What it’s like to be an “adjunct”

In his seminal essay, “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell talked about how the overuse of Latin words in English had become like “soft now” falling up on facts, “blurring the outline and covering all details.” The result of such snowiness was that “political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.” It was true in 1946, and it’s true in 2014. We have awful, long-winded “you’re all fired” letters, so stuffed with bromides that they open with “hello there” to blunt what their authors must realize is widespread pain infliction. We also have the word “adjunct.”

This word is almost always succeeded by “professor” in English. In a terrible twist of irony, it comes from the Latin adjunctus, which means “closely connected.” But there is no brotherhood between the “adjunct” and the institution she serves. An “adjunct” (I will continue to put this word in quotes because I don’t want it to be normalized) is a reverse mercenary; she joins in because she’s forced to, and there’s nothing to gain. She teaches for a pittance – I worked for $1,700 a semester – at whatever institution (I also prefer this word to “college” or “university” since it has fewer august trappings) has done enough cost-cutting to justify her hire. The job is likely one of many similar gigs.

I “adjuncted” for much of 2010. As an “adjunct,” I spent the equivalent of a part-time work week each week during that summer of 2010 preparing syllabi, lectures, and assignments, and none of that time or effort was paid. I prepared everything from my studio apartment because I was not given an office until the school year began in August (and even, only once a week for a short pre-class window, for office hours). I was not asked to participate in any departmental meetings and was not awarded any insurance.

Accordingly, I was upset at the picture of the “whining adjunct” painted by one Catherine Stukel in a recent letter to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Though she didn’t extend her critique to “adjuncts” as a group, her decision to go after an extreme case makes me worry that she would not hesitate to put down the thousands of “adjuncts” who are in bad situations due to injustices beyond their control. The “whining” individual in question was Margaret Mary Vojtko, an “adjunct” French instructor who passed away at 83 after years of virtually pro bono service to Duquesne University. She had been working well into her 80s

Stukel’s argument, such as it is, seems to be:

  • Society is full of “entitled young adults” that are unjustified in their complaints about full-time work prospects.
  • Vojtko, as an 80-something professor struggling to hold down work, was a poor model for this same “entitled” children, and may have perpetuated such ungratefulness.
  • Vojtko’s lack of tenure or even full-time work was likely due to inter-office politics or, worse, a lack of passion (“Maybe she was unhappy?”), not ruthless corporatization of the post-secondary education system in the U.S. over the past 30 years (a figure that Stukel coincidentally drops in her paean to her own history of lifelong gainful employment).
  • Life is about compromises – in this case, settling for the middle ground of “adjuncting,” after not attaining a dream job but having the wherewithal to avoid literal unemployment.

Let’s go through these points.

The myth of entitled youth
I covered this point elsewhere, but to recap: Calling the current young generation “entitled” is blaming the victim, and it is the most clichéd move of all time (everyone going back to the Homeric epics has derided children for having laxer standards than their parents). Self-sufficiency for students and instructors alike is an enchanting myth that leave out how institutions have become corporatized factories that A) discipline their students through non-dischargeable debt, private sector business models, and segmenting of populations into groups that are assigned varying levels of respect; B) use adjuncts to do it. The cage is so large that the students and teachers in it can’t even see the bars anymore.

“That’s part of the business model,” wrote Noam Chomsky. “It’s the same as hiring temps in industry or what they call “associates” at Walmart, employees that aren’t owed benefits. It’s a part of a corporate business model designed to reduce labor costs and to increase labor servility. When universities become corporatized, as has been happening quite systematically over the last generation as part of the general neoliberal assault on the population, their business model means that what matters is the bottom line. The effective owners are the trustees (or the legislature, in the case of state universities), and they want to keep costs down and make sure that labor is docile and obedient. The way to do that is, essentially, temps. Just as the hiring of temps has gone way up in the neoliberal period, you’re getting the same phenomenon in the universities.”

Professors aren’t and shouldn’t be role models
Stukel has a hard time imagining that a lifelong “adjunct” like Votjko could be a suitable example for the “young.”This argument is strange; college students, though perhaps “young” depending on one’s own age, are adults. Many of mine were older than I as when I began “adjuncting” at age 24. They are past the stage of needing role models.

There’s immense irony in Stukel’s lazy arguments about “entitled” kids and how “adjuncts” enable their worst tendencies:

No, everyone does not get a trophy. “Adjuncts” certainly don’t, unless I missed my pick-up of the No One Cared Memorial Vase. Plus, to the extent that “adjuncts” dole out inflated grades – maybe those pass for trophies, I don’t know – they do so because low grades could cost them their jobs.

What does a “self-sufficient” (Stukel’s word) professor look like? He makes more money than an “adjunct,” but full-time professors have positions that their students cannot realistically aspire to (since we’re looking at Stukel’s career-centrism) and which most people could never stomach their ways through. The political tit-for-tats alone are so far beyond the quaint office scenarios that Stukel imagines as standard fare (to be fair, she is “a career- and technical-education professor,” rather than a traditional academic) that it’s naive for anyone to expect such machinations to produce anything resembling justice or for the involved professors to come out looking like anything other than competitors in Hobbes’ state of nature.

“Adjuncts” are past the political stage
The politicking situations – the back and forth inter-office banter, the spectacle of a committee meeting – that Stukel takes for granted are at odds with the lonely, nomadic experience of many adjuncts, who, whether by choice or necessity do not linger at their institutions beyond class time. Why should they?

To the institution, the “adjunct” is a non-union, fireable-for-any-reason employee, one who could be replaced by someone from the legions of desperate, overqualified humanities major out there. Plus, it’s common for adjuncts to perform enormous commutes just to get enough classes to scrape by. Imagine spending $200 a month on gas and 8 hours a week in a car going back and forth between institutions.

My situation wasn’t that extreme, but I did endure a bus-train transfer each time over, often spending 30 minutes per day standing on the Red Line platforms waiting for trains going north and south. I woke up before 6 most days to wear the tie, dress shirt, and slacks I bought specifically for the job and give myself enough time in the case of CTA bus or train delays. My commute, while relatively mild, was often longer than my time in the classroom.

Yet, Stukel is concerned with “meetings” and “events.” There’s no time for such niceties for many adjuncts, and even when there is, the context is more likely “we’re letting you go/a student complained/we added a course” than “tell me what you did last weekend.”

Moreover, “adjuncts” in the classroom, the makeshift office, or the department building are not participating in a political contest in which the stakes include long-term employment. Most “adjuncts” go in knowing that the position is in no way on a track toward a six-figure salary, paid time for research, and general job security. Which brings me to…

“Adjuncting” is a destination, not a journey
“Adjuncting” is often thankless work that may benefit a few students, but rarely their instructors. Pay is non-existent, the workload is high, and “adjuncts” have to live with the constant knowledge that they are replaceable despite their hard-earned degrees and often sophisticated teaching techniques. An “adjunct” with a master’s degree has worse career prospects than a Teach for America alum like Michelle Rhee, who once taped her students’ mouths shut. How does that make any sense?

Votjko’s age also speaks for itself. If a senior citizen can’t overcome the vile postsecondary system after decades of excellence and experience, who can? “Adjunct” is such a terrible word for the entire experience that instructors have to put up with. May I suggest another Latin derivative: intern. Ideally intern professors will take the fight to the institutions like unpaid interns already have.

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