We’ll be publishing 300-500 word true stories from the adjuncts who’ve lived them. See some of them on Twitter under #PrecariTales. Also, please consider contributing to Lee Kottner’s upcoming book of essays, Teaching Poor: Voices of the Academic Precariat.
I’m an adjunct, and I’ve been working at my university for over 10 years. Because I have a particular area of expertise, I’ve been asked several times to lead the revision of some materials that are integral to a large enrollment course. (I teach three sections of this course each semester.) In 2015, I began a major overhaul of these materials at my Chair’s request. Because the revisions were extensive, we agreed that I would update about half the material and finish the rest the next summer. For completion of this work, I would be paid a lump sum. I was paid for this in a fairly timely manner, although not without an incident involving payroll wanting to split my lump sum into 30 separate payments to be paid out over several years. My Chair went to bat for me on that, and I received my full payment all at once.
At the start of this past summer, I met with the outgoing and incoming Chairs about the status of the revision. They decided I should go forward with the remainder of the updates and agreed to pay a lump sum upon completion with a deadline of August 1.
It’s now mid-November, and I have yet to receive payment. For August, I chalked it up to the Chair being new and that perhaps vacations and such were delaying the process. I know it’s not uncommon for things like this to move at a snail’s pace. At the start of classes, I inquired about when I would receive payment. The first answer I received was to “please be patient” as there were “budgetary issues” occurring in the department. At that point it had been over four weeks since I completed the work…on time, mind you.
Once the semester got rolling, I asked again about the payment status. This time I was told that it was unclear when the payment would be made; the chair hoped he could convince the administration to release some money for payment. He said he did not know when that would happen but he was “working on it.” After not having much income during the summer, to now wonder when this money will be paid is anxiety inducing. There’s nothing I can do about it. That is disheartening. I don’t know how common this is in other professions, but I’m guessing that most people can count on being paid for completed work in a timely fashion. Recently, I checked on the payment status. “Are you desperate for the money?” the person asked. It was a strange thing to say—as if I’m not supposed to want to be paid.
I’m tired of being patient. I was asked to do a job. I did the job, and I did it pretty well. I’ve had several faculty who use the materials comment on the revisions favorably. And yet, because of some kind of “budgetary issues” I am without payment—and without recourse.
I have a hard time believing that the stipend I am owed is going to break the bank. It is decent money and certainly needed, but it’s really a drop in the bucket of a department budget. If there wasn’t money for me to do this work, then that should have been made clear at the start. I spent many hours on this project. I know it will benefit the students (and I do take some comfort in that thought), but it doesn’t pay my bills. And of course, the materials that I created are being used this semester as I write this.
So what will I do? Nothing except wait. Because that’s what happens when you’re an adjunct.
An independent grocery delivery service recently turned me down for being massively overqualified, but I cannot get a paying job in academia because I don’t have the years of teaching experience and publication record required to potentially qualify for one. I’m 28 and have been teaching for a poverty wage for the last four years. Yet, in that time, I have developed a small fan base of students who have told me that they love my class and my standout style, and that they have learned so much. I was nominated for an outstanding undergraduate education award but was ruled ineligible only because I am an adjunct (which has no logical tie to my teaching ability).
I feel stuck.
I have no means to stand out in any way relevant to earning money or advancing my career. I love teaching essential writing skills to college freshmen, but this is nothing short of unsustainable. Simply cutting my expenses or applying at 2-3 (or more) colleges like some of my colleagues do would mean compromising my physical and mental health, and the second college I applied to never looked at my adjunct application, so I am not even sure how to work at multiple schools. (This may also be a case of transgender discrimination, which also limits what professions I am able to have.) I wish I could stop mooching from my mom, but I have no idea what else to do. She is the only reason that I can afford anything; this is beyond embarrassing. Furthermore, even her money is limited because she’s a retired elementary school teacher, so this arrangement won’t last forever.
