Seven years ago, I wrote anonymously about my experiences as a collaborator on Treadmill to Oblivion, published in Inside Higher Ed. Needless to say, life as an adjunct continues to be a rollercoaster ride. I counted the numbers again, and I’ve now taught the equivalent of 565 three-credit classes on about 70 different subjects: the equivalent of three full-time teachers. It’s something stunning.
But that number underscores the weirdness of the current reality of academia. My situation is emblematic of a larger dysfunction in academia that most of you are well aware of.
What we auxiliaries continue to prove is that there is enough work to give many of us full-time jobs. But as we all know, things are going in the opposite direction. Teaching is the primary purpose of many colleges and universities – or at least one of two functions alongside research – so why do we educators have so little control over what happens? Why are there so many part-time workers? Why are so many teachers so poorly paid?
The reality is that colleges and universities can use many tools, pay us little, and still work. This is partly due to an oversupply of people wanting to teach. But it’s also because the boards of too many higher education institutions think and act as if they are business leaders, partly because corporate executives sit on so many higher education boards. (Most of you are also quite aware of this.)
With 235 courses at one university and 239 at another, I’ve taught far more as a minor than most full-timers, but I’ve stuck with teaching introductory courses. I will never get a chance at a high school degree, certainly not at graduate level. To be fair, some adjuncts are happy with the courses they teach. Not me. For a long time in the 1990’s I was able to teach many different and interesting courses. This openness is long gone.
Due to the pandemic, I again significantly reduced my course load and payment in the spring semester of 2021. I was lucky back then – I was able to start social security early. So, for the first time in years, I didn’t worry as much about money. But after spring semester 2022 I threw in the towel and decided to retrain for something else. (I’m currently doing a Masters in Economics and don’t teach.) I was tired of being at the bottom. I want to teach again one day. I would just like to teach advanced courses.
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Some observers have referred to college education as a caste system, which I think is an apt metaphor. I guess I’m in the Sudra – servant – class. I suspect some other adjuncts consider themselves Dalits, as lowly pariahs. And there is usually little upward mobility. As most adjuncts know, when a department decides to fill a position, it rarely looks at their adjunct or recognizes their years of service as something to consider in full-time hiring. I suspect that a long track record as a teaching assistant is a negative in many job searches.
A number of full-time employees are aware and concerned about the situation of the auxiliary workers, but many are not. And they often don’t realize that their positions depend on auxiliaries teaching all the courses they don’t want to teach. The irony is that most of the time we auxiliaries are looking for enough support to keep teaching.
At every institution I have worked at, I have made frequent efforts to connect with the full-time staff. I attended every event I could go to. But in general I think most of it is a waste of time. It never seemed to help in times of crisis. After 30 years at an institution, no one in the department has bothered to tell me that there are full-time temporary positions available for which I am qualified. I only found out by accident from someone a thousand miles away.
But why should I have expected anything else? Three times I’ve officially applied for full-time positions in departments where I’ve taught for years and never even received a courtesy letter or email saying they would review my letter and receipts.
As far as research goes, I have a modest publishing record, having put in a lot of hard work and continuing despite countless rejections. But it seemed harder than it had to be. I have found a scholarship that I could get as a supplement but unfortunately most scholarships exclude us.
The money is here
On so many campuses I’ve walked past construction sites as new buildings come up, often seeming unnecessarily extravagant. I’ve been standing in a 50-foot atrium of a building that probably cost several million at a university where the usual add-on was $3,500 for a one-semester, one-semester course. And I wondered, has a teacher ever called for glass-walled classrooms to improve student concentration?
I went to college in the 1970s in 1960s buildings that were simpler and cheaper but perfectly functional. But I’ve come to realize that part of higher education is designed in such a way that only a few people can make money from it: the moneylenders, the builders, the support system providers, and the subcontractors who supply the cleaning and canteen staff (who usually don’t themselves get paid a lot) and the like.
Meanwhile, national trends are scary. Academia is being undermined. Almost two-thirds of university teachers are adjuncts. This means they have limited time for research, writing, and further study. Is this just due to cost-cutting, or is it a deliberate effort by some people to undermine intellectuals? We all know that there has been a big shift in attitude towards less public respect for teachers. And now some voices are attacking colleges and universities on issues such as critical race theory and gender identity in order to destroy society’s trust in public education. (An important 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 faculty in particular.
Four pieces of advice
In conclusion, I make 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-call, temp, with few or no benefits and no long-term security. Even with our MAs and Ph.Ds, we have much in common with workers at all levels, including the least 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 lesson plans and identify other additions. Email them or stop by to meet them before class. We need to work harder on that! I know adjuncts are very busy, and this advice seems to go against our own personality. We helpers like our independence. But we are powerless because we think and act all alone. Get organized! Get organized with your fellow campaigners! This is the only way to get some clout to meet our needs. For example, at a university where I worked, the arts and science teachers were unionized. That has led to improvements in pay and a common voice to speak to management. The Service Employees International Union is working to organize service workers at many other colleges and universities. Save for retirement. Auxiliary workers are underpaid and many scrape through. But try to start saving as soon as possible. Even $200 a month saved adds up over 40 years. Find a savings calculator online and see the long-term effects of saving a modest amount on a regular basis. Set up an IRA account to get the tax benefit.
The fact is that colleges and universities are totally dependent on us. You know it. We auxiliary workers must also act as if we knew. We must overcome our isolation and work together to have a voice.