Why College Students Should Care about the Adjunct Labor Movement

My name is Allyson, and I am an adjunct professor. I teach five English classes per semester at three different universities in Boston. For the Spring 2014 semester, I have a total of 97 students.

I usually do not state these facts so plainly when people ask me what I do for a living. Instead, I speak in vague, euphemistic language. I sheepishly say, “I teach English” or “I teach several writing classes.” I then scramble to bridge to another topic before they can ask follow-up questions about where or what grade level I teach. I imagine that this is what it feels like to be a hooker who politely refers to herself as “a lady of the evening.”

I am cagey about my job because people often react to it in unfavorable ways. Telling people that I am an adjunct professor feels like some sort of uncomfortable confession, which is probably why the first line of my article reads like an opening statement at Alcoholics Anonymous. The three most common responses I receive when I tell people about my job are:

—Confusion. Understandably, most people think that I am lying or (even worse) joking when I tell them that I am a professor. As a 24 year-old woman (girl?), I do not exactly look “weathered,” “wise,” or “professorial.” Instead, I look like a student, which is exactly what I was only seven months ago. For some time, I tried to adopt the accouterments of scholarly chic — a small notebook for documenting spontaneous strokes of genius, a giant ceramic coffee mug, glasses — but stopped when I realized that I was essentially playing dress-up.

—Uninformed excitement. Many people think of academia as a blissful utopian space, free from corporate hierarchy. I used to think the same thing. Therefore, these people do not know that the lives of full-time, tenure-track professors and the lives of adjunct professors look very different. When I tell them that I am an adjunct professor, they are impressed — but that’s because they assume that I lead the idyllic, glamorous life of a full-time professor. In their eyes, I probably have an office filled with leather-bound books, several dutiful TAs to handle my grading and record keeping, tenure, health insurance, free time to publish articles, and institutional respect. I probably stand at a stately podium and deliver brilliant lectures on James Joyce to bright-eyed students.

As an adjunct professor, I do not have or do any of these things. In reality, I teach the classes that full-time professors have relegated to the cast-off pile, such as 8am sections of remedial writing composition. I earn no health benefits; I share all of my office space.

—Secondhand shame. If the people who react to my job with uninformed excitement only pay attention to the word “professor,” the people who react with secondhand shame only pay attention to the word “adjunct.” These are the people who are in the profession or at least intimately acquainted with it; the people who feel sorry for me because they are aware of the structural challenges that adjuncts face in colleges and universities in the United States. These are the people who tell me that I should leave the profession as quickly as possible.

Recently, I discussed these structural challenges at an alumni reception with one of my favorite college professors. I quickly found myself all up in his grill, so to speak, and yelling about my nonexistent retirement plan. I had had two glasses of wine, but the sheer strength of my anger reflected at least five.

I will spare you a similar rant, for these rants have already been written. If you are looking for grim tales about the lives of adjuncts, simply Google “adjunct professor.” The top results include the articles, “9 Reasons Why Being an Adjunct Faculty Member is Terrible,” “Adjunct Professors are the New Working Poor,” and (most accurately), “The Highly Educated, Badly Paid, and Often Abused.” For a more in-depth analysis, you might also read In the Basement of the Ivory Tower by Professor X (here’s an article-length version by the same mystery author). Additionally, the website for Adjunct Action, an SEIU campaign that is fighting to increase adjunct rights in several major cities, contains copious horror adjunct stories. Here, you can read about adjunct professors who live off of potatoes and onions and scrape together extra cash as dishwashers.

Many aspects of the adjunct profession are stressful and unjust. As academics who are highly trained to critique and deconstruct systems and institutions, it’s easy to be pessimistic about our condition and our feeble place within the university. Still, I urge all adjuncts — especially those who claim that they somehow “ended up” at this dead end of academia against their will — to remember that being an adjunct professor is a choice. In complaining about our shoddy offices, we lose sight of the fact that the adjunct profession — however broken it may be — allows us to show up to work and do what we love.

