The Life of An #Adjunct

Yesterday a lovely art teacher and I chatted about our current woes with the workplace. She has that enviable ability to be both a skilled teacher and a fabulous artist. “You’re always going to a teacher,” she said, “you know that.”

No, I’m not, I admitted. I’m a presenter, a trainer, instructional designer, and/or an administrator. I haven’t written a syllabus or graded anybody’s work in almost two years. Maybe I’ll pick up an adjunct gig in the future, but teacher is an identity that I know I’ll never own again.

I wrote in my last post about being interviewed about my life as an adjunct, and I’d like to post the entire interview here for two reasons. 1] I have two presentations where I’m planning to discuss my ideas on how to improve professional development for adjuncts, and 2] I was going to save these ideas for another project, and today I realized that’s all silliness. I have no idea where things will be in six months, and these ideas are very much on my mind.

There are many, many writers who are taking on this topic of teacher labor, and I can’t say that I have anything new to add. I have no substantial ideas for organizing, political action, nor can I offer any solace to adjuncts. As I’ve read the news about “our historic reduction in tuition,” I’ve been troubled by the lack–if not downright omission–about the working conditions for teachers.

So, here’s what it was like for me. I’ve changed a few bits to protect the identity of the interviewer, and I don’t want to steal the thunder away from the article if/when it’s published. I also know that 1,000 of these words below will never make it to ink on the page. Here it is in the bloggity blog blog form.

1) The life of an adjunct (let’s not call ourselves associates; it’s a white-wash. Don’t you think?) is a life driven by past student debt, a poor and inequitable labor market, and minimal economic compensation. It is, in other words, unsustainable. To what degree did these forces effect your decision to leave teaching?

Yes, using other words like “associate” is akin to saying feces when it’s really shit. Sorry, you can’t print that–too crude. I agree, using other names for PT faculty gets away from their actual contingent nature. Adjuncts are, by their very title, not a permanent part of the institution. Using priority hiring by rank doesn’t address their actual need for consistent work. When I entered into the job market in 2003, I knew that things were not good for English composition instructors. I was advised, however, that there would be retirements and positions would open up. That just didn’t happen, and the recession made things worse. Having racked up significant debt made it really hard to constantly manage not getting paid for close to four months out of the year. It just seemed hopeless that I was ever going to get a job that was consistent, and it was for pure financial reasons that I went into administration. I can’t say that this was a path I saw for myself, but getting a consistent paycheck year-round has relaxed my shoulders a bit. I miss teaching and I probably always will.

2) Here is a follow up to question one. As a teacher, the combination of poor pay and lack of job security has always clashed with the message we are sending our students. One the one hand, we are teaching the under-advantaged and our promise is that education will pull them out wage-slavery and give them a better life—i.e., a livable wage.  And yet on the other hand, there we are, essentially being exploited by the same neoliberal economic system that has disenfranchised them, and will, in all likelihood, continue to do so after they graduate.  What are your thoughts here?

I found myself in a position where I had promising students who reminded me of my younger self and I could not in good faith give them advice on how to follow in my footsteps. Unlike my own professors who gave me tips and strategies on how to succeed in higher education, I found myself telling students to look for other options. One of my decisions to go back to school to change my career had to do with my dissatisfaction with not being able to mentor future teachers. How could I look a first-year first-generation student in the face and say that this was a good career path when I was paying for my own rent and groceries with a credit card? Since I am the first person in my family to graduate from college, much less go to graduate school, I feel a responsibility to help students who share a similar class background with me. Becoming a teacher is not a safe bet for anyone who was not born into the middle class. It bothered me that I couldn’t share the same advice that I received from my professors who believed in me and encouraged me.

For example, I worked for one college who hired me for fall quarter and they told me point blank they had no classes for me winter and spring. I took the job because I thought it was a foot in the door to work for them in the future. My blue collar parents taught me that hard work would eventually pay off, and as adjunct, that’s just not true. Nobody cares.

When students asked me what classes I was going teach next quarter, I had to explain to them that I wouldn’t be back until possibly next year. Maybe. One student stayed after class and apologized for not working harder because she wanted me to work there next quarter. She had tears in her eyes as she apologized for “the slackers in the class who made me not like teaching there.” This was an adult student who had learned how to read in her 30s. She loved John Grisham, and although I loathe that genre of novels, I read The Firm so we could talk about it. She was a gem. I had to explain to her that I wasn’t being hired back; I loved teaching them. It was a painful conversation. How do you explain to students what it means to be an adjunct?

3) What have you learned about the role adjuncts play in the college eco-sphere now that you are sitting at the table with the real power players—the VPs and Deans who are tasked with running the college?

On one hand, I’m really a middle middle manager, and I don’t get to sit at the table at all with the upper-administration. I’m invited to Deans Council once a year, and I report to a dean who is an advocate for online education. The major decisions about eLearning are made way above me. Faculty, departments, and divisions have more power than I do when it comes to the direction of eLearning. I’m really just glorified tech support.

