Image by Zeke Berman

When Mary Margaret Vojtko died last September—penniless and virtually homeless and eighty-three years old, having been referred to Adult Protective Services because the effects of living in poverty made it seem to some that she was incapable of caring for herself—it made the news because she was a professor. That a French professor of twenty-five years would be let go from her job without retirement benefits, without even severance, sounded like some tragic mistake. In the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette op-ed that broke the story, Vojtko’s friend and attorney Daniel Kovalik describes an exchange he had with a caseworker from Adult Protective Services: “The caseworker paused and asked with incredulity, ‘She was a professor?’ I said yes. The caseworker was shocked; this was not the usual type of person for whom she was called in to help.” A professor belongs to the professional class, a professor earns a salary and owns a home, probably with a leafy yard, and has good health insurance and a retirement account. In the American imagination, a professor is perhaps disheveled, but as a product of brainy eccentricity, not of penury. In the American university, this is not the case.

Most university-level instructors are, like Vojtko, contingent employees, working on a contract basis year to year or semester to semester. Some of these contingent employees are full-time lecturers, and many are adjunct instructors: part-time employees, paid per class, often without health insurance or retirement benefits. This is a relatively new phenomenon: in 1969, 78 percent of professors held tenure-track positions. By 2009 this percentage had shrunk to 33.5. The rest of the professors holding jobs—whether part time or full time—do so without any job security. These are the conditions that left Vojtko in such a vulnerable position after twenty-five years at Duquesne University. Vojtko was earning between $3,000 and $3,500 per three-credit course. During years when she taught three courses per semester, and an additional two over the summer, she made less than $25,000, and received no health benefits through her employer. Though many universities limit the number of hours that adjunct professors can work each semester, keeping them nominally “part-time” employees, teaching three three-credit courses is certainly a full-time job. These circumstances are now the norm for university instructors, as the number of tenured and tenure-track positions shrinks and the ranks of contingent laborers swell.

A moment of full disclosure: I am an adjunct. I taught freshman composition at Columbia University for two years as a graduate student, then for a few semesters more as an adjunct after I finished my degree. I now tutor in a writing center in the City University of New York system. Many of my friends do this same kind of work at colleges around New York City, commuting from campus to campus, cobbling together more-than-full-time work out of multiple part-time jobs. We talk a lot about how to make adjuncting livable, comparing pay rates at different writing centers and English departments. We crowdsource answers to questions about how to go to the dentist, for example, since none of us has dental insurance—wait for a Groupon for a cleaning, or go to the student dentists at NYU for anything urgent. I do have health insurance at my current job, though I get an email a few times per year informing me that it may expire soon because negotiations between the union and the university over adjunct health insurance have stalled. This is mostly fine—my coverage has never actually been interrupted—but it is hard to swallow the notion that the university that employs me is constantly trying to get out of providing health insurance to teachers, particularly when it announces that it is giving our new chancellor an $18,000/month apartment for free.

So I have closely followed the news and op-ed coverage of the adjunct bubble that followed Vojtke’s death. And while I have been glad to see more attention being paid to the working conditions in higher education, I’ve been surprised that the issue is consistently framed as purely a workers’ rights problem. It is this, of course. But it is not only this.

Students are often unaware of the way their colleges contract with their teachers—after all, who would tell them?

The rise of adjunct labor in universities is also a student issue. Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. And when the average graduate of the class of 2014 leaves school with over $30,000 of debt (nearly twice what the average was twenty years ago, adjusted for inflation), it’s an important consumer issue, too. Students deserve to know how their universities are spending their money, and how they’re contracting with their teachers, especially those teachers who have the most student contact. Courses like composition—a universal requirement at most colleges, and given in small groups—are taught almost exclusively by adjuncts. For such courses, many colleges employ “small armies of adjuncts,” and at large universities where large classes are divided into smaller discussion sections, those are often taught by grad students. Yet students are often unaware of the way their colleges contract with their teachers—after all, who would tell them?

When Andrew Scott, a composition instructor in Indianapolis, explained adjuncting to some of his students, he wound up being called into his supervisor’s office for a scolding. A group of his students at the private university where he was adjuncting (he also had a full-time position at Ball State) had arrived early for class, and were talking in the hallway. When one student mentioned a history teacher who seemed eager to get the students to like her, and whose class didn’t have a lot of work, Scott explained how her work situation was involved: “I knew the instructor was an adjunct, and that she taught at several places to cobble together a living. I told the students that she was an adjunct, and that the class was easy because she was afraid of losing her job.” Adjuncts are often evaluated solely based on student evaluations. As Rebecca Schuman put it in her Slate article “Confessions of a Grade Inflator,” “popularity is the only thing keeping them employed.”

Scott had this conversation with his students outside of class, because the students had brought it up, and because he considered it “a teachable moment.” But it still got him into trouble, probably because of this comparison: “I said that the university pays the janitor who scrapes the gum off their desks more per year than me and most of the people who teach their first-year classes. My private university students couldn’t believe that, but it was true. Even a low estimate shows how that’s true. Ten bucks per hour for forty hours a week equals an annual salary of $20,800.” One year Scott taught seven courses at that college, and made under $15,000 for that work.

Ten days later, Scott’s supervisor called him into her office because she’d heard about a “classroom incident” in which he had “ranted” about adjunct faculty pay and working conditions. “The director was especially worked up about my janitor comparison. She wanted to know if I’d really said that, and how I could possibly say that,” Scott recalls. The situation worked out for Scott—his other job made it possible for him to leave Marian, and he told his supervisor during the meeting that it would be his last semester. But not all adjuncts would be in such a position. And this dynamic is one of the reasons that adjunct conditions remain obscured from students: for workers without job security, the line between scolded and fired is uncomfortably thin.

* * *

Last fall, Karen Gregory was teaching a labor studies course in the City University of New York system when she found herself the object of media scrutiny because she included in her syllabus a short text describing the adjunctification of CUNY, and what it means for students:

“To ensure that we remain conscious of the adjunctification of CUNY, we ask that you do not call us ‘Professor.’ We are hired as adjunct lecturers and it is important that you remember that. You deserve to be taught by properly compensated professors whose full attention is to teaching and scholarship.”

The text, which was developed by the CUNY Adjunct Project and distributed for teachers to include in their syllabi, briefly describes the history of CUNY’s increased reliance on adjuncts. It explains how adjuncts are paid and what that means for students:

“Adjuncts are not regular members of the faculty; we are paid an hourly rate for time spent in the classroom. We are not paid to advise students, grade papers, or prepare materials or lectures for class. We are paid for one office hour per week for all of the classes we teach. We are not paid to communicate with students outside of class or write letters of recommendation. Out of dedication to our students, adjuncts regularly perform such tasks, but it is essentially volunteer labor.”

And it says one thing that is so rarely part of the adjunct discussion: “CUNY’s reliance on adjuncts impairs the conditions under which courses are taught and the quality of your education” (emphasis mine).

Of course it’s possible to love what one does, be good at it, and still be exploited.