In my case, adjuncting, despite all of its drawbacks, is actually pretty awesome. I have total autonomy to do what I want, say what I want, and even wear what I want. For a person in her twenties, such professional autonomy is extremely rare. I do not have the administrative obligations of a full-time professor and I am not involved in sticky department politics. As a result of teaching at three universities, I teach a diverse range of students. My classes are populated with Division 1 student-athletes, English language learners, kids from different states, kids who went to boarding school, first-generation college students, liberal arts-y types, and pre-med students. I find my work to be fulfilling and intellectually stimulating. The pace of adjuncting is challenging and delightfully brisk.

Additionally, adjuncting has helped me to get creative with logistics. As an avid runner, I picked up “run-commuting,” wherein I change into my running clothes and run between jobs with a sweet backpack. I teach two of my classes at the institution where I earned my Master’s Degree, so adjuncting has allowed me to keep in touch with former professors and classmates. I have also come to enjoy the introductory and remedial-level writing classes that I teach. I like the idea that I get to work with students on skills that are “not interesting enough” or “too basic” for other professors to teach.

I shared these exact thoughts with the Adjunct Action labor organizer who approached me after class one day. I told him that I have a double feeling about my job. On the one hand, I recognize the inherent structural challenges and need for change within the liberal arts profession. On the other hand, however, I would still rate my quality of life as extremely high. I love teaching and adjuncting allows me to do it as often as possible.

If the adjunct labor movement is to succeed in staging an adjunct revolution, this movement must begin with college students, rather than the adjunct professors themselves. Adjuncts have positioned their own needs (health benefits, higher salaries, offices) as the priorities of the adjunct labor movement, but it is the students — and the quality of American education — that are in the most danger. As adjuncts, we must put our personal grievances aside in order to educate students on the more widespread implications of adjunct labor.

Students and their parents, in turn, must understand the following implications that adjunct labor has on their education:

—No Mentors. Adjunct professors are hired on a contingent, part-time basis. They do not have annual contracts, and therefore do not know the length of their employment at any given time. The availability of classes fluctuates unpredictably, so adjuncts can (without warning) lose the classes for which they were originally hired. Most adjuncts are not willing to remain in such a shaky situation for long periods of time. Therefore, the adjunct faculty members cannot guarantee that they will be at the university to mentor and advise their students from year to year. Students need long-term mentors who can give them holistic advice about their class schedules and career plans.

—Weak Recommendations. I have had several students apply for high-profile fellowships and grants and ask me to write a letter of recommendation on their behalf. Their requests put me in a difficult and embarrassing situation. I have to explain that, although I would be honored to write a recommendation, I am simply not important enough to do so. When graduate school and national award committees read recommendations, they evaluate the author as well as the content. In other words, a strong letter from a full-time, tenured professor carries significantly more weight than an equally strong letter from an “instructor” or adjunct professor.

—Space Issues. Because the nature of adjuncting is so transient, universities are not willing to dedicate space or resources to adjuncts. As a result, adjuncts typically share offices and computers. These offices are often isolated from the rest of the department and awkward for their students to find. At one of the schools where I teach, for example, I share an office with twelve other faculty members. At 1pm each day, a particular professor lies on his back in the middle of the floor and takes a 15-minute nap. I feel my professorial credibility waning whenever students come to my “office” hours only to see his sleeping body on the floor. The public nature of the space also compromises the candid, honest discussions that I can have with students about grades and controversial topics in more private spaces.

