Treadmill to Oblivion

An anonymous instructor describes 25 years working as an adjunct.

May 11, 2015
 
 

2015 is my 25th year of adjunct teaching. In the fall I will teach my 500th three-credit college course. I have put in many 14- to 16-hour days, with many 70- to 80-hour weeks. My record is 27 courses in one year, although I could not do that now.

I want to share my thoughts on adjunct teaching. I write anonymously to not jeopardize my precarious positions. How typical is my situation?

Some adjuncts have full-time nonteaching jobs that provide economic security and health insurance. Other adjuncts have spouses or partners providing financial support and benefits. I have tried to survive just by teaching.

How Could Anyone Teach So Much?

People may think, “Surely those courses can’t be of good quality. Surely he or she must cut corners.”

I have worked very hard to maintain high levels of quality and not to cut corners. I remember the early days of online courses with 25 students in a class with only a couple days to submit grades. Several times I found myself weeping in the computer lab as I graded a dozen five-page online assignments, only to have another dozen submitted, then another, and still another class to look at.

My bread and butter have been eight-week courses that meet for four hours a session, requiring only eight commutes. A MWF course would be 45 commutes. I have taught lots of online courses.

On student workload, I have followed Aristotle’s “Mean between extremes.” That is my target. I wish there were effective ways to measure and compare my workloads so I knew where I stood on this.

My goal is a rigorous student workload with a great learning experience, sometimes with students with weak academic backgrounds, often with students holding full-time jobs. For evening classes, many times I was the last teacher in the building, everyone else having ended class long before the 9:30 scheduled time.

I have taught in two disciplines and done cross-discipline courses, so I have repertoire of about 60 different courses. I created some 25 new courses, including courses on New York City after Sept. 11 and New Orleans after Katrina. And I have had a good student following. My elective on the Middle Ages once drew 30 students, not the norm for that institution.

My Numbers

I have taught at seven local colleges and universities, at 16 campuses. Most of my work has been at two universities. At University A (a major religious university in a major city) I have taught more than 210 courses. At University B (a liberal arts university with a large business school) I have taught more than 200. At university A, I twice taught 14 courses a year, twice taught 15 courses a year, and taught one year each of 16 and 17 courses. My status was part time: no health insurance and no security that I could keep that number of courses and income.

Are my numbers unique or not?

I am reluctant to share these numbers. Colleges create policies to limit adjunct workloads. But such policies hurt the adjuncts who are trying to survive this cockamamie system. When adjunct limits are put in place, are any full-time positions ever added -- even nontenured teaching positions?

And we bear the risk. I understand the need to limit or cut small classes. Yet for multimillion-dollar institutions, when a course get cuts we at the bottom bear the cost. In the 2014-15 academic year canceled courses cost me $7,000. Yet finding a replacement course can take several semesters or even years.

Adjunct Discrimination

I have repeatedly experienced discrimination as an adjunct. Are my experiences typical or not? Adjunct discrimination happens when full-time positions are available. I think long-term adjuncts should be told about job openings in a department in which they have successfully taught and be interviewed for positions for which they are qualified.

Unless an adjunct regularly checks the university job listings or the professional association job listings, an adjunct of many years would not be aware of openings for which he or she was qualified. Even if you have repeatedly expressed an interest in full-time work, no one tells you. And twice I have submitted letters and CVs by the deadline and not received a letter that my material was received or that I did not get the position. They did not get lost in the mail. They were hand delivered!

Usually minorities are the victims of discrimination. We adjuncts are the majority. In 25 years at Universities A and B I have known only one adjunct to work his way up to full-time status. Being a great and devoted adjunct seems a barrier to tenure-track positions. When they hire, they look elsewhere. The bird in the bush always looks better than the one in the hand. Only at the third place I teach (a college with a professional program) are there several tenure-track faculty who were once adjuncts.

Tenured Faculty

I do not fault the tenure system. I know full-timers are under all kinds of pressures, stresses and micromanaging. They are often squeezed unmercifully to do more, produce more, document more with fewer resources. I doubt teachers in general would be better with a nontenure system. I am grateful for tenured faculties with faculty senates as a counterweight to administrations.

Some full-timers appreciate us and treat us as equals. Thank you so much! Most ignore us and ignore our contributions. Many do not realize their job situation is dependent on us adjuncts. And we are the future.

Second-Class Citizens

At one university the Teaching Excellence program has special programs, classrooms and awards that are only for full-timers. On a level playing field for the awards, how would the full-timers fare against adjuncts? But we never get an equal chance.

Research grants in general have no provision for adjuncts, many of whom are very talented and want desperately to write and research. Research grants often do not have the kind of income supplement that adjuncts need to work on their research. It would not take much money to supplement an adjunct so he or she could get some research done along with teaching.

Adjuncts often are limited in what they are allowed to teach. At one college I have taught over a hundred sections of 100-level courses. Occasionally I get a 300 level. I have never gotten a 400 level, and of course a graduate course is out of the question. Yet the full-timers are not more capable than I am.

