What We Talk About in the Adjunct Office
When I tell strangers what I do for a living, their faces often register deep concern—as if I were the captain of an amateur Russian roulette team. These expressions, a mix of pity and panic for my well-being, typically give way to questions: Isn’t it hard to sustain a job like that? Wouldn’t you rather have benefits? How do you live? These caring so-and-sos have heard of my plight before and never fail to mention an article they once read: a profile of someone “just like” me who wound up teetering on the knife-edge of poverty, underpaid and overworked, without healthcare or rent money, forced to eat at food banks and sleep in his car.
“Is that what it’s like?” they ask, searchingly.
“Well, sure,” I say, “But, uh, sometimes there are free donuts in the office.”
I am an adjunct professor of English—and, thankfully, I’m not struggling as badly as that proverbial part-timer we keep reading about in the newspaper. I am a single man and, without a family to support, I’m capable of rearranging my workweek to suit the needs of anyone who wishes to hire me. And like every adjunct I know, I am deeply dedicated to my students, my department(s), and my profession.
I pluralize “department” because I work for three different institutions. In essence, this means I travel more than I teach—shuttling between Montclair State University, Rutgers University, and Middlesex County College. Over the last six years, I’ve clocked time at an additional four schools — migrating in an attempt to find more livable wages. The notion of being a “career adjunct” feels oxymoronic—several unpredictable part-time gigs cobbled together to create a more-than-full-time workload. Each semester, the specifics of “my job” are prone to wild changes. I may be assigned four classes—or eight; my take-home pay might not be enough to cover my rent; the courses for which I was contracted could be taken away from me at the very last minute.
It’s this uncertainty that colors not only my “adjunct experience,” but also the lives of so many others. John James, a fellow adjunct professor from Louisville, Kentucky, insists “the worst part of adjuncting is the precarity of it all. You never know whether you’ll have classes the next semester; you often have to find another job during the summer, and you have to purchase healthcare.”
I’ve heard similar complains from nearly every other adjunct I’ve encountered. As a part-timer, I spend lots of time in communal spaces: grading papers, fighting over desk space, and filling up on the free coffee. The adjunct office—a fixture at many colleges and universities—is typically a bullpen of workstations, designed to handle a heavy flow of traffic from non-tenure track faculty. Here, adjuncts collide and commiserate—exchanging ideas, sharing laughs, and bonding over shared anxieties. In these offices, we sufferers of adjunctivitis, gripe about our symptoms and muse about the possibility of a cure.
So what do we talk about behind closed doors? And what are some ways that we would like departments and our full-time faculty colleagues to help?
“A Living Wage” – Full-Timer Support for Unions
Without a doubt, the most common grievances aired by part-timers are the related issues of (1) under-compensation and (2) a lack of insurance coverage. Although more than 50% of college instructors1 are currently employed in part-time, non-tenure track positions, adjuncts teaching on a per-section basis only make an average of $7,066, per institution—according to a 2017 survey by AAUP2. This strange duality (lots of available work but for very little money) is alternately enticing and disheartening for recent graduates with specialized degrees. After graduating from Columbia University with an M.F.A. in Nonfiction Writing, Erin Ehsani segued into teaching composition, working at both her alma mater and the now-shuttered Globe Institute of Technology. Quickly though, Ehsani sensed that she might be on a very long, very circuitous path to nowhere. She saw that “there were few full-time opportunities for teaching in my field, especially for those of us less established, who got a late start, or who come from working-class backgrounds.” Aware that she did not yet “have the resume to compete for those positions,” Ehsani weighed the costs and benefits of soldiering on as an adjunct: build experience while racking up debt—or get out of the game entirely? “Because I've seen and experienced what living without quality healthcare means, I ultimately chose to enter another field just for the benefits. I loved teaching, but I couldn't risk my health.”
Adjuncts like Ehsani give up on teaching because there is not often a clear route to full-time work and the prospect of living without health insurance is more than daunting—it’s plainly terrifying. Though questions of compensation and benefits are handled at the highest levels of university politics, individual departments can aid their adjunct faculty by showing support for unions like AFT (American Federation of Teachers) and AAUP (American Association of University Professors). In following AAUP’s One Faculty campaign, full-time faculty may choose to stand with part-timers, librarians, postdocs, and research assistants, negotiating together “in solidarity across faculty ranks…to halt the erosion of tenure and extend economic security and other rights to contingent faculty."3 With additional bargaining power, adjunct unions can make more effective pushes for big-ticket change—including the assurance of continued employment and per-course compensation rates that are equitable to full-time pay.
“A Room of One’s Own” – Adjunct Space
Though individual departments typically do not have the power to change compensation rates, they may be able to offer their part-time faculty alternative resources, such as space. When the bustling adjunct office becomes too crowded, adjuncts sometimes opt to hold office hours in the cafeteria—or head home earlier than they’d hoped—or grade papers in a McDonald’s. For roving instructors, many of whom are negotiating several campuses in a given week, a base-of-operations can be enormously valuable. At Monmouth University in New Jersey, the Department of English grants adjuncts semi-private office space—to conduct meetings, prepare assignments, and remain reachable (in person and via telephone) for their students. As Emily Scarano, an adjunct professor of first-year composition, puts it: “Having ‘a room of one’s own,’ as Virginia Woolf recognized, is as vital to the adjunct’s sense of belonging and authority as it is to a writer’s sense of freedom. Often adjuncts are both writers and teachers and need a private space for both reasons.”
