Monday, September 12, 2016

Yesterday Being an Adjunct Got Real. From Alice the Adjunct.

I had a wonderful day with 2 high school friends who came to my tiny apartment to see me from our shared hometown about 6 hours away. It was like no time had passed. We laughed about boys (two of us are single still), our old teachers, told tales of parents, reminisced, and looked at 1 million pictures of babies and pets.

And then at night we were in my apartment eating pizza in pajamas and talking about our careers.

Jane got a business degree and went to work in a small factory as an office manager right after college. Tricia got a degree in English, married her high school sweetheart, and runs part of the town's library.

I, of course, as you know from my name am an adjunct instructor.

They envied me. No, seriously. They told me how much they admired me when I went to grad school and how proud they were when I became a professor. The pizza turned in my stomach a bit. Then I fell apart.

I told them that this semester I'd only been able to secure 3 classes at the community college where I work mostly. That's $8100 a semester, no benefits. No office. A mailbox in the department office and a debit card I can use to print and make copies. If you count my HAUL from Spring semester I will make $20,000 this year before taxes.

They looked at me and I wept, and all the frustration I have felt about this career washed over me and overwhelmed me.

Jane couldn't stop herself from saying, "I make $45,000 and I barely graduated. I only work 30 hours a week most weeks." Tricia said, "I'm at the library half time. I make $36,000 with all the benefits and a retirement plan."

Then they both said, "How do you do it?"

And I just felt so sick. I always thought being a "professor" was everything. It was my dream job, and I worked hard to get there. Even now, with my three classes this term, I work 40 hours a week. These first few weeks of this semester have been especially trying with under-prepared students, unwelcome overloads in all three sections, and hours and hours of prep and grading for a new book I was assigned.

So what did I go to grad school for?

I used to love to research and write, but the teaching and the worry and the coupon clipping has sapped me of my strength. The girls stayed overnight and we went to breakfast together, both of them fighting to pay! I felt like the loser, like the fool who took the wrong path. They have always been my friends and that they know this about me, that they discovered the truth about MANY academic careers, embarrassed me. We'll always be friends, and in fact we made hard plans for some fun this Christmas when I often go back home and just collapse in my brother's house with him and his family.

I know my story is not the only academic path. I have grad school friends who did better than I did, who teach better full time schedules, have time to write, and live much easier lives. But I know a lot of adjuncts, having worked at 4 colleges in the area. There are a LOT of us, and as everyone knows, THIS is the way the profession - especially in some disciplines - has been going now for many years.

Why all the hard preparation? Why all the years of grad school misery? Why do so many of us do it when the result is the sorrow I felt yesterday when it all came crashing down on me?

- Alice


  1. I'm on record as saying I think this battle is lost. I taught for a few years at a private liberal arts college about 15 years ago that prided itself on an unofficial no-adjunct policy. Everyone was full time, and VAPs made solid wages and got full benefits.

    Jut in that time my old department has gone from 0% first year classes taught by part-timers to 50%. And this is a place that is teaching-centered, student-centered. The promotion material that goes out still brags on the whole full time professor thing, even though it's slowly slipped away.

    Alice, there is no easy answer to your own dilemma. If you still love the teaching, and I don't know for sure if you do, then I'd say keep at it, networking as much as possible to keep gigs going everywhere you can.

    But if even the teaching now is tainted, it sounds to me like you're still young enough to start again. And, having a real "home town" with a brother and great friends, and likely many contacts, that should be a resource to consider, too.

    But my heart breaks for you this morning. I have been in your spot a couple of times in a long career - because of endless moving around - and that feeling of lack of worth cripples everything.

    My best,

  2. It's hard. I was an adjunct for three years. Lived with the folks. I was fortunate enough to be able to pack both semesters AND summer and make like 29 grand.

    Things moved super quickly for me. They offered me a full professorship and then, a mere months later, started a fellowship and made me Senior Fellow/Director of it. It's small, but the pay is a king's ransom compared to what I'm used to, the benefits are the same as everyone else's, and it seems like it'll go great.

    I might be an exception. I had a Chair and a Mentor and a Dean who all liked me and were willing to go to bat for me. And I'm super thankful for that to this day. I will say that it was my publishing, not my teaching, that furthered my career. I think publishing is the best: It's a resume builder, it's advertising to other universities that you could potentially do this for THEM, and if you're lucky you can even make a bit of cash on the side doing it as I did.

