Everything Will Be Just Fine, Dear Army of Adjuncts!

I started teaching in the US in 2003, in my second year of doctoral studies, at my own doctoral institution, I then started teaching at a local college on a more or less regular basis (at least one class a semester, including summers) in the fall of 2005. So I have, more or less, 9 solid years of teaching experience. Not much have changed since I started teaching though. My department does not have any system of encouraging the old-timers, there is no seniority system or any system of ranks between adjuncts – just like in the majority of departments in this country. There is a contract for a semester, there is a pay per class (slightly increasing over the years, but still very low), there is an occasional email from the chair, and that’s about it. I do know several full-time members personally, they are all nice people, they all understand that adjuncts get a shitty deal – perhaps they even work behind the scenes to improve the situation – but nothing has changed so far and it is not likely to change. In short, adjuncts are forever!

This isn’t yet another post about how the system is broken and so on – there is already plenty of such material on the internet. This is a short version of what might be labeled as “adjuncts as fools” theme. There are three myths that most adjuncts, I think, buy into (I certainly do all the time):

1) Adjuncts are the junior colleagues of the full-time faculty members. This is the easier one to dispel as almost all adjuncts know that this might only be the case in a very small school – the general tendency is for a large state school to have half or more of its classes taught by contingent labor. It is simply not possible to include this large hord of desperately-seeking-employment folks into any sort of institutional setting. So they don’t sit on committees, they are mostly absent from any real decision-making, they are hired for a semester and are not consulted about even the small things like the number of students they will have. I have been lucky to have great department with good people in it, but institutionally we are on different planets. Always were and will always be.

2) Teaching part-time is a “foot in the door” for any future full-time teaching, it is a way to demonstrate your skills in order to secure a full-time job in the future. If this is the case, then there has to be hundreds and hundreds of feet in one large but prohibitively difficult to open door. With the amount of classes that are in need of part-time instructors, it is just silly to imagine that the good ones will stay and the bad ones will be weeded out. There is no real system of doing so, not when so many hours are at stake. I don’t personally know of any cases where a horrible teacher was fired or asked not to come back, but even if those exist, they are rare. Student evaluations and even faculty evaluations seem to be just hoops to jump through. I never received a low mark on any of those, but if I did, I have no clue as to what would happen. Without any system of either promotion or even simple recognition of service, adjuncts are the best renewable energy out there – every semester I am just as new as any other adjunct. My years of teaching do not count, because there is no system in place to count them. If I stopped teaching tomorrow, a new adjunct would be hired in my place – perfect replaceability – and I will be gone without a trace.

3) Teaching part-time for many years after one finished a PhD and before one secured a full-time job is unpleasant but it is a “rite of passage” – there are people who made it and they will all appreciate your dedication once you too make it to the other side. Perhaps it is a rite of passage for those who made it, but it is so only retrospectively. For the majority of adjuncts, without any discernable pattern of points one must collect or levels one must beat, it is a quest without any identifiable destinations. Adjuncts lack any sort of class consciousness here precisely because they are already “there” – in the full-time teaching world – everyone around them is competition. They don’t have any sense of collectivity – any attempt to organize them at my school failed again and again. And it probably failed at your school as well. The rite of passage story only works for a very small minority who are able to get full-time positions and then turn right back and chide the “losers” – “I was able to make it, why can’t you? Work harder, publish in better journals, survive on even less money! You are lucky to be here, once you make it, we’ll have a beer and laugh about it. But until then, keep at it (and remember that you are not like me, you are a scrub, I am the real deal).”

Or something like that…

4 thoughts on “Everything Will Be Just Fine, Dear Army of Adjuncts!

  1. I had the pleasure of meeting Joe Berry this weekend. He’s written a book very relevant to this post… I haven’t read it yet but have talked to him about it in some detail. His thesis is that, like what you say here, the position adjunct professors find themselves in should not be normalized, but should be actively fought against through organization (unionization).

    This appeals to me especially because I see the humanities, insofar as they are influenced by postmodernism, poststructuralism, postmarxism, post-etc…ism, is the refuge of the theoretical legacy of enlightenment philosophy and Marxism, having been forcibly amputated from its practical embodiment in revolutionary socialist politics. Unfortunately, and obviously, this legacy has not survived its traumatic mishandling without serious, perhaps crippling deformity. If it is to be rehabilitated at all, the present day stewards of this legacy must must grasp and fight against the politically regressed condition of which they are among the victims, and recognize the essence of their professional work as integrally, and not tangentally, related to such struggle.

    • Thanks, Reid. I will definitely take a look. I think I understand what you mean by “normalization” but I tend to think that if indeed the situation was openly accepted as “normal” by the adjuncts themselves, then the move toward some change would be easier to take. That is to say, while I agree that this should not be allowed to become normal, there is a certain value in contingent faculty themselves realizing that this is a new normal. When they (we) figure out that this is how things are meant to be, that this is not some transitional stage, then perhaps more will be done to change the situation. So far I think many just think of this as some sort of temporary situation, some kind of transitory period that they just need to wait out and then the jobs will come!

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