The public response to Gregory’s syllabus helps explain why the debate is so rarely framed in these terms. Indeed, her discussion of adjunct labor with her students inspired a surprising level of vitriol. Gregory noted that “it’s a savvy and interesting thing to not perform the legitimacy of The Professor. Because this is the double thing: you’ve got people saying, ‘You’ve made a bad choice, but we have to keep sacred this term professor so you have to perform this cultural capital.’” An interview with Gregory in Inside Higher Ed, a publication not really known for thread trolling, yielded advice that Gregory “should have earned a PhD in something useful then” and if she “felt lousy” about teaching “it is time to seek a new profession.” This “love it or leave it” argument is often the first line of defense when workers dare to speak out about problematic conditions, but of course it’s possible to love what one does, be good at it, and still be exploited.

In fact, Gregory doesn’t feel lousy about teaching—when I met with her recently to talk about the reaction to her syllabus, and adjunctification in general, it was obvious that she is an enthusiastic and committed teacher who wants her students to get the most out of their time in college. “The more you can be honest with the students about what is going on, the better. I don’t think it’s about angering them, or mobilizing them, but talking to them about what we’re all doing here,” she said. She added, obviously not for the first time, that “this was a labor class.”

As a culture, we value the dissemination of knowledge more than the distribution of hamburgers. Or at least we say we do.

Another exchange in the IHE comment thread handily brought up a problematic rhetorical strategy that arises often in the discussion of the adjunct bubble: the comparison to fast-food workers. One commenter wrote, “You know what’s demeaning? Earning a PhD and making less money than a manager at McDonald’s.” And another replied, “You know what’s demeaning? A PhD who thinks she’s better than a manager at McDonald’s.” This exemplifies a serious problem in the ways that advocates for better working conditions for adjuncts make their argument. (A related problem is that adjunct advocates sometimes dramatize their argument by using phrases like “slave wages,” “slave labor”). Yes, college-level teachers should make more than cashiers at McDonald’s. Not because they hold advanced degrees—to pay someone for merely holding a degree is naked credentialism; to believe you deserve more money because of your credential itself rather than what you do with it is to misunderstand the value of work—but because as a culture, we value the dissemination of knowledge more than the distribution of hamburgers. Or at least we say we do.

Gregory connects the rising dependence on adjunct labor in universities to the broader move toward more “flexible” work in the economy. “Twenty or thirty years ago, you would have worked somewhere for life. No matter whether you went into manufacturing or cognitive labor, you went to a corporation and that corporation saw you as an investment. In the ’80s and ’90s, that connection between owner and workers was severed. Workers became replaceable, technology was brought in.” She recalled being told that by pursuing a career in academia she had made a bad choice. “But I would have chosen what, actually—a sea captain?” Gregory wondered with a laugh. “Everyone is struggling.” The challenge of finding a good job after college doesn’t belong only to the crazy wide-eyed dreamers who dared to study comparative literature. A spring 2012 American Bar Association study found that only 55 percent of law school graduates had gotten a job requiring a law license, a credential that the average student took on $125,000 in debt to earn.

Gregory sees the angry responses to her syllabus as being linked to a larger phenomenon: the backlash that often erupts when workers speak out. “The conditions of labor must always be obscured,” she said. “Work is good, work is noble, work is disciplining, work is what gives you social meaning in your life, so you can’t say, ‘Oh, this job is killing me.’ And they certainly don’t ever want you to talk to other people and realize this is structural, this is planned, we are the effects of other people’s choices and perhaps we should have a bigger voice here.”

One of the most significant frustrations in my own adjuncting experience has been the giant disconnect between the adjunct teachers and the administrators who determine budgets and hiring. We report directly to someone—usually another professor who oversees a particular academic department. To that immediate supervisor, we are real people; my bosses at universities have been nothing but kind, and genuinely interested in helping their colleagues be successful teachers. But as cozy as they are, those relationships, on a practical level, don’t matter much. These supervisors have their budgets handed down from other echelons of bureaucracy, from administrators whom, at least in my experience, the adjuncts never meet.

American universities are on a dangerous trajectory of “corporatization,” operating from the view that students are consumers and instructors are just one more cost of doing business. It used to be common for administrators to be professors who took a break from teaching to perform administrative duties for a short period of time, or took on admin duties in addition to their classes; they were people whose first commitment was to research or teaching. In his book The Fall of the Faculty, Johns Hopkins professor of political science Benjamin Ginsburg writes that “Forty years ago, America’s colleges actually employed more professors than administrators.” But while the faculty-to-student ratios have remained constant (with both groups growing at around the same rate), the administrator-to-student ratio has increased dramatically. And Ginsburg notes that though administrators often extol the virtues of using part-time contingent labor for teaching, “they fail to apply the same logic to their own ranks.” In 2005, 48 percent of college faculty were part time, compared to only 3 percent of administrators.

But to talk about these structural issues is to deviate from the idea that work is sacred, and that—especially in this economy—to have a job at all is a gift. Advocating for better pay and conditions is not just impolite, it’s ungrateful.

The sanctity of teaching ought to be an argument for compensating teachers fairly, not for shutting underpaid teachers up.

This dynamic applies to any group of workers that speaks out on its own behalf, but there’s a special factor at work in the way that people critique adjuncts who want better conditions. Teaching college is a white-collar job. It is not dangerous or degrading; it happens on college campuses, which often are pleasant and have trees and sometimes inspirational phrases about learning carved into stone buildings; it is—except for the low pay and lack of benefits and constant uncertainty about the future—a good job. Gregory calls this a “cruel double standard: you’ve made this choice to go into a bad career that has high social status.” Many of the comments directed at her, and others who raise the adjunct issue, are concerned with protecting the sanctity of teaching. A professor should not be so vulgar as to talk about the material reality of her life.

“In the classroom, with students, in the present moment of teaching, all instructors/adjuncts/tenured faculty are professors because that is what they are doing. It is a sacred thing. We are all ‘real teachers’ there,” wrote one Inside Higher Ed commenter. Yes, teaching can feel sacred, in the way I imagine most of the “helping professions” can, because your labor is so directly linked to another person’s benefit. But the sanctity of teaching ought to be an argument for compensating teachers fairly, not for shutting underpaid teachers up. This anger—coming as it does so often from other professors—seems to be a way of, as Gregory puts it, “desperately trying to protect the middle-class status of the professoriate.”

At the City University of New York, an adjunct teaching full time—four courses per semester—receives a starting annual income of $24,644. That’s less than half of the New York City median household income. Full-time professors at CUNY make between $56,000 and $102,000 a year. These statistics are in line with the numbers at other colleges around the country. So adjuncting is decidedly not a middle-class job. But it does sound like one, probably because, before the adjunct bubble, it was.

For many people work is as important as a source of identity as it is as a source of income. You can go to a college reunion and feel good when you call yourself a professor, even if you’re scrounging in your couch cushions for bus fare to travel to that reunion. The adjuncts who work in our writing center were collecting and sharing data about how much we make at our various jobs, how many other jobs we have, where we see ourselves five years down the line. We were hoping to bring each other some strategies and tips, or just to raise our collective consciousness. When asked about the benefits of our work, one tongue-in-cheek coworker’s response summed up the conundrum: “Sometimes the guy at the sandwich shop calls me ‘professor.’”

* * *

Adjuncts need better conditions—stable contracts, office space, access to departmental decision-making, access to the kind of work community that makes people better at their jobs and allows space for reflection and information-sharing. And they need living wages. Not because they hold advanced degrees, not because they are better than other kinds of workers, not even because teaching is a magical and consecrated profession. We need these things because they allow us to be the teachers that our students need and deserve.

