Recently, an assistant dean at a university at which I’ve taught sent me an email. A former student of mine had reached out to this deanlet because the student — whom I'll call Jill — “received an F in [my] course and she and her father [had] asked for clarity.” A few days later, a department secretary from another university I’ve worked at sent me an email that said that a former student of mine had called her “regarding the grade of an ‘F’ received” in my class. According to the secretary, the student — whom I’ll call Jack — “said that he should’ve received a ‘B,’ ” and asked her to ask me to give him a call on his cell phone. As an adjunct, these students’ problems shouldn’t be my problems, yet somehow they are.
I used the past tense of the words “teach” and “work” above to describe my relationship with these universities because I no longer teach for or work at either of these colleges and haven’t since May, nor is there any guarantee that I will work for them in the future. I am, after all, only an adjunct. I am, by definition, “something added to another thing but not essential to it.” I understand that, and I thought the university administrators who have long thought it best to add cadres of nonessential folk such as myself to fulfill the university mission of education instead of hiring full-time faculty understood this as well.
Except, all of a sudden, I’m starting to look pretty damn essential to these two universities, wouldn’t you say? Both of these institutions took large sums of money in the form of tuition fees from these former students of mine, and now these students — and one of their fathers — have issues with their respective colleges that need to be resolved. And the only person with any knowledge of how these students earned the grades they did is me. Yet I don’t work at either of these colleges anymore. What’s to be done?
The easy answer, of course, is this: Email the assistant dean with an explanation of why Jill earned the grade she did, and then call Jack’s cell phone and tell him why he didn’t earn the B he thought he should’ve. But even that won’t be easy. Because both Jill and Jack know exactly why they failed. You can’t not turn in two-thirds of a writing portfolio worth 60 percent of your total course grade, as in Jill’s case, and still expect to earn a passing grade, can you? Or, in Jack’s case, not turn in half of a writing portfolio worth 70 percent of your total course grade and still expect to earn a B.
It wouldn’t be easy because these students don’t want me to talk to them about the grades they earned; they don’t want to know what they did wrong — they already know. No, what both Jill and Jack want me to talk to them about is how they can get those grades changed to something more respectable; they want to know what they can do right now to make their failures go away. They want favors, not facts.
So an email to the assistant dean that gets forwarded on to Jill and her father will result in more emails from Jill to the assistant dean, more emails from the assistant dean to me, more emails from me to the assistant dean, etc. A phone call to Jack is almost sure to result in more phone calls from Jack, not to the department secretary, but this time to the department head or to the dean or to someone even higher on the administrative food chain, which will then result in further emails sent to me that will require a response. In other words, more work for me. Working for students who are no longer my students, for universities that are no longer my employers.
The hard course? Do nothing. Don’t reply to the assistant dean’s email about Jill, don’t call Jack. Act like I don’t work at these universities anymore, because I don’t. But that doesn’t sound so hard, does it? In fact, it sounds 10 times easier than the easy course, right? Yet if I do nothing, if I ignore the email about Jill and refuse to call Jack, the results will be nearly the same as if I had chosen the easy course — Jill will keep emailing the assistant dean, the assistant dean will keep emailing me; Jack will start making other calls up the administrative food chain — with one crucial difference. Instead of working without a job, I’ll be working myself out of any future jobs at these two universities. I may be nonessential to the colleges who employ me, but make no mistake: employment at these colleges is essential to me. I am, after all, only an adjunct.
So why not take the easy course? Because I am an adjunct, and I take that status very seriously. I’m not a part-timer who teaches like a full-timer. When my contract with a university begins, that’s when I start working for that institution, and when it ends, that’s when I stop. My father didn’t spend 42 years of his life doing manual labor to put me through college and graduate school just so I could work a white-collar job for free. And while teaching classes for universities that act as if they don’t really need me but that also really do is essential to keeping a roof over my family’s heads, food in their bellies, and clothes on their backs, being true to my principles and recognizing the truth that my work has value is essential to who I am as a human being.
For an adjunct like me, every course is a hard one.
Cliffton Price has been an adjunct faculty member of one stripe or another for 16 years at 10 different institutions of higher learning.
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