Dispatches From Adjunct Faculty at a Large State University
Read more by Oronte Churm at insidehighered.com/churm.
BY Oronte Churm
My sister gets a bucketload of satisfaction from telling her friends and co-workers that I’m a professor. I’m not, of course. I’m a lecturer, which means I will never hold the title of professor at this university. I’m adjunct faculty: “connected to a larger or more important thing”; “something added to but not essentially a part of the thing,” as the dictionaries say. It means being adjacent to, not inside, the winner’s circle.
I teach in the English Department of what I’ll be calling Hinterland University, Inner Station campus. It’s a Big 10 school, with enough very polite (mostly white suburban) kids to form two or three infantry divisions in Iraq, which most will never have to consider.
I like my job, and sometimes friends and acquaintances envy me. After all, they say, there are those three reasons for teaching: June, July, and August, haw haw. Young men wink and say “co-eds” to me, as if they came of age in some timeless randy past, where they went necking in Dad’s Studebaker, unbeknownst to the parson, who was still doing the Lindy Hop back at Elvis’s barn raising.
A woman I know, fixated on some image of freedom, can’t not tell me repeatedly about some prof she knew who spent every moment out of the classroom playing Frisbee in his bare feet on the quad. And my friend Frenchy wants to know if I can get the school to send me somewhere that’s sort of broken down and cheap but beautiful, maybe with a colonial influence, where he can go along and drink beer, like, say, Laos.
People often tell me it must be nice to read novels for a living, then they confess they’ve often thought of quitting their jobs as technology managers, art directors, heart surgeons, etc., “to do a little teaching.” (Later they tell me their plans to make cheesecakes at home and sell them by the slice to restaurants, as I stare at dog-hair tumbleweeds rolling across their kitchen in the moist air from the floor vents.)
I’ll be the first to admit, there’s a lot to like in my position. Teaching is, generally, the best job I’ve ever had, and I’ve tried soldiering, advertising, retail, food service, graphic-arts production, and other jobs. Teaching never bores me, and that counts for a lot.
Teaching at HU is even more desirable. Many adjuncts nationwide subsist on a steady diet of freshman composition or business-writing classes, but my classes have been a mix of lower-level literature, rhetoric, and creative-writing classes. Elsewhere, instructors must teach four (or more) sections each semester to be considered full-time; here, it’s three. I have complete freedom in the classroom—actually, no supervision at all, other than turning in my syllabus to the department head, and the usual student evaluations at the end of each semester—and can push myself and my students as much or as little as I want. Last semester I taught Emerson, Thoreau, and Melville in succession, and the intensity of the experience had me feeling like I might sob into my puttanesca each night. Lately I’ve experimented with having students make short films using digital camcorders and iMovie in one of our educational technology labs.
As an adjunct, I’m not permitted to teach in the summer, but my salary is paid over 12 months, so I spend the time with my son, write, and paint the house. Real-estate prices are still reasonable here, and my wife and I bought a beautiful old Italianate with 10-foot ceilings on the National Historic Register. There’s a farmers’ market and the state’s most progressive midwifery program in town. If I wanted to play Frisbee on the quad in my bare feet, I could do it.
Yet there is something niggling about this being left outside. It can, as Frenchy says, give you a case of the ass. (My first week here, I overheard two emeriti in the hallway railing against adjuncts: “They’re paying these so-called teachers,” one said. I earn one-third [or less] of their salaries at retirement.)
Fifteen years ago there was a conversation between Hinterland U’s provost and its chief accountant, which went something like this:
Moneyman: “Corporations are letting all their employees go and hiring temps. They pay temps less, cut their benefits, and can fire them without explanation at any time.”
Administrator: “Hot damn. How do I get me some of that?”
Thus the trend for outsourced labor, and when I was hired five years ago there were already some 50 adjuncts in HU’s Department of English. We taught almost 40 percent of all undergraduate English classes, without professors’ pay or the same benefits, without job security, much respect, or many opportunities for professional development. For the corporate university, this was a thrilling accomplishment, ranking up there with selling out to even bigger corporations, such as Pepsi and Macintosh, by offering them exclusive branding deals and a captive audience of young people with disposable income. For adjuncts hired in the long, slow buildup, it was a hard blessing.
My wife and I came to Hinterland U because she is an alum and wanted her dream job on campus, a reliable position that does not involve teaching. When I was hired as a lecturer, the human-resources rep said I needn’t worry about signing up for state retirement; according to her, adjuncts were fired (by the euphemism of “contracts not renewed”) after four years, before the state was required to vest them in their plans. Still, I heard rumors of one adjunct in the English Department who’d been here 15 years. I cornered the assistant to the director of rhetoric in a bar and asked him how long I might expect to keep my job. He was an older Ph.D. candidate whom I liked and respected, and who would become an adjunct himself when his funding ran out. He took a long drag off his smoke and said seriously, “As long as you aren’t caught fucking a student … on your desk … during class … you’ll never lack for work.”
But the stocks in Hinterland’s portfolio fell after 9/11, and a state budget crisis prompted the moneyman to whisper again in the provost’s ear: “We must revert to an older model and get rid of all these scabs. Never mind if they’re buying houses and raising children here; we warned them that it wasn’t real work. Put it like this: A compromised operating budget requires reduced reliance on adjunct labor by increasing class sizes and offering fewer courses …”
I’m sorry to say, for our students’ sakes, that my friend in the bar, with his campus teaching awards and long experience, his good humor, wit, and institutional memory, has had to find another job on campus, because he couldn’t get full-time work as a lecturer. Some 40 other adjuncts have been let go in a series of purges. Like Ishmael at the end of Moby-Dick, I find myself adrift and nearly alone on the heartless adjunct sea. As the novel’s epilogue recalls, “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”
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