No one ever says this, probably because adjuncts don’t want to advocate themselves out of a job. But being adjuncts makes teachers do a worse job than they would do otherwise. When I was adjuncting at Columbia, I remember calculating the maximum number of hours I could spend on my class before I reduced my pay rate to under $15/hour. It was less time than I would have liked to spend, but I couldn’t work for less than that. So I taught differently: I assigned fewer drafts, I held shorter and less frequent conferences, I read student essays faster and homework assignments hardly at all. When I realized I was not going to be able to do right by my students, I stopped classroom teaching. In part, this anecdote is just that—a little story about me. It depends on the particulars of my financial situation and personality. I didn’t want to have a job in which my time was so undervalued that I felt I was either doing a poor job or giving my time away as a gift. But it’s also not just about me. Others have written about how the circumstances of adjuncting force them into grade inflation, or into designing easier courses so that they’ll get better student evaluations.

Don’t misunderstand me: most of the adjuncts I know are excellent teachers, committed and talented and generous. And it’s still true that every one of them—if they had the mental calm that comes with job security and health insurance, the focus that comes with having an office in which to work, the support and professional development that comes with being fully integrated into the workplace, and the time that comes with not having to hustle and scramble to scratch out a living—is able to do even better.

Will you forgive me a moment of English-teacher pedantry? I may not be a professor but I am certainly an English teacher. Throughout this piece I’ve been taking the liberty of using adjunct as a job title and even as a verb. The term actually means “a thing added to something else as a supplementary rather than an essential part.” If teaching is a supplementary rather than essential part of college, why go?

Rachel Riederer

Rachel Riederer is co-Editor in Chief of Guernica. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, Best American Essays, and others.

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72 Comments on “The Teaching Class

  1. That’s the beauty of the higher-education machine. Teaching has become a supplementary rather than an essential part of college, because *learning* is no longer an essential part of college. The essential part of college for students is receiving a degree – which answers the “why go?” question. We go because we flatly need to; because while degrees are progressively becoming worth less and less, they are somehow required as a screening baseline for more and more fields that once did not require them. We go, in short, for the convenience of our potential future employers.

    The essential part of college for the college is processing students and payments, and attracting more students, which perfectly reflects the exploding rates (and artificially inflated importance) of administrators.

    The people who didn’t get the memo – that is, the only people for whom teaching and learning are *not* an afterthought – are the mere students and teachers, and they are themselves increasingly becoming an afterthought. Reputation and commodity are tenured, and education is adjunct and impoverished.

  2. This is one of the best essays on this issue I’ve read– I’ve been an adjunct within CUNY for a decade. I was so naive when I started, I have to laugh at myself. I really thought that hard work, inspired teaching, + a published, award winning writer would win me at seat at the grown-up’s table. But also I stayed bc I loved it. I loved my students, and my colleagues. BUT I’m done now. One of the things I like about this essay is that it neatly encapsulates why I have to get out. Because I cannot justify spending 25 hours grading essays (among other unpaid work) over a weekend or over spring break. I. Just. Can’t. Do. It. Anymore.

  3. The problem with us adjuncts is us adjuncts. We can articulate the problem, write well about it, point out how this is damaging learning outcomes, but we expect the people who created this system to somehow make it all better. Guess what? They won’t.

    We must take direct action and fight for our civil rights, not worry if some department head at the community college will fire us for telling the truth. What do we really have to lose? We need to stop being afraid of nothing and fight together.

  4. As someone who is planning to do a PhD with the hopes of teaching at the university, this essay is very frightening. If the situation is more positive for professors/adjuncts in other countries, maybe working abroad should become more of a realistic alternative American PhD holders..

  5. Nice write up. Something must be done to the condition of adjunct professors to preserve the university heritage of research and learning. Prof. Dayo Alao. Babcock University, Nigeria.

  6. A thoughtful and well-researched long-form piece on the plight of adjuncts.

    I’ve lived both lives, as an adjunct and as a full-time professor, and I truly understand the dynamic. As an adjunct, I was often asked by full-timers, “Why do you bother to attend department meetings?”

    One aspect worthy of greater discussion is the relationship between full-time faculty and adjuncts. Often, there is tension and a kind of caste system with those who hold tenured appointments looking down on their adjunct colleagues.

  7. “Throughout this piece I’ve been taking the liberty of using adjunct as a job title and even as a verb. The term actually means “a thing added to something else as a supplementary rather than an essential part.” If teaching is a supplementary rather than essential part of college, why go?”


  8. Great, if horribly depressing article. As a parent of a high schooler, contemplating having to invest ten times the total cost of my own college education in that of my child, I would say that it is up to us — the parents, the consumers who hold the purse strings — to be vigilant and even militant in compelling the institutions to which we send our kids and our life savings to restore the balance between faculty and admin to its rightful proportions and provide their teaching faculties with normative compensation, job security, and benefits, not because “it’s the right thing to do” (although it is!), but so they may focus on teaching our kids to the best of their ability. But getting parents organized to boycott institutions such as Columbia or Stanford would be a tall order indeed – we’re all complicit in the shell game in which our kids earn overpriced degrees from overrated institutions and emerge undereducated.

  9. As this becomes more widely known it may help if someone regularly published information about specific colleges and their respective ratio of tenure track/adjunct employees.. It may not be enough to sway all potential students and their families, but it will sway some. And the comparative data may move some institutions, who look bad on those comparison charts, to try to increase their ratios in their attempts to recruit students.
    Do you know if any such comparative data, listing specific institutions is published anywhere?

  10. Terrific article. You clearly outlined why I didn’t finish grad school. I saw that the file clerks at the university made more than over half my instructors. Seemed like a bad deal to me. Plus, politically, I couldn’t justify perpetuating the situation by accepting the pathetic wages and working conditions for instructors in most schools. It is quite possible that the education system lost a lot of good people because of this adjunct practice. While the university corporations don’t really care (after all, teachers are just cogs in the corporate wheel), the students who are paying high fees and absorbing crippling debt SHOULD care. Because they are paying more and more for an increasingly inferior product.

  11. I’m an English lecturer. The first unit I teach every semester asks “Should you go to college?” I then set about systematically showing that college is probably a tremendous waste of money for an 18 year old and that there’s usually (not always) no reason to go to college unless you have a set plan and/or want a true liberal arts education. I’ve had some success in getting students to leave school to pursue their actual dreams.

    As someone who regularly teaches more than 8 classes per year (for less than 30k per year), I agree with everything this article says. I feel I’m treated okay as an adjunct, compared to others. But I’m still not treated fairly. There are tenured people who get paid 4 times as much for teaching the exact same classes I do.

