To Adjunct or Not to Adjunct: How Long Must We Suffer the Slings and Arrows?

As summer’s end approaches and my prospects of securing full-time employment as an instructor grow increasingly dim, Hamlet’s soliloquy has been rising unbidden into my thoughts. However, rather than contemplating suicide – things are not quite that grim yet – I have instead been faced with a lesser, albeit very real, dilemma. To adjunct or not to adjunct? That is the question.

In past years, I would not have hesitated to take on as many classes as my school would offer, believing that my efforts would be recognized and that, in due course, I would be given a full-time position. In four years of teaching, I had never expressed a preference in my choice of courses, assuming that my willingness to teach any subject, any time, any where would demonstrate my indispensability to the school. I did my utmost to show that I was both a hard worker and a team player who was devoted to the goals of my institution, my colleagues, and most importantly, my students. As someone who had dropped out of a lackluster high school only to discover the redemptive power of education at the local community college, I felt uniquely qualified to teach others who had been failed by the system.

(At this point, I imagine some readers, adjuncts with many more years of experience than I, are chuckling and shaking their heads at my ignorance of the profession. Fear not; the scales are now gone from my eyes.)

Although I loved teaching, I always knew that what I was doing was hardly a sustainable career. My pay was so paltry that I easily qualified for SNAP benefits (food stamps, for those of you out there who are fortunate enough not to need them). I’ve always been frugal in my spending habits, so the low pay did not bother me much at first, assuming as I did that after a few years of apprenticing, I would be moved up to full-time, as long as my work continued to be acceptable to my superiors. At times, it was difficult to accept that I was teaching a full course load while making poverty-level wages, but again, I assumed that my diligence would be rewarded, not with riches, but simply with a comfortably middle-class job. Like all academics, I have always had big dreams for myself, but I felt that time had made my aspirations more modest and therefore, more attainable. I was proud of the work I did, even if it did require that I work for less than any job I’d had in the past.

Early on, my grasp of the academic job market was embarrassingly scant, and so, after the first few rejections for full-time employment, I assumed that the fault lay entirely with myself. Perhaps my inexperience had led me to make mistakes that demonstrated I was unready for the role of a full-time instructor; perhaps my interviewing skills were not up to par; perhaps my CV could use some polishing. After each defeat, I attempted to rectify what I thought were the reasons for my failure, always with the assumption that turning each fall into an opportunity for improvement would make my next interview a success. Like many of those who hold a degree in the humanities, I have always been a bookish introvert, so the self-promotion that interviewers require in order to gauge one’s abilities does not come easily to me. Still, I have done what I can to re-shape my persona into the confident Don Draper-esque figure that comes off well in the oak-paneled offices of college administrators, even if it may fall flat in the classroom itself, where most students, in my experience, tend to value a soft touch over the hard sell.

Over the years, though, as I began to gain a greater understanding of the politics governing higher education’s hiring practices, I slowly came to the realization that I was operating in a sort of bubble. Yes, my students may have liked me; yes, staff members may have liked me; yes, even other faculty members, including the chairs of the departments for which I taught, may have liked me. Unfortunately, none of those groups had much, if any, impact on hiring me for anything other than what I was already doing: teaching a full course load while being paid less than anyone else at the school.

There is a part of myself that urges me to be silent about my conditions. It is the hopeful part, the part that is in every adjunct’s heart, telling us year after year after year that this year, this will be our shot, this will be when all that time spent in drab Department of Human Resources offices filling out paperwork for SNAP benefits, all that time spent sending out application after application into the thankless void, all that time spent chasing professional development opportunities on our own dime, this will be when we finally make it. I am not so foolish as to believe that I am somehow more special than the countless other worthy adjuncts who are vying for fewer and fewer permanent positions each year, even if I must pretend to be so for the benefit of search committees and the like.

One of the saddest elements of the adjunctification of the academy, the increasing reliance on contingent academic labor in higher education, is that academics, who should be vociferously collaborating with one another for the betterment of society as a whole, have instead found themselves in mute but vicious competition. Without the protections of tenure and the right of academic freedom that goes along with it, adjuncts are placed in a sort of Prisoner’s Dilemma situation with one another, whereby each knows that the other could benefit if he or she merely spoke out, yet neither is willing to risk the consequences of doing so for fear that the other will choose not to act in solidarity.