I live alone in a one-bedroom apartment. I have no spouse to help with income. I have only myself and my parents to cover expenses. I am an adjunct professor of English. I am left on my own to teach a required curriculum made by someone else, often having to guess what might be expected of me and use a departmental textbook that often contains readings that freshmen of various majors cannot understand. Sometimes the readings are so far outside my area of expertise that I barely understand them.
I feel stuck.
My teaching performance does not actually matter. If I fail, no one bothers evaluating me. If I succeed—such as when I was nominated for an outstanding undergraduate teaching award—I still get nothing, as I cannot qualify for awards and bonuses as an adjunct.
Here are my required assignments and typical grading times for each class:
- six summaries (10-20 minutes/student);
- three essays (15-45 minutes/student);
- other assignments, such as reading notes (5 minutes/student).
This ends up taking more time than what many of the full-time professors—who can do whatever they want—spend per class. Yet I am paid $2,250 (less than half of what they make per class) while teaching fewer classes. The full-time professors in my department have failed to deliver classes that upper-level English students actually want to take, which forces them to take the lower-level classes usually reserved for adjuncts, leaving me with only one class for the first six months of 2016.
Most of my colleagues work at multiple institutions, but no other places have hired me, so I am left with whatever crumbs my school is willing to give me. Although my department keeps opening new full-time, Master’s-level positions, I am never considered for them because the hiring requirements and candidate preferences are unclear. The dearth of paying positions at other universities ensures that someone more experienced than me will always apply, so I will not even reach the interview stage.
I feel stuck.
Am I destined to spend every year until my 40s and 50s in poverty? I am nearing 29, and I have never worked a job with benefits, despite having a Master’s degree. When will my life begin? Since when was being a professor not meant to be a real job?
Monica Paige DePaul can be found on twitter: @https://twitter.com/MPDePaul
Why Do They Stay?
Surviving Psychological Abuse in Education
When I started out as an adjunct at a community college in 2005, I had the illusion that things would get better. I thought my part-time teaching job was just a way for me to get experience so I could eventually make more money and find better working conditions. I also presumed that I could find a job outside academia if I stuck it out in graduate school and with teaching.
If only it were that easy.
Throughout most of my tenure as an adjunct instructor, I’ve worked with students who had been struggling to find a voice by learning fundamental skills for improving their earning potential while parenting, working, searching for employment—the list goes on. I’ve also worked at two postsecondary institutions that have taken the money from the government or from people who were stuck simply to line their pockets. I struggled to provide my students with a strong center enforcing discipline and executing dynamic plans in my classrooms. So, why have I stayed in the field for ten years?
By sharing my background and struggles, I hope that it would give a clearer idea on how adjuncts can benefit from having an ally who has attempted to leave the field, but couldn’t, due to exploitative hiring and managing practices. I do what I can to help other adjuncts who want to leave their fields raise the funds to develop and implement an exit plan. I dislike talking about my professional past, but it is important to share so that I can help prevent this kind of stuff from happening to other postsecondary instructors.
While I searched for a post-academic job, I networked and attended job fairs with my business suit and fresh résumés and reached out to different connections. Six months out of graduate school, I was: (1) job searching, (2) teaching sections in the toxic community college, and (3) taking a part-time staff position at a private, post-secondary institution where I served and worked alongside many adjunct instructors who had at least an MA, and one who was a PhD.
At the three institutions where I worked for seven years, I also endured a lot of complaints funneled through my supervisors from students, staff, and others, ranging from the way I greeted someone to the ineffectiveness of a detailed lesson plan. Furthermore, I had to promise weeks in advance that I was available to teach for the next term, but sometimes, I got a totally different assignment or had a class canceled. Having to scramble so much also wore on me, and, naturally, I started to convince myself that no other employer would care to hire me. The cycle of rage, despair, and hustling for the beginning of the term and surviving continued.