I always wanted to feel a part of a university. Going to graduation ceremonies just makes one feel on the margins. Full-timers typically make no effort to connect with adjuncts in their own departments. The work colleagues that I have turn out to be on the library staff or in the computer labs.

Free Stuff

Financial issues are important, but often the lack of the free stuff gets to an adjunct. One university has a yearly ceremony that recognizes long-term employees. Part-time years are counted, which is nice. When I told the chairman that another adjunct and I were up for the 20-year award he said, “And nobody cares.” Fool that I was! I thought he might say thanks or send an email mentioning it to others in the department.

At one university only full-timers get counted for years of service with their photos on the wall in the administration building. But I look at the photos and think, “I have out-taught all of you.”

At another college the department chair repeatedly says, “We really appreciate what you are doing here. And the students like you.” Such courtesies mean so much. And they are free.

The State of Universities

Sadly universities follow an economic model that squeezes everyone up and down the line. A few at the top do well; the rest work harder and harder with less reward. And we adjuncts compete with an oversupply of people who want to teach college and who will take anything that comes along.

In business, the goal is to make a profit. What you do to make a profit is far less important. But this is education. The product -- educated students -- is what matters.

Also, as colleges have adopted the business model, did anyone notice that over time colleges have had a very low failure rate? Many colleges have long histories. Businesses, on the hand, have a very high failure rate.

And something else has changed. Universities seem less willing to experiment and try new things.

We know the history. Once teachers had control, then administrators got control, then the financial people. But beware, the beast is mutating! Micromanaging organisms are now chewing up the life of anything independent.

At one college, the required boilerplate clauses for syllabi meant my syllabus ran to eight pages. The students do not read that stuff. Why not put it online? And we were required to put the class schedule with the assignments -- the most used part -- at the bottom of the syllabus. The chair told me I should not have students read All Quiet on the Western Front in an ethics course since it was not part of curriculum.

Online Courses

I have taught many online courses. We have tapped about 10 percent of the potential of online courses for teaching. But rather than exploring the untapped 90 percent, the college where I taught online wanted to standardize every course with a template designed by tech people with no input from instructors.

I want to design amazing online courses: courses so intriguing and intuitive and so easy to follow no one would ever need a tutorial. I want to design courses that got students eager to explore new things. Let me be clear, I am not talking about gimmicks and entertainment; I am talking about real learning. Is anyone interested in this?

Nothing Is Secure

Despite all my years, I still have to keep looking for new work, although it gets harder to find new courses. I have known both an insurance agent and an independent business consultant, so I have a salesman’s paradigm that you can never stop trying to make new sales.

I do good work, with great student reviews. Lots of students take several of my classes. Yet I have been let go a dozen times. Something changed -- a new program, a new chair, a full-timer needed courses, a program got cut, a department created big lecture classes to get rid of adjuncts -- and my courses got cut. New bosses are always a fear. You build a relationship with a boss, then a new boss comes along and you lose everything. But I recognize that these risks are typical of any work situation.

For 11 years I taught in an interdisciplinary program. The program got cut, I lost five or six courses a year, and no one even bothered to tell the instructors. We found out six months later. At one college I was banned from teaching in my discipline because I did not agree with the then chairman’s radical views that almost no one else in the discipline held. He is gone, but a dozen years later I still cannot teach courses in my area at that institution.

In the last years, University A did not even discuss scheduling with some adjuncts. The yearly schedule was put out and I saw my assignments. I had built up a large number of courses with consistently good student evaluations, yet my course load has been cut several times, but no one ever had the decency to even tell me. Instead of being rewarded and encouraged to be a good teacher, I have felt punished for working so hard. I went to talk to the chair to express that I was finding the situation difficult. As a result of that meeting, I lost all my future courses. I had taught more than 210 courses over 25 years at that university. Its mission statement speaks of promoting justice.

The Wall

I have hit the wall. I can teach five courses a semester, but no more. Yet I cannot earn enough on five courses. Years of stress of having too much to do, or worrying about not making enough money, have taken a toll on my health. I now understand how karōshi can happen.

Ironically, a big difficulty for me is the debt I owe for my children’s college tuition. Adjuncts receive no discounts.

I am desperate for a new course. I am an innovative teacher who creates new courses that attract students, but it has been five years since I was allowed to do a new course. I cannot remember the last time I was asked, “What would you like to teach?”

I thought I could to it: teach a lot of courses, manage the load, do great work and have a decent income. I have failed.

Treadmill to Oblivion

I love teaching, but I also want to be a scholar. Time is running out. So I gave up my modest apartment and moved in with a friend so I can get by on five courses, get some research completed and try to avoid my treadmill to oblivion. This is not “publish or perish.” It is “publish or be stillborn.”

“Treadmill to oblivion” is borrowed from the autobiography of radio star Fred Allen (1894-1956). He produced very popular radio shows for many years but in the end found himself forgotten.

But is it a treadmill to oblivion? Oblivion for my professional career, perhaps, but at least some students will remember me. Hopefully they will have fond memories of learning interesting things. But I want to leave behind interesting writings as well.

Bio

The author is an adjunct who, citing the need not to offend his employers, requested anonymity.

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