Adjunct Lecturing: A Shame And A Sham

As I’ve stated before on Thought Catalog, I work as an Adjunct Lecturer in English. Since I was an undergraduate freshman, I’ve wanted to teach English at the college level, but I never exactly had adjuncting in mind, since many of my professors were full-time faculty. Of course, many full-time English professors have PhDs — and I only have an M.A. I once did have the full-fledged dream of acquiring a PhD, but every year that I continue to adjunct, I meet more and more PhD recipients who are also adjuncts. Because of this (and other reasons), I’ve steered further and further away from that aspiration.

For those of you who are unaware, I can best describe the concept of adjunct lecturing with this imagined conversation between college administrators:

College Administrator #1: We have to find a way to cut costs.
College Administrator #2: What if we hired part-time faculty?
College Administrator #1: Twice as many teachers? I don’t know.
College Administrator #2: No, no. We give them just about the same course load, but we pay them per class at ⅕ the regular rate.
College Administrator #1: Really?
College Administrator #2: And the best part: no benefits.
College Administrator #1: You’re a genius! Will they ever buy it?
College Administrator #2: They’ll have no choice.

Year after year, more colleges across the nation are buying into this concept. According to Inside Higher Ed, in 2009, the percentage of part-time higher education faculty (41.1%) exceeded the percentage of all full-time faculty combined (tenured, tenure-track, and non-tenure-track). I’ve seen this trend where I’ve taught in the last few years: a growing number of adjuncts and a dwindling number of full-timers, especially in English departments. Where I currently teach, adjuncts comprise nearly 65% of all English faculty.

The main problem with adjuncting is this: the amount of work an adjunct puts in is greater than (never equal to) the college’s investment in that adjunct.

Most (if not all) adjuncts have either Master’s degrees or PhDs, which require years of graduate education and mountains of student debt — debt that an adjunct salary cannot afford to pay back. In fact, an adjunct’s paycheck can hardly afford sufficient rent, food, and other expenses. Plus, we are usually only given classes during Fall (September through December) and Spring (January through May) semesters — on semester-to-semester contracts — so we don’t even have guaranteed year-round employment. If you require a concrete example, then consider this: my current annual adjunct salary is less than that of a minimum wage employee working 30 hours per week. During a typical semester, I work 30 hours per week (at least) between teaching, lesson planning, reading papers, grading tests and quizzes, meeting with students, etc. All adjuncts do — at least those who teach three classes per semester, which is technically a full-time course load.

The financial insecurity doesn’t just end at the paycheck, though. If you are sick, for example, you usually only have only one or two allotted sick days per semester (depending on the college); money is then deducted from your check for every sick day after that — usually a significant chunk of change. There are no health benefits, either. Many adjuncts speculate that the major appeal of the adjuncting system is this: part-time status equals no benefits required.

Some older full-timers have told me, “Put in your adjunct time now; it’ll pay back later.” I’ll admit that this is only my third year in the game, but I wonder if what they say is true. How come I see more adjunct and fewer tenure-track positions opening up? How come I’ve met adjuncts of all ages and degrees? Just last semester, in fact, I worked with a man in his late fifties with a PhD in English Literature — and there we were, teaching the same introductory courses for the same exact pay. We both had only been at it for a few semesters.

You know what you rarely see? An experienced adjunct. We put in our full-time hours for part-time pay, so we have to take other jobs to pay the bills. Some of us take on multiple positions at multiple schools, which inevitably causes burnout. (I don’t know if you know this, but teaching five or six composition classes between several colleges is not exactly a relaxing experience.) We never get our own office, and many times we don’t get a shared office, or a desk, or even a phone number. We get tired, we get frustrated, and we realize that, after all those years of graduate schooling and all those student loan bills piling up, the adjunct game just isn’t worth it. (And, depending on how marketable our college majors are, we find full-time employment elsewhere.)

Most of all, though, adjuncting is a major drawback to students, who are paying higher tuition rates than ever. What are they getting for their money? With each passing year, they receive a growing number of financially and institutionally dissatisfied teachers — people who once had a dream of joining academia and imparting various fields of knowledge to the bright minds of tomorrow, but who are unfortunately forced out of it all. Colleges who refuse to invest in their teachers also refuse to invest in their students.

Those are my two cents (which I might need back later). TC Mark

image – Shutterstock

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