My head was so fogged up after the accumulation of unpaid hours spent preparing for lessons, along with messages from the people I worked with and taught that my hard work was ineffective. Even a strong person is vulnerable to constant criticism and scrutiny. Then in the places where I was paid only once every four to five weeks, the financial shortfall I experienced waiting for a paycheck contributed to my increasing despair and hopelessness. Compound that with struggling to make ends meet and working unpaid hours: it silently strips away at the person you once were.
During those eight years of working as an adjunct, I missed a lot of important events, lost money from irregular pay periods, and withdrew from people. I lost ten years of my life that I will never get back. Through all of this, I learned that one can start anew, fight back, and develop a renewed sense of wonder about life.
I’ve resigned from the last toxic employer, and I’m teaching in a healthier place now. I juggle several work/study and sales positions in the fitness field. I’m also in the exploration phase of looking for an additional job at a healthy workplace that will complement my teaching schedule. Regardless of where my future takes me, I plan to stay involved in adjunct advocacy because there is still a lot of work to do so that hopefuls in academia can get the kind of work opportunities they deserve. I also hope that there will also be more avenues for people who plan to leave teaching in their field to have the necessary supports for a holistic action plan for finding work that suits them better.
Anonymous Adjunct Ally
“Learn a Lesson”
I used to be an adjunct. Now, as a full-time professor with more job security than I’ve ever had, I’ll continue to advocate for adjuncts, because I know just how ridiculous and callous the system can be.
When I started adjuncting, I had a great dean who gave me classes, invited me to faculty meetings, ensured that I had support and knew I was valued and appreciated. Eventually, she retired, the school restructured, and I got a new dean. This is what happened.
I had an online class, World Religions, with a wide variety of believers and non-believers. One student continually bashed others’ beliefs, and when I asked, somewhat in exasperation, why he was in the class, his response was this: “I want to learn what others believe so that when I go witnessing, I can tell them why they’re wrong.” Not exactly a great answer, but fast forward to the end of a very long spring term, and the student hadn’t done all of the work, and thus earned a C. He appealed, citing religious persecution on my part. The dean backed me, since it was clear that the grade was about the work, not about my relationship to the student. I considered the case closed.
Then, the next semester’s schedule came out. I wasn’t on it. In fact, there were several of us in the division who weren’t. There were, however, a lot of new names teaching what we had come to think of, after a couple of years, as ‘our’ classes. We had not been notified that our work was not up to par, or why we weren’t on the schedule. Panicked emails flew to our adjunct liaison, who reached out to the dean to ask what was happening. The dean’s response was that everyone who had been taken off the schedule had been removed not because they were bad instructors, but because she had made the decision that any adjunct about whom a complaint had been made needed to “learn a lesson.”
Learn a lesson.
So, in order to teach us that lesson, she simply removed us from our courses. Mind you, we lived in an economically depressed area, and jobs of any sort were hard to come by.
This dean couldn’t be bothered to speak to us in person, or treat us with basic human dignity. Asked why she hadn’t told any of us that we were removed, and why we had to find out from the schedule being released, she replied that there was nothing in the handbook that said she had to contact us.
This is why, now that I’m in a tenure track job, I advocate for their inclusion in the governance of the schools they teach at, for fair pay. Above all, I treat adjuncts the way I wish I had been treated, with dignity and respect. Because I remember—searingly—when I wasn’t.
Anonymous Adjunct, Liberal Arts College
What Adjuncts Should Know About Unemployment Benefits
Making ends meet in the summer is difficult if you’re an adjunct, in part, because most of us don’t get paid from June through August. In 2014. As a social sciences adjunct at a small liberal arts college, I earned less than $15,000 for the whole year. With no teaching work lined up for the summer, I had to consider a range of options for earning money to cover my rent, utilities, and food and other basic needs.
I wanted to be as self-sufficient as possible to cover all of my costs, so I did some freelance copy editing and website design. I also listed my apartment on Airbnb.com and similar sites, allowing strangers to enjoy my home as a vacation rental while I visited my family for a month. I also learned to cook very inexpensive meals and stretch the dollar as much as possible on everything from laundry detergent to toilet paper.
