Sunday, October 6, 2013

Adjunct Stereotypes Exist for Administrators' Ease

"Course Correction" an article by Lauren Daley, Chris Porter, and Alex Zimmerman appeared in City Paper Pittsburgh's 10/2-10/9 issue last week continuing the conversation forced to the front of the local and national consciousness by the death of Mary Margaret Vojtko.  The article presents, among other information, the story of Clint Benjamin, a current adjunct at both Duquesne--where Vojtko taught--and at the Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC).  Benjamin lists as his rule, "Teach as many classes as you can" and follows his own advice by currently teaching five courses between the two schools.  He also describes his own health care situation as "[...] death by a thousand cuts," referring to the $150 a month he shells out for only catastrophic coverage.  Clint Benjamin proves one of the brave by providing the authors with his name, something not everyone interviewed could do.  Interestingly, most cited Vojtko's death as a signpost of the contemporary academic culture we all find ourselves in as part of Adjunct Nation.

The authors then attempted to collect data on temps' pay and usage at several area campuses.  Not surprisingly, some of my old friends reappeared to buttress these schools' refusal to admit they were not guilty of exploiting contingent labor.  Many of the comments seemed reminiscent of Gormley's denial of culpability.  I wonder if administrators think that if they repeat these things long enough that others will actually believe them.  I do not give them the benefit of a doubt that they themselves believe this nonsense.  I think these moves are calculated and PR-approved.  That also means it is high time to slap some labels on these cardboard cutout adjuncts so we can knock them flat forever, replacing them with the true experiences of people like Clint Benjamin, Luke Niebler, Josh Zelesnick (all three from the City Paper article), and those who fear to give their names.

First, I'd like to introduce you to "Apologetic Adjunct":  AA is often trotted out by administrators as the very model of a modern major adjunct.  Apologetic Adjunct can be found painfully admitting that the overall situation of adjuncts is Very Bad Indeed, BUT AA cannot really complain and this horribleness does not apply to AA's particular situation because of a full-time and/or multi-year contract that provides for a living wage and even health insurance.  Apologetic Adjunct is Very Sorry Indeed that everyone cannot have a position like this.  It allows AA to be just fine while being removed from the overall political discourse that is the contingent labor debate in the US.  AA wouldn't want to jeopardize said contract or the likelihood that it will be renewed, even though tenure will never be conferred.

Another regular who appears to aid administrators is "Flexible Adjunct":  FAs just love the versatility that adjuncting offers!  Maybe FA has only one class a term or two, but that's exactly what FA was looking for!  Perhaps FA has a partner provider and does not have to seriously worry about bills, health care, and a career.  FA can work the one class and still be homeroom mom or dad of the year! FA is an administrative and cost effective dream because, supposedly, FA has no desire to become full time ever, which would get in the way of whatever Real Life FA had going on outside the academy.

This final category is one that I'm still not convinced isn't mythical, but we have "Adjunct For Fun":  AFF repeatedly appears in official commentary of administrators as the golden haired child of the adjunct world.  This individual is, I hear, a Working Professional with Real World Experience who is only too glad to jaunt to campus for a course here and there to impart bon mots of wisdom from the field of choice to those students eagerly seeking to enter said field and also disdainfully tired of learning at the feet of full time professors (who are supposed to be full time and work lighter schedules to stay current and do research in the field--which is why they don't need to teach four courses at a time but adjuncts do, according to other rationale).  AFF has no need for high pay or benefits from the college or university because AFF already has awesome things like that from the Real World Job.

As a whole, all these categories are entirely too conveniently packaged and sold as part of administrative rhetoric.  I have no doubt that Apologetic Adjunct exists.  I think I was one.  I think I know some now, and they are at the mercy of their respective schools, so to speak.  Even now it is personally hard to blame any of them who choose to stand by saying and doing nothing. A good contract is no small matter.  I hope they never take the fall that I did.

It is possible that Flexible Adjuncts are out there somewhere, and I'm glad that position works for their lives, but they are not representative of the vast majority of us.

Adjunct For Fun, however, I have yet to encounter.  It's like that rare comic book or baseball card everyone hears about but next to no one has, or maybe Bigfoot.  Why on earth does it keep showing up in the discourse? Because it looks good.  It sounds a lot better than the actuality of life for the majority of Adjunct Nation.

However, the Reality of Adjunct Life is of one who travels between at least two schools, if they're lucky.  They may teach as many as six or seven courses.  Some people who cannot get multiple schools may supplement incomes by teaching a course or two online or by taking other work outside the academy.  They mainly make $30,000 or less per year, according to recent interviews.  They pay their own healthcare or go without.  They might be on food stamps.  Their children may have state insurance cards.  They teach their students and do their jobs sometimes without offices or regular access to computers.  They might be represented by a union or that might be forbidden. They might be accepted as participants in departmental governance or they might be asked to stay away.  Yet, without us, without the large quantity of adjunct labor, the contemporary American college and university would cease to function in this current incarnation.  The Reality of Adjunct Life is not as neat, tidy, and unexploited as administrators would have America believe.
Adjunct Sketch


  1. You raise valid concerns, Gracie, about the bulk of adjunct faculty at universities and colleges in the U.S. I have a bit of a unique perspective to add to this discussion. As a doctoral student back in the late 1970s-early 1980s, I kept myself alive by not only doing T.A. work, but also adjuncting at several local colleges and universities. I was a freeway flyer for three years, which paid the bills (barely) but which left me little time to complete the degree (I also did substitute teaching in public schools as well, since I had a teaching credential). I got a temporary instructor job at a university in another state, which was better. I taught 5 classes a semester, but had time to finish the degree and earn enough to pay off student loans. After obtaining the degree, I applied for and obtained a full time tenure track position at the same university (it was no guarantee, I applied all over the country as well). I just finished a 24 year career at that university, moving up the ranks to full professor. But then I took retirement a bit earlier than planned for family reasons, moved to another state and have become an adjunct again, to supplement retirement money (I also am teaching on-line for my old university, which has a category you don't note, the emeriti adjunct). BTW, my old university not only has its share of T.A.s and Reality Adjuncts, but several emeriti faculty teaching a class from time to time. for fun. My department also did hire business people from a nearby city to teach one class sometimes--true Adjuncts for Fun (they do exist).

    Thus I have moved from the Reality Adjunct to a Flexible Adjunct , but also I'm doing it for fun--I don't want to stop teaching yet and apply for Social Security. I also need the money, as my husband has yet to find a job in the new state (and may not be able to, due to age discrimination). I know I occupy a privileged position; most of my colleague adjuncts are doing the job to cobble together enough to live on, and its a hard thing, with poverty level wages. I support unionizing and improving the benefits for all exploited labor on campus. .

  2. I'm glad that you're able to stay active in the field and have a rewarding retirement. I hope no administrators hear about your success story, or you'll be the excuse! ;-)