Like most university teachers today, I am a low-paid contract worker. Now and then, a friend will ask: “Have you tried dog-walking on the side?” I have. Pet care, I can reveal, takes massive attention, energy and driving time. I’m friends with a full-time, professionally employed pet-sitter who’s done it for years, never topping $26,000 annually and never receiving health or other benefits.
The reason I field such questions is that, as an adjunct professor, whether teaching undergraduate or law-school courses, I make much less than a pet-sitter earns. This year I’m teaching five classes (15 credit hours, roughly comparable to the teaching loads of some tenure-track law or business school instructors). At $3,000 per course, I’ll pull in $15,000 for the year. I work year-round, 20 to 30 hours weekly – teaching, developing courses and drafting syllabi, offering academic advice, recommendation letters and course extensions for students who need them. As I write, in late June, my students are wrapping up their final week of the first summer term, and the second summer term will begin next week.
I receive no benefits, no office, no phone or stipend for the basic communication demands of teaching. I keep constant tabs on the media I use in my classes; if I exhaust my own 10GB monthly data plan early, I lose vital time for online discussions with my students. This, although the university requires my students to engage in discussions about legal issues and ethics six days a week, and I must guide as well as grade these discussions.
Three of my Philadelphia-area friends are adjuncts with doctorate degrees. One keeps moving to other states for temporary teaching posts. The others teach at multiple sites to keep afloat financially – one at no less than seven colleges and universities.
Having heard all my life about solid “government job” benefits, I figured I might have more stability, and still be able to handle teaching, if I worked for the Post Office. I started carrying mail in early January. As a City Carrier Assistant, I earned less pay than regular postal carriers do, though I did more than “assist”: my job was to handle absentee carriers’ routes. I had no medical insurance, no sick leave allowance and had to agree to work as much as managers deemed necessary for 360 consecutive days (whereupon I could sign up for a second 360-day contract, with no promise that it would bring me any closer to a permanent job offer). I worked on Sundays too, under the US Postal Service’s contract with Amazon.com. With human flaws – I fell on ice more than once – I was no match for the drones Amazon intends to deploy. After two months on the job, which was long enough to develop a lifetime fear of Rottweilers, I was behind in my university work. I turned in my cap.
In late March, I started a retail job. It offers real days off, and I expect to be eligible for health and dental benefits soon.
Last week, a friend came in to shop, saw me, and exclaimed, loud enough for all to hear: “What are you doing here?” Friends who know I hold two law degrees and teach at a university can’t fathom that my teaching doesn’t cover rent. Some writers have discussed adjuncts waiting tables or bagging groceries alongside their students as though it’s the ultimate degradation. I see things differently. I’m trained by the people who deliver parcels, serve meals and bag groceries and who might, any day, apply to take my courses. I am their equal, and I know it at a level most established faculty members do not.
Faculty members do not even interact with each other as equals. Most adjuncts aren’t included in regular faculty meetings, let alone conferences where ideas are exchanged and explored. A concept called the inclusive fees campaign seeks to make conferences affordable for adjuncts. (It focuses on PhDs, but could encompass teachers whose positions require law degrees or other alternative qualifications.) “Inclusivity” for a systematically exploited group is only a patch. But it’s good to see established professors challenged to acknowledge contingent workers, who now comprise the preponderance of the faculty community. Yes, of the 1.2m instructional staff appointments in US higher education, 76% – more than 900,000 – are now contingent.
We are working for institutions that claim to open doors to career opportunities even as they etch contingency into their hiring practices. The significance of the inclusive fees campaign lies in its implicit question: how will the schools hear our voices over the silence of the tenured?
Even more daunting than the dearth of dollars is the fragmentation of the adjunct’s time. Recently, an editor at the University of Oregon School of Law asked if I’d be a conference panelist. Can I travel, yet still clock enough hours at my second job to stay above the threshold for health insurance?
Every day I live two people’s lives, and it’s fatiguing. Every day I need more time with students while being pulled away from them.
The best that could come of the adjunct crisis is a teaching community broadly committed to the civility and inclusivity we’ve been missing. This could lead to a new kind of education, based not on ranking, not on status, but on genuine guidance for living with decency and respect on this planet.
A conference on this is well overdue – and I don’t want to miss it while watching the time clock.
I am an adjunct professor who teaches five classes. I earn less than a pet-sitter