Why I became an adjunct (against the advice of everyone that I knew…)

When I was finishing my master’s degree in creative writing I started telling my professors and family members that when I graduated I wanted to “go into teaching.”

I got a variety of responses.  When I was lamenting a missed a job opportunity, one teacher responded: “Good.   Being an adjunct teacher was the worst job I ever had.  Maybe this is a blessing in disguise.”

That was the bluntest feedback I got.  Others involved things like, “Don’t adjunct, there’s no future in that.”  “Why don’t you just go get a K-12 teaching license, just in case? Or you could always teach in the prisons?”   and, actually the most helpful advice: “If you’re going to adjunct, make sure you put boundaries around it.”

It took me a while to truly understand what everyone was talking about, and what might be meant by “boundaries”.   As a grad student, I had fallen in love with teaching writing to undergrads.  I loved helping students think through knotty intellectual or philosophical issues.  I loved awakening student’s minds to new ways of translating their thoughts into words.  I loved giving students tools to gain confidence over the task of essay-writing.

So no matter what anyone said, I wanted to be a college English teacher. I had taught high school students, and I found the disciplinary issues overwhelming.  I liked the excitement of working with college students.   I took classes in pedagogy, tutored, and taught community classes before I graduated. I was ready.  I was going to do this.

Fast forward three years.   I have achieved my goal of being a working college teacher. I have probably hundreds of classroom hours under my belt.  I have guided hundreds of students through the minefields of their anxieties and fears to become successful writers. I still spend hours upon hours painstakingly planning each class and responding to student assignments, as well as emailing students and meeting with them.   I have also learned exactly what my mentor meant when she said to have “boundaries.”

In three years I have worked at five different schools, often two at the same time.   I have taught at community college, state university and private schools. I have taught anything and everything I could find to teach, including ESL, remedial writing, regular Freshman English and online writing.  Because of last-minute cancellations, I’m often scrambling to find work that fits my schedule and allows me to meet my budget.   I’ve been paid everything from the equivalent of $1500 a class to $2400 a class to $5500 a class (the $5500 is at the school where I am part of a union contract).  Do the math on any of those, and even at four classes a semester, two to three semesters a year, and you will see that no one is getting rich doing this.  (At some schools this is less than minimum wage.)  This semester is the first time I’m teaching the same class for a second time in a row.

Adjunct teaching is, in many ways, not designed to be a viable career.   It was, historically, invented for professionals working “in the field” or for “fluff” classes that were marginal to the academy.   Tenure-track teachers, with years of experience in the field and original research, were meant to do the majority of the teaching and were rewarded with generous salaries, full-time jobs, benefits and low teaching loads to support research.

Now, however, universities are desperate to “rationalize” their workforce.  The number of tenure-track positions is shrinking.  In their place, universities are using adjunct teachers.  Now in some universities we make up 75% of the workforce.

These are not full-time employees.  Instead, we work contract to contract, paid by the class, often working at more than one school to make ends meet.  Often we do not know if we will have work from one semester to the next.

I have survived as an adjunct by being flexible and gritting my teeth through the tough times.  When all my classes were cancelled at one school, I networked like a crazy person to replace them in the eight days before classes began.  I’ve lost classes due to administrative mistakes, and I’ve also been offered jobs with twenty-four hours to prepare for the semester.  I struggle to be as professional as possible – I know the school is depending on me to prepare these students for the rigorous writing they’ll be doing in their majors –  but it is stressful beyond belief to find out in mid-January that your income stream for February through May may be half of what it was, or even non-existent.  And sometimes I wonder if it’s fair to the students – to be taught by teachers splitting their time between multiple institutions, or working crazy hours to make ends meet.

This summer, I was thrilled to learn about a union organizing campaign going on for adjuncts in the city of Boston.   The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) had come that winter and held meetings for adjuncts in Boston, talking about organizing a union.   By this summer, there were already campaigns going on at three schools, with more in the pipeline.  I got involved as a teacher at Northeastern, which pays its adjuncts some of the lowest wages in the region.   I was eventually brought on-board part-time by the union, and I am now traveling between schools and talking to adjuncts about joining together and forming unions on their campuses.   Everywhere, adjuncts share stories of intense frustration and excitement for future change.   As of this posting, the adjuncts at Tufts University just won the right to bargain with their employers and form a union.

For adjuncts across the country, on blogs and websites, there seems to be a pervasive belief that being an adjunct means living with stagnant pay, low wages and constant uncertainty.  I want to tell adjuncts that if the universities have their way, we will stay contract workers, on the edges of our own universities.  It’s up to us to demand more for ourselves as professionals.  We want to share our knowledge and passion with our students while still being able to fulfill our own dreams.  As university instructors, don’t we deserve to be able to support our families and work with security for our futures?

What’s more, don’t all students deserve a teacher who’s had more than 24 hours to prepare?~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Abby Machson-Carter is a writer and writing teacher in Boston, MA.

1 Response

  1. undercoverPHD

    I really enjoyed reading your article.

    I initially went to grad school hoping to do research to help change k-12 schooling. I felt that work on cultural diversity would show that we need to change school. I soon realized that this research immediate gets placed behind pay walls as soon as it’s published. And, to be blunt, most research is read by very few people and doesn’t have the impact I’d like.

    I hated teaching initially, but now I love working with students. I love that you can have a direct impact on peoples lives. That I sharing parts of my life can help another person. I personally don’t separate teaching and mentoring.

    As a person of color, as a first generation student, as a son of an immigrant family, as a husband, I feel great pressure to get a job where I make “good” money. Don’t get me wrong, I get a lot of love from my family. They have never said “You better make more than 60k” and I know they’d support me no matter what I chose, but I’m torn. I don’t want to be taken advantage of either or undervalued. Especially considering how long this damn degree is taking (I’m past my 5th year).

    At my university, the lecturers are not invited to department events. They are openly criticized. But they are seen as the best teachers by the students.

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