As I increasingly came to identify myself as an adjunct, and thereby to identify with the problems of adjuncts everywhere, I found myself at a crossroads. As irrational as it may sound, I have come to think of the classes that I teach as “my” classes, the students as “my” students, though I know that, in the eyes of the school, I am no more than an interchangeable part. If I do not return this fall, someone else will take my place, and the endeavor will continue unabated. The machine of education will chug along just fine without me, and before long, my presence there will fade from memory. It seems like such a waste, after all these years of honing my craft, to give up on the same school that I once worked so hard to improve, even if my efforts were not given the appreciation, in the form of a living wage, that I felt they deserved.

I cannot help but feel, though, that the only way higher education will improve is by ending its addiction to the exploitation of its workers, and as long as I work as an adjunct, I am complicit not only in my own abuse, but in the abuse of education itself, which I will never cease believing in as an ideal, even if its reality is all too often marred by the demands of a corporatist, bottom-line mentality.

I won’t pretend that my way is the right way, or that it is feasible for everyone. And I won’t rule out that, should my unemployment run out before I can find gainful employment elsewhere, I won’t look into adjuncting again, assuming that I haven’t torpedoed my chances for employment with what I have written regarding the profession. Honestly, I doubt that my audience will be wide enough that I should be concerned; I suspect that much of the silence that adjuncts suffer in is unnecessary. Regardless, I feel that I can do more good – for myself, for education, and for adjuncts as a whole – on the outside than I could ever do as one more overworked, underpaid cog in the machinery.

So to all those adjuncts out there who will be resuming their work this fall, whether it be out of financial necessity, love of the profession, loyalty to one’s institution, or some combination of all three, I wish you the best, and I hope that the day will come sooner rather than later that we are all given the pay, benefits, and respect that we rightfully deserve.

And for those of you who have read this far, I encourage you to sign the following petitions, which I hope will go some way towards improving the conditions under which we all labor:

None of us know what the future has in store, but I will always be grateful to the advocates for adjuncts who showed me that I am not alone in this struggle. I only hope that my efforts, however slight, can help others in the same way.


5 responses to “To Adjunct or Not to Adjunct: How Long Must We Suffer the Slings and Arrows?

  • CASA weekly news 24/14 | CASA

    […] Nathaniel Oliver writes about the end of summer, the wait for work, and the question: to adjunct, or not to adjunct? Like many adjunct writers in the US, he’s as concerned about higher education itself as he […]

  • Tim

    So very well written. My experience exactly. I stepped away from academics about 5 years ago. I still miss ‘my’ students. Sigh …

  • Sarah

    Your argument is well founded but doesn’t replace the reality that, in this economy, working more than one job is often needed to get by. Ideally, this would never happen, but it’s the reality of our times. Adjuncts are abused and it’s important to do exactly what you are doing: spreading the word of its injustice. However, proudly accepting food stamps while you try to live out an ideal situation that clearly isn’t working is not comendable., much less doing this while you have a little one who soley depends on you. Cheers to the parents who BOTH work, sometimes multiple jobs each, take care of their kids by being ever-present, and do it all on their own without handouts.

    Just an observation. But this is a well written article, thanks for sharing—keep working to raise awareness of this important issue.

    • nathanielcoliver

      While I broadly agree with you on some points, and I appreciate your recognition of the problem and my efforts to draw attention to it, I feel the need to comment on a couple of your statements. I wouldn’t characterize what I have done as “proudly” accepting food stamps, for one; I found myself in a difficult situation, and I availed myself of the resources available to get by. If anyone should be ashamed of employees on food stamps, it should be employers who refuse to provide a living wage, often by relying on loopholes to classify full-time jobs as part-time. If this practice were restricted to higher education, I could write it off as only an aberration, but unfortunately, the problem of offering only precarious, low-paid employment is widespread and growing. As you point out, we must live in reality, but we do ourselves a disservice by pretending that “what is” is the same as “what should be” and by refusing to fight for the latter. I feel for parents who both work multiple jobs to get by – and my fiancee and I may be forced into that very situation soon – but let’s not kid ourselves: how can parents both be “ever-present” and “working multiple jobs each”? The biggest sacrifice working parents make is being away from their kids. My parents both worked, and though they were fortunate to have full-time jobs, the trade-off is that I was often in the care of other family members. On the lower rungs of the economic ladder, people just do what they can to get by. Referring to people “proudly” accepting “handouts” is, in my experience, a luxury of the fortunate and well-off, those who have never needed government assistance and therefore assume that no one does.

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