The Worst Time of the Year to Be an Adjunct Professor

Because these instructors work on a contingent basis, the end of each semester brings anxiety and insecurity: Will I be picked to work again?
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Near the end of every semester, college adjuncts are caught in a reverse Hunger Games. Instead of hoping against hope that they won’t be picked, adjuncts bead sweat and pray that their names will be selected. Being picked means you get to eat in the spring or fall. Not so lucky? Better start looking for a new source of employment.

Adjuncts operate on a contingent basis. Each semester is a blank slate. Adjuncts can’t expect past semesters to inform future job prospects. One only need consider the case of Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct at Dusquesne University in Pittsburg. After working at Dusquesne for 25 years as an adjunct, she was summarily relieved of her duties, then at 83, and shortly died from cancer.

She received no health or retirement benefits from her employer during her stint and, certainly, received nothing after not being asked back to teach. Her time teaching was spent living in poverty. And her case of summary termination is not uncommon.

Adjuncts face this insecurity on a regular basis. With wildly divergent pay scales, the average English adjunct (I am one) receives $2,727 per course. This low rate of pay contrasts sharply with the role adjuncts play at universities and colleges. Between 1975 and 2007, adjuncts grew from 43.2 percent of university faculty to 68.7 percent. This coincided with tenured, full-time faculty representation falling from 56.8 percent to 31.2 percent. More and more of the least paid faculty members are taking on increasing responsibilities.

These insecurities weigh heavily on adjuncts. We have to always have one eye on our classroom and the other on the horizon. With no assurances of continued employment, we become gypsy professors, transient, never laying our heads on the same spot for long. This has to take a toll on how we educate students.

As an adjunct, I teach five courses across two different institutions. All five courses are introductory composition and filled with college freshman. Despite my dedication and education, I am still a wet-behind-the-ears professor. I’ve just embarked on my teaching career but am expected, and little-supported, to engage students on their first semester.

For the upcoming spring semester, I’ve only been given four courses, all Composition II Many of my current Composition I students plan on taking my classes again. I’m grateful that they believe in my abilities enough to trust their futures with me. Yet, not everyone can see me in the spring. Based on the simple math that five courses’ worth of students need to fit into four, some are going to be shut out. I want to be there for them but, simply put, can’t.

Data cited by Scott Jaschik of Inside High Ed shows that freshman students are far less likely to remain at institutions if exposed to under-supported adjunct faculty members. Full-time faculty members and adjuncts that receive adequate resources, such as pay and guarantees of employment, can be a check on this tendency. If adjuncts know they’re welcome to stay awhile, they can unpack their belongings and form  relationships with their students and the culture at their institution.

Considering that college retention rates nationwide, barely crack two-thirds, institutions would be well suited to ensuring that their adjuncts are supported. These are the instructors that staff the introductory, survey courses that freshmen take. It isn’t until much later in students’ careers that they encounter core faculty members that staff the more advanced courses. By that time, it may be too late.

Turning freshmen off of school, or forcing them to another institution and thereby delaying their graduation, disrupting their experiences, or adding to their debt, has to be seen as a violation of higher education’s mission to further human flourishing.

Those that instruct freshmen should be the most supported of all faculty members, given all the guarantees in the world that their work matters, that their presence at the academy is valued, that they won’t be told to not come back.

I consider myself lucky that I’m getting those classes in the spring. I’m grateful to teach, to work, to earn money to feed myself. But this hand-to-mouth existence shouldn’t be the norm. The injustices suffered by adjuncts, justified by budgetary necessity, ends up hurting students. That is the last thing institutional policy should impede. Under-supported adjuncts means under-engaged students.

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James Orbesen is a writer based in Chicago. His writing has appeared in Salon, The New Humanism, and Jacobin.

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