If this seems like an indication of Monmouth’s spaciousness, consider it more a feat of brilliant scheduling. Though some of the offices in the adjunct annex “belong” to four or five different instructors, they rarely meet (unless they want to). Each semester, the department devotes meticulous attention to its office assignments, carefully pairing officemates to avoid overlaps in their schedules. As one instructor arrives, the other is usually preparing to depart.
“Joining the Fold” – Faculty Mentors and Departmental Inclusion
One under-discussed facet of the adjunct conversation is the problem of isolation. Part-timers may arrive to teach early in the mornings (before their colleagues arrive) or in the evenings (after the department has emptied for the day); an adjunct’s courses may be scheduled off-site at a satellite school or miles away from the main campus.
In these cases, the instructor can begin to feel unmoored from the larger mission of his or her department. For adjuncts like Corinne Cavallo, departmental inclusion is “a must.” Prior to her employment at Monmouth University, Cavallo “worked at a college where the mentality was that adjuncts should be seen and not heard. Adjuncts could not attend department meetings, and we were not informed of any decisions that were being made. We had no voice at the school, even though contingent faculty made up a large percentage of their educators.”
To foster an atmosphere of inclusion, certain schools make efforts to connect part-timers with their full-time counterparts. At Montclair State University and Rutgers, adjuncts are paired with faculty mentors who arrange low-stakes meetings to discuss teaching practices and swap ideas. These informal coffee dates happen outside of the regularly scheduled evaluations, dossier reviews, and assessments that tend to pressurize full-time/part-time interactions. Adjuncts are treated as colleagues and working friendships are forged.
As Cavallo puts it: “It was not until I started working at a university where departmental inclusion was practiced, that I realized how important it was. When adjuncts are made to feel as though they matter, that their voices are equally valuable in the department, the entire dynamic changes.”
At Cavallo’s Monmouth, adjuncts are offered a small stipend for attending (or conducting) four or more professional development workshops. These informal get-togethers, ranging in subject from “multimodality and first-year writers” to “generating excitement in the classroom,” allow faculty of all ranks to exchange strategies and war stories as peers. These workshops, according to Cavallo, have worked wonders among the department’s adjunct faculty. “We are actively encouraged to attend meetings and voice our concerns; and our colleagues treat us no differently. This inclusion is a vital component of keeping adjunct morale high, even when the rate of pay is low, and it can often ensure that adjuncts are devoted to the work they do for their school—because they feel like what they are doing actually matters.”
“Invest in Us” – Granting Much-Needed Resources
No matter how you slice it, building a first-rate adjunct population takes investment. While this cash flow may not see its way into the part-timer’s pocket in terms of salary or benefits, there are numerous ways that departments can allocate spending to benefit their adjunct instructors.
Professional Development Opportunities: Some institutions assist adjuncts with funding for conference travel and membership fees. Attending conferences is an excellent way for contingent faculty to learn innovative classroom practices and gain attention for their own scholarly work. To offset the expense of adjunct travel, the cost may be split among multiple departments.
Access to Printing Services: Even as coursework moves onto paperless platforms, a need for copying and printing services persists. At many institutions, adjunct professors lack even cursory access to their department’s printer/copier. At worst, this requires part-timers to create in-class materials on their own dime. At best, it means jumping through hoops to get what they need. Funding copying and printing services is an effective way to support part-timers—by making their classroom prep a bit easier.
Parking Access: Many schools do not offer their adjuncts access to free (or validated) parking. Needless to say, parking fees amount to an additional cost for the already overtaxed adjunct—but they also discourage him or her from staying too long in any one location. Rather than hanging around after class to meet with students, forge professional relationships, or grade essays, adjuncts may have to rush out to feed the meter.
Furthering Education Opportunities: In lieu of bonuses, universities may wish to offer adjunct professors the option to further their educations. At some schools, part-timers are entitled to a free 3-credit course for every semester they teach. This allows contingent faculty to acquire additional degrees at little cost.
While not all of these options are possible to implement at each university or college, full-time faculty can help support their adjunct colleagues by discussing these and other adjunct-oriented resources in their department meetings and with the institution itself. We in the adjunct offices thank you in advance.
1 American Associate of University of Professors. “Background Facts on Contingent Faculty”. https://www.aaup.org/issues/contingency/background-facts
2 Flaherty, Colleen. “The More Things Change”. Inside Higher Ed. 2017. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/04/11/aaup-faculty-salaries-slightly-budgets-are-balanced-backs-adjuncts-and-out-state
3 American Association of University Professors. “One Hundred Years. One Faculty”. https://www.aaup.org/sites/default/files/files/One%20Faculty%20Principles(1).pdf