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Dear Adjuncts: Don't Get Sick

I’m sick. And I don’t mean sniffles and tickle in my throat. I mean swallowing pitchforks and a jackhammer on the brain. That kind of sick. The doctor calls it strep throat. I call it hell on earth.

In this state, in this death-bed existence, I feel lucky.

I have written a lot about unfair pay for adjunct faculty, or how they aren’t included enough in most departments. These are all important issues, but I think I’m overlooking one of the biggest problems in the adjunct profession: health benefits.

This is an issue some will squawk at. They’ll say adjunct faculty members are part-time faculty and they shouldn’t have any benefits. That’s true … some of the time.

At many institutions, mine included, adjuncts are expected to teach the maximum number of allowed classes in a semester. For me, it’s four. I suppose I could tell the administration that I don’t want to teach all four, but is that really my responsibility? Does a 15-year-old part-time busboy who is saving for a car during the summer remind the boss that he’s only a part-time employee? Not really. It’s the boss’s job to make sure the kid doesn’t work more than he’s legally allowed. And really, since adjuncts teach the majority of required, gen-ed courses in so many departments, it’s hardly fair to brush them off as teaching fodder.

Let’s face it: “part-time” and “adjunct” are no longer fitting monikers for so many faculty members. It seems clear that departments, maybe even entire universities, have come to rely on adjuncts so much that they would fail without the adjuncts.

Like I said, I’m lucky. My wife works and I get health insurance through her. Strep costs me a $25 co-pay and about $15 for two prescriptions. A colleague in the cubicle near mine can’t get sick. She can’t afford it. And the thought of a personal injury -- a car accident, perhaps -- nearly causes her to have an anxiety attack. For me, strep throat means Percocet for the pain and amoxicillin for the infection. For my colleague, strep would mean herbal remedies and drinking lots of juice.

Only recently, and thanks to Obama’s health care initiatives, more and more institutions have begun to offer health care buy-ins for adjuncts. This would be great if all these adjunct issues were mutually exclusive. Unfortunately, they’re not. The truth is, adjuncts have always had the option to buy health care; anybody with money can buy health care. But adjuncts don’t receive adequate pay.

What we’re talking about here is academe demanding full-time work from adjuncts, but failing to adequately compensate them for that work. Institutions rely on adjuncts to meet the institutions’ basic needs (in many cases, required, gen-ed courses) but they fail to meet the basic needs of the adjuncts (living wages).

This method, like fighting strep with juice, just doesn’t work that well.

Author/s: 
Isaac Sweeney
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

Isaac Sweeney is an adjunct faculty member in James Madison University's School of Writing, Rhetoric, and Technical Communication and an adjunct instructor in Blue Ridge Community College's English department..

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