to afford respite care, I would have more time to study and write, I would be less stressed, and I would be healthier. Stress is a beast that is not given full respect. It can tear a person down. It is never “just” stress for me. It is the debilitating issue of my adjunct life.
MG: How do you deal with the guilt factor in this balancing act, for instance, not being able to return promised papers because of a crisis at home -- such as a suddenly sick child, or missing an event/appointment for a family member because you've been delayed by meetings, traffic, or an unexpected work issue?
BB: Honestly, I don’t feel guilty about it. I feel angry, stressed out, depressed, even, but not guilty. Why? Because I admit to myself that this balancing act I perform is poverty’s fault, not mine. Imagine a reality show that takes a moderately healthy person, gives them 72 composition students, a non-verbal, non-ambulatory child with quadriplegic cerebral palsy and secondary dystonia who requires three private therapies per week and daily follow-up at home, and a household to keep in order on $4000 per month from the end of September to December, $2000 per month from February to May, a few thousand in grants and union work dispersed throughout, and zero income from May to the end of September. We’d be able to see the effects of stress, anxiety, and worry as the stark reality of the circumstances crept in from week to week. It’s a lot to deal with even for someone making a living wage. But because I am a low-wage worker, I can’t afford to pay someone to take my child to therapy when no other family members are available (which is pretty much all the time), so this fall we had to cancel his appointments for two whole months because I couldn’t fit them into our schedule. There is no way for me to balance it all. It is a given that I will something will have to be dropped through the cracks.
Appropriately, as I was answering your question yesterday morning, I received a call from my son’s teacher that he was not feeling well and requested that I come pick him up from school on one of the two days I had set aside to catch up with grading this week. So it goes.
MG: What do you do for yourself?
Activism. I speak out about my struggles in the larger context of higher education, which feels like play, something that’s absolutely necessary to retain sanity and happiness. I’m currently participating in national adjunct forums like Con Job, repurposing and performing union songs for our struggle, learning agitprop and revolutionary theater methods for future demonstrations, writing love letters to indebted students in solidarity with a student group seeking to organize against student debt, and working in my union’s educational outreach platform, the In Citations Committee.
Mary and Brianne are raising some very important — and poignant — questions about balancing adjunct teaching, activism and/or blogging, parenting, and breadwinning. Neither is in an academic couple or has the luxury (like I do) of a partner being the primary wage earner. Surely like many other adjuncts across the country, Mary and Brianne have a lot of balancing, prioritizing, and reprioritizing they do daily.
What can — indeed, what should — universities and/or unions do to help adjuncts in these and similar situations? What kinds of Teacher vs. Parent vs. Breadwinner conflicts have others had?