On the other hand, I get to network with the eLearning Council and the state board. That work is important and we have one of the healthiest consortium collaborations that I know of in eLearning. That work has been rewarding, and I get to represent the college by advocating for teaching and learning with like-minded colleagues from around the state. The title of Director has given me many opportunities and I’m really passionate about learning more about policy at the state board level; that’s where broad sweeping change can happen for the better or for the worse. I’d wager that some of the power-players, as you call them, have no idea what I do for the college.

4) What do you think of the emphasis on vocational and professional training? Prof Tech has always been part of the junior college mission. Are things any different now? Or, to phrase the question another way, to what degree does corporate funding for Prof. Tech impact pedagogy and curriculum?

The emphasis on Prof. Tech is industry-driven in this area. If it wasn’t for Boeing, nobody outside of Washington would know of Seattle (prior to Microsoft, of course). The community college mission is to serve the local community, yet there is a fair investment from private industry. That being said, private industry is invested in training not education. There’s a difference. When the emphasis is on job skills, the liberal arts suffer. The open door policy from the Truman Commission assumed state support, and as the public investment in education deteriorates, the college has to look for other investors.

5) Do you have any thoughts on FT hiring practices? Many FT hires have come from outside the college. This is standard practice, of course, at four-years. But in the past, community colleges often hired from within.  Is this change an institutional change or just the luck of the applicant draw? Also, you spoke in a previous email about priority hiring. Forgive my ignorance, but what does that term mean, and why did you say that it was, in your view, unsustainable?

I have very little insight to the FT hiring practices, but I think you are hurting your chances as an adjunct by trying to jockey for a future position. I once was given the advice, “Keep your mouth shut until you get tenure.” Unfortunately, I think that’s sound advice. You are burning a bridge at any time with FT colleagues who may or may not like your politics, curriculum, or personality. I’ve even heard FT faculty say that s/he wouldn’t want to hire an innovative PT faculty member because he or she may make them look bad. Getting a FT job is like joining the mafia; you really don’t know how it works until you’ve been made. I was never made.

Priority hiring is the practice of scheduling adjuncts based on rank or date of hire. A more evil practice is based on course load and benefits. Some colleges will hire what is called a 2-1-2. You’re hired for two classes one quarter, one the next, and two the next. That way you’re never eligible for benefits because you have to work two consecutive quarters to qualify. The 2-1-2, albeit never truly written as policy anywhere, is a common practice to make sure adjuncts do not get benefits. The ACA is really challenging this practice, so we’ll see what happens.

6) Finally, any last thoughts? If you could tell the readers anything about the adjunct crisis in America, what would you tell them?

I would tell them that the adjunctification of teaching labor was never meant to be a career track. Yes, some working professionals teach on the side to make extra money. Yes, some retirees take on adjunct work to supplement their income and share their expertise. Yes, some people like the flexibility of being an adjunct. But really, most adjuncts want better working conditions and they care a great deal about students, their disciplines, and their careers.

Every day I was an adjunct was better than when I was a waitress, but sadly I made more hourly by asking what type of tequila people wanted in their margaritas than I ever did as a educator.

I stuck with teaching because I loved it. Most educators do not go into this profession thinking they will get rich. They do, however, think they will be able to earn a modest income to support themselves. The time they devote towards trying to make ends meet directly influences the time they should be putting towards teaching. The administration likes to focus on student success quite a bit these days but you can’t have successful students without adequate support for teachers.

Right now, we have teachers wasting their time and energy jumping hoops to apply for unemployment when they could be researching, writing, and collaborating to improve their courses for the fall.

Tuition, after all, will be lower.

About Alyson Indrunas

Always learning about instructional design, educational technology, professional development, adult education, and writing.
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9 Responses to The Life of An #Adjunct

  1. awilliams53 says:

    Key quote, ‘The administration likes to focus on student success quite a bit these days but you can’t have successful students without adequate support for teachers.’ How different would our careers and our institutions would be, and how much better for students would it be if the Higher Ed system were adequately funded and we could hire twice as many full-time faculty with the flexibility to fulfill their contracts at more than one institution or in more than just one role? You’ve given us lots and lots to chew on here, Alyson. Thanks.


    • Thank you so much–I almost deleted this last night and my friends talked me out of it. I just reread it and I’m still thinking of deleting it. It’s so scary to write about this issue but I can’t seem to let it go. Now that I’m in a position to write recommendations for adjuncts, I ache because I can’t seem to help them get hired. One out of the six that I wrote recommendations for got hired this year. All of them are amazing innovative educators with 10+ years experience. I’m also very very very lucky that I took advantage of the state tuition waiver before the R1s started to scale it back.

      Your idea about the FT multi-institution multiple role could really help the tenured folks who are bored and a bit frustrated with the lack of opportunities post-tenure. Jennifer Whetham at the SBCTC is passionate about this very issue and I’d love to see her vision come to fruition someday. Watch for her “post-tenure gap” presos and pubs. She’s got the answer.


