The Myth of the Good Adjunct

The Myth of the Good Adjunct

To All Adjuncts, Full-Timers, and Administrators:

            Having taught as an adjunct for approximately 11 years now, I’ve undergone, as I feel all adjuncts eventually do, an evolution in how I see myself and other adjuncts, and while I have always felt that I held my colleagues in high esteem, and certainly still do, early on in my career, I was sadly a believer in the myth of the “good adjunct.”

What, you may ask, is the myth of the “good adjunct”?  Well, it’s essentially the belief that simply by the demonstration of great teaching skills and or performing extra service for a given department, school, or institution, that an adjunct will be inevitably awarded the coveted full-time or contract position.  In truth, the path to becoming a full-timer is often Byzantine, narrow, and as one full-timer who happened to become the local union president once told me, “akin to winning a lottery.”

The problem with this myth is that it creates tension and disunity among adjunct communities, grows serious self-doubt and depression in adjuncts, and creates both chronic social and institutional barriers between adjuncts and contracts.

To see this, let’s take the example of Jenny.  Jenny was, through most of her educational career, an outstanding student.  When growing up, Jenny would often not only meet, but exceed the academic expectations put upon her.  Jenny may or may not have gone to a top flight academic institution, but she went to one with likely a very solid academic reputation, and there she did very well, and then went on to graduate school.  She may have done well enough to have even gotten a Ph.D., or perhaps because of marriage, children, other professional interests, or simply, because she ran out of money, had to “settle” for a Master’s degree.  When in grad school, she may have been one of the top students who was “lucky” enough to get a graduate teaching position, which privileged her to teach classes for less than a living wage, which also meant she couldn’t quit her bartending gig, but hey, it was an opportunity…

Anyway, Jenny, with degree in hand, sets out to a get a job teaching in a subject near and dear to her heart.  This may be at a four-year institution, but more than likely, it is at a local community college.  She may have tried to initially apply for a full-time position, and upon not getting the position, decided to apply for one of the many adjunct positions available in comparison to the full-timer openings, which themselves seem like distant, yet attainable shiny diamonds to her.

Now a new adjunct, at maybe not just one, but maybe even three institutions, Jenny plunges into her work with great vivacity and self-assurance.  While maybe not religious, she’s a firm believer in at least one notion of the protestant work ethic that if you simply work hard enough, show great initiative, and are just plain plucky, that coveted full-time position will be yours.  She faithfully attends department meetings, and has a great rapport with the full-timers in her department. Her students, for the most part, like her.  She might go on to join the school academic senate, take on committee or task force work, or do extra time in an academic center helping students, for all of which she is uncompensated, but told she is “appreciated” or “valued.”  She’ll even try to spend hundreds of dollars to go to some out-of-town professional conference with the idea that the knowledge gained therein will make her more “marketable”.

All this work is a real challenge for Jenny, because she may be doing this at multiple institutions and have to either juggle or forgo dealing with family, friends, or even addressing her own personal health.  This may lead to very serious issues for Jenny down the road, like divorce, alienation from her children, depression, diabetes, or heart trouble. Still, Jenny knows that a full-time position for her department at at least one of her schools will be coming up, so she perseveres.

Now and again, Jenny will talk to other older adjuncts, who to her seem either burned out or bitter.  They’re always griping about those “no good students” or bemoaning things from crazy scheduling, to poor classroom facilities, to odd administrative requests.  She may even find herself thinking that the reason they’re still adjuncts is because they’re simply not as competent, or just have “a bad attitude.”  Every now and then, some adjunct will talk about how other adjuncts need to organize, and she’ll maybe agree in principle, but think they’re too radical, undiplomatic, disorganized, and marginalized to get anything done. And anyway, there’s a full-time position opening up at one of her schools.   Certainly, she’s been working hard and will have a shot at getting the position as opposed to those “whiners”.

Jenny applies, and in fact, she’s one of the lucky few to get an interview.  She knows that there were probably more than 100 people who applied for the same job—now it’s down to some 15-20 candidates.  She goes to the interview, head high and proud, eager to show her talents, and she does.  She feels confident after the interview, and so she waits for that call, for perhaps another interview, or the prized job offer.  It never comes.  Another person has been chosen for the job, and in some cases, it may be someone who has never worked at the school before.

