“Adjunct” means “a thing added to something else as a supplementary rather than an essential part.” Yet adjuncts are indispensable at CUNY and many other institutions of higher learning; three-quarters of college faculty in the U.S. are made of us. Our pictures do not decorate the walls of our departments, like those of full-time faculty members; we receive no accolades for our teaching excellence; but with most of us dedicated to our students and teaching full course loads (and at QC, attending meetings and workshops, playing an active role in department and campus life), “adjunct” seems like a misnomer.
When people ask me what I do, I don’t tell them I’m a professor, even though my students think of me as one. I tell them I teach literature and Italian classes to college students; I refer to myself as an instructor (since I am an ABD) instead of as an adjunct, not only because it sounds better but also because it feels like the truth. They are inevitably impressed that I have almost finished my PhD and am teaching on an advanced level; they have no idea that my PhD means nothing in this market and that I’m one of many being exploited for my skill set in a mass corporate takeover of the American university.
I don’t feel like an impostor, as I did when I first started graduate school and was grateful to have landed a teaching fellowship at CUNY. I still love teaching, even more than I did when I first started. But after 10+ years of adjuncting at Queens, I’ve outgrown my status as contingent labor and am more than ready to join the ranks of the professorate. To be a long-term adjunct is to exist in a sort of time warp. The seasons change but it’s always the same year. Your pedagogy has evolved, but your position has not evolved along with you.
Within the last six months I’ve applied for two full-time teaching positions and was rejected from both. One was a World Literature lectureship at Bard Early College High School, their Newark campus… an unrealistic commute for me, but I was unfazed. Trying on the suit that I’d bought with an Ann Taylor’s store card, I imagined myself at last a valued member of a tight-knit academic community, teaching courses on Italian cinema to fifteen-year olds who had never ventured beyond New Jersey… they made it seem as if I had the job but they wound up hiring an inside candidate. The principal’s carefully worded let-down letter, its appreciative tone, plunged me into a dejection that could have rivaled anything felt by Keats but with two energetic five-year-old boys, I didn’t have the luxury of indulging it.
I’m tired of instability, both in my professional and my personal life. I want to put down roots, build something that lasts. But I don’t know where to begin. I can’t find solid ground to put my feet on. Or is it more complicated….?
Part of me enjoys the freedom of being an adjunct. I don’t have to deal with small talk in faculty lounges or department politics like an academic insider. I get paid to do what I love, teach, and then I leave. I unwind at home, mulling over the insights that emerged from my class discussion of such-and-such text, the seeds of the next lesson germinating. The isolation has become a sort of comfort zone. I don’t really know how to talk to my colleagues; I only know what I want to say after everyone has left the table. Adjuncting suits my introverted nature.
It’s a freedom that takes its toll: a life in limbo. To grow, I need to make myself uncomfortably visible. I need to stop juggling all these “gigs” and make a commitment to one institution, reap the rewards that a status upgrade brings, including the benefits to my teaching (you can only be so good when you have 125 students and three different sets of protocol to follow, along with multiple other demands on your time).
For some adjuncts, making a commitment to something that could last can be scarier than living on the margins. A fear of success can hold us back as much as the dreadfully limited prospects of the academic job market.