Even with all of these efforts, however, I still found it difficult to cover my basic costs for the summer, so I did something I thought I would never do: I filed for unemployment benefits.
I was conflicted about doing this. I grew up in a pull yourself up by your bootstraps household, and I couldn’t escape the feeling that there was something shameful about applying for unemployment. But I had bills to pay, and I genuinely wanted to work. There just wasn’t any work available at my university during the summer.
After writing and rewriting the budget several times over, I discovered that I needed extra income if I was going to avoid getting into credit card debt. That’s when I decided that I had to apply for unemployment benefits.
If you find yourself in a similar situation without work this summer, here’s what you should know about filing unemployment:
Eligibility: Educators are eligible for unemployment benefits in most states, provided—and these are crucial—that your employer has a) not offered you summer work, and b) you are technically between contracts. If you have a verbal agreement that you’ll be renewed for the next academic year but haven’t yet received a written contract, you may be eligible to receive unemployment benefits.
In deciding whether to approve your benefits, a case worker will check with your employer to see if you were offered summer employment and whether you have received a contract for the next academic year. In my case, I was not offered summer employment, and my university did not send me a written contract until August 1st. Therefore, I was eligible for unemployment from June 1st (the first week that I was considered to be unemployed) until I received the contract in August.
When you should file: You should file your unemployment benefits in the state where you work one week before the end of your employment period as stated on your contract. However, you can apply in most states within a period of one year after your employment ends.
Requirements to receive unemployment: Most state unemployment offices require you to do several things to receive a check, including searching and applying for other jobs and visiting a career center. If you are considering a Post-Ac or Alt-Ac career, this process can be quite helpful.
How you will be paid: If your application is approved by an unemployment benefits case worker, you will receive a weekly payment via check or direct deposit that is based on the salary that you earned in your previous year of employment. (It’s usually about half of what you earned per week while you were working.) Remember that this is considered taxable income, and you can opt to pay taxes on it as it is disbursed or wait until the end of the tax year.
Timeframe for receiving benefits: Because unemployment benefits are operated by the state, they tend to encounter the usual bureaucratic obstacles. The timeframe for getting your benefits approved may take as long as eight weeks, and you’ll need to call them on a weekly basis to try to move the process along.
If you’re thinking about filing for unemployment benefits, look at your state’s website or stop by a career center to get started. In going through the process, I learned valuable information about Post-Ac and Alt-Ac careers. I used some of the money to pay a career coach to help me with my job documents and try to convince my university to hire me full time.
I also realized this: there is nothing shameful about filing for unemployment benefits.
Adjuncts work hard for their salaries and often do pro bono work for their students and employers during the summer, such as course development or advising. Until universities recognize adjuncts’ value by adequately compensating them for their work, we will have to look for other ways to make ends meet. While unemployment benefits treat the symptoms of exploitative adjunct labor, rather than the causes, it can at the very least offer some financial security during the summer months.
Anonymous Adjunct, Eastern U.S.
#WhyPrecariCorps? Because We Need Intellectual Copyrights for Course Materials
This PrecariTale is from an adjunct colleague who, along with a few others in the department, was let go due to various political reasons. She sent us an email that all the outgoing adjuncts received from a full-time professor in the department. This—for the adjuncts and us—is an overt abuse of power:
As I continue to build the teaching resources web page, I’d like to have a bank of assignment samples for TAs and anyone else who is interested in using them. I’m looking for examples of assignments that go beyond academic essays. Some examples might include literacy or other types of narratives, photo essays, letters, profiles, memoirs, Wikipedia or encyclopedia entries, business memos, how-tos, product comparisons, fact sheets, FAQs, brochures, movie or book reviews, course reviews or evaluations, product evaluations, job application letters, personal statements, researched arguments, advocacy statements, grant applications, multimedia projects, multi-genre projects…the list can obviously go on.
