Why Adjunct Teachers are So Pissed Off

Okay kids, strap in. Daddy’s gonna rant.

Normally, I try to keep a civil tone when I’m blogging, because I don’t think being angry on the internet does any good most of the time. But goddammit, I am angry on the internet.

I’m an adjunct instructor at a community college. I consider myself lucky to have found this job, because the school is great, my colleagues are great, my students are great, etc. etc. I’m also in school, so I have student loans to supplement my income (I’m choosing to ignore the staggering debt that will be laid upon me when I finish the program). But when I was ensconced in a corporate job, I hesitated to leave even though I hated it because I knew what being an adjunct was like.

Put succinctly, it sucks.

In November, an 83-year-old adjunct professor named Margaret Mary Vojtko died. You might have heard about it; her story became the rallying cry for many poorly-paid adjuncts who were (and are) legitimately terrified to end up like this poor woman, practically homeless and dead from cancer because she couldn’t afford treatment on her adjunct salary. The story was a bit inflated, but not much. You can read a somewhat more balanced view of the situation here (I normally think Slate’s journalism is questionable, but this article seems fairly reasonable).

Her story caused a lot of outrage, but it’s not unusual. Allow me to present Exhibit A:

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There are many, many other articles out there about the plight of the underpaid adjunct. If you Google “adjunct,” after the basic definitions, the entire first page is full of articles that read like exposés. As well they should. It’s hard to overstate how shitty adjuncts have it. You could argue (and you’d be right) that it’s not like we work in sweatshops, that we make more than minimum wage, etc. and that, according to the douchecanoe in this article, we “know what we’re getting into” when we take an adjunct position.

So let’s start with that statement.

“What you’re getting into”

Well, yes, we do know what we’re getting into. A minimum-wage fast food worker also knows what they’re getting into when they take that job. But it’s not like we have a choice. Wouldn’t you think we’d choose full-time employment if we could? I guess we could go do something else besides teaching, but that’s assuming someone with a Master’s in English could get a different kind of job. “Well, everyone needs writing!” you say. Tell that to the person who was unemployed for over a year (that would be me) before “lucking” into a non-teaching job that sucked my gray matter out through my ears. And even that job was temporary, because I live in a city where full-time, permanent employment is about as realistic as capturing a pink zebra-striped unicorn with jewels for eyes. Even a Master’s degree.

I was employed full-time as an instructor at one point. The college I worked for had five or six adjuncts in the English department who taught as many courses as full-timers, and most, if not all, of them had been adjuncts for 15+ years. Another person and I were hired from outside the college (outside the state, as a matter of fact) for tenure-track positions instead of promoting these adjuncts. I was fresh out of grad school. I was grateful as hell for the position, but when I found out I was hired even though these adjuncts had applied, I was appalled.

So yes, adjuncts know what they’re getting into. But sometimes, there’s no choice. And, silly us, many of us are bold enough to suppose that contribution to the departments and students we work so hard for should earn us more than a panic attack every 12-16 weeks as we hope to be given enough classes to eat and pay bills next quarter/semester.

I’m not blind to the reality of the larger structure. The only civil structure in the US that seems to be in worse shape than the healthcare system is the education system. Colleges hire adjuncts because they’re cheaper. They don’t have to pay adjuncts as much. They don’t have to pay many (if any) benefits. They can swap out adjuncts at will every semester/quarter, rather than keeping one tenured/tenure-track faculty member around. Sometimes they institute caps on the number of credits adjuncts are allowed to teach, ostensibly because it’s their way of not overworking adjuncts. Unfortunately, that tactic manages to make the situation even shittier because adjuncts are then forced to teach at more than one college.

I’ve heard a lot of snide comments about teaching. “You’re lucky, you get school breaks off!” “You only work four hours a day!” I’d like to debunk the time myths in particular. Imagine, if you will, a typical adjunct’s day. Because I’m in English, I’ll use that as an example.

Your basic schedule

You teach two classes in the morning at one college, 22-25 students if you keep your cap and don’t overload. Then, you hurry to another campus, where you teach another two classes, again with 22-25 students. If you’re in a city like Seattle, you’re traversing the metro area and fighting traffic every inch of the way, and none of the campuses you teach at are near home, so there’s more miles tacked on. You’re only spending four hours in class every day if you teach 50-minute classes, but then count on probably 2+ hours commuting. When you get home, you have 88-100 students’ assignments to grade. There’s your evenings for the next week, at least. Let’s not even count prep. Actually, yes, let’s count prep.

