Wednesday, June 11, 2014

One Year of Adjuncting

Last summer I began this blog upon receiving the "Good News," which was the email subject line, that my hours at my formerly full-time temporary faculty position were to be cut.  It was late in the summer to be looking for piecemeal work, but I managed to find some classes over 60 miles away, thanks to a friend.  It was either that or find a cheaper rental place for my family in a town that has neither loads of safe, cheaper rental places for families or other teaching jobs.  Though I truly had been an adjunct all those years of full-time work, I had not ever considered myself one until that moment I took on two schools.  I was wrong.  I was always disposable to the system.  Now I was to find out just how precariously many of the nation's 76% of higher education faculty truly do live.

I started the fall term with an abundance of optimism -- really what choice did I have?  I could either teach six composition classes for two schools or children would not eat and bills would not be paid.  An added bonus was that the fall breaks for both schools lined up, giving me real and much needed rests.  For the most part, the fall was okay if not absolutely maddening in the amount of work that I did.  It was during this never-ending onslaught of grading that I became more involved with adjunct activism, and it was quite likely that involvement that kept me from losing my mind entirely.  Even the sometimes two hour plus commute--of which it sometimes took over an hour to go about three miles--gave me time to think, plan, and compose in my head.  My smartphone became my best work tool, giving me a place to take notes down on the fly, check all of my email accounts, do research, keep track of my to-do lists, and about four million other things that would have been impossible even six years ago.  Without constant access to my files and the internet, my work would have been twice as difficult.

Then winter came.  On the last Tuesday of fall term I fell on the ice outside my house as I took off to walk to School One.  I fell straight down.  This resulted in the destruction of my trusty old laptop that was in my backpack on that day and, worse, I injured my hip joints and continue to limp even now.  This was the beginning of the no-insurance-health-meltdown.  Though I only missed one class all Fall term due to illness, the Spring term was disastrous.  It should be noted that School Two provides no real sick leave.

Any of my US readers know that this past winter was utterly deplorable.  Once I cancelled classes on my commute day for a complete whiteout.  Once I cancelled it for an ice storm that left roads impassable.  A third time, when I was within an hour of my destination, a large truckload tiedown hook was launched from the road and through my radiator.  Luckily, I'd kept my AAA membership and my vehicle insurance covered almost all the costs.  If I hadn't had these safety nets, I likely would not have been able to get home that day or to afford the repairs.  Despite any other scrimping and saving an adjunct must do, from experience if I'm going to drive anywhere for this job, those two things are worth every penny to have.

In February, my smaller son brought home a cold from daycare.  After a week of coughing on me, I became ill.  This was no minor cold when set loose in my system.  For two weeks it raged and then, just as I began to feel better, some upper respiratory flu attacked me.  All of February and March were miserable.  I coughed so hard I either cracked a rib or pulled something important in my side.  Sleep?  Not lying down.  So here I was, dragging about two schools separated by 60+ miles, limping, coughing, and teaching.  I traded my trusty backpack for a small wheeled bag marketed as a mobile office.  Another good investment.  This bag even has a padded pocket for my new-to-me laptop that should protect it better than the sleeve did and I wouldn't be as much at risk for dropping it from on high.  The only drawback is that when I ride the bus downtown to School Two (parking is so expensive it is more cost efficient for me to park on my friends' street for free and take the bus), it can be a pain to heft it up the step and then keep it out of everyone's way.  However, I can take all the things I need, as well as heavy textbooks and papers, more easily than before all without hurting myself.

For most of February, March, and April, while the weather in my area was less than optimal--snow, ice, whiteouts, more snow, freezing cold temperatures--I coughed and snuffled my way through the five  classes.  My spring breaks did not line up, but this at least provided two "easy" weeks; therefore, I only had to work at one school each week.  I thought that I would get some insurance help straightened out during this time, but instead I got much sicker and spent the off days of the one week in bed and then the off days of the break two weeks later trying desperately to stay awake long enough to grade the monster stack of writing that accumulated during the worst of the illness.  There were things students needed back in order to continue, so those were prioritized.  I took the honesty approach with the students.  They already knew I taught at two schools because I made that clear from the start of term as part of my introduction, and they knew I was very ill.  I promised work would be back when needed.  I offered extended rewrite deadlines.  I used email services routed to my smartphone to keep up with everyone, having instructed them that was the best way to reach me and get quicker answers to any questions or any needed help.  The students also suffered with the wretched sickness at both campuses.  The weather and flu took their tolls on us all.  Somehow we made it to the end.

By the end of April for one school and the middle of May for the other, we completed the spring term.  Students wrote some great things.  Some of their reflective portfolio letters were fabulously specific in the things they learned and how they would apply them in other classes and writings.  I did not lose too many from my rosters and most of those were folks who withdrew from the universities fully early in the term.  I did lose a few more in one of my developmental classes than I would like, but that is not uncommon. I cannot help but think that if I only worked at that one school I would have had more opportunity to chase them down and keep them in the course.  Teaching developmental sections takes more care, more effort, to retain students who struggle for a various intersection of reasons.  They are courses I've been entrusted with in the past, just never as a two-school adjunct.  That isn't doing the best for the students.

So now it is June.  I have finally stopped coughing.  I do not always feel very good.  I still have trouble with my left hip.  I am in a battle with assistance agencies over medical, food, and income help as I enter summer with no work.  I've been applying to jobs inside and outside academia.  Would I do this two school adjunct thing again?  I would really prefer not to, but it may once again be the only option available.  My position at School One, the original job that I had and the one that paid the best is now gone.  All of the adjuncts in my department there were replaced with graduate students.  Fifteen folks lost their jobs.  The other adjunct options in this area pay far less and are term-to-term contracts whereas this one at least provided an entire academic year's guaranteed amount of pay.  Losing this is the next level down:  term by term work only.

This is one year as a two-school adjunct in short.  It does not address the good things:  the fun of classes; the great things students said, created, and wrote; and working with other adjuncts to organize, unionize, and draw attention to the cause.  This is my truth of one year.  This is the state of American higher education for many of the 76% of adjuncts teaching at our colleges and universities.

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