    That said, there’s no way to fix this situation. Most colleges spend most of their money on administration. The administration is never going to vote to reduce their own pay in favor of adjunct pay. Tenured folks are not to blame, nor are departments. Look to the administrators, who have universally cushy jobs disguised as “necessary” positions. At most colleges, the admin budget far outweighs the education budget…

  12. After earning my MA in British Literature while teaching high school, I had intended to go on to a PhD program, but then marriage, kids, and mortgage forestalled those plans while friends–friends more ambitious, research-minded, and certainly brighter– went on to PhD programs. Now, ten years afterwards, they’re still teaching freshman composition courses and paying off student debt and barely scraping by with little or no healthcare–much less a prospect of buying a home and settling down–while it seems I, a mere high school teacher, enjoy more stability, benefits and right of due process with a comparable salary to a tenure-track university professor. While I love my younger students, I certainly do not have to make myself popular with them to retain my job. Certainly part of the ethics of being a teacher is, at times, a willingness to be unpopular to preserve one’s academic integrity. The institutional response to student-driven evaluation of and retention of teachers is always going to be grade inflation. In the end, this system not only damages and bankrupts the integrity of the university, but more importantly shortchanges the students and pushes the ethical “best and brightest” out of academic jobs, and rewards sycophants and panderers.

  13. As a former member of “staff” (NOT faculty) at a large University, I find the janitor example a bit offensive. Why does it incite more ire to say “I’m a professor and they pay me less than a JANITOR!” than it does to say “I’m a professor who teaches 7 classes and my yearly salary wouldn’t pay for one month’s rent at our Chancellor’s free apartment”?

  14. I am a recently minted PhD (Art History) and I also did sessional work during graduate school. What I am about to say may sound harsh, but it’s the truth.

    Adjunct instructors need to stop working as adjuncts.

    You are spoiling it for everyone.

    You think so little of yourselves that you are willing to work for basically nothing for an institution that will never promote you, that will never pay you a living wage, and that will never support you as a real employee.


    Because you want to keep a toe in Academia, hoping things will get better for you? Why should they? They’ve bought your labor for next to nothing. When the next professor dies or retires, then they’ll buy someone else for next to nothing. It’s a race to the bottom and you’re in the lead.

    Why in the world would a university take on a TT scholar at $60K and upward a year when they can get you for less than half that? The students will keep coming, and they’ll pay more and more for the pleasure. Sure, they’ll always hire a few “real” professors to keep up appearances, but neither you nor the rest of the suffering adjuncts will ever have a shot at those jobs. Those will go to the next superstar just out of Harvard or Columbia.

    The best way to start to fix the situation is to form a union and stop working for slave wages. If you can’t unionize, quit. You don’t owe Academia anything. Value your own labor and go develop a career that will amount to something.

    And no, I’m not a professor. I couldn’t get a TT so I quit Academia. I’m not going to contribute to the problem.

    I truly wish everyone out there struggling out of grad school the best. Please recognize that by sitting as an adjunct, you have put yourself into a dead end and helped to destroy one more TT.

  15. I currently hold a full-time position in higher education as a researcher. In addition to this I am an adjunct at two post-secondary institutions. Until recently I was actually an adjunct at 3 institutions of higher learning, but I left one of the third position after a department chair (not my own) stated in a faculty meeting that included several departments that I do not care about our students. I believe he said this after I corrected him regarding an incorrect assertion he made. When he refused to apologize and started degrading me over email, I resigned. No one really seemed to care.

    I do not teach for the money. As this article states, adjunct work can be difficult and it does not pay well. I teach because I love being in the classroom and I have a sincere desire to improve the quality of life of the local population through educational attainment. I really do believe that my place is in the classroom. As many adjunct faculty do, I advise students, tutor them, write letters of recommendation, etc. and do not receive monetary compensation for my work. Students constantly ask me if I will be teaching any other classes or if I can be their official faculty/thesis adviser. My answer is always, “I’m not sure,” to the first questions and, “Unfortunately as an adjunct I can’t,” to the second.

    Unfortunately, I have been unable to find a full-time position as a professor, but this is what I would love to do because I want to teach!

  16. “One commenter wrote, “You know what’s demeaning? Earning a PhD and making less money than a manager at McDonald’s.””

    20 years ago I was teaching part-time whilst completing my PhD in the UK. The students mostly didn’t come to class. Those that did had not read the small amount of literature required of them (and provided to them for free, in breach of copyright law). If I gave a student a low grade for an assignment that was only 50% of the required word length, they could appeal above my head and get it re-marked to be average.

    After calculating my preparation time, my teaching time, and my time spent marking, I realised that I was not being paid less than a manager at McDonalds. I was being paid less than a burger-flipper at McDonalds. And the students were getting a degree without learning anything at all.

    I left teaching after a few years, and went and got a job in an office. Within 3 years I was earning more than a full-time professor. I never regret giving up teaching. I now see that universities are just another Ponzi scheme. I can’t wait for it collapse.

  17. I was an adjunct in a french canadian university for five years. I came to see myself as an education mercenary. Once, I overheard a professor speaking of adjuncts as «course peddlers».

  18. This same sort of thing is happening everyone. Workers are expected to do more for less, and many jobs are outsourced to cut the payroll, including cost of benefits. Meanwhile, the upper echelon get more in pay, bonuses and perks. And don’t even get me started on the costs of the football program.

  19. As a fellow adjunct instructor, I found myself quite in agreement with the article. Indeed, the path that American colleges have chosen to follow and the ever-dwindling number of tenured positions have left many people with Master’s degrees in something like limbo. I honestly do not believe I can justify the time and money I would have to sink in to getting a PhD in the current economy. It’s simply not a reliable investment if you want to teach college, in terms of how much time and money you’d have to spend versus how much you are likely to end up making in the job market.

    So that leaves us with a Master’s degree that, while better than nothing, can easily be sifted to the bottom of a pile of desperate PhDs gunning for similar positions, and the knowledge that I’ll probably never out-earn my (nurse and policeman) parents, despite having spent more on my education than both of them put together. And of course, to top it all off, should one ever have the temerity to express dismay at how these things have turned out, the inevitable “well, you should have studied X instead” hindsight comments will always be there to twist the knife.

  20. Great article. I am lucky enough to hold a full professorship at a small private university in Central Florida. Fortunately, we do not have many adjuncts as most positions are full-time.

    I wanted to comment on the responses talking about the student expectations and purpose of a degree.

    First, I actually have students that struggle and flat-out ask me what they need to do to pass the class. They don’t want to know ‘how’ to accomplish the goals or learn anything. They just want to be told the exact steps and method to show the result needed to pass.

    I find over half believe the end-result of a degree is the degree itself. Actually learning skills and processes that will benefit them in work and life is nowhere on their list. A small percentage of these will not accept that they have to do the work and demonstrate that they learned the curriculum to pass the class and resort to actually sending email to the Chancellor’s office to complain about the professor. What I find really disturbing are the number of students that have their parents call the Chancellor to complain about a poor grade or a professor that won’t ‘give’ their child a passing grade.

    We went through a period of time where we would placate the students by order of the administration but for the past several years, this practice has ended and the administration is supporting the instructors and pushing back on these chronic complaining students.

    Many commenters here have lamented how easy it is to get a degree now. This is just the result of putting up artificial barriers to jobs and careers. Many careers that used to be apprenticeships now require a useless college degree before you can start an apprenticeship that should be available right out of high school. A bachelor degree is the equivalent of a 1960s high school diploma.

    I believe that this is primarily due to supply and demand. As technology makes people more productive and many manual jobs have been sent to countries with lower wages, there is less demand for labor and more people entering the workforce every day. When there is a glut of labor, artificial filters are put in place to reduce the number of candidates for a position. This applies to colleges and universities in that there are many more graduates that would love to stay and teach than available positions. This glut of ‘qualified’ workers means the schools can get that labor for less money, benefits and job security.

