The Life of an Adjunct: Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place


I am an adjunct. I teach between five to six classes a semester at two different locations. In the past, I have supplemented my campus teaching with online classes. I pick up other jobs on the side.

I don't really make anything approaching a "substantial" income, but I love to teach, and I wouldn't want to do anything else.

The worst part of being an adjunct is not the pay; the worst part of being an adjunct is being caught between the devil and the deep, blue sea.

Lately, I feel like I'm caught between lions and hyenas--but whatever.

On the one side, there's the administration. Since I'm not a 12-year-old, I don't paint the administration as big meanies who just want to ruin my good-time fun. Nor am I silly enough to see them as Scrooge McDucks, going home to piles of secreted cash.

This doesn't mean I see them as altruistic. Granted, being the administrator of a college has got to be about as much fun as eating nails, but as I tell my students, "There's no such thing as an unbiased source." Everyone, from adjuncts to deans, has some invested interest, whatever that invested interest might be. I compared the administration to lions because they circle and prowl to protect "their" institution. Should one of them pounce, I could end up being sacrificed to the buzzards, if not the hyenas.

I'd rather go to the buzzards; the hyenas are just nuts.

On the one side is the administration. On the other side is adjunct faculty who think that the administration is out to get them, landing black helicopters on the roof, don't 'cha know.

The end result is Mr. Potato Head with his angry eyes--people who are so invested in being furious and pointing the finger and feeling victimized that they don't actually think.

Of course, the fact that I'm willing to say this at all immediately makes me one of the black-helicopter-wielding THEYS.

More importantly, it means I'm not a sheep (or a member of a rampaging mob) whose brain is about to explode from silliness.

The Current Mind-Exploding Issue? The administration holding back sections until the planned sections for a semester have been filled.

Basically, four to six months before every semester, the numbers people at a university or college play a kind of stock-market game--they have to guess how many students will enroll the next semester in order to decide how many classes to offer.

Too few means that right before classes start, every department head is wildly telephoning full-time and part-time faculty to discover who is available to teach and/or desperately hiring more faculty.

Too many means departments cut course sections. This doesn't affect full-time faculty whose salaries are protected against this eventuality by their union. But it does affect part-time faculty, i.e. adjuncts. I have lost courses less than a week before the semester started with no time to make other arrangements.

My personal feeling is that adjuncts should be compensated for "holding" their time, but the truth is: under the contract (that I signed), the college can cancel my classes without warning. I can also leave whenever I want though in this economy, the latter possibility is less likely than the former.

In general, it is better to add than to cut--from everyone's point of view. (That's how I got my first college teaching gig: two weeks before the semester started!)

My college is currently planning to do this: they are "betting" on a certain number of course sections for Spring. When those sections fill, enrollment services is already prepared to add more, so the departments won't have to scramble at the last minute.

However, for reasons that I can only imagine stem from other feelings of ill-will (very likely) the adjuncts at my college have decided to get into a tizzy about this.

And I mean--tizzy!

Today it was a flier trying to rouse mob-like feelings in the breasts of faculty and students: CLASSES WILL BE RUN WITHOUT STUDENTS GETTING TO CHOOSE INSTRUCTORS! FEWER CLASSES WILL BE OFFERED!

The mind boggles.

Consider the following--
7 sections of English Composition are being offered to 55 students. Professors A, B, and C are teaching two sections; Professor D is teaching one section. Professors A, B, and D are very popular; however, Professor C is teaching a section at a really good time.  
Professor A, Section 1: 8
Professor A, Section 2: 8

Professor B, Section 1: 8
Professor B, Section 2: 9

Professor C, Section 1: 6
Professor C, Section 2: 4

Professor D: 12

Guess how many sections will run (in order for the course to pay for itself without increasing student tuition)?

Under most college rules, only Professor D's.
Now suppose the following:
4 sections of English Composition are being offered to 55 students. Professors A, B, C, and D are all teaching one section. Professors A, B, and D are very popular. However, Professor C is teaching a section at a really good time.

The numbers fall out as follows:

Professor A: 14

Professor B: 14

Professor C: 12

Professor D: 15

Everyone gets to teach! All students get the teacher (though not the section) that they wanted! 
Multiple the above equation by 20 (a college my size teaches just over 1000 English Composition students a semester) and Professors A, B, C, and D will teach more than 1 section--and so will Professors E and F! The point is not that multiple sections shouldn't be offered at all but that too many sections will hurt rather than help.

By arguing against basic math, the adjuncts are digging holes for themselves--and their neighbors. Speaking as someone who has been Professor D (my course has run when other courses cancelled, including courses by full-time faculty), I still think the second scenario is better.

Uncomfortable rock
I deplore the mob-like irrationality; however, I can't fall back completely on the administration ("rock") despite its more credible arguments. I'm not a big fan of many of the administration's decisions. For example, colleges in Maine (this may be true elsewhere) have until 2015 to decide whether to offer health insurance to adjuncts. Personally, I don't think they can afford it. But the cynicism of waiting until after the due date (March 2014) to say so is pretty despicable (imagine the flak if a private company did this). Likewise, the failure of the administration to compensate adjuncts for losing courses at the last moment (just a token acknowledgement would be nice--say $50?) is a trifle cold. Additionally, college administrations have a tendency to want "somethings" for "no thing": Retain your students! Keep up academic standards! Get your grades in on time! (But we won't pay you enough to cut your course load to manageable proportions.)

Not to mention the administration's tendency to wait until the hammer is about to fall--then SUDDENLY discover that it needs to do things like limit adjuncts' hours because of ObamaCare, which makes the rest of its decisions, even the intelligent ones (see above) suspect. 

Such supposed (and possibly real) indifference tends to evoke fear and anger from adjuncts.

However, I don't much like running my life based on fear and anger. Without a non-fearful, non-angry, non-who-us? position available, I sit between a rock and a hard place, watching sadly as people in the deep blue sea cut off their noses to spite their faces.

Kate is hiding in the grass.
Still--non-involvement is probably the wisest course of action. In general, it's a good idea to stay far away from animals of clannish pride

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