Academic Hunger Games
I’ve recently come full circle to where I started my academic life: I am once again working as an adjunct professor. Last December, I left my full-time, tenured position at a small liberal arts/ professional college. I was ready for an early retirement from my institution (even if it didn’t come with an enticement package) -- but I wasn’t ready to stop teaching. Just lately, I’ve been contemplating putting together a proposal offering my services for a new position, which I will unveil here. But first I need to explain how I reached this point.
One evening a week, I drive to a college a few miles from my old one and spend three hours with a bright and lively class of adult learners. We talk before and after class, and a few times a week we exchange e-mails. I do not have an office, which is fine with me; I do not even have a mailbox. If mail comes for me, someone holds it at the front desk. Walking into the adult- school building is a bit like walking into the tiny post office/general store of a fishing village. The natives know me, and are kind. When I publish an essay, I receive a congratulatory note. I already have my assignment for spring.
My adjunct experiences before finding a full-time position in 1996 were far more fraught. My husband and I had three young children to support. He was starting a job with a new company; those were lean — very lean — years. For four out of the five years that I taught at a major university, I had a series of one-semester contracts; often I would be kept waiting until November to find out if and what I would be teaching in January. During several of those semesters, I took on second adjunct jobs at second schools. And still my pay was adjunct to my husband’s salary; no family, no individual, could have lived on my pay.
My teaching load as an adjunct at the university was sometimes as high as three classes per semester, until one dean of faculty pointed out that three courses would require payments of benefits, and then all adjuncts were limited to two classes. The full-time annual course load for full-time professors was two to three classes, depending upon committee work — in other words, part-time workers (the designation in my series of contract letters) had double the course load of full-time workers. I served on two committees -- with no compensation -- during my time there.
My department chair at the university called me “The Queen of Adjuncts” -- a playful term that both conferred complimentary status and clearly established and maintained my auxiliary position. I was the only adjunct included in departmental meetings; I was invited to dinners with accreditation teams. But I would, then and forever, be an adjunct to the institution. If nothing else — and to be fair, there was a great deal else, including wonderful colleagues and group after group of sharp and witty students -- my five-year stint helped hone my sense of irony: I taught a graduate class in poetry, painfully aware that I was helping to train the competition.
The difference for me now, all these years later, is that my single class at my new college is adjunct to my life. The stakes are very different. I don’t have to struggle with feelings of powerlessness. I’m doing what I love to do. But I’m also the daughter of a union organizer, and as both a full-time professor and a retiree/ adjunct, I have struggled with the idea of being complicit in — with perpetrating — a system riddled with inequity. I’ve read, with empathy, articles that focus on involving adjuncts — or contingent faculty — in the life of the college, but adjuncts trying to make a living may not always have the time or leisure to do more than teach a class at one place and then travel on to their next class miles away. (Indeed, such warmth-in-the-workplace concerns may be increasingly moot, as more and more adjuncts are hired to teach online.) And any enjoyment of extracurricular activities is nearly always overshadowed by the financial reality of the two-tier feudal class system. In other words, as I recently noted in response to an e-mail inviting me to teach a class at my former college, I need to raise the subject of pay.
My former department has contacted me with job offers twice since I left last December. The first time was in late August, just four days before the start of the fall semester. An adjunct hired to teach the nonfiction class had gone rogue; would I be interested in filling in? I was able to graciously decline by claiming a time conflict -- the course met at the same time as the class at my new school. The second offer came just a few weeks later in late September: would I be interested in offering — for the regular adjunct salary — my women’s film class in the May term? Not really.
Like Thomas Wolfe, I don’t believe that you can go home again. I’m more of a Nick Carraway kind of girl, believing the past is the past — and these offers unsettled me, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, why would anyone expect me to return — at a fraction of the pay or for any amount — to a place that I chose to leave because I wasn’t particularly happy? “But it’s flattering,” a friend tells me over lunch. “Don’t you think it’s flattering? They need you! They want you! And they’re your courses!”
It’s true that I did in fact develop the classes for the college. It’s also true that the former acting president liked to say that “no one owns a course” (although she was the only one to ever teach certain upper-level classes). And at no time in the six months between my letter of retirement and my leaving did any administrator say, “We really appreciate these courses that you created, and we hope that you’ll reconsider and stay on full-time to teach them.” Instead, they immediately went about the business of hiring my replacements, offering one woman a half-time position and contacting several other local Ph.D.s and MFAs for adjunct work. If I were to accept the college’s offer now, wouldn’t I possibly be harming the chances of that half-time professor’s contract converting to full-time? My cooperation in providing contingent labor might make it easier to delay discussions about honoring the promise to add a full-time position back into the department.
And here was the — literal — $64,000 question: Why was a course formerly valued at $8,875 now worth only $3,125?
$8,875 was the average pay for a class in my eight-course load as a full-time full professor. Of course, the argument regarding full-time pay is that it’s compensation not just for teaching but also for a range of other responsibilities, including office hours — what my student-evaluation forms call “availability to students” — and writing letters of recommendation. But these are two demands that fall on adjuncts as well. What other required tasks, besides finding and convincing adjuncts to come on board, does a full-time faculty member have at a teaching college like my former school? The answer involves a little bit of writing/publishing and a good deal of service — in particular, committee service.
And so I finally understood how foolish I had been to complain about the hours that I had devoted to committee work, for that apparently is where the money is, generating far more income — nearly double — than, say, teaching, prepping, and grading a course.
And it’s true that I had already known something about the value of committees. At my former school, it was possible to apply for a sort of one-semester mini sabbatical/ half-leave, with a 20 percent reduction in pay. The only stipulation was that while on half-leave from teaching , volunteer applicants would agree to carry on with their full committee load. There were also the cries of outrage regarding the departure of faculty members, through retirement and resignation: with departments rapidly shrinking, how would committees ever be able to fill their slots?
The answer to that last question is really quite simple: create a new underclass of adjunct committee members. In this scenario, everyone would win. Even after doubling adjunct pay, administrators could more easily balance their budgets, since they would be able to cut back on the number of full-time consultants they hire per year, a number that, like the numbers of middle-administrators and adjunct instructors, continues to grow. They might follow the current 30/70 percent model of full and contingent workers, a split that has served the teaching arena so well.
Freed from the onus of ceaseless grading, adjunct committee members would have time to work on their writing — and the chance to hone their skills with unlimited practice in a variety of academic genres, such as mission statements; vision statements; monthly revisions of policy statements; curricular tinkering, deconstruction, and mayhem; new strategic plans; new new strategic plans; and meta-assessment documents regarding everything else in this list. Standing, ad hoc, party planning: there would be plenty of opportunities for migrant workers who formerly toiled in the field of instruction to settle down and to participate -- finally, fully, richly -- in academic life.
Carolyn Foster Segal is an adjunct at Muhlenberg College.
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