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.
A “Good Adjunct”