Adjunct Barbie

Maria Shine Stewart reflects on her childhood dream of teaching. Today, she is a long-term instructor, fully committed ... to three colleges at once.

April 6, 2010

Her composition students are writing literacy autobiographies, examining key events in their early dances with words. She writes along with them, starting out on task. She has composed three versions of her own literacy autobiography before, and her mind drifts to her career teaching these skills. How long she’s been at it depends on how she counts. She could start from graduate school in the early 1980s… or from re-entering teaching in 1990 after six years in university publications… or re-entering a second time, 1993, following the birth of a premature child. She could go back even further, to childhood dreams and peak experiences.

Her students are remembering as they write. And she remembers that she was writing before she could write, expressing herself with crayons on the dining room walls and sheets of notebook paper. When she got an easel blackboard, she opened a school in her basement. Even the neighborhood bully attended. Strategic recruitment, good retention, low overhead.

Today, viewed as “just an adjunct” by some, she feels that she is at the heart of the colleges she serves, not on the periphery. These days, the word “adjunct” pops up in the news more often. And “contingent.” She might not like the ring of those, but there they are: jagged and full of consonants. Most people off-campus would call her, politely though imprecisely, “professor.”

She sees herself as fluid, adaptable, and helpful to the institutions she serves.

She attempts a grace in what she does. And, like other girls, she admired Barbie.

So, put the memories together…

Adjunct Barbie

Her soon-to-apply-for-college son reels at this idea, almost making the splashy recruitment materials from all across the country spill onto the floor. He has kept up with academia through her eyes these past 17 years; he is shaping his own vision now.

But she needs to mix her metaphor, moving the lever of the time machine forward, way forward, like they did on episodes of "The Twilight Zone."

In 2010, Adjunct Barbie is teaching in difficult economic times. She is no longer playing school, nor serving as an academic secretary who observes the parallel lives of adjunct and full-time faculty, nor teaching as a graduate assistant, nor serving in other roles she enjoyed in academia — those that had benefits, step increases, and a clear path to promotion.

Some have written that she and others like her are migrant, marginalized, expendable, invisible. The Invisible Adjunct blog beamed through cyberspace for a time; Ghosts in the Classroom is a chilling anthology. These images startle, yet are not the whole picture. The harder the work, the more important it is to stay positive. In fields from English to history to theology, the roles of contingent faculty have been showcased.

Feeling for a moment invincible (that is not a typo), she is in the classroom at one campus, absorbed and focused on teaching. She balances curricular demands, the needs of students, her intuitions about how to reach them, and the best practices she has honed and studied. She readjusts this several times each week and even within the day; the work is never routine.

She needs to manage, as a writing teacher, her own motivation — and stimulate that of her students. She has to calm down into focused attention on grading papers after quite a few hours in performance mode. She rekindles deep breathing while seeking a parking place at another campus, the 24/7 of student contact now that everyone is plugged in all the time and the mounting bills stuffed in the glove compartment. In her region, expenses everywhere are far outpacing her earnings. She juggles different syllabuses, learners, textbooks and institutional cultures, while guiding parallel processes among campuses. Her work requires creativity as well as endurance.

Without both, she could not do it.

“You must be a good teacher. You teach at three schools.”

This comment, from an acquaintance with no ties to academia, is a vote of confidence. Most of the public and many people within academia have little understanding of the pedagogical complexity of adjunct life. There are impressionistic depictions of drive-by instruction: false, as she sees it. Barbie thinks adjuncts are sometimes typecast, and their differences, as well as common struggles, blurred.

Adjunct Barbie’s life is a function of market forces, a lifelong waltz with words, and personal circumstances and choices. Each teacher’s story is different, but in her case family responsibilities factored in heavily. And although for her, teaching is a call — to borrow a term from her friends in the ministry — not everyone sees her work in this light.

Some view her as a para-professional. And even if a vocation, that does not mean she can do it with scant support — of friends, fellow adjuncts, and others in the campus community. At one school, she has learned, adjunct faculty have gathered to talk on You Tube. In another state, a long-time adjunct advocate offers insights on avenues of state support.

It seems there are no easy answers.

“I know about the issues of adjuncts. They run from school to school and are not committed to just one institution.”

This recent comment from a friend over coffee stopped her in her tracks. The emphasis is wrong. Adjunct Barbie’s commitment is not to just one institution; currently, it is deeply and sincerely to three. She is the mother of one, but as — one would hope — a mother of three would protect all her children while giving each what is uniquely needed, so she does with her teaching. If the mother imagery is disturbing to anyone, or Adjunct Barbie, she has her Yang side, too.

No one questions the professional commitment of a doctor with multiple hospital affiliations or a writer whose work is syndicated. She has served two of her institutions for almost 17 years each, seeing administrators and full-time faculty come and go. She does not doubt their commitment, and she hopes others do not doubt hers. She added courses and institutions as she could manage them.

And yet ...