    As ashamed as I am to admit it, I definitely, 100% sacrificed on teaching my students in order to publish more/better and boost my career. I did it shamelessly. There was content I did not cover as deeply, there were papers I didn't great as thoroughly, and there were materials I didn't compose as well as I could have. In my defense, I never went into this for the kids. I've always wanted to focus on research and maybe do guest lectures as part of the mission to spread the knowledge I helped generate (which I know is half of it), but not necessarily teach full schedules.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is that watching out for you and yours isn't bad or greedy. We're all fish swimming in the same pond. You need money and resources to accomplish your mission! The fellowship we've started, for instance, already has interest from a few parties who want to commission studies from us. Is that ideal? Of course not. Ideally, we would sit in our ivory towers and study only the highest-minded concepts. But the things we maybe don't want to study, the sponsored things, they're what's going to help fund the things we DO want to study!

  3. [[ Insert sympathetic comment here about truth-seekers and outcasts and light in the darkness. Then, append appropriate tangential comment about how supposed children's fiction can sometimes be good for an adult's soul (whatever a soul is). Make seemingly offhanded comment about "Cal". Thank "Alice". Write the comment well. Then attribute it to somebody on a horse. ]]

    1. Oops. I meant to post that to MTurk. I've been outsourcing my CM comments because work has kept me too busy. And underpaid. Sorry.

  4. Hey, Alice: Yup. If you want/need full time work, adjuncting blows. I did it for six years. I always had a second job. I lived like a student--biking a lot, etc. I think I averaged about $15k a year. You learn to live close to the bone. A wise mentor told me to hang in there, that just when you're about to give up, then things will change. That's exactly what happened for me. I was seriously looking into alternate careers when the job offers started coming in. I've been tenured for many years and will retire next year after 20+ years at my current CC.

    Besides butt loads of endurance, the best advice I can give is to not be tied to any particular state or region. I saw many adjunct colleagues languish because they would not move. Scour CC's across the the country, which will offer many more positions than 4-year institutions. My department recently hired two full time, tenure track English instructors, but I was told by the department chair that the hiring pool was particularly "shallow," as he put it. Here's the rub: The CC is located in a crusty, hot Central Valley town in Cali. Sometimes work comes in unexpected places. Be flexible. Hang in there!

  5. How the HELL does one get a part-time librarian job for $36K plus bennies????

    The most I ever made in one year was $34k (no bennies) by teaching 8 courses (between 2 schools and I think I had August off) plus a 5 hour per week part-time job that paid $20/hour. Not only was I exhausted, but I think it led to a nervous breakdown! (and with no bennies - and no guarantee of employment - that ended working at one joint.)

    I'm with you, Alice, and people beyond this page do NOT understand the shame and anxiety and anguish we feel for what has amounted to a squandered education. And I, for one, one tons of student loans for this fiasco!

    - anon y mouse

    1. My librarian friend is probably better described as an administrator and trustee of the library and runs their foundation. She was a librarian but has evolved.

      And to all the others. Thank you. I am always hoping lightning will strike like it has for some of you and I may not be casting my job search widely enough in part just because of some 30s inertia. LOL.

  6. Being a tenured professor is, I think, the best job in the world. But if you can't get it, adjunct professor is not a second best. It's not a third best. It's a distant Nth, right above con artistry or Blackboard sales rep.

    My advice: think seriously about what you like. Then find a job that has some of that, without the poverty and heartbreak. As long as you're willing to sell your time at the absurdly low rates colleges offer, the colleges will buy it. It's not your fault, but that's how things are right now.

    1. There are a few caveats to the "best job in the world" assertion--one being that I've seen some tenured proffies endure decades of frustration being away from true friends and family. Over and over and over, trying to schedule and pay for flights back "home" for whatever family stuff is happening. A wonderful job, a vocation, is wonderful. But being 2,000 miles away when your dad dies, seeing your best friends each xmas instead of each morning for breakfast, this stuff can wring the life out of your life.

      For one thing.

      @Alice: If you're just an adjunct (yes, just, sorry), then seriously consider moving back home and collapsing in your brother's house with him and his family until you get one or two local adjunct jobs (you know they have those back home). Live your life. Fuck the people who don't want you to live your life.