    As one posted stated, if people stopped taking adjunct positions, the schools would have to offer more to fill those needed positions. I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

    So what do you do? If you follow your heart, you make do. If you want a comfortable living, find a job that will give you that. For most, teaching isn’t going to provide both.

    I could go on for days about where the money goes at universities. It certainly is not to education. Universities have become a money making corporation and their primary goal is no longer education and inspiration. The goal now is money and that can be found in research, sports and other non-educational categories. The purpose of the educational category is to pump out Alumni they can harass about donations and sports tickets for the next 50 years.

  21. So the administrators are farking over the adjuncts, they’re farking over the students, they’re farking over the non-teaching staff, they’re farking over the taxpayers (Directly in state schools, indirectly in private schools).

    It sounds like there’s one common thread here: We don’t need adjunct professor reform – we need administration reform.

  22. Wow, this is an empire in despair. They even kill education, which would help to reproduce itself into a time where creativity is more needed than ever. Meanwhile, the US imports Fachkräfte, ITT developers, CIS machinery maintainers and brain drains the whole wide world.

    One way of creating an acceptable balance sheet is to not to pay for anything…

  23. Who in their right mind thinks being an adjunct professor is a full-time job that should pay huge dividends? Yet another liberal arts grad who ‘s griping about the pay of the positions they’ve stumbled into and have had their eyes opened too late.

    When you define the term adjunct as “a thing added to something else as a supplementary rather than an essential part.” you believe it refers to teaching being supplemental to college, when in fact it means you have accepted a supplementary role at the University. They supplement their tenure-track faculty with you as an adjunct. You don’t have to do any research for publications, you don’t have a doctorate, you don’t bring money into the school system, you don’t present or represent the University in an official capacity, so where is all the extra value coming from that you want more money for? If you want more money, get a PhD in marketing or a medical field, not another History, English, Poli-Sci, etc…graduate degree. Look before you leap.

    Although teaching can be tough, the job is very different from school to school, department to department, state to state, and so on. You can’t lump every adjunct and tenure-track professor and University under the Sun in together. Believe it or not, some people consider it an honor to be asked to teach at their local University, which provides intrinsic value, and the opportunity to teach is fulfilling, regardless of the pay. Of course, the pride is going to be much greater at the upper levels than the lower. And so is the pay, respect, etc… That’s life.

    Yeah, there are a lot of adjuncts running around, especially now that everyone went back to grad school when the economy tanked. But the Universities have to keep certain levels and standards to maintain their accreditation. So if you have a problem, you should look towards the regulators that are allowing the situation, rather than the Universities which are simply complying, as they compete for students..

  24. I find it offensive that the adjunct is derided for speaking out against poor working conditions and laughably poor pay when it is the administrator class who would settle for the hours, the money, the bad contract and the temporary assignments. They want the benefits of a nice and stable job the people teaching, you know: university, they are not entitled to that. That would be ludicrous.

    And yet, if all the adjuncts do is ‘teach class’, all the administrators do is to push paper around. Why is that not outsourced to India, where they can have other wage slaves fill in the forms for a fraction of the price of a pencil?

    The students should act on that and the argument has to be: the students are paying full price for a second-hand experience. Students leave college often with decades worth of student loan debt. They paid a very great deal of money. That money does not go to their teachers, it goes to the people sitting at desks pushing paper around. How much administration does a university actually need?

    Can anyone in a computer science class not find some software that handles all the administration seamlessly and very fast to boot? What are we talking about? A website that shows the proper form and a MySQL database at the backend that sends the data to whomever needs it. I could make that.

    I’m offended by the fact that when you go to work the last thing you appear to be allowed to complain about is getting a decent pay check for your trouble. The Micky D’s manager has to make do, the adjunct has to make do, the bus driver has to make do and that freak of nature, the janitor isn’t really raking in the big bucks either. Why is that? Why do we have to scrape together a living when we have a job that should pay a living wage?

    You must have a job because it’s only a job that brings ‘true satisfaction’ and you can’t be seen sponging off of society, but then you can’t expect pay. The ‘love of the job’ is the currency with which people want to pay. It doesn’t cost the organisation anything and it makes the worker look bad when they complain about it.

    Very annoying.

  25. Wow… But then again some of the best teachers in the past struggled look at Socrates. Is it right to degrade them? No, it’s never right to degrade anyone even the managers at McDonalds. In my opinion when something is controlling your job/life then you should be involved with the decisions of it. So go to those faculty meetings. Be involved, change will happen eventually.

  26. Welcome to America.

    The only way to fix this is to unionize; and I’m a republican, for the most part.

    I also work in IT. IT is in a similar position. The average starting salary for a h1b via worker is 32,000/year and includes 60 hours a week, more or less keeping systems running. Soon IT won’t be a middle class job because the managers and administration of companies only look to their own bottom line. The connection between the C level office suite and the employee is gone. Just like in academia.

    Soon, even the adjunct professors won’t have jobs because no one will hire an American. Just ship the job overseas.

  27. I’m writing this as someone who was foolish enough to pursue a career in academia (STEM), and fortunate enough to escape it and begin building a sane, stable life for myself.

    My experience of academia was in the USA, so I can only post based on my experience in the US economy.

    To those still in school, I say: “GET OUT OF ACADEMIA!!!!” Don’t wait. Develop and act on your exit strategy now. If you are a fresh undergraduate, do not choose any field for a primary major that requires graduate school in order to work in the field. If it is too late to change your major, then finish college and apply for non-academic jobs as soon as you earn your bachelor’s degree. If you are in graduate school, perhaps consider finding a way to get something out of the time you have already spent (i.e. a terminal Master’s degree, for example), but then start submitting resumes as soon as possible. Spend as much time as possible job hunting on the side. Do not let your advisor or your department know about your job hunting, and, if at all possible, find other sources for references outside of your graduate school. Tenured academics are useless for non-academic career guidance and, besides, there is a high likelihood that your advisor and/or your department will turn on you mercilessly if they discover that you have thoughts of leaving their cult. Leave graduate school the instant you receive a decent job offer.

    Understand that you will be competing for non-academic jobs in the worst economy since the 1930s with skill sets highly specialized for academic jobs (and in little demand elsewhere) against people who took non-academic career paths. It will not be easy, and you may even need to start at the bottom working minimum wage jobs and internships while you build up employable skills and work experience. But it will still be far better in the mid-to-long run than the academic career path. It’s true that it is hard for everyone now, but it’s still harder for the “professional students” than for everyone else. In general, work experience counts for more than degrees.

    If you disregard this advice and continue to pursue an academic career, then that means you will spend your twenties working hellish hours for low pay and minimal benefits, only to graduate and find that the academic/research jobs you dreamed of and were promised don’t exist or don’t pay a living wage, while most of the non-academic jobs will either pass you over as “overqualified”, or flatly reject you for having zero applicable skill sets. You will then spend your thirties working a series of post-docs or adjunct positions with low pay, no job security, and regular relocations. As you reach your forties, you will watch as classmates who took non-academic career paths enjoy well-paying, stable jobs, nice houses, and prospering investments and retirement plans while your own financial situation will have improved little since your mid-twenties. And all of that is assuming you didn’t have to take on crippling, nondischargeable student loan debt to pay for your graduate studies.

