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    A blog by John Warner, author of The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.

For Love, Definitely not Money
October 7, 2013 - 7:33pm

A recent article at Adjunct Nation argues that “Adjuncts Should Do as Little Work as Possible.”

While I do not subscribe to this philosophy, it’s worth considering the argument. Adjuncts are poorly paid. They are retained primarily on their ability to move students through general education courses. Being too rigorous in terms of curriculum and grading both risks matriculation and poor student evaluations, which could lead to non-retention. The message from the institution is: Do enough, but not too much.

I’ve never been pressured to go easy on grades or pass students who aren’t deserving, so at that level, I can’t identify with these experiences, but the stories of such things are so prevalent, they’re impossible to deny.

I’m thinking about these things because this semester has been kicking my butt, work-wise. Despite having an identical workload as last semester, I find myself working significantly more hours. I’m busier and more stressed. Saturdays are a full day of work. Sunday afternoon is the only possible downtime, and even that isn’t guaranteed.

At the same time, I’m also enjoying teaching more than ever, even as I worry that I’m heading for burnout because of these hours.

I’m trying to reconcile these things. I’m asking how much I owe my students and how much I owe myself.

This is me thinking out loud a little bit.

Because I am lazy, I require a busy schedule. If I am not busy, I do nothing. I am excellent at doing nothing. I can read lots and lots of books. I can watch entire seasons of shows on Netflix and feel very little, if any, guilt.

So if I’m going to work, I need lots of it to ward off the lazies.

Additionally, because my non-tenure-track positions have never paid particularly well, I essentially work a second full-time job as a publishing writer and working editor. Every week I am required to write for this space as well as produce a column for the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row book supplement. In the last year, I’ve written close to 100,000 words for these two outlets alone.

I also have weekly editorial duties for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, something I’ve done since 2003. I am also constantly working on something or other that I hope will be my next book, though that work may go entirely uncompensated.

Without getting into specifics, this steady outside work brings my income probably up to where it would be if I were a tenured professor. Put another way, I make more money writing and editing than I do teaching.

I am extraordinarily fortunate to find myself in this position. In addition to getting paid for this writing, I enjoy it. Having an outlet like this, (or the Printers Row column) where I can write about my own interests for an engaged audience sometimes feels like a dream.

I have no intention of giving up any of these duties not because of the money, but because I enjoy them. They’ll pry my columns out of my cramped, carpal-tunneled hands. I want “Editor for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency” chiseled onto my tombstone.

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Given that my writing is no more time consuming than before, it’s fair to surmise that it’s the teaching that is sucking up more hours. A couple weeks charting my workflow proves this to be true. I’m taking longer to grade student work. I’ve been recasting and refining assignments, and scheduling more one-on-one conferences.

I think I’m doing this for the same reasons very very few adjuncts do as little as possible, the same reason I spent more years that I care to admit writing things without any hope or promise of publication.

When there isn’t any opportunity to do something for money, the only other reason to do it is love.

In my initial post at Inside Higher Ed, I wrote about how I’d tried to walk away from NTT teaching when my wife and I moved to Charleston. I’d been pretty thoroughly exploited by Clemson University, teaching a 4/4 of 300-400 level courses for 25k/year. Administration above the department level didn’t see reason to convert me to a better position. Though, I note that they’re now advertising for a TT position for a job that looks suspiciously like the one I used to do.  (I really don’t want to be bitter, but it’s tough sometimes.)

But I couldn’t walk away from teaching. I volunteered – eyes fully open – to adjunct. When a full-time visiting position opened, I applied for it eagerly. When I was offered renewal after one year, I accepted gladly.

I’m realizing that I throw myself into my teaching precisely because it isn’t lucrative. I must find value in the doing, or else why do it?

I don’t think my attitude is unique. I’ve seen it in just about every adjunct and NTT faculty I’ve met. I see it in the vast majority of TT faculty I’ve worked near. Cathy Day, a tenured professor at Ball State, recently wrote about how difficult it is for her to rein in the hours she gives to her students. I bet a lot of faculty will recognize her dilemma.

The problem is that this makes us, tenured and non-tenured alike, vulnerable to being exploited. By every measure, faculty of all kinds are now asked to do more for less, and they by and large do it willingly, not out of self-sacrifice, but self-fulfillment. It's fair to say that I love my work, all of it.

(Except for the grading, of course.)

Ultimately, though, we break. I’m enjoying my teaching more because I’m putting more into it, but I don’t know that it’s sustainable. When will the pushing turn into shoving?

The saving grace is that I don’t have the luxury to spend too much time thinking about it. There’s too much work to do.

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