How to Be an Adjunct (and Also a Cliché)

A part-timer comes to realize that she is neither incompetent nor insane

Onken Bio-pot / Creative Commons

September 01, 2015

Get a master’s degree.

Try to be anything else. A writer for any local magazine. The assistant manager at a nonprofit. A grocery-store florist. Dog walker. Cat behavior specialist. Wizard.

Tell your mom you can’t find a job. She tells you that’s impossible because you are the most educated person in your family. You don’t talk to her about this anymore.

You remember one of your community-college professors told you that you’d make a good college professor. You decide to give it a shot. You email that same professor, and he refers you to an administrator who, he explains, oversees almost every department at this community college. That isn’t outrageous yet. It will be, someday.

Teach composition courses even though you have absolutely no desire to teach composition and no training in composition. Tell the administration that. Every semester ask the department chair if you can teach something else. Don’t even get formally turned down; just ignored. Keep teaching composition.

Work at one college, then another. Both of the department heads’ names are Bob, which seems dystopian. It is. Years later the Bobs still haunt your sleeping and waking dreams. You visualize real hell as one perpetual classroom observation where they take turns sitting in on your class, making notes, not saying anything, and then leaving the room as they tell you to "expect an email." You live that moment over and over, and the email never comes.

The first time you apply at the other college, a Bob tells you he can’t hire you because you have an M.Ed. and not an M.A. You think that might be BS since you do some research and find that three people in the department have M.Ed.s.

Slip into another department for which you are "more qualified" after harassing the department chair every semester until she gives you an interview. You consider the distinct irony of begging for an adjunct job only after you’ve been hired.

Bob No. 2 sees you at the refugee impasse known as the "adjunct meet ’n’ greet," held before the fall semester starts. He makes a point to note your presence there by saying, "Haven’t I met you before?" You hesitate and reply, "Mm — maybe."

Work at three different colleges to attempt a living wage. Fail to reach it. Feel shattered and desperate instead. Your supervisor at the third college isn’t named Bob. Feel excited about that.

Have your teaching observed at one of the colleges by a stern woman you’ve never met who tells you, right before the observation, "We should talk after class, but I have a meeting right after." So you end the class five minutes early so you can talk with her, only to find her looking at her watch asking, "Why have you ended class five minutes early?!" She writes it on your observation. Die a little.

Develop one real friendship while adjuncting. Become a terrible conversationalist in person, too. Frequently eat alone in three different cafeterias at three different colleges about 30 minutes from each other — a total of three hours of driving, to earn a salary that doesn’t provide enough money for rent. Spend most of your "salary" buying food for yourself in transit and gas for your car.

The tenured faculty at every college act like you are a parasitic affliction to their "real" academic community. Start to believe it. You wonder why you ever went to graduate school. Start to realize this insecurity is built into the system.

The students think you’re "cool," although that can mean a variety of things. Many of them point out on your teaching evaluations that you’re "young" and you’re a "woman." Acknowledge that your students know nothing of academic labor. Tenured faculty members treat you like you’re incompetent even though none have observed your classes or have any other reasonable data on which to base that negative opinion.

Understand that behind the hierarchical sense of superiority there is a cowering insecurity among the tenured who are beginning to see themselves as the minority they are. Hear them throw around the phrases "student-centered learning" and "student concerns." Figure out "student-centered learning" is a euphemism for "good customer service," and "student concerns" means "faculty gossip." Realize all this language increasingly dehumanizes adjuncts and students.

Wonder if adjunct labor isn’t actually the embodiment of exploitative capitalism. Do the math of how much institutions make off you every semester. Notice the president of one community college you work at makes $200,000.

Realize that most of the world operates on nepotism. Have trouble embodying that whole neoliberal "if you can dream it, you can achieve it!" persona when your life has been showing you the exact opposite of that for four years and counting.

Your experience as an adjunct radicalizes you. Realize you aren’t actually incompetent or insane. Cry. Think: "Oh my god, I’m just a cliché." Ask: "Have I earned this cliché?"

Consider how you could have tried harder in life, even though you thought you were trying as hard as you could by getting a master’s and doing something "important." Think "this can’t be it."

Look at your reflection in the glass panel on the gas pump. Realize you can’t do this anymore.

Marlana Eck is a retired adjunct who now teaches at a charter school in Allentown, Pa. She is a doctoral student in an interdisciplinary humanities program at Drew University (no, she is not interested in a tenure-track job), and the founder and director of an online political and intellectual journal, Lehigh Valley Vanguard. Follow her on Twitter: @marlanaesquire.