    I had the benefit of watching the above scenario happen to many people who graduated with STEM Ph.Ds before or not long after I entered my own Ph.D program. When I saw what awaited me at the finish line, I ran right out of the stadium, so to speak, and spent months job hunting until I found stable employment at a corporate job. And now I’m the only member of my entering graduate class who isn’t on welfare/food stamps, forced to work multiple part-time jobs and/or move back in with their parents just to make ends meet, or living out of my car.

    Take my advice, or don’t. It’s your life, your choice. Just know that the game has changed, and the traditional promises of the academic career path as well as many of the traditional escape routes from academia have evaporated away over the last couple of decades. If you are intelligent and motivated enough for academia, then you are intelligent and motived enough to excel in other fields where you can work half as hard while making at least three or four times as much money.

  28. One of the things I’d like to see is a bit more disaggregation of those who work as adjuncts, because their situations sometimes vary widely, even across departments in a given institution: For example, these are some of the characteristics: 1. Relatively well-heeled pensioners, who teach as an income and mental health enhancement; 2. Those who are active in the field professionals who teach as a second job; 3. Tenured and tenure-track faculty who work, essentially, on a kind of de facto overload at other institutions, or on-line; 4. Exploited Masters’ and Ph.D. graduates who are clearly the kind described in the “The Teaching Class;” 5. Debt-laden graduate students, who serve as cheap labor for their Alma Mater.

    Some institutions have a mix of these types of folks, in their teaching ranks. Obviously, there’s a continuum, from the privileged to the desperate and exhausted.

    The point is that I’ve seen very little, if any, disaggregation among these populations, in a more fine-grained analysis of the diversity of the economic positions of different aspects of “The Teaching Class.” IMHO, it’s a necessary supplement to the article.

  29. It is a sad state of affairs. Surely part of the problem is the number of students at universities? Most of them want to be trained for work, not study for a degree. Why are they doing a degree?

  30. The story of my life. A very important point not made here; do NOT rely on your union. Use it for your own benefit, but remember. Your union will probably NOT have your back in a grievance with admins and tenured faculty. It has no reason to. If you work (as I always have) in a “closed-shop” the union takes your money but…

    An adjunct teacher must use the three points of contact strategy used by climbers to keep from falling from a cliff. Three jobs. Take care of yourself first.

  31. What makes the author think that full-time professors would give any more attention to teaching than she does? At research universities, this may well not be the case.

  32. Jerry says above, “As one posted stated, if people stopped taking adjunct positions, the schools would have to offer more to fill those needed positions.” That’s the only solution that I see. Impractical, but effective.

  33. Economics 101. If you will work for they wages, universities will offer those wages. If people would refuse to work for those wages, universities would have to cancel classes because there would be no one to teach them. THEN they would raise the wages. When they raise the wages, more people will enter the labor pool. The adjuncts of today will not necessarily be the ones making the higher wages of tomorrow, but adjuncts in general will be paid better. However, I doubt this will ever happen, because there will always be people willing to do this work.

  34. I haven’t adjuncted in about three years, but have continued to write letters of recommendation for former students. Last Spring I finally declined to write a letter for a former student as I could not remember her very well and my old grade books were in storage. I could have made something up, but with no dedicated office space, a barely working laptop, no records, and no ongoing affiliation with the University where I had taught the student, I explained to her the reality of the situation. I felt somewhat guilty and bad for her, but also fed up with the expectation that I would continue this work for free. Adjunct pay has not budged since I began grad school in 2001. I miss teaching a great deal, but $9000 a semester, no benefits, and no job security really wasn’t worth it. Additionally, I was spending all of my time cobbling together classes, moving for a one year appointment, planning new classes every semester, and applying for jobs. I had no time to even contemplate continuing my research to get the job. It was disheartening and humiliating.

  35. Great article! Thanks for writing and posting this — a critical topic that everyone interested in education needs to know, think, and talk about.

  36. Great piece. I’d just like to emphasize a point that comes up in this article, but deserves to be developed further. Workers throughout the capitalist system are exploited, because that is precisely how the system works. Marx told us long ago that inequality tends to increase under capitalism, a proposition that is becoming ever more widely accepted. Social conditions deteriorate for the great majority of the population for the sake of the enrichment of the few. You speak, for example, of health insurance as a benefit of full-time employment — and I grant you that a discussion of our dysfunctional health care system is outside the scope. But here’s thing: access to quality medical care; housing; education; security in retirement; employment at a living wage — these are social rights, not gifts to be handed down from on high by The Man! Capitalism itself is a catastrophe that must be dismantled and replaced by the only rational alternative: socialism. There, I said it.

  37. As a fellow adjunct who has seen all of the above and more, I want to call out Central New Mexico Community College. I taught for them a few years ago and as an adjunct I received:

    1. Priority appointments so that my total contact hours met the minimum for benefits
    2. Relatively good pay
    3. A shared office
    4. Paid for all meetings and office hours
    5. Paid for grading time
    6. Full benefits, including pension
    7. Assignments for classes at all levels, not just intro
    8. Professional development allocation
    9. In-class assessment by the academic dean, not just student surveys

    It is an awesome place to be an adjunct.

  38. What a great post. To me we are talking about ‘stack ranking’ and the part teachers play. An adjunct is against the system because they see it’s inherent faults, and the monopolistic nature of education in society today. It must stop. It will.

    More reading here –

    And a recent book published here

    Thank you!

  39. I don’t see the point in anyone engaging with the comment about how demeaning it is for a PhD-holder to consider herself above an employee of McDonalds. First of all it should go without saying that the issue isn’t about which one is a better or more deserving human being. The issue, as I see it, is that part of the problem is some kind of politically correct, self-effacing (sabotaging) modesty or something along those lines, where a person who has invested years of learning, effort and money into earning her PhD can’t feel confident arguing that the degree signifies something special to that degree, and indeed, valuable. It is possible to acquire a position at McDonalds w/o having made the effort required to earn the PhD, plain and simple. And like other higher degrees that signify the acquisition of a specialized set of skills, it’s actually OK to suggest that the compensation should logically be higher than for a position not requiring those skills. And until recently, that was a reasonable expectation. To turn this issue into a commentary on whether or not someone thinks she’s better than another is not only juvenile and wrong-headed, it distracts us from the real problems. Anyway, I think this is a great article and that the trend it describes will certainly backfire in the end. Signed, full professor.

  40. Allow me to recommend another low-paying job in academia to the long suffering adjuncts: Substitute Teaching (K-12). It has similar instability and lack of benefits, but it is so much less work you will feel like you are on vacation.
    I live in the mid-west where they pay about $120 per day and I work most days. That’s a good $18,000 a year. With ZERO work outside the classroom. ZERO.

  41. Adjunct teaching has spread to Australia. It might be OK for teaching English but its not OK for teaching IT when you have to remain expert in your field and operating systems change every 7 years and computers are superseded every 3 years.

    Full time lecturers in Australia earn $84,227 – $100,023 per annum + 17% Super
    and have 5 to 18 hours class contact depending on the prestige of the university. Casual lecturers earn $105 per hour.

