The other day, walking across campus to raid the supply closet in the English department, I passed a group of prospective students touring our prestigious university with their parents. Guides showed them our impressive dining hall (we have fresh sushi!), the theater and the grand library. I’m sure the parents loved the fact that all of our classrooms have computers and printers.
Students were probably excited about the diversity of both the student body and the faculty, not to mention that we have a lively social scene. But it occurred to me that there’s a lot about academia that they weren’t showing these families on this tour, and I’m almost positive that the majority of college parents have no idea who’s really teaching their kids.
The moms and dads on the tour that day would look at me, professionally dressed and dragging my rolling bag along the sidewalk, and think somewhat accurately, that I’m a professor. That’s what the students call me, after all. But what they have wrong is the idea that I have a cushy job, probably with a fat salary and tenure. They probably think I spent my days researching my specialty and writing. I wish. The reality is a lot harsher, because I am just an adjunct professor, and not by choice.
Outside of academia, most people probably don’t even know what that means. Adjunct instructors are part-time teachers. We’re still professors, but in name only. We don’t get benefits, we’re limited to how many classes we can teach at one school, and we don’t get an office. Worst of all, we have zero job security, and we’re paid per class we teach, on the lowest end of the teaching pay scale. I made more money per class teaching as a grad student than I do now with a completed terminal degree.
It is impossible to make a living wage as an adjunct professor, especially when you have to pay for your own healthcare. The only situation in which this can work is for retirees or those with substantial savings and/or other forms of income. If you’re living off a trust fund and want to teach for pleasure, then it’s ideal, but the rest of us are suffering and we have no choice because full-time teaching jobs are few and far between and ridiculously competitive.
According to the American Association of University Professors adjuncts and other contingent faculty “account for over 70 percent of all instructional staff appointments in American higher education.” Think about it: schools profit from hiring adjuncts. They can get away with paying us lower salaries and there are no benefits to provide. We are expendable, and higher education has created an oppressive system that keeps us in fierce competition with one another. Because there are but a handful of full-time jobs available, the market is ruthless.
We apply every year, but when we don’t get hired, we have no choice but to take what’s available or change our careers. Beggars can’t be choosers. The schools know that great teachers, desperate for jobs will take whatever they can get, even if it’s just a part-time position, so they aren’t forced to stop this unethical practice. Since many of us want to think that adjuncting is a foot in the door to a tenure-track position, we accept the crumbs our administrators throw at us without complaint in hopes that it will pay off in the future.
Nearly all of the adjuncts I know try to patch together a modest living by teaching at several schools, which involves a lot of driving, a hectic schedule, and a lot of confusion. Last semester I taught six classes at two schools an hour’s drive apart. I had 130 students to keep track of, and it is a miracle that I knew them all. I began to have panic attacks from the stress and had to call in sick on several days in order to recover.
Most of us are forced to take on additional part-time jobs. I work a few shifts per week at night at a yoga studio, and on the rare occasion that I have time, I try to pick up freelance writing assignments, and with all of this, I still rely on my husband’s financial support. If we divorced or something happened to him, there is no way I could survive. To make matters worse, one of the schools where I teach only pays twice per semester. That means I go stretches of eight weeks at a time with no paycheck. I rely on the other school and my yoga salary to barely get by.
Adjuncts are just as educated and qualified to teach as full-time professors. In some cases, we may even be better teachers, but because our position is so emotionally and physically taxing, we can’t provide our students with the individual care and attention they deserve. We are exhausted and easily frustrated. Since we are stressed about our basic survival, we might be less patient with students who need extra instruction.
We’d love to spend our free time creating brilliant, original lesson plans, but since we don’t have free time, we might have to resort to dismissive “read the book and answer the questions” types of classroom activities more often than we’re proud of. When you have over a hundred papers to grade at a time, on a deadline, let’s just say that you can’t always dedicate an hour on each one, writing detailed, helpful critiques.
Adjuncts aren’t bad teachers. We aren’t lazy, or unengaged. We are victims of a hypocritical system of oppression created by colleges and universities that, at worst, seek to make a profit, and at best are saving money. They do this because they can — because desperate adjuncts are scared to collectively speak up in protest, and because most parents and students simply don’t know this is happening.
Relying on adjuncts to fill teaching positions is unethical, and a disservice not just to the educators, but also to their students. No one benefits, so when touring potential schools, as a parent, or a future student, speak up. Ask how many adjuncts teach required classes, and why the number is so high. Complain in person and writing about this practice, and make it known that this is unacceptable.
Adjuncting is higher education’s dirty little secret, but it doesn’t have to be this way if we take a stand.
Victoria Fedden is a writer and a mom from Florida. Her memoir This is Not My Beautiful Life was published June 2016 by Picador USA. She teaches writing, works at a yoga studio, and occasionally blogs on her website at www.victoriafedden.com. Her essays and articles have appeared in Real Simple, O Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, The Huffington Post, Redbook, Elephant Journal, Scary Mommy, Babble and The South Florida Sun Sentinel, plus various other publications. Please visit her Facebook page for updates.