GUEST POST: “On National Adjunct Walkout Day”

[Ed. note: This guest post is written by a dear friend and former classmate of mine from my grad school days, who is a really good teacher and needed an anonymous place to post this diatribe. I personally agree with every word, and if I were made of stronger stuff I probably would still be teaching, would be an adjunct somewhere, and would be penning a diatribe of my own. But I am not strong.]

Today is National Adjunct Walkout Day. As I don’t teach on Wednesdays, there’s not much for me to walk out from, except possibly my office (I’m not sure anyone would notice except the students who need to see me for research help, and I’m not walking out on them). And I’m not sure where I’d walk to—where do you go after devoting years of your life to a career that has no future?

Yet even though I am not walking out on anything today, I support this movement. Having primarily taught as an adjunct professor since 2007, I am tired of the move away from full-time tenured professors and toward contract employees like myself. There are reasons adjuncts are often referred to as the Wal-Mart workers of academia (although let the record show that Wal-Mart, at least, is raising its employees’ wages!). Here’s a sampling:

  1. Adjuncts are paid absolutely crap wages. The current starting salary of an entry-level professor is about $64,000 a year. As an adjunct, if I taught a full load, I would make about $22,500 a year, before taxes, no benefits. That’s about $17/hr for 40 hours a week during the school year. It’s not terrible until you factor in that we also work weeks outside the term to prepare syllabi, do the reading we’ll eventually assign (or not), stay up-to-date on methods and pedagogy, write, research, etc. Plus, I don’t know a single full-time academic who only works 40 hours a week during the term. So realistically, adjunct wages are somewhere below—and in some cases, well below—$10/hr. For people with graduate degrees.
  2. Few adjuncts get benefits—I don’t and I wouldn’t even if I taught a full load. Currently my health insurance that I got from https://www.onesureinsurance.co.uk/ costs $273 a month and I am not saving for retirement. But yes, some places do give adjuncts benefits if they teach enough classes. In fact, I got benefits after a year teaching at another place—until my class load was cut so they wouldn’t have to give me benefits. Because math.
  3. Adjuncts often don’t have a designated place to work, such as offices—I didn’t where I taught previously; I do now, a tiny one in which my students and I sit knee-to-knee during paper conferences. It’s awkward. But perhaps I’m lucky—most of my adjunct colleagues here are doubled up in single, although somewhat larger, offices and share a computer.
  4. Many adjuncts cobble together teaching plus other things to make ends meet. In my case, I take freelance work to supplement my income. I know one person who has taught at three different higher education institutions at once to support his family. I know adjuncts who are eligible for SNAP and WIC. I heard of one who took a job at Starbucks to get benefits but then had schedule conflicts over and over until she quit teaching to serve coffee full-time.
  5. Adjunct work is grueling. Perhaps it doesn’t seem so—after all, aren’t we teaching entry-level college classes, for the most part? How hard can that be? But these lower division classes are packed with students, meaning we have lots of grading, and many of these 18- and 19-year-olds are underprepared for college. I had a day recently where I spent more time tracking down a student who’d missed five classes and trying to get him/her help for what I think may be a learning disorder than I did grading or working on papers. Students at this age are grappling with their newfound freedom, sometimes poorly, and for many of them, this is a time in life when mental health disorders begin to manifest; at the very least, many struggle as their cognitive bandwidth is taxed. Teachers like me try to help them navigate: We weigh whether to give grace or rigidly enforce deadlines, hoping we’re making the right choice, badly wanting these students to succeed, and questioning ourselves when they don’t. In this way, we’re no different from full-time professors, except we have more students, and they’re younger, and they’re less likely to be the focused upper-division students that tenured professors get to teach. Then of course there’s all the work we do that is related to their classwork, plus extra time instructing or providing feedback on things they really should have known earlier—like how to format their papers, or how to do library research, or how to just write a complete sentence. And we do it over and over again, for dozens and dozens of students, every term.

My critics would argue that we have chosen this path, and they’re right: Yes, we have chosen to get advanced degrees, and yes, most of us will continue to teach in an adjunct capacity for a long time—partly because we may have to but also because we love what we do. And that love and that need are going to be, frankly, exploited by the businessmen and -women running academia. It’s a broken system, and yes, we are complicit in that we have agreed to teach in it. But we also want to fix it. We need to fix it, and not just for ourselves.

Because right now, by teaching in front of our students, we’re showing them that it’s okay to be cheap, to pay the bottom dollar for thoughtfulness and hard work (should we be surprised when they turn around and buy papers off the Internet—probably from China, for all we know?). And those students are going to go out and fundamentally not do a damn thing about human value if we stand here and let it happen.

That is why my cohort are walking out today: It is hard to know that you’re being exploited, hard when you see new buildings being erected, shiny technologies being implemented, new non-teaching administrative positions being added—all these things that may very well be good and necessary, and yet opportunities for advancement are nonexistent and wages are stagnant, or in my case went up once, for $6—by the way, that’s $6 a quarter, or about $0.01 an hour.

So walk out, adjuncts. Walk the fuck out. I’ll be behind you shortly.

I’m going to stay for a second to say this: I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the good thing about adjunct life: Teaching. I have enjoyed these years of helping students build their writing skills, and every “Aha!” moment a student has is one where I feel that I’m helping make this world a little bit better, which is hopefully what we all seek to do. I also love the people I work with. They and the students (okay, most of them) make it a joy to come to work every day—and they make it hard to leave.

But I need to, because the truth is, I am burned the fuck out. I am tired of being underpaid and overworked with nothing to work toward. Stacks of papers take so much effort for a thorough reading and response that I am drained of energy, tired, and usually ill-humored. That’s bad for my students, my family, and me. I don’t want to let it affect the quality of my teaching, but I can sense it creeping in. So I need to quit, and I am. Three weeks from now, at the end of this quarter, I’m finally walking out. I’m sad to leave the students and my colleagues. I’m more sad that I’m not staying to fight for all the other adjuncts, but I have to go.

I think there are many like me who see no future and decide to look elsewhere. Hell, this country’s borders are the results of men and women in dead-end jobs who quit and walked west. They had a drive and curiosity, and I do, too—and it’s withering in the bowels of this ivory tower. So I’m walking out, too late or too early perhaps, but going all the same. Just not until I’ve finished this mountain of student papers.

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