    My experience was 20 years ago when I went from a full time lecturing job with 16 class contact hours earning $60,000 to 25 hours sessional work over 5 colleges earning $19,000 to returning to industry to earn $120,000.

    My advice is to follow the money, you have to eat, house yourself and provide for your old age and a PhD is really valuable in the soup kitchen

  42. I did what was asked of me. They told me women were paid less because we did not have the same education. They said women were paid less because they did not like science. Once women got the education they said women did not publish enough. I got a Ph.D., full NSERC scholarship, in Science, and I graduated with EIGHT papers from my Ph.D. One of my papers I sent off and they just sent the proofs back, no revisions. Of the eight papers, less than 3 months turn around on seven. On the eight paper, I handed it in to a person who used to be a family friend instead of mailing it, just to go visit someone I had not seen in a decade or so and to say hi. THAT paper, one of the best I published, was 14 months with spurious revisions that were, quite simply, wrong. Oh did I mention that I sent my other papers in with initials and last name? Once graduated it took me 5 years to figure out that I had to take my birthdate off the application to be consisdered. I got EVERY job I interviewed for and consider myself lucky I GOT full time employment, with benefits. BUT every job had a mandatory 3 year term limit. I worked fro 15 years, moving across the continent with every job change. Three years ago, with the press talking about how “women in science are choosing to stay home and take care of their children” I finally gave up and took a call center job. It’s more stable. If anyone wants to know, I have a pretty good idea that I know why, world wide, fisheries are collapsing. I’m not allowed to do the research to benefit the millions of people who depend on fish for food ’cause I can’t submit a proposal if I don’t have a faculty appointment. Universities have abandoned education and research grants emphasize enhancing corporate profits. This, in the most ecologically critical time in human history.

  43. Unionize. At UofMichigan, lecturers make between 40 and 50K plus full health benefits, and the U as a whole seems reasonably committed to hiring them into full time positions rather than into lots of single-course instructors. I’m sure their union (LEO) would be happy to advise.

  44. I’m an adjunct too…and I have to respond to some of the critics of this piece.
    First, the suggestion that we stop taking adjunct positions, thereby forcing the colleges to create full-time positions: it’s a good idea in theory, but as a member of the species Homo sapiens, I need food and shelter. It’s a “bad economy” (i.e., we’re in another Depression), so most of us have to take whatever job we can get. I’m sure the well-fed administrators can easily out-wait desperate starving people.
    Another commenter blasted us for several faulty premises: you don’t have a doctorate, you don’t bring money into the school system, you don’t present or represent the University in an official capacity…etc. Let me debunk those, one by one:
    1. Many adjuncts have PhDs, even at my piddly community college.
    2. We (along with all teachers) do bring money to the college…as we are constantly reminded…if we do a bad job or our students dislike us too much, they drop out, thereby shutting off the flow of tuition dollars. This is why so many professors are evaluated by students’ opinions of them, and are under threat of termination if too many students drop their class.
    3. We don’t represent our schools in any official capacity??? What do you mean by official? We’re often the majority of people our “clients” (students) see and interact with on a daily basis! If standing in front of a roomful of students isn’t representing the school, I don’t know what is.
    And as for the last comment, that the “honor” of teaching should be enough, I’d love to agree with that. Unfortunately, my landlord, student loan servicer, and utility bills won’t take “honor” as payment.

  45. “Though many universities limit the number of hours that adjunct professors can work each semester, keeping them nominally ‘part-time’ employees, teaching three three-credit courses is certainly a full-time job.” This is untrue. It’s annoying to see someone engage in special pleading, especially when you agree with his thesis.

    Three classes is definitely less than full-time. Four is quite manageable, and five can be okay if you do not have, say, three different preps. (Teaching a section of 201 and a section of 232 is significantly more work than two sections of ENG 201.)

    What is hard is teaching at two (or three!) different colleges. That makes even a four-class load a hassle. (The drive, the different formats and different college cultures, and the preps: first-semester composition is a different class in School A than it is in School B, so someone with four classes divided over two schools could easily have three or even four preps.)

    This is an important point that the article deals with only in passing. Mary Margaret Vojtko (the retired adjunct professor who died in penury last year) taught at only one school, and she was lucky to get three classes a semester (most schools max out at two) and two classes in the summer (very few colleges have summer classes available for adjuncts). Eight classes a year is fewer than I like; I try to get more. But it’s a lucky stroke that Vojtko, who could not (or wished not to) teach at a second school, managed that much.

    But seriously: three classes in a semester “certainly a full-time job”? Nonsense.

  46. I was an itinerant college teacher for 23 years, sometimes teaching at four different schools in a day. I one day I woke up and thought “someday I’ll be 65 and still moving around the country looking for a teaching job. Tomorrow will be my 65th birthday and I’m proud to say I gave up my dream of teaching 17 years ago for a full time job in my field, with security, benefits, and even a pension. I was lucky. But sad to say that the incredible amount of energy I expended keeping my jobs while looking for others soured me. I naïvely believed in the Ivory Tower where learning and exploring new ideas would be the norm. Sad to say, there wasn’t much of that.

  47. An excellent article, exposing the deeply corrupt nature of 21st century capitalism inside education.

    There is much in this account which I recognise in the UK; not so vicious perhaps, but heading that way.

  48. This was a terrific article, but as someone who has always looked at a career in academia as the path not taken, I have a few questions, not snarky. For those who teach composition, was it really your goal to become a professor? Don’t you teach in order to supplement your income, which you ideally hoped would be writing? I always thought that the English adjuncts were writers who were teaching for the albeit low, but steady, paycheck. Second question, for the untenured adjuncts, why not teach high school? Not like teachers are so appreciated, but it seems to be steady, better money, with some solid benefits. Just asking.

  49. 25 years ago I went into a science career because it was well know known that there are few jobs other than teaching for people with liberal arts degrees. Now days, several people where I work are adjunct professors because they supplement their professional income with part time teaching at nearby universities. Most college educated people realize that additional supply drives down prices regardless of the utilitarian value delivered. Your story here is a good warning to all that supply and demand rules still apply in this market of teaching and everyone should expect compensation for teaching to drop as more professionals engage part time and full-time professors make their lectures available over the internet. So, if you realize that you can’t live on the teaching profession alone, find another one. The world is changing so that more and more people can be educated for less and less cost. And as always, you have a choice of being a victim of change or embracing it and making the most of the opportunities you seek out.

  50. This is everything I have been thinking about lately. As an instructor without the PhD – thankfully full time, but on a semester to semester contract – everything mentioned here rings scarily true. I love the act of teaching, and I’m good at it, but I don’t know what to do. I can barely afford to live, but that’s something that can be said for so much of our country. If I were to leave my job, where else would I go? So I stay. I put in more and more hours to help students and to make our department thrive, but most people don’t realize the sheer amount of time that goes into these jobs. Lesson plans don’t just appear. Tests have to be created. And graded. I could go on for a long time about the impact this has not only on our teachers and students, but our country as a whole, but I won’t. You’ve said a lot of what I’ve been thinking. There’s a comfort in knowing that I’m not only one going through this, but it’s scary to think of how bad it’s getting. I don’t know what will happen in the future. I don’t know if there is a way to truly remedy the situation.