  7. Being a tenured professor is, I think, the best job in the world. But if you can't get it, adjunct professor is not a second best. It's not a third best. It's a distant Nth, right above con artistry or Blackboard sales rep.

    My advice: think seriously about what you like. Then find a job that has some of that, without the poverty and heartbreak. As long as you're willing to sell your time at the absurdly low rates colleges offer, the colleges will buy it. It's not your fault, but that's how things are right now.

  8. Commiserations, Alice. It does really, really suck. And hanging out with fellow academics doesn't necessarily help. My circle of close friends is made up mostly of grad school classmates (loosely defined -- we're in different fields, but occupied the same living spaces) who ended up in the same major metropolitan area, and even we have to step carefully around the class divisions, since we range from part-timers (one cc adjunct, one K-12 substitute teacher), to full-time contingent (me), to tenured professor almost ready for promotion to full. The whole question of who "makes it" -- wherever/whatever "it" is -- and who doesn't and why is a vexed one, but I don't think I'd still be hanging out with the tenured proffie at all if she didn't have a healthy recognition of the role of luck in her career -- which is, of course, entirely separate from the fact that she's worked very hard to get where she is. But we've all worked very hard, in grad school and beyond. The rewards have simply been extremely variable.

    Even though I'm among those who have remained in the academy (after getting very close to leaving), I'd strongly recommend putting a time limit on how long you're going to work as an adjunct, at least as your primary means of support, and begin exploring other options, preferably concurrently (adjuncting is not really a very remunerative activity compared to many other things someone smart enough to get a Ph.D. can do, so do only as much adjuncting as serves other purposes -- having recent experience, an institutional affiliation, library privileges, or whatever it is you want/need that isn't money -- and also pursue other possible career paths, part-time or even full-time, at the same time. This may limit the number of places you can work -- most really want employees who are at least willing to carry that 3/3, 40-hour, supposedly part-time load, though they also want to be free not to offer you the 2nd or 3rd class in any given semester -- but, at least in areas with more than one institution, it's unlikely to shut you out of the market completely).

    The whole question of how widely to search, geographically and otherwise, is also a vexed one. I think the right choice depends on self-knowledge, and weighing what you really value, both in an academic job and in life, and being true to that, even if that ends up meaning pursuing non-academic work. I chose to settle in a particular area (near family at the time I did it, 15 years ago) rather than continue to have my plans, year to year, be at the mercy of the job market. I don't really regret that (though I wish the area to which I had ties had been a less expensive one; on the other hand, choosing one with a pretty high density of local schools, but far enough away from my grad school for my degree to be a bit unusual, made sense, and there are some inevitable tradeoffs there). But a different choice would have been right for a different person (that said, if you're moving for a job, and only for a job, you need a plan B/escape plan, especially for a full-time non-tenure-track job, and even for a tenure-track one if you're at all unsure of fit, ability to meet tenure requirements, or the longterm viability of the program and/or institution).

    1. Another very real consideration: start thinking sooner rather than later about what you want/need the end of your career to look like. Given how long grad school often takes, the beginnings and ends of academic careers are closer together than those of many other careers, and, for those who don't make it onto the tenure track, precarity only gets scarier in your forties, fifties, and beyond. While it doesn't go away entirely, the possibility of having a successful, satisfying non-academic career definitely decreases.

      And remember, whatever path you choose, the work you did on the Ph.D. is not wasted, and you still have been a professor,and still likely can be again, pretty much at any time you choose. Heck, make/find yourself an alternative career, and you can be the kind of adjunct provosts (well, at least my provost) insist are still in the majority: established professionals sharing their expertise with college students out of love of their professions, and of teaching.

  9. To many people, being a professor means a life of the mind, summers off, occasionally screwing some cute co-ed, and, if you're unlucky, ending up on an island with Bob Denver. The more people know about the state of academia, the better. That means tenured faculty acknowledging how good they (we) have it and telling parents of future college students who actually does most of the teaching. Unfortunately, the best communicators of what's going on in higher education are the adjuncts who are put upon and least able to speak up. Alice, you've done a difficult but I think worthwhile thing. I'm sure your friends think no less of you because of your situation. Good luck.

  10. Alice, I don't have anything to add to all the wisdom on this page, just want to add one more voice to those who hear you.