Disappointed but not defeated, Jenny repeats this process several times, to no avail.  Increasingly depressed, she complains to one of the old-timers and discovers that they have gone through even more interviews.  Some may have even made it to the final three candidates twice, and yet they’re still sitting in the cubicle next to Jenny in the adjunct office, if in fact, the department or school even has one.  At some of the institutions in which even such recognition is given, she will find that some of her “bitter and burned out” adjuncts have won awards like “adjunct of the year”, and are still serving in academic senate or curricular committees and going to conferences.

Jenny then begins to think about things which she knew about all along, but over time have gotten to her.  She will sometimes have a larger cumulative teaching load at her various schools and make half as much as her full-time colleagues with the same level of teaching experience.  If she’s lucky, she might have insurance, but is often more likely to have only a percentage of her health care plan paid for if she has insurance at all for herself, let alone any children if she has any.  During the summer months, when there is limited work, depending on the state she lives in, there is no pay.  She also sees that she’s been working for years at a job in which she is employed semester by semester, and at some institutions be fired without cause.

However, if she is fired, it’s more likely to be because of budget cuts or low enrollment, because full-time positions are protected first, no matter what.

When she confides in her full-time colleagues about her feelings, they sympathize, because after all, they were “once adjuncts too”.  She’ll also begin to think of things a bit differently.  When she hears how Rob, one of her full-time colleagues, went on a trip to France over the Summer, or how another full-timer, Jane, and her husband just bought a new home in a good section of town, she’ll be happy for them, but at the same time, a bit sad.  She recalls the conversation with other adjuncts of how it’s easy to get good professional-looking clothing at the Amvets Thrift Store, or how one adjunct colleague with three children just got evicted and is living with them in her station wagon.

Disheartened, and perhaps needing to catch up with the rest of her life, she stops going so often to the department meetings, or when she goes, says a little too much about one thing or another, which makes the full-timers in the room quietly resentful of her.  Sensing this, she stops going to meetings altogether, and both she and the full-timers are quietly pleased.  She also scales back her involvement in other work-related activities, doing only those things that she feels are of intrinsic value to her psyche.

In spite of all this, she still loves to teach, but a bit less so over time, and increasingly entertains the possibility of doing something else.  As one full-timer put it to me once,  if she quits she will have “gotten the message.”

However, the problem is that Jenny by now is maybe over 40 years of age, has been an academic for 20+ years, so her options have narrowed considerably. The other problem is that Jenny’s work is still in demand.  Her classes are almost always full and the various schools still want to offer her as much as they can—they just don’t to offer her benefits, job security, or official recognition of a career.

The fact of the matter is Jenny is a “good adjunct”, but it’s highly likely she’ll never become a “good full-timer”.

To all adjuncts, if you have managed to survive at least few rounds of student and teacher evaluations, hold your head high always, you are a “good adjunct”.  At the same time, while taking positive stock of your own self-worth, recognize that the people you work with are “good adjuncts” too.  Moreover, whether you achieve the goal of the full-time position, you are not only a “good adjunct”, but a good teacher, and in this regard, no different from your full-time colleague, who is in fact, a good teacher too.

And to full-timers, as we recognize that you are good teachers, do the same to us in kind, not simply with kind words and paper recognitions, but with concrete steps to either reduce the adjunct nation, or tangibly improve the working conditions of adjuncts, from salary and benefits, to job security, professional development, and departmental inclusion.

Sincerely,

Geoff Johnson

A “Good Adjunct”

 

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NPR report on tragic adjunct death: we are Margaret Mary

http://www.npr.org/2013/09/22/224946206/adjunct-professor-dies-destitute-then-sparks-debate

I was reading the long stream of 370 comments that followed the article and was struck by a number of posters who comment that adjuncts were more or less fools for taking the job. I read things like, “Why not quit?”  We all have to be aware that many comments are not thoughtful. It doesn’t take much to blurt out a shallow opinion from an egocentric position. The truth of the matter is that many adjuncts think of quitting all the time, but it is easier to think of it than it is to actually go out and find a better job. Further, most adjuncts are living in a delusion that if they work hard enough, then a full time job will be around the corner; after all, they are highly qualified for the position.  Adjuncts don’t quit because they love teaching, because it is noble and healthy for their conscience as opposed to the vast majority of people who follow an amoral (immoral) economy, an economy that prefers bomb builders. Adjuncts don’t quit because they are tied to the very need of the paycheck and there is no savings to carry them from one job to the next. Adjuncts are poor unless there is pre-existing family wealth or their spouse carries a larger purse. Adjuncts don’t quit because they are fighters, dreaming of the day that they might stand up and fight the just war against the exploitation of themselves and their communities.  Sadly, they continue to lose the battles. But how can you ask them to quit when those battles are for the very hearts, minds, and souls of our children?

