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thoughts from a long-term adjunct

“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.

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2 comments to thoughts from a long-term adjunct

  • Yves Cloarec

    Victoria,
    Thank you for your honest and insightful observations on “Adjuncting.” Yes, the spell-check underlines the word, but I know it is a verb–at least, it ought to be: it is a widespread and honorable occupation, if not necessarily a respected profession.
    My pet peeve about Adjuncting, as practiced at CUNY anyway, is that our union fails to recognize the hardship its once-upon-a-time well-intentioned rules are now wreaking on us, the Adjuncts, its largest constituency.
    I am sorry to hear of your not being awarded either of the jobs to which you applied (I like that phrasing so much more than saying–as you put it–you were REJECTED from both). I, too, recently suffered the slings and arrows…but I am learning that it is not personal: it is not that I not good at teaching (everyone says I am a natural-born teacher), but rather that there are–unfortunately for all of us–so many other terrific candidates out there competing for fewer and fewer slots.
    But, honestly, I would not care about the label “Adjunct” if it did not imply such a quasi-total abrogation of basic rights: the right to sell my experience and my labor in quantities such that I can actually earn a living wage doing so.
    Have you seen this site https://unity606.wordpress.com/ ?
    Of Adjuncts, by Adjuncts, for Adjuncts.
    Below is what I posted on their blog:
    The 9/6 Adjunct rule may once have served a purpose positive to the aims and goals of the PSC, namely to protect Adjuncts from being overworked and exploited, and to give CUNY an incentive to hire more full-time faculty. In the current economic circumstances, however, we know that neither of those things has happened—or is even likely to happen. Adjuncts are just as exploited as ever and, rather than full-time positions increasing in number, the cumulative attrition after 5 years for assistant professors has averaged around 30% since the year 2000. In testimony given at a hearing in April 2014, representatives of the PSC admitted as much to the NYC City Council: “[…] thousands of adjuncts who hope to teach full-time at CUNY are not able to move to full-time appointments, often because of a shortage of funding for full-time positions.” (1)
    As a late-in-life transfer to the world of academia, it took me some time to become accustomed to a great number of procedures and processes that simply have no equivalent in the business world. It is only after a few semesters of juggling with my schedule as an Adjunct Lecturer that I feel qualified to even attempt to decode the arcane vicissitudes of the system.
    First, I wish to assert that the 9/6 rule has not increased the hires of full-time faculty. The budget lines for full-time faculty do not get created, and the university simply hires more and more adjuncts, replacing those it discards by discouragement with an ever-increasing crop of fresh talent willing to take part-time employment because full-time work is incrementally rarer and rarer. Supply exceeds demand, beggars can’t be choosers—take your prick of expressions—the reality remains the same: Adjuncts are an increasing part of every university system and CUNY is not about to create new full-time budget lines if it doesn’t need to. And with the glut of Adjuncts on the job market, they don’t need to.
    Second, we need to look at the real-world consequences of a rule that requires teaching 9 credits on one campus and 6 on another. In the real-world, I do not know a single adjunct who has been able match up teaching schedules on two campuses. The distance and travel-times between campuses and the inability to have very much input into one’s designated teaching schedule means that, effectively, adjuncts are fortunate if they can get a total of 9 credit divided up on two campuses—12 if they are very lucky. And, as any adjunct will tell you, a teaching load of 9 or even 12 credits for two semesters a year is simply not enough to pay the bills.
    At the very least, if the rule could be amended to allow for up to a total of 16 credits—regardless of where those hours would be performed—it would create much greater scheduling flexibility for Adjuncts. It is not a complete solution, obviously; but something is better than nothing and, sometimes, the perfect is the enemy of the good.
    There is an added benefit to such a proposal: both CUNY and the PSC could reduce health care expenditures as, presumably, the more efficient use of existing Adjuncts would lessen the need to hire additional new Adjuncts thus lowering the number of Adjuncts requiring insurance. It might even raise retention rates…something from which the students, the administration and the PSC would undoubtedly benefit greatly.

    1 TESTIMONY OF THE PROFESSIONAL STAFF CONGRESS/CUNY NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL HEARING APRIL 25, 2014
    http://www.psc-cuny.org/sites/default/files/CUNY%20and%20Race%20Testimony%20Final.pdf (p. 10)

    All best
    Yves

  • Hi Yves,

    Thanks for your response. I definitely support the proposal to ban the restriction on our workload (I signed the petition). That said, the real issue is the replacement of full-time faculty with adjunct labor, which started happening in the eighties and has now grown to be the norm…. CUNY and other colleges having adopted a corporate model. The whole system needs to be reworked from scratch.

    I teach on three campuses, and I work every day, including the weekends, to make ends meet. This should not have to be the case. I say, hire a permanent faculty of long-term, seasoned adjuncts who have proven teaching effectiveness and have the graduate students be TAs…. More important, make the two-tiered system transparent to prospective graduate students before they apply, so they know what they’re getting into. I was naive, and I expect many still are.

    I didn’t take it personally at all…. they had hired an inside candidate…. and I’m happier at Queens and my other two colleges than I would have been there, owing to the commute and dismal location. I also prefer teaching on the college level. It was a symbolic loss…. I was/am ready to upgrade my status and put down roots, and that seems sooo difficult in today’s academic economy.