I’m also looking to provide some examples of traditional academic essay assignments for intro courses, as well as multiple approaches to researched writing for those teaching advanced writing courses.
Please send along any of the great materials that you have and that you’d be willing to share with our novice teachers.
All of this information will be behind a login—only those with a university login will be able to access these resources.
Thanks for your help with this!
Such an email adds insult to injury. As if being effectively fired weren’t bad enough, these adjuncts were asked to contribute their teaching materials to a departmental website they’d now never be allowed to use, since they were about to lose university credentials.
They were not offered any money or other material incentives for sharing their intellectual labor with the department that let them go. Our adjunct ally noted: “We were very angry at losing our jobs, yet we were angrier to be asked to give our teaching materials to the department that dismissed us. We all felt extremely disposable. Good only for our products and not our ability to create and teach.”
We are currently working on a way for all faculty—especially adjuncts and others in the precariat—to copyright their intellectual property so it cannot be coopted by departments who do not value or reward them for their work. We believe that this is another way to protect the most precarious among us.
Anonymous Adjunct, West Coast
The Five-Year Plan: The Adjunct Life Crisis
In 2009, during my interview for an adjunct position at a community college, they asked about my five-year plan. Being still somewhat new at teaching and not needing a permanent career then, I didn’t see the audacity of posing this question to an applicant vying for a semester-long contract. Coincidentally, I taught there for five years, just enough time to gain an intimate look at my future as a contingent instructor.
Today, instructors like me believe that in five years, they likely won’t be teaching anymore. The trajectory of most adjuncts and lecturers I’ve known is to teach for several years, realize it’s not sustainable, and ultimately quit teaching.
Lillian Taiz’s recent article for the Sacramento Bee highlights the five-year projection for contingent faculty in the California State University system: “Each year on average, the CSU [system] loses 10 percent of its lecturers. Over the course of five years, about half of the lecturers leave. For a student, that means about half the professors they had their freshmen year are gone by the time they graduate.” Certainly some lecturers leave to continue their education or accept positions elsewhere, but contingent instructors increasingly pursue more stable employment outside higher education.
Existing in this culture of impermanence has left my colleagues and me uncertain about our futures. Even though adjuncts and lecturers sometimes stick with it for decades—and some lucky ones secure permanent appointments—it’s impractical to imagine teaching in higher education five years from now. I’ve been at it for eight years, yet I hesitate to call teaching my career.
When my financial needs changed a few years ago, freeway flying didn’t pay close to a living wage. It also took a mental and physical toll. The obvious answer: leave higher education, join the 8-5 workforce. On the other hand, I recognized the need for dedicated, caring instructors. For a time, I thought my indecisiveness was a character flaw: I was suffering from entitlement or a quarter-life career crisis.
In talking with colleagues, I’ve learned the problem isn’t that any of us expects our path to be cushy; the problem is that there is no path. Every adjunct or lecturer I’ve met is in transition, by definition. We’re collectively, not individually, having a career crisis. Staying put is functionally impossible, but growth means leaving the profession. Higher education should open doors, but contingent instructors are only offered an exit.
We are being quietly forced out, making it look like a matter of choice. When great instructors leave the profession because they can’t survive the lifestyle, it is an injustice to our students, to faculty, and to our communities.
We’re not going through a crisis; the system we work for is the crisis.
Looking back at that interview, I wish I had asked, “What’s your five-year plan for me?” I’d like to hear their honest response: We don’t have a plan for you. It’s not likely there will be a permanent opening in the near future, and if there is one, it won’t have your name on it. You’ll have to enrich your career on your own time and your own dime. In all likelihood, within five years, you’ll find more financially and emotionally satisfying work elsewhere.