—Overloading. Adjuncts are paid per class (according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, the average salary for adjuncts in the United States is $2,987 per class). Therefore, the only way for an adjunct to earn a livable wage is to cobble together as many classes as possible. Full-time professors have smaller teaching loads (usually 1-3 classes per semester), so they are responsible for fewer students. This allows them to dedicate time to students in exactly the manner you would expect from a liberal arts education — they have more office hours, they can give more extensive comments on exams and papers, and they can spend time getting to know their students. As a teaching fellow in graduate school, I taught 15 students per semester. Now that I teach 97 students, I know that the quality of my teaching has decreased. I physically cannot be available at each university five days per week. I have three separate inboxes and three separate online learning management systems where I must respond to student messages. My conferences with students are rushed. Grading now feels more like factory work than a pleasurable, thoughtful activity. I have decreased the length of comments that I provide on students’ papers. Despite my very best efforts, I just can’t give students all of the attention that I want to give.

—Extreme separation between quality and tuition dollars. At one of the colleges where I teach, tuition is $17,225 per semester. The students typically enroll in four classes, so the cost per class is $4,306.25. With 20 students enrolled in my class, the university amasses $86,125 for each one of my classes. My salary is $3,500 per class. Students need to push their universities to account for the $82,625 difference. In offering meager professor wages, universities compromise professor quality.

At one of my adjunct job interviews, the full-time professor hired me on the spot and said, “I think you will be fine.” Slightly offended, I replied, “Fine?” She said, “well, you are not talking to yourself nonsensically and anxiously twitching in your chair, which is usually what happens when I interview adjuncts.”

I do not mean to suggest that all adjuncts are inadequate educators or people who talk to themselves nonsensically. I know many adjuncts who are superior teachers, and I work hard to make sure that my own teaching is high-quality. Still, I have had several of my mentors from college and graduate school advise me to invest “the bare minimum” and “little effort” into my classes. They tell me that I am “not getting paid enough” to pour all of my energy into my job. While I agree, I am not willing to compromise my students’ learning just because I am making a low wage. Many adjunct professors, however, are not as kind.

Recently, as I was catching up with an old friend over coffee, I asked him if he had taken a writing composition class as an undergrad. He responded, “No. I knew that writing classes were a waste of time because they are not taught by real professors.”

After I overcame the initial roast of being called “not a real professor” by one of my closest friends, I thought about his comment a little more carefully. Students have a vague sense of what adjunct labor looks like — they know when a professor isn’t “real.” My students can connect the dots: they see that I am too young to have possibly earned a PhD, that I hold my office hours in a musty room with a sleeping body, and that I sometimes confuse the day’s lesson with the agenda for another school. Still, they do not consider what any of this really means, or how it is negatively impacting the education that they and their parents have worked so hard to provide.

We must give students the proper vocabulary to understand “not real professors.” Students need to know that adjunct labor is a key threat to their status as a human, rather than a commodity of the university. Educating students on adjunct labor depends on adjunct professors being more honest and frank about their title and (for now) taking more pride in their jobs. Instead of offering cagey explanations about our existence in the university (even though we are embarrassed to do so!), we must speak in open, direct terms that encourage students to ask questions and seek answers: my name is Allyson, and I am an adjunct professor.

  • Lee Kottner

    ” Still, I urge all adjuncts — especially those who claim that they
    somehow “ended up” at this dead end of academia against their will — to
    remember that being an adjunct professor is a choice.” Yes, so is being an engineer, an IT professional, an accountant. And yet people go into those fields because they expect to get a job in the field for which they trained. Why should scholars and teachers have any different expectations? Our profession has been deprofessionalized and uncoupled into tasks instead of a body of knowledge and skills and standards. If you ever expect to teach the subjects you love (providing you were not a comp/rhet person), you had better let that dream die if you remain an adjunct. Is that what you got all that student debt for? Wake up.

  • //In my case, adjuncting, despite all of its drawbacks, is actually pretty awesome.//

    Please add a category to your next article called “cognitive dissonance,” a section where you analyze the profound disconnect between your insights/conclusions and the clinical (pathological) denial of your own oppression as well as your glib reaction to the suffering of your fellow adjuncts.

    2. So, which boss do you work for? Which administrator put you up to this? Did you get another section of a course as a reward? The final silver piece to bring your total yield to thirty, dear Judas?