An Underclass Is Educating Your Children

Brian Taylor

September 02, 2010

Let me testify, in case this isn't blatantly obvious already: The life of the adjunct does not resemble a Carnival cruise. The life is often exhausting, underpaid, undernourished, and rife with logistical challenges.

I think we've all heard that refrain before, but perhaps it's time to hear it again, and to think about the conditions of our younger peers as we move on into mythical jobs and mythical tenure. I finished my Ph.D. at a major public university in New York and taught at a campus with a panoply of class, race, ethnic, and sexual diversity. Fortunately, I had savings to fall back on, but some of my peers relied on Medicare and food stamps to supplement their adjunct incomes.

An adjunct lifestyle is not just about the low pay and the large class sizes, of course. Preparing for a semester often begins four months before the first day of class—selecting texts, gathering ISBN's for submission to the campus bookstore (on an onerous form that must be filled out for each course section you will teach, regardless of whether you use the same books across sections), separately requesting desk copies of books from publishers, beginning to upload documents to Blackboard or to e-reserves (available through the campus library, and convenient for using journal articles, but needing at least six weeks' advance notice to the librarian who works with the materials).

Then you've got to generate a syllabus that contains all the salient information, not just office numbers and e-mail addresses. A good syllabus has learning objectives, book titles and ISBN's, a plagiarism policy, a clearly defined attendance policy, and a full chronology of the course, including any homework expected of them. Any papers being assigned with specific thematic concerns should best be explicated as well. Finding time to makes copies of the syllabus—which means delivering paper copies to the university's copy center with a week's notice—means coming in to the office a week or two before the semester starts.

Of course, if your office has been moved (often not for the first time, and usually to accommodate a new, tenure-track hire), you might have to come in even earlier to find your new space. You might get a desk, and maybe a shelf on a bookcase. But don't leave any anthologies there unlocked, since "someone" will sell them to a used-book buyer, and you'll find yourself without the text on the day you're supposed to teach Dante.

Your office might house three other adjuncts—or 10, or 30. You might never see your office mates, or you might sit with four of them, all potentially with students or on the phone. There are no posted rules, but the standing principle seems to be to ignore the conversations between your peers and their students, and to take your cellphone calls outside. (Your office might have a land line, but you probably don't know the extension, and anyone who calls is looking for a professor who is no longer employed or alive.)

You try not to mention that you are a graduate student when you are with adjuncts who have already graduated. They are trying to make ends meet in different ways than you are, often by teaching on two or three campuses, sometimes commuting two hours to do so. When your office mates tell one another to go to hell (because of a loud phone call, or because someone monopolizes the one computer that 12 of you share), you try to keep your head down and stay out of it. When three of your office mates are let go, and complain about how corrupt your department is, you (try to) keep out of it.

And did I mention that the office has no window, and no airflow (other than a generic table fan, with three settings), and that your hallway averages 80 degrees, year-round?

Picture yourself dealing with all of that drama as a second-year graduate student at a public university, with research interests and obligations. Picture it, and remember what it was like before you took a teaching practicum. Picture it on a "salary" of $2,400 a course, and picture it in New York City.

It's not a distorted picture; it's the lifestyle of many urban graduate students, who forgo food, health insurance, sanity, and vacations so that they can dedicate themselves to learning to teach, and then to actually teaching many of the courses offered in departments across our universities.

My first of year of adjuncting, as a second-year graduate student, was a trial by fire. Thanks to taking a concomitant teaching practicum, I was thinking about the mechanics of the classroom while I was learning on the job. The courses I taught were 75 minutes long, and I learned to organize the time into five segments of 15 minutes each.

When I taught a composition course, class business and free-writing time came first, followed by discussion of the free writing, segueing into reflection on that day's reading, which kicked off a two-segment sequence of group work, all of which was meant to scaffold that day's discussion onto prior class work.

In a literature course, there was no free-writing period, so more time was spent on group work and Q&A's on the reading assignment for that day. When we were reading Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, Genet's Querelle, or Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho, for instance, questions of sanity, chronology, and psychology emerged that demanded discussion time. Group work might emanate from discussion questions in the text. For Oedipus, I divided students into five groups and assigned each a study question from our textbook/anthology, which they were to craft into a short paper and present to the class. We followed that up with discussion on Blackboard.

In addition to constantly responding to online-discussion postings, I also needed to track participation, to make sure that each student was making multiple posts and to flag those who were not, so they could bolster their participation grades. (Students always seem to question a low grade for class participation unless you point out to them that they are not participating, no matter how obvious that should seem.)

To see my pay rate, you would have thought I was rich—making more than $50 for every hour of actual teaching. Of course, that rate applied only to time spent inside a classroom, so the average literature class that semester paid a bit over $2,400. A writing course involved an "extra" hour, bringing up the salary to roughly $3,200.

It was not uncommon to hear adjuncts discuss Medicaid benefits, or to hear that a colleague had quit to become a waiter or a temp. As an adjunct, you are not guaranteed employment from year to year. But if you are offered reappointment for the next year, you are not necessarily eligible for unemployment benefits over the summer. To get health insurance through the union at my university, you needed to teach at least two courses each semester—every semester—and then wait a year to be eligible. You were not paid for all the time you spent preparing a course. Nor were you reimbursed for extended office hours, registration fees at conferences (let alone transportation costs), or time spent e-mailing students or responding to their messages.

There are magazines designed to help ease the burden of the adjunct, with tips on dealing with "high maintenance" students, indifferent administrators, and union bargaining skills, among other suggestions that promise to alleviate adjuncts' stress levels. Reading such periodicals did inspire me in one way: to strive not to become a permanent adjunct.

A love of teaching is one thing, but suffering at the hands of (and often railing against) universities, which are increasingly run as businesses, make no sense to me. We teach for many reasons, but if we are unable to find employment that can support us, we shouldn't teach. Perhaps if many adjuncts left the industry, withholding the labor supply that keeps demand low, and wages even lower, the goal of a living wage would be achieved by the resolute union reps in perpetual negotiations for the next contract.

I feel lucky: I have a "job" now, as a full-time lecturer at another university, outside the city. The wage puts me on par with a Fortune 500 receptionist, but I have health benefits and can afford to visit my family more than once a year. I don't know what else I can do, personally, to help friends who still participate in the economic horror show that is graduate school, other than to speak up, and remember. Perhaps if enough of us do that, we can effect some kind of change the next time we're asked to sacrifice living wages and fair labor practices in order to satisfy a bureaucrat.

Rob Faunce is a full-time lecturer in the Program for Writing and Rhetoric at Stony Brook University.