The plight of one adjunct, and many (essay)
The Plight of the Nonrenewed
Dear Academic Department:
I hadn’t intended to write one of these letters, ever. I thought that loyalty was part and parcel of being a colleague; however, I wasn’t put on the course schedule after two decades of teaching here.
You let me discover this by myself – with no explanation. And the timing could not have been worse. My spouse is unemployed; our child is in college. We may have to leave our home.
I know: There are hard times all over. Why should it -- or could it -- be different for my family?
When nonrenewals happen, one’s imagination runs wild. If there was some perceived deficiency for which I was nonrenewed, it’s probably better to know, though my self-esteem is currently flattened. And if it were simply an error, it would seem natural that an error could be quickly fixed. Instead, I am in limbo.
If my nonrenewal was (as someone close to me suggested) due to adjunct activism, that could be devastating – but true. “Oh, now I understand why that topic was important to you,” a family member said.
Alternatively, you may not be mulling over any of this. As a distant member of the busy department, I am probably not on your radar. Perhaps the department never really knew me fully as a teacher or scholar. The few times I tried to discuss my own intellectual life or community activities or writing, tenured colleagues appeared uninterested. A friend was even told: “Don’t talk about your ideas to colleagues too much.”
Like others in academia, you may assert that responsibility for sustaining or creating positions lies above or beyond – the dean’s office, the provost, the VPs , the president, the board of trustees, even trends around the country.
But while I am wondering how I will meet next year’s expenses and pursue what I consider my vocation, I am also wondering if you could help stem the erosion of positions. You might be able do this: if not for my generation, then for the next. You do have the power.
Perhaps you can show me that my bad-day comparison of the role of adjuncts in the university “family” as comparable to forgotten kids in the homes of the distracted rich is not valid. Perhaps you can show me that fierce battles you fight elsewhere in the university arena and within your scholarly discipline can be fought for less visible colleagues. Perhaps you can go to the mat for your department as a whole and possibly the future of your … our … academic discipline.
Some people think instructors of a certain age have lost their currency, in every meaning of the word. I may find it hard to buy groceries and may need to take out a loan to buy required health insurance – I lack that currency -- but I never lost my intellectual currency. If you think your adjuncts are stagnant or too tired to excel, do something. Evaluate, provide in-service … and be prepared to discover that you might be wrong.
An energetic, dedicated colleague with 40 years as an adjunct was extremely depressed in fall. I had never seen her as anything other than capable and charismatic. Nonrenewed. No perceived deficiency in her skills – rather, new colleagues, new chair.
Another colleague has left the country, tired of not knowing how she would pay her bills.
I am now down at least one-third of my anticipated $30,000 income in a good year for teaching 10 to 13 courses annually at various schools. Ultimately, there is no Machiavelli guide to being an adjunct, though one might try to be strategic.
Personally, I rolled with the course assignments and never fussed when things didn’t go my way. It has been suggested to me by someone outside of academia that too smooth an employee may be perceived as disengaged. Want two classes? Get one … or expect two, then get one, if that. Always be prepared to be “bounced,” no matter what your load. Risk overload at multiple schools rather than not being able to pay bills. Teach morning, noon, night, weekend, online.
Some may be thinking: Get a real job? Jobs are not abundant in my region. Publishing? Dwindling. Libraries? Shrinking. Bookstores? Nonexistent. Human services? Despite rhetoric about our society’s mental health needs, few openings.
Alt-ac jobs on campus or lectureships at two-year schools? Have tried. Private high schools? Few slots, no go.
Someone said recently: I can’t imagine why an adjunct would keep at it after three years. I tried to find other paths. Ironically, every time I have applied for a full-time job that has not come through, full-time and part-time colleagues have said, “But you don’t really need the job. You have a spouse.” Is this the 21st century?
A well-meaning friend offered that a door shutting might mean a window opening. It feels, to me, like the door is shutting and the windows are painted shut.
Exit strategy and career plan are, of course, ultimately one’s own responsibility.
While I figure out what I can for myself: Can there please be forward thinking in colleges or universities on how to cultivate, advance or utilize existing talent without strategies that boot talented instructors out – deliberately or accidentally -- in our maturity? Other industries value retention and experience.
And when it comes to classroom management, literacy acquisition, writing skills, minority outreach: Believe me, adjuncts can enter a campus discussion, given the chance.
Those on this path should be careful. One may end up vulnerable while sick or dead after a termination, or -- as I sense myself becoming -- dejected. And as the case of Mary-Faith Cerasoli recently retaught me, I may be one illness or mishap away from the street.
This century may see things getting worse for adjuncts. In the unsolicited words of a former full-timer who left for greener pastures, “Don’t get caught” in the part-time pool.
But one could get caught.
Or set free at the absolutely worst moment.
The author has been a college instructor for more than 20 years.