All Right Already, We're Exploited

March 03, 2003

One of the perks of this columnist gig is that I get lots of e-mail from adjuncts and others all across the world. I've received letters from adjuncts as far away as Japan, Germany, and New Zealand. On the domestic front, I've heard not only from adjuncts, but from deans, directors, even university presidents. Mostly, the comments are positive, even if the respondent takes issue with something I wrote.

Such was the case a few weeks ago when Art Reynolds, an adjunct with a law degree, wrote to me from somewhere in North America. The theme of Art's letter was not unique. In fact, the complaint he made I have heard time and again, so I've chosen to use this month's column to respond to this collective concern.

Here it is, in Art's words: "I do wish you would stress even more so that adjuncts are -- generally speaking -- highly exploited migrant workers who are at the bottom of the food chain in higher education." He continued: "Quality university educations are being subsidized by the labors of poorly paid, part-time faculty, like myself."

Art is right. I've not stressed this aspect of adjunct life very much in my columns. I quickly scanned them all and the words "exploited" or "migrant worker" don't appear too much, if at all. There's a reason for that, which I'll get to a minute.

Before I do, let me just come out and say what Art and so many other adjuncts have wanted me to say. Here goes:

Adjuncts are exploited by most of the universities that hire us. While a few institutions may pay decent wages and benefits, the vast majority use adjuncts as cheap labor to bolster the bottom line. They often fail to provide us with the bare necessities to do our jobs, like offices and phone lines, and sometimes even e-mail accounts, yet expect us to teach nearly half the courses offered in any given term. They hire and fire us at will, often on just a few day's notice. We suffer the prejudices of many full-time faculty members, who regard us as underachieving stepchildren when it comes to research, but resent us because we teach better than they do. Much of the daily business of the university would come to a grinding halt if the 500,000 adjuncts currently working in North America walked off the job.

The modern university simply couldn't run without us. Its business model assumes the presence of poorly paid adjuncts. And being poorly paid yet highly educated means that most adjuncts will not walk off the job. We can't afford to, nor do we want to because we spent a decade or more earning advanced degrees to work in academe, and we don't want to leave. In a phrase, it's simply not fair.

There. I've said it, and I really only scratched the surface. I've worked as an adjunct in both public and private universities for 12 years now, and I've experienced the exploitation of adjuncts in all of its incarnations. I know it well.

So, why haven't I emphasized that theme in this column? Because this is an advice column. I am a columnist, not a reporter. Better writers at The Chronicle than I write and report the news of academe and, for the most part, they have documented quite well the plight of adjuncts. It's no longer academe's dirty little secret; just a dirty little reality. I've chosen not to restate the obvious, but to offer advice on how adjuncts can survive within such a hostile environment.

So, in keeping with that, I'll proceed. Given the exploitation of adjuncts in higher education, what can we do individually to deal with it? Let's explore a few options.

Many adjuncts choose to hang in there, hoping to eventually land a full-time job somewhere in academe or in a related field. They live at home or rely on the income of a spouse or partner so that they can squeak by for a few semesters or years until something better comes along. They teach to pay their basic bills, but focus on getting published and building their CVs. This works well for a while, until the perennial prejudice against anyone who adjuncts for more than a few semesters kicks in and begins to taint the CV in the eyes of search committees. But it's definitely a workable approach for a while.

At the extreme end of the spectrum are those adjuncts who choose to leave academe altogether. Unable or unwilling to tolerate the exploitative conditions, they shake the dust off their shoes and leave the whole shebang behind. This is a tough move because it often means shelving that expensive and hard-won education for new certifications, licenses, or degrees in an entirely new field. But it also means leaving a bad situation for a good one -- higher pay, more respect, upward mobility, decent benefits, and more.

Don't forget -- you don't have to be an adjunct. Nobody has a gun to your head making you do this. If you just hate it, then leave. Tell your universities to take this job and shove it, and go do something else with your life. This takes guts, but we live in a country where people go from boom to bust and back to boom all the time in lots of industries. People routinely are forced to change careers. And sometimes they change by choice. There's no shame in it. If this fits you, then go for it.

A modified, and more popular, version of this approach is to get a full-time job outside academe, but to stay in as an adjunct simply as a sideline. This way, you branch out into a new career and develop another skill set, but you can still keep a foot (or toe) in academe in your field. You retain an academic affiliation, you get supplemental income, and you get to teach, read, think, and interact with students, which is so much of what's fun about being in higher education.

I myself have considered this approach after teaching 12 university courses a year for several years in a row, in addition to other short continuing-ed classes. It wears you down after a while. You can either supplement your adjunct career with higher-paying work, or use your adjunct work to supplement some other full-time gig.

Another option that's been gaining momentum is to stay in academe and change the plight of all adjuncts. Unions and collective-bargaining associations have sprung up in colleges all over the country as grass-roots movements to revolutionize adjuncts and call for a radical change in university hiring practices. Some of these have been quite successful: Higher salaries, more job stability, opportunities for advancement, even healthcare benefits have been gained in some places.

If you work in a huge university system that hires scads of adjuncts, then you might consider organizing in some way and trying to improve the collective lot. Success in this option comes with numbers -- the more adjuncts involved, the better. Get on the phone, the Internet, consolidate your efforts, and make the push. There's a world to reclaim. Adjunct workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!

Finally you can pursue the entrepreneurial approach, which is the one I have advocated in this column. It's worked quite well for me and for lots of other adjuncts working in larger cities. This is as much a psychological strategy as anything, in that it chooses to view adjuncts as freelance workers who sell their services to different clients within their market.

Even though we don't set our own rates or get to charge kill fees, approaching the adjunct situation within this paradigm is fruitful for the new possibilities it creates. You hustle up as much work as you can in your area, always improving your quality of service (teaching, grading, whatever), becoming ever more time-efficient and skilled in your work so that you can shoulder more clients, and earn more money, without going insane.

Focus on gaining higher-paying clients, keeping the lower-paying ones if you can or want to, but leaving them behind if not. This approach shifts the power a bit into your court and takes advantage of the freedom that comes with being a freelancer with multiple income streams, instead of being chained to one employer with all your eggs in one basket. This approach won't work for everyone; none of the above approaches will. But it will work for those who live in good markets, are willing to build their skills, and are willing to do the "cold call" selling required to market themselves and build a business. Try this on, see if it fits.

Your best bet is probably some sort of creative combination of these options. For example, I have taken the entrepreneurial approach over all and have made a steady, decent income with it for several years. But that hasn't stopped me from participating in a few collective-bargaining campaigns here and there. I also have begun to supplement my adjunct income with freelance writing and other forms of public speaking. It all boils down to whatever fits you in your situation. There is no "one size fits all" solution to the adjunct problem in this country.

Whatever you do, do it now. Don't waste time complaining about the conditions. Take creative, focused action right now to fix it for yourself and/or for others. Every moment you spend complaining without action is a moment of your life wasted, and a moment when the exploitative universities win yet again. Don't let them.

Jill Carroll, an adjunct lecturer in Texas, writes a monthly column for Career Network on adjunct life and work. She is author of a self-published book, How to Survive as an Adjunct Lecturer: An Entrepreneurial Strategy Manual. Her Web site is and her e-mail address is