Prep

The thing most people don’t count on when they think about adjuncts’ schedules and pay is that class time is only part of our schedules…and the only part we’re paid for. Everything else we do outside of the classroom, whether it’s grading or making copies or working out next quarter’s schedule, etc. is basically all on our own time. And that takes a lot of time. Unless you have the misfortune of working for a for-profit institution where you’re a glorified course babysitter (done that, do not recommend), you’re basically your own boss…and your own employee. Nobody is going to rewrite your course schedule for the billionth time or write your supplemental materials or make your copies. That’s part of why the “haha, isn’t it nice to get school breaks off?” comment doesn’t hold much water. So let’s talk about that next.

Breaks

Sure, it’s nice to not have to go to campus every day and sleep in (assuming you don’t have kids or other obligations). But for one thing, your break isn’t always a break. At the end of the quarter, you’re scrambling to get everything graded before the deadline. After that, there’s one of three scenarios:

1) you spend the bulk of a short break (like winter and spring breaks) prepping for the next quarter/semester. Because course materials always need tweaking, course schedules always need revisiting, etc.

2) you work during summer break…if you’re lucky…and if you’re luckier, you might even be teaching.

3) you don’t find work during summer break and you’ll just have to hope you’ve saved enough to cover the next four months, because you won’t get paid until the end of the first month back. You can’t get unemployment because of a stupid loophole in unemployment benefit laws (at least that’s the way it is here), or, because you’re only part time, you may not actually qualify because you haven’t technically worked the minimum number of hours for a calendar year (680 in Washington).

But yes, having breaks off is great.

Things less talked about

Mental health

All of these factors result in something I don’t think gets talked about enough with regard to teachers in general and adjuncts in particular: stress. Being an adjunct is very, very stressful. Not only are you expected to carry your courseload by yourself–teaching is one of the very few jobs where you basically have to do everything by yourself without much help or oversight–but you’re expected to be your students’ source of knowledge and wisdom, to support them, encourage them, help them gain confidence, etc. This part of the job is amazingly awesome most of the time, and that’s why we do it. But it is stressful. And you’re expected to do all of this on a ridiculously low salary, in a job that you’re only guaranteed to keep for a matter of weeks. An adjunct’s working life is never, ever certain. Is it any surprise we’re all a little neurotic? The pleasure of teaching pales when you’re worried about whether you can make it home from school because your car is running on fumes and your first payday in the last month isn’t until tomorrow because that’s how your contract pay schedule worked out over the break.

Choosing classes and schedules

Adjuncts are almost always relegated to teaching general education classes. Some of us like this. I’m lucky enough to really enjoy teaching developmental English, which has served me well in the sense of that it provides slightly more job security (dev ed is not most teachers’ favorite thing) and I’m not quietly resenting the fact that I’m teaching a lower level class. Most of my colleagues, though, have degrees in literature or creative writing and are teaching gen ed classes because that’s all that’s available for them to teach. Full-time faculty usually grab all the higher level or more focused classes. I’m sure anyone, not just teachers, can sympathize with being given a job that’s not your favorite.

You also almost never get to choose your own schedule. This was true when I was a junior full-time faculty member as well, since I was the new kid, but the senior faculty members got to choose when they taught within reason. Adjuncts have to take what they’re given. If your division chair is nice, they’ll get your input or give you a schedule they know will work for you. But still, at some point you’re probably going to get an awkward schedule where you teach at 7:00am and then don’t teach again until 11:00, and they’re different class lengths, so you have a four-day schedule for one and a five-day schedule for the other.

Parting words

If all this seems like whining, well, I think adjuncts have the right to whine a little. It’s not that we’re trying to compare ourselves to migrant field workers or anything. But in a field that’s ostensibly noble and valued, and is most certainly vital to the success of the economic, social, and cultural structures of a country, like teaching, we expect better. It’s the little things that build up. When nothing about your job is certain or simple or easy and it doesn’t pay a livable wage, you start to wonder why you do it. We all know the answer, of course: because we can’t not do it. Many of us feel like it’s our duty, and it’s one we willingly and even gladly take up. But all we ask is that because we’re willing and glad, we want to feel welcomed, valued, and heard. And because we can’t be Sunshine McHappypants teachers on empty stomachs, we want to be paid.