I am now in my second year as a contingent, adjunct instructor. For those not familiar with this terminology, it means that I am paid per class and have no guarantee of renewal in the following semester. Nationwide, adjuncts are responsible for a super-majority of college and university instruction. At my university, about 30% of faculty are adjuncts, but we deliver courses that confer about half of the credits earned by our students. I teach about twice as many classes as a tenure-stream faculty member in my department, and for less than half the pay. In other industries, short-term contracted professionals are paid upwards of double their long-term counterparts, but in higher education, we are paid (and too frequently treated) like deskilled temporary workers.

Most everything about my labor condition works against optimal teaching, but I make considerable efforts to ensure my classes exceed the standard of excellence my students deserve. I am a “second-tier” faculty member in all senses of the term—except that my courses are just as expertly devised and passionately delivered, and my student evaluations regularly place me at or above the median scores for the department, college, and university.

My contract begins and ends within the time-frame of a semester. Even though I have no job security and I am not paid for service work, I spend time advising and mentoring students from past classes. I do this because I deeply appreciate the opportunity to learn with my students, some of whom have inspired crucial adaptations to my courses, my approach to teaching them, and my research. I look forward to the job stability and workload that a tenure-stream position provides to better accommodate ongoing mentorship, particularly helping facilitate undergraduate and graduate research.

My research profoundly influences my teaching, and vice versa. As an adjunct, I do not receive institutionally- or grant- funded course releases to conduct my research. As a contingent employee, I do not qualify for most grants. Perhaps ironically, I have refereed several proposals for grants and grant-funded publications, in another example of unpaid service work that I perform. Because of my commitment to my profession and my students, and despite not being compensated in any way for my research activity, I maintain a highly active research agenda, publishing about three times a year and presenting at international conferences.

Every term, I teach at least one course that I have never taught before. When tenure-stream faculty members are developing a new course or improving an existing course, they often receive course-releases, meaning they are paid the same while teaching one fewer course that term. Most schools rely on contingent, adjunct workers to fill-in for these professors, and often by assigning those adjuncts to teach classes they have never taught before.

Usually, adjuncts do not know for certain that they will teach a course until a short period before the start of the term. Like most adjuncts, I devote considerable time to course development, often spending dozens of hours before a contract is finalized. In one case, I developed a new class that was listed late and then never offered because it did not reach an enrollment threshold.

I recognize that stating the above violates several institutionalized norms. Adjuncts are expected to convey appreciation for our positions and to never speak ill of our labor conditions, for to do so would reflect on the relatively powerful actors who facilitate our exploitation, not only limited to upper-level administrators and trustees. I am certain that our silence and insufficient challenge to adjunctification is hurting our students, and ultimately the institution of higher education. It is because I care about them that I break these taboos by writing these things.

One Response to “Teaching in the Time of Adjunctification”

  1. George

    …and you know, I’m not going to even ask if adjunctified instructors are getting health or other benefits.

    Until reading this, I was only somewhat aware of how associate profs and Ph.D. candidates are exploited by department heads and therefore by the whole structure of higher education. Through family and friends, the relationship has often been loosely referred to as “slavery”. In this blog, I’m hearing the first concrete and most succinct description and analysis and constructive argument. And for me, in my instinctual way, I suddenly see an urgent need to abolish tenure.

    After all, how ironic? In academia? This sort of exploitation? Not to mention the notion fixing folks in a position to teach our kids and in a way that they become unmovable? This with the eventual risk of certain unbending intellects and their potential reactionaryism to progressive social and political movements. (This set up for supreme court judges is bad enough.)

    I am saddened when I think of all the semesters I’ve been through as a tuition-paying student, my focus on my undergrad degree and my good grades, or concerns about my last super duper discussion post and wondering if my prof noticed how well I may have done all his tough quizzes. All while being oblivious to his/her difficult circumstances around their being my instructor and while never taking for granted their thoughtful and thorough class presentations, or clear and powerful lectures, or advice around academics or the intellectual matters at hand, or the course prep and syllabus planned out and offered and how it covers either seven or fourteen weeks with fascinating material and focus, I was never quite fully aware how each of them had been and is standing on this dangerously depthless ledge.

    This is remarkable. And this is tragic. And this needs to change immediately! Education cannot be carried out through an exploitative system! Instructors cannot be kept in an indefinite state of insecurity! Everyone — students and the world — must be made aware of the obvious injustice behind the adjunctification of our instructors and educators — an abuse of the people who play conceivably the most crucial role in the progress and political direction and overall ideological health of our society.

    Anyone else reading this reminded of our overworked and underpaid pilots in the airline industry? Anyone else alarmed?

    Now much more aware — and having also skimmed some pointless arguments on the web defending administrations and tenured academics — I will raise the issue at every opportunity. I will be taking a stand on the side of my contingent adjunct instructors. I certainly have much more to understand in this arrangement and relationship among teachers at our universities, but for now, I sense we must all take a stand to abolish tenure.

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