York College/City University of New York, City University of New Jersey
My lower middle class parents sent me, their only child, off to what was in the late 1970s an expensive liberal arts school to make sure that I’d be financially independent—a progressive, feminist choice in 1978, but also part of my first generation American father’s immigrant dream. It worked pretty well for quite a while, even after I went to grad school and earned an M.A. in English and came out to New York to study Medieval History. In the late 1980s, I saw the writing on the academic wall and got out before finishing my Ph.D. and incurring a huge amount of debt. Afterwards, I made a decent living with part-time and freelance editorial jobs for several years and did a little adjunct community college teaching, which paid very badly then, as it does now.
Then, for ten years I worked part-time as an editor and marketing writer for what became one of the largest environmental consulting firms in New York City, making $48,000/year. When the recession hit in 2008, that salary became a liability for the company and I was “downsized,” and decided to return to teaching and freelancing. Because of the economy, there wasn’t much freelance work either, so most of my income came from teaching at the satellite campus of a small Catholic liberal arts college in the South Bronx. The pay was laughable, worse than it had been ten years before: $1100 for a six-credit class, and I was confined to teaching 8 credits at most so the school wouldn’t have to provide benefits. I racked up three years of service there always with the tantalizing promise of joining the faculty, until I’d run through the modest inheritance from my parents, who had died the year before I was laid off.
My income fell to half of what it was and I barely managed to hang onto my cheap (for New York) apartment, until my landlady wanted to sell it. My moving expenses to a much smaller place were paid for by the generosity of friends, whom I still owe. Even though I’ve picked up courses at three colleges which pay far better than my South Bronx gig, my maximum income is still about half of what it was, sometimes a little more. At the age of 55, I now have a roommate for the first time since college, $20,000 in credit card and moving debt, Obamacare health insurance I cannot really afford even at $100/month, and not enough money to pay my taxes. I have an inadequate retirement fund started for me at my first job, a non-profit science society, but not contributed to by anyone else until recently. I’ve told all my friends I’ll probably die in the classroom because I can’t afford to retire. I’m only half joking.
Lee Kottner can be found on Twitter: @LeeKottner
I am an adjunct. There, I said it. I am something added to something else as a supplementary rather than an essential part. Though I always thought of my professors in college as essential, that is not the way most administrators view their teaching staff. I wasn’t always an adjunct but as the field of education became more corporatized and privatized throughout the early 2000s, I was slowly pushed out of my role as a secondary English and Special Education teacher. My teaching just didn’t fit with standardization and education deform.
Though I came to realize that teaching post-secondary students is really my calling, the last few years haven’t been that sweet. As an adjunct, I teach at two to three different schools a semester with as many a five different preps. The colleges for which I’ve taught all have adjunct unions; in my experience, that is just another way that colleges can keep young instructors from ever feeling comfortable. In two years, I’ve gotten on to five different adjunct lists and I’ve only taught at the same school two semesters in a row. I have never been offered a winter or summer class, so I really only get paid about six months a year. Since most of my colleagues are retired teachers who get state pensions and use adjuncting to supplement their retirement, the colleges would rather give them classes on a regular basis because they usually don’t complain when they don’t get as many or any.
Given these conditions, I rarely get the opportunity to engage in professional development either with the colleges where I teach or with regional or national groups. Over the past two years, I’ve attempted to attend workshops at the various colleges, but usually these workshops are held while I am teaching at another school; alternatively, these workshops are held at night or on weekends and adjuncts are not compensated for participation. Since I barely make enough money each semester to cover the bills while putting some money in savings to cover the four to five months a year where I don’t get paid at all, I can’t really afford to attend conferences that aren’t within driving distance. Even then, the cost to attend such conferences is usually prohibitive or the conferences are held on days when I teach and I couldn’t possibly cancel a class for my own profession development.
Over the last few months, I’ve had about half a dozen interviews for full time positions which I ultimately have not been offered. The standard line that I’ve been fed is that I need more full time experience with the administrative functions expected of college faculty: committee work and the like. Since I don’t have the time nor the access to this as an adjunct, I’m basically being told that I will never get a full time post-secondary position.