John D. Rall -A Good Adjunct

When Students Have No Advisors

When Student Have No Advisors (2013)

 

I have been teaching for nearly 10 years at San Diego Mesa College in the English Department. I enjoy teaching, and I am thoroughly committed to students and to the mission of improving both their personal English skills and their ability to function in the world with others.  I have often taken initiative to create community outreach programs. One program I created and ran for 4 years was a service learning writing project focused on community outreach to help align the curriculums between local high schools and community colleges.

Last semester, my students were reading and investigating food issues in the United States. There is overwhelming evidence that our food supply is contributing to the obesity epidemic, rising rates of allergies, and rising rates of diabetes, and that giant corporations are governing the public federal agencies of the USDA and the FDA as well as contributing heavily to lobbying for their advantage over the health of our children. My students researched and debated in class and in their writings about what roles kids, parents, corporations, and the government play in the obesity epidemic. After numerous discussions, the students decided that it would be a good idea to start a club that is focused on food issues to raise awareness and to empower the community through education. They went out and gathered signatures of fellow students who were interested in starting a food sustainability club. It was obvious that it was very popular and the students and myself understood that it would benefit the school, the students, and the larger community of San Diego.

It was impressive to see how motivated and inspired they became. I heard them talk about creating educational workshops that they could create on campus and to take to local grade schools. They spoke of “planting days” on campus and sharing knowledge about how to grow healthy organic produce.  They even thought of finding healthy alternatives to the cafeteria foods that are certifiably unhealthy. After the signatures and the brainstorming, it came time for the students to file the official papers to start the club. As their professor, I was honored that the ideas came from my class and that the students thought that I should be their advisor. I signed the papers and the student leaders of the club in waiting went to file them, and this is where the adjunct moment struck.

One of the highly motivated students leading the charge to start this club returned to my class looking a bit distraught.  I could see confusion and sadness in his expression as he approached me and told me that I could not be his advisor. He seemed to look at me like I was not qualified or that I had misled him. I was sort of taken aback. He proceeded to inform me that the administration does not allow adjunct faculty to be advisors to student clubs.  I thought it strange, and quickly, I was engulfed in the same confusion. I couldn’t understand why an instructor that has been teaching religiously at the institution for nearly 10 years could not serve as an advisor to a student club, a club that would bring value to the campus. Why on earth would the administration not want faculty to be more engaged and invested in the well being of the students, the campus, and the community?

I decided to investigate why adjuncts are barred from advising student clubs by approaching my dean. The dean was curious and had no answer for me, so he told me that he would investigate and get back to me.  Through my Dean I learned that the administration does not want adjunct faculty to be advisors because they do not want to have to compensate them for the time they serve the students. Adjunct instructors cannot have more than a 67% load, and adding time as an advisor is not permitted. I also learned through my dean that the school has had cases where an adjunct gained over 67% and it led to the full time hiring of that adjunct on technical contract grounds. The administration learned their lesson and closed the loophole that allowed adjunct faculty to gain full-time employment.  Thus, the administration, rather than helping students to flourish in leadership roles, finds it more prudent to keep adjunct faculty in their dead-end positions.  I learned that it doesn’t pay to be a good adjunct when trying to do the right thing for the students.

I offered to be an advisor as a volunteer, but the school is highly skeptical of such altruism and does not want to take a chance.  Learning that the school only wants me to be an expendable low paid instructor, I proceeded to do justice for the students and petition full-time faculty to be an advisor to the Food Sustainability Club.  None have stepped forth. The fact is that there are not enough full-timers anymore and full-timers are already stretch too thin with committees and classes that a student club that is highly needed and valuable to the students and the community is dying before it sees a day of life.

What happens when students no longer have advisors? The innovative leadership qualities these students demonstrate are callously circumvented by a unjust business model of education. The students suffer because their energies and intelligences are brushed off as unimportant. The school suffers the loss of prestige as the students no longer represent excellence, and the majority faculty remains powerless to improve their student’s, and their own exploited position. What happens when students don’t have advisors?  Firstly,  it creates a system where students remain passive and unengaged and professors give up on trying to herald a progressive education rounded fully in quality.  I hope that we can all see the negative consequences that come from the adjunctification of our institutions and see the dismantling of avenues for top end quality education. Student clubs are important to students and to all of us and to kill them through adjunctification is an abhorrent assault on our students and communities.

Some have said that you can see how the administration thinks of the students by how they treat their professors.

A Good Adjunct!

John. D. Rall

jrall@sdccd.edu