Post Academic

Don’t let being an adjunct make you mad (Part 3 of a series)

"Lol cat angry" by Cro0016 (Creative Commons license)

So I promised I would end this series on what makes me mad about teaching by being more constructive and stepping outside the solipsistic navel gazing of my own experiences.  That’s why I’m going into what makes me mad about being an Adjunct or Lecturer or Contingent Faculty or cheap labor or whatever they call it where you are.  I should say in advance that I’m not an adjunct agitator myself or a future freeway flyer, though I’ve gained more and more respect for those folks over the years–and it’s not just because I’ve stepped into their shoes just a little bit.  It takes a lot to stick with being an adjunct, considering how you have to persevere in underpaid jobs with pretty much no chance for a promotion and deal with the uncertainties of having classes assigned to you or cancelled at a moment’s notice.  For a better sense of adjunct-oriented issues on a national scale, check out the New Faculty Majority website or read the piece Caroline has been linking on the matter, “Confessions of a Tenured Professor”.

I should begin by saying that the way I handled being mad about adjuncting is that I stopped being one.  I am grateful that I got a chance to teach classes that were related to my research and that I found out a lot more about how I feel about teaching in general, but I couldn’t deal with a lot of the slights and anxieties full-time contingent faculty put up with much more admirably than I ever could.  And I was definitely luckier than most, in that I had mentors, friends, and staff who looked out for me and offered me opportunities to help me hang on from one academic job cycle to the next when I couldn’t or refused see the writing on the wall.

Still, the precarious day-to-day condition and the perpetual mindtrip of being a Lecturer couldn’t help but make me mad, which I explain below the fold…

I’m angry about the uncertainty: Beyond being the thing I trained for and scratched-and-clawed to get over an almost decade-long period, my Ph.D. was supposed to confer a little piece of mind and some financial security.  My Asst Prof brethren might think I’m being naive in thinking that the tenure track offers a lot of stability and they’re probably right, but I’m pretty sure it beats being on a constant, overlapping quarter-to-quarter job cycle and skimming through a bunch of HR sites only to find you missed the application deadlines.  Even when you are teaching, it’s hard to focus on the matter at hand some times, because you have to start thinking about the next batch of adjunct jobs for the following quarter and the following year and so on…

And when/if you do get an adjunct position, there’s a lot of uncertainty about whether you’ll get paid if your class doesn’t make a minimum enrollment, when your pay cycle begins, if you get office space, how the particular dept/program operates.  That’s not to mention a more existential anxiety of what your students call you, which really reflects your liminal, contingent status–would that be Prof. Pan, Dr. Pan, Arnold, You?  Then you know what happens next?  Once you figure things out, the term is over and you go through it all again.

I’m angry because of authority issues: I mentioned in my first post about how being young-looking doesn’t really help inspire a lot of awe and fear in your students.  Add to that your uncertain status as contingent faculty, and it’s tough to feel any sense of authority over the class–if you can’t figure out what you want people to call you, it’s probably hard to know where you stand and how to convey that sense of command.  Administratively, you’re also not entirely sure what your status is and how heavy a stick you can wield when you’re really just a guest in the dept.  Having to be overly deferential to everyone–students, standing faculty, staff–made me feel, as an adjunct, contradictory feelings of either having no stake in the department or having too much at stake by trying to impress, whether it was to pad my CV or in case I needed another temporary position in the same program.  What I should’ve felt was free rein to do what I thought was right, taking advantage of my freedom as a Lecturer to go about things the way I wanted to.  At least, it would’ve helped my mental health and it’s not like it probably would’ve affected my prospects, for better or worse, on the academic job market anyway.

I‘m angry about being paid a fraction of what my classmate makes on the tenure-track: To be crass about it, it’s maddening to beg and to swallow your pride over and over again just to get paid a third of–or even a quarter of–what my friends make on the tenure track.  I definitely don’t mind paying my dues and making a little less now if there’s something more on the horizon, but it is galling that someone with the same credentials I have teaching some of the same classes I am makes three or four times more than I do.  I know academia isn’t fair and that the academic job cycle is a crapshoot, but it doesn’t make you less mad about it.  Heck, there was even a chance that I was being paid less as a Lecturer than the grad student TAs I was supervising were making!

What’s worse is when you start going into class looking at your students as dollar signs, and realizing that just one kid’s tuition could pay for your salary that quarter.  I know the calculation isn’t that easy, but when you’re getting paid less than $2000/month to teach a 150+ student lecture at a top research institution, there’s something out of whack.  At least consciously, I don’t think it affected my work in the classroom or that I shortchanged my class, but I imagine having those thoughts go through my head didn’t exactly help me get into the right mindset either.

At some point, the key thing I learned about being an adjunct–or even a tenure-tracker, as I’ve heard from some of friends–is not see academia as a vocation as has somehow been ingrained in us ideology-debunking intellectuals, but as a profession like any other.  Of course, you always want to do a good job, whether it’s because you (like me) are wired that way or there’s some kind of material incentive for doing so.  But what I learned from being mad about the financial inequities of being an adjunct is that you do the best you can for what you get paid to do.  I might expect more from myself, but I realize too that there should be a limit to what I can give–be it in terms of my skills, psychic energy, cheap labor–to a university apparatus that’s set up never to return the favor.


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