In the Fall 2013 term, having graduated from Warren Wilson College with an M.F.A. in poetry—a terminal degree, of course—I found myself teaching composition courses as an adjunct for the eighth consecutive semester. This semester, however, was different from the others not only in the workload but also in the commute: I worked on two campuses in two states, with 30 miles of freeway, part of it under construction, between them. On top of that, I taught five courses.
The first institution I taught at was Indiana University Southeast. There I taught two morning classes two days a week, Mondays and Wednesdays, and kept office hours—four hours, altogether—as my contract stipulated. The term did not begin on a high note. The previous June, I received an email on an updated policy regarding “hourly employees” at IUS—which included me and all the other “contingent faculty”—that, due to the Affordable Care Act, the Indiana University Board of Trustees had determined we would not be eligible for health care. Because the ACA determined “full time” as being an employee who worked at least 30 hours a week, IU decreed, in bold font no less, that all temporary positions would be limited to 29 hours per week.
That meant that rather than being able to teach what was then the maximum of three classes, which would have paid $2,900 a class, we would be allowed only two. Thus, the deficit had to be made up somewhere. So, like many other adjuncts, I took another job, teaching three classes at Jefferson Community and Technical College, in southwest Louisville, Ky. The Kentucky Community and Technical College System had likewise taken away available classes in order to avoid paying health-care costs, so three was all I could do, though in the past I’d handled as many as five. Those sections paid $1,700 a class.
By the end of the semester, I’d take on another job as a contract copywriter for extra money. I am, after all, a single dad with student-loan debt, bills, and the like.
As the semester neared its end, I was fed up. Though I’d sworn not to, I was using substantial amounts of my weekend and evening time to plan lectures and grade papers—at the expense of time with my 4-year-old daughter, my own reading and writing, and my sanity. I came up with an idea.
For my final composition paper, I usually assigned a persuasive research-based essay. In the past I’d used topics as diverse as gender imbalances in college classes and fracking, but this time would be different. On the day I introduced the essay, I announced to the class that, for the final paper, they’d be writing about me. When the laughter subsided, I said no, really, you will be writing about me—and adjuncts as a whole.
The fact of the matter is this: Most of my students had no idea what my job actually was, let alone what an adjunct instructor is. They assumed, understandably, that I was a professor, and they called me that. Though “Professor Hill” sounded nice, I told them it was essentially untrue. I explained my contract, my lack of health care, my tenuous existence of working contract to contract, semester after semester, and the gaping hole that was summer, where I was afforded no classes at all, typically. They were confused, then appalled.
But that was nothing compared with what happened when they started doing the research.
I started them off with the various stories that rose up around the tragic tale of Mary Margaret Vojtko, a story that by now everyone knows—but that my students didn’t. They were aghast. I showed them the simple math on the board: what they paid for the class, and what portion was given me. They asked where the rest of the money went, naturally.
One of my students began interviewing his “professors,” only to find that a majority of them were adjuncts. One, he told me, had explained to him how she worked at two campuses beside the one in Indiana—in Lexington, Ky., and Georgetown, Ky., each an hour or more away. The students quickly began to realize that this was, as they say, par for the course.
In the end, my students found a cumulative 22 research articles and 61 newspaper, magazine, and web articles to back up their theses that included arguments concerning exploitation, health care, unions, even the gender disparity in adjunct jobs. In fact, the tables were cleanly turned, and it was I who was learning from my students. I’d had no idea, for example, that so many women had been kept from tenure-track jobs.
The bottom line is this: A university’s job, a community college’s job, is to teach students. That’s exactly what I’ve done. I’ve informed them—or, rather, in the true spirit of education and research, they informed themselves—of the various political, financial, and ethical dimensions of their instructors’ so-called careers. Ultimately, as students, it affects them, as much of their research found, negatively.
I am somewhat ashamed of my predicament—that I could have languished so and worked in a job where I had been drained of passion, energy, and the will to actually try to help students in a far more profound way than I had time for. But the fact is, I was exhausted physically, emotionally, spiritually, and professionally. And that exhaustion was affecting my health and my home life, which meant it affected my own daughter. That, to me, became intolerable.
The students, for their part, came to an understanding of my predicament. Further, they came to appreciate it. They began to see the human dilemma in the problem. They began to think about justice. They developed their own ideas.
For any discerning adjuncts reading this, I would like to offer you an assignment: Use my essay research assignment with your own students. As they learn, they will astound you.
My students exceeded my expectations. Though I hesitate to use the word, I have found that a majority of my freshman students are simply ignorant of the big picture. It’s our job to bring them light—especially, as they found, when it threatens to wreck their own hard work and bought-and-paid-for higher education. In the process, we may find a new angle from which to initiate change for the better.
Sean Patrick Hill now works as a copywriter, as a poet, and as a senior contributing writer for Kentucky Monthly Magazine.