The carrying case of Adjunct Barbie’s childhood doll was sky blue, shiny, rectangular, and stored easily under the bed. It allowed Barbie to lie flat in the middle of the day. Some days, lying down midday sounds like a good idea. Especially Tuesdays, when she teaches at two schools and then tutors at another. Or Thursdays, when she teaches at two schools and then zigzags back to the first for three hours of night tutoring. She arranged this to try for writing time on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, when she teaches at just one institution, plus a dash to a writing center, midweek.

Her family could not afford the dream house or a real car for Barbie. So her doll “drove” one of her sister’s flat pumps, a sporty car in a child’s imagination. Today, she is not a freeway flyer — more like a cul-de-sac cruiser. No sudden movements, as the stacks of paper in the car might tip.

“If you don’t like the heat…”

AB has read that imperative, equivalent to “love it or leave it,” on blogs, and everyone is entitled to an opinion. Teaching without tenure is respectable work, even if it is not respected by all. Occasionally she will even see or hear the word “adjunct” used as a pejorative. That is unfair. But as colleges struggle with budgets, and families groan under the weight of tuition, the climate could not be any worse for adjuncts to speak up. So many in academia feel beleaguered: full-timers, administrators, presidents, students. Who is she to talk or write…she is, after all, just an adjunct.

She knows the importance of a college putting its best face forward, and she knows about morale. She worked in public relations and publications, wrote glossy promotional pieces like the ones that her son receives now, and contributed to speeches for an administrator, looking forward to the 21st century. Colleges don’t want to be “shamed” — who does?

“Secure your own oxygen mask first.”

One year ago, Adjunct Barbie had not yet heard of the New Faculty Majority (NFM), Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL), and adj-l, a listserv for adjunct faculty. She has found commentators on adjunct life: P.D. Lesko… Jill Carroll… Keith Hoeller… Mark Bousquet… Joe Berry… Eileen Schell. Everyone seems to have something important to say, even when they disagree. And they often do, sometimes vehemently.

But can anyone else, really, speak for her?

Perhaps she was happier not knowing swirling acronyms, prospects and problems of organizing, and the “if you don’t like the conditions, get out” rhetoric thrust at adjuncts before she has uttered one word. Apparently, papers on this topic have been written for some time. Of late, she has also read what happens when adjuncts speak out critically, even constructively, or make mistakes as all people do. There can be fierce resistance.

Some studies publicized, like a recent American Federation of Teachers’ study, don’t ask the questions that she would like to answer — or have answered. What would help you do your job better? What do you think would help our students? Are you satisfied with your conditions? Do your institutions support professional development? Do you feel you have a mechanism for sharing what you do well with your peers? What courses would you design or teach, if you could? What ideas do you have to help your institutions — in lean times, in comfortable times? What do you do to promote recruiting and retention? What are your own best practices? If you could collaborate with anyone within your institutions, who would it be, for what purpose, and why?

She’ll stop at ten. By excluding adjuncts from many conversations, institutions lose potential input. And if there are various categories of adjuncts — not to mention discipline-specific differences — one might create different surveys.

Too many variables are confusing when gathering data. Early-career adjuncts may have common concerns; mid-career, others; those working full-time, others still. AB knows because she has been in all these categories. Some of her colleagues are retirees whose adjunct work is both giving back and staying active; their perspectives might be noted, too.

“Adjuncts count — can we do something?”

These words would cheer her, and different people are trying. The numbers of adjuncts nationwide are staggering and — if on the front lines with students — they have palpable impact on their lives.

She wonders if colleges might consider faculty — all faculty — in their rhetoric and recognition, conditions and contributions. She sometimes hears that “the business model” is at fault for the compensation and staffing issues, yet she has read paper after paper for business classes as a tutor in one writing center. There are many case studies of organizations that have successfully spearheaded change. Energy may flow from the grass roots up and the top down concurrently. Her garden shows her this, and spring is here.

“When in doubt, do what is at hand.”

Adjunct Barbie has papers to grade — including a set that is a call to action on a topic of a student’s own choice.

Revising this reflection has taken time away from grading. She is tempted to delete this file, withdraw into her carrying case and ask someone to snap the lid shut. But just as she wants her students to think and to write, to explore and to research, to celebrate success and to advocate on matters close to their own hearts, she needs to practice what she preaches. She has gently advocated for literacy efforts, public health initiatives, and intergroup understanding to better her community. The campus is also her community, and the hardest thing, sometimes, is to speak up for oneself and for those who may come after.

Dream on?

Not long ago, she read with one of her night classes — a class she cherished for its heart and dedication — an American classic, “Rip van Winkle”; he is a dreamy man who falls asleep under a tree as the colonies face a tipping point. He awakens to find that almost everything has changed. Greeted by some villagers, he enters a new world.

Adjunct Barbie hopes that if she too awakens, after 20 years of consecutive teaching, she will not find herself circling the parking lot in search of a space, alone, at an ungodly hour.


Maria Shine Stewart teaches and writes in South Euclid, Ohio.


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