  2. Lisa Chamberlin says:

    You know I really believed I coined the term “full time adjunct” due to my own experiences, remember? Oh, I was so naive as to the sheer number of us…

    As an educator with a really diverse background in all of the venues of educational hiring – from K12 to higher ed to corporate learning – its easy to see the problems are bigger than any one institution’s abuse of adjunct labor.

    As long as there are state level funding models that incentivize taking advantage of the part time labor force to avoid local level payout of benefits, the local institutions will take advantage of it to balance their budgets that have been brutally hacked for the last decade – and this part of the institutional labor force will continue to grow and outnumber the tenured folks. Tenure is expensive. The benefits, including perks like sabbaticals, are really expensive. What we are seeing here and around the country is a logical result.

    The administrator in me wants to understand this and say: Its not personal, its budgetary.

    The adjunct life I experienced, however, says “All budgets (or budget cuts) are personal.”

    This topic sounds like such great fodder for a project/presentation…oh wait 😉


    • It will always be personal to me and that’s a flaw in my administrative perspective (as I’ve been told). Back when you were a person I just read on the Internet and quoted in papers (WTF), I had no idea YOU were an adjunct. For some reason, I pictured you as a freelancing magician with the career that I wanted. Even though you had mentions of being PT, I still admired you as a woman I’d like to be. There were many on the eLC that I had looked up to as well who shared similar stories and heartbreak in education. It just rearranged my entire perspective.

      And I get the budget just-in-time hiring bladdy blah blahs, but I really think it’s more expensive in the long-term both in terms of student learning and institutional resources. The constant onboarding, training, and minutiae involved with bringing new people in does not save money. I think academics adjust better to new teaching gigs because most of them have experience in grad school and the like. Prof. Tech, as you know, is such a drain on CCs. Unlike the academics who often just need to know how to make copies and how to cash their paychecks, the Prof. Tech folks have no pedagogical background or other useful knowledge like how to write a syllabus, assessments, etc. We, in eLearning, get hit the worst by supporting these teachers. We can never get beyond the basics because of the constant turnover. My instructional designer spends about 70% of his time and efforts with the Prof. Tech. Don’t get me wrong, I love helping them but we’re struggling to meet the needs of all teachers across the spectrum because we spend so much time with onboarding type stuff. We also do not require any faculty member to take Canvas training (a policy I inherited) and it’s a crappy system. Green clouds good! Grey clouds bad! Ugh, our poor students. Hover and discover–all of these cute sayings just to help people get up to speed with Canvas. I can’t imagine how much of a nightmare it was with Crackboard or ANGELDevil.
      I know tenure is expensive but the shared governance is suffering under the weight of people who abuse it. The usual suspects and the go-getters get so burned and burned out by the folks who do the bare minimum. Not to mention the FT faculty who take on 6-7 sections because they can. I get the money aspect but they have those loads because of OL classes and robot content. I think somebody brilliant has posed the question that if a robot can replace you, then it should. Now *that’s* a preso to look forward to:)


  3. awilliams53 says:

    I’ve been an adjunct, as have most of us. It sucks, it’s temporary, and for me, a valuable experience to be able to understand what most of them are going through, with families, rent, health care, etc. And, yes, it’s always personal, and most of the folks I work with, administrators as well as, faculty, get it.


  4. Lisa Chamberlin says:

    “it’s temporary” – unfortunately, I think this is less and less true. I have seen some “full time adjuncts” who have been in that role for years, and unless someone dies, they will remain that way if they want to remain teaching for us, as there will be no new tenure positions created, but the need for sections remains.


  5. I think it used to a temporary thing, and that’s the magical thinking I used to hold onto–like I was putting in my time or earning my stripes. Now, it’s truly hopeless for some disciplines. Look at how many “departments of one” there are in the CC system. And let me emphasize a fact, we are lucky in WA compared to other states with benefits and wages. I have a retirement plan because of FT faculty who lobbied for PT faculty benefits. My peers in other states with the same CV as me have nothing.


  6. awilliams53 says:

    I agree that the relative position of PT faculty in WA state is better than many other places, particularly in the ‘right to work’ states. However, Higher Education in general, and Community Colleges in particular, are in a labor-intensive, talent-based industry. Students succeed because of the commitment, effort and skill of talented, caring teachers, not because of technology, support systems or guided pathways. To do that job well, we need to attract, retain and nurture that talent, and that means to invest in the people who have taken the vow of poverty to work in Community Colleges. Sometimes it gets frustrating to do all of this on the cheap most of the time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Agreed on the frustration and the Orwellian named “Right to Work” states. I suppose what I’ve been most frustrated about is the appalling reality that institutional leaders do not see the point in investing in adjuncts because they will just “get a job someplace else.” This is a perspective that I can’t get behind when so many of our “I-5 flyers” teach at two-three different schools within the same community just to make a living wage. They claim to understand that, but they don’t unless they’ve lived that experience.


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