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Seven years ago, I wrote anonymously about my experiences as an adjunct in “Treadmill to Oblivion,” published in Inside Higher Ed. Needless to say, life as an adjunct has continued to be a roller-coaster ride. I have counted the tallies again , and I have now taught the equivalent of 565 three-credit classes on some 70 different topics: the equivalent of three full-time teachers. It is somewhat staggering.
But this number puts in relief the craziness of the current reality of the academic world. My situation is emblematic of a greater dysfunction in academe, of which most of you are quite aware.
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One day in class this past spring semester, I finished three minutes early. That was a rare occurrence for me. I always use every minute available in class, as I only see my students a few days a week and I truly value our time together. Also, students pay a lot of money in tuition, and I don’t want to waste it.
In fact, that last thought got me wondering: Exactly how much money did I just waste by ending class three minutes early?
What we adjuncts prove over and over is that there is enough work to give many of us full-time positions. But as we all know, things are moving in the opposite direction. Teaching is the main purpose of many colleges and universities—or it is, at least, one of two functions, along with research—so why do we instructors have so little voice in what happens? Why are there so many part-time adjuncts? Why are so many teachers paid so little?
The reality is that colleges and universities can use many adjuncts, pay us little and still function. That’s in part because of an oversupply of people who want to teach. But it’s also because the boards of too many higher education institutions think and act as if they are leading corporations, which is in part because corporate executives sit on so many college boards. (Most of you are quite aware of that, too.)
At 235 courses at one university and 239 at another, I have taught far more as an adjunct than most full-timers, yet I have been stuck teaching intro courses. I will never get a shot at an upper-division course and certainly never a graduate-level one. To be fair, some adjuncts are satisfied with the courses they teach. Not me. During a long period in the 1990s, I could teach a lot of different and interesting courses. That openness is long gone.
Due to the pandemic, I once again took some serious cuts to my course load and pay during the spring 2021 semester. I was lucky that time—I could start taking early Social Security. So for the first time in years, I’ve not been so worried about money. But after the spring 2022 semester, I threw in the towel and decided to get retrained to do something else. (Currently I am working on a master’s degree in economics and not teaching.) I was tired of being at the very bottom. I want to teach again someday. I would simply like to teach some more advanced courses.
The Caste System
Some observers have labeled college teaching as a caste system, which I think is an apt metaphor. I guess I am in the Sudra—servant—class. I suspect some other adjuncts feel they are Dalits, as low as pariahs. And there is usually little upward mobility. As most adjuncts know, when a department decides to fill an opening, it rarely looks at its adjuncts or recognizes their years of service as something to consider in full-time hires. I suspect a long track record of adjunct teaching is a negative in many job searches.
A number of full-timers are aware of the adjunct situation and are concerned, but many are not. And they often do not see that their positions are dependent on adjuncts teaching all the courses they do not want to teach. The ironic thing is we adjuncts are mostly looking for enough support just so we can keep teaching.
At every institution where I have worked, I have made frequent efforts to connect with the full-timers. I attended every function to which I could go. But in general, I feel most of that has been a waste of time. It never seemed to help at crunch time. After 30 years at one institution, no one in the department bothered to tell me that short-term, full-time positions were being offered for which I was qualified. I found out only by accident from someone a thousand miles away.
But why should I have expected anything different? Three times, I have formally applied to full-time positions in departments where I have taught for years and not even received a courtesy letter or email saying they would look at my letter and supporting documents.
As for research, I have a modest publishing record due to lots of hard work and continuing on despite countless rejections. But it seemed harder than it needed to be. I found one grant that I could get as an adjunct, but sadly, most grants exclude us.
The Money Is There
At so many campuses, I have walked by construction sites as new buildings go up that often seem needlessly extravagant. I have stood in a 50-foot-tall atrium of a building that probably cost multimillions at a university where the going adjunct rate was $3,500 for a one-semester day course. And I wondered, has any teacher ever requested classrooms with glass walls as a means to improve student focus?
I went to college in the 1970s in buildings built in the 1960s, which were simpler and less expensive yet totally functional. But I have now realized that part of the higher education system is designed so only some people can make money from it: the money lenders, the builders, the suppliers of support systems and the subcontractors who supply the cleaning and cafeteria staff (who themselves usually don’t get paid much) and the like.
Meanwhile, the national trends are scary. The academic world is being undermined. Almost two-thirds of college faculty are adjuncts. That means they have limited time for research, writing and pursuing further study. Is that just due to cost cutting, or is it an intentional effort by some people to undermine intellectuals? We all know there’s been a big shift in attitudes, toward less respect for teachers among the public. And now some voices are attacking colleges and universities about issues like critical race theory and gender identity as a way to destroy societal confidence in public education. (An essential book about this crisis is After the Ivory Tower Falls, by Will Bunch.) None of this bodes well for faculty members in general, let alone adjuncts in particular.
Four Pieces of Advice
In closing, I offer the following recommendations:
- See the big picture. We adjuncts are workers in the gig economy. We are part of the new normal where so many jobs are on-demand, temporary work, with few or no benefits and no long-term security. Even with our M.A.s and Ph.D.s, we have much in common with workers at all levels, included the lowest-skilled workers.
- Make a serious effort to meet and talk to other adjuncts. We adjuncts are weak because we are so disconnected. Look at the class schedules and identify other adjuncts. Email them or go by to meet them before their classes. We need to work harder at this! I know adjuncts are very busy, and this advice can seem to go against our own personalities. We adjuncts like our independence. But we are powerless because we think and act all alone.
- Unionize! Organize with your fellow adjuncts! This is the only way to get some clout to push for our needs. For example, at one university where I worked, the adjuncts in arts and sciences unionized. That has led to improvements in pay and a collective voice to talk to the administration. The Service Employees International Union is working to organize adjuncts at many other colleges and universities.
- Start saving for retirement. Adjuncts are underpaid, and many are scraping by. But try as soon as you can to begin saving. Even $200 a month saved adds up over 40 years. Find a saving calculator online and see the long-term effect of saving a modest amount regularly. Set up an IRA account to get the tax benefit.
The fact is that college and universities are totally dependent on us. They know it. We adjuncts need to act like we know it, too. We need to overcome our isolation and work together to have a voice.