  51. On March 7th, 1920, the president of Byrn Mawr, Helen Taft, wrote an article for the New York Times with the headline, “TEACHERS ON VERGE OF POVERTY”. The subheading states, “Head of Bryn Mawr College Tells of Professors Who Do Their Own Cooking”. Wow, what a read it is too. If you’re interested, I have posted a pdf copy of the actual article:

    Being in my third decade as a college teacher I can only wonder what privilege it must have been to live in a place and time where a college teacher could actually afford to have a living space that allowed for such luxury as cooking a real meal. Halcyon days?

    By the way, Helen Taft was the daughter of U.S. President Taft.

  52. I taught for three years while completing my MS. Now I own a cab. As a cab driver I make more than three times an adjunct’s salary, and almost as much as my former department chair. I loved teaching and research and excelled at both, but I loved my self-worth and my me-time more. Now I have both, ironically, in an unskilled job, but a job with lots of autonomy, no boss, lots of teaching and learning moments every day, and nothing to do at the end of it except gas up, park, turn the key off and get on with my life.

  53. Well said Wynde. I was a steel fabricator/welder in heavy industry. In mid life when that job became quite rustbelt I went to University (Oxford/Edinburgh/and one in Greece) At that time students received a grant, not a loan and I got a RollsRoyce of an education. Today, anyone who takes out a loan in order to study and then teach is mad.

    Yet at my age the only realistic option was to teach. From having the positive outlook that all teachers begin with, I ended up detesting every aspect of it, from hostile government to malevolent management to maladjusted kids who resisted any form of learning. My good education was squandered.

    I missed the industrial shop floor . I didn’t need the misery of being a teacher. Stay with the cab Wynde – teaching doesn’t deserve committed teachers.

  54. I have taught as an adjunct for many years, sometimes by choice, sometimes not. When I’ve chosen to, it was because I was pursuing a hobby or something that took up a bunch of time, so working as an adjunct provided some income, while not having to put in the time I would for a full-time job. A full-time teaching job requires going to meetings, being on committees, having office hours for students (having an office!), etc. The sole advantage of being an adjunct is that you don’t have to do any of those things–in fact, if I were asked to do them as an adjunct, I would refuse (though, of course, I have met students outside of class for extra help). My point here is that there is a positive side to being an adjunct–sometimes it ‘s good to have a part-time job doing something you love that also leaves you time for other things you want to do.

    Now, there have also been times in my teaching life (I have been a teacher off and on since 1988–high school, community college, and college) that I wanted a full time job with benefits and have not been able to get one because so few were available or–as happened with one university that I was an adjunct for for over 15 years–I think I was turned down for the full time jobs that came up because they knew I would keep working as an adjunct for them no matter what.

    I guess I am lucky that I have never felt pressured by admin to lower my standards or pass more students. I have managed to teach with integrity at various adjunct jobs for some 25 years. Sometimes I was doing this while also holding a fulltime job and sometimes not. Right now, I teach as an adjunct at 2 different colleges and do freelance writing for 3 publications, and still, I barely scrape by. Plus, I have no health insurance or benefits, etc.

    Some full time professors have occasionally got snarky about adjuncts, but I think that comes from lack of “walking in our shoes.” I am an excellent teacher, as are many of my adjunct colleagues. The fact that we do it only on a contract basis doesn’t diminish what we do.

    Someone in these comments mentioned one solution, which I agree is the only one that is going to solve some of these issues: Adjuncts have to stop working. We just have to say, No. Universities would then need to take a look at all of their professors, see how many classes they offer and how many full time professors those classes warrant and then make everyone full time. If there happened to be extra classes here and there that couldn’t be covered, adjuncts who wanted only a part-time job could be hired for those.

    Yep, not going to happen. But ideally. Curiously enough, it was when I taught full time for 6 years at a community college that I found the healthiest model along these lines: There were no adjunct teachers at this college–all teachers were full time. They simply did not offer a class if there was not a full time teacher for it. One of the results was that there was a real community spirit among the faculty–we all knew each other well and helped each other out and conspired together for the benefit of our students.

    The other

  55. Well Mikel, your comment does not say whether or not you approve of Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ remark.

    Why don’t you say?

  56. I find this practice horrible ; if college administrators are this clueless and deliberate, then we as a society need a MAJOR change. It is inexcusable that an adjunct teacher would be given such dismal work pay and benefits. But I ask as a parent with a college student and two on the way over the next two years, how do I find out and change since it seems as a rampant practice? We as a nation need a better way. God bless those who continue to work for the students in spite of the unamerican standards put on them.

  57. Yes Hilary it’s horrible. Unfortunately these are actually American standards, which are as low as they can be.

    Teachers are better off as taxi drivers as you have seen above.

    The better way you seek asks for a bigger change than you are ready for.

    It will mean an end to American exceptionalism and also to US rampant capitalism. So it won’t happen.

    The Roman Empire fell, as did the British Empire. The US Empire is next. Then you might be free.

  58. I am stuck in ABD limbo. I am currently teaching freshman comp (I usually get between 7 and 9 classes per year) because family finances demand it, but I am rapidly running out of time to finish my PhD because I have no time to work on it. If my husband weren’t also an underpaid educator, I wouldn’t be an adjunct.

    I love teaching — the thought of giving it up devastates me — but I think I may be better off taking an MA as a terminal degree and going to teach at a high school if I want to continue in the classroom. I have no benefits, no job security, and no real footprint on the campus. I do truly love it here, and the opportunity to work around like-minded people is one of the few actual benefits that my job has, but I don’t see that obtaining a PhD is going to improve my situation. The fact that I have another diploma will not create a full-time job for me in higher education.

    My daughter is going to college in the fall, and I want better for her than a steady stream of adjunct professors. I want her institution to care not only about its students but also about the people who teach them. I consider myself to be good teacher — my student evals and departmental head agree with me — but schools shouldn’t be asking undergraduates to pay thousands per semester in tuition alone and depend on the expertise of part-time instructors for their education. For the most part, adjuncts are highly-educated and trained as instructors, but the very nature of our contracts prevents us from investing fully in our jobs and in our students. They deserve better, and so do we.

  59. Colleges that hire adjunct teachers should also hire adjunct administrators in the same proportion — giving them one-fourth the pay, no benefits, a part-time shared office, a shared phone (or none) — and rehire them on the basis of student evaluations.

  60. Wonderful piece. I would only like to add that American Academia, by its adoption of the consumer model of business and abandonment of the liberal arts tradition, has gone far in creating a dramatically imbalanced class system within itself, and in which a select few publishing superstars will soon no longer teach at all, and the “armies of adjuncts” and other temporary-contact instructors will not produce scholarship. At this point American higher education will have fully evolved into a Ponzi scheme, a purely exploitative institution buoyed by the old belief that education is the clearest path out of poverty. It will soon be nothing of the sort, and indeed, it will only lead to increased impoverishment of those who seek it.

    I am not an adjunct, but not so far from it. I am a visiting assistant professor, which means I get certain perks, like my own office, health and retirement benefits, and so on, but like an adjunct, my pay is far lower than what society might imagine it to be, and I have no job security from one year to the next. In fact, I have been constantly on the job market for the last two years because there are, on average, 150-250 applicants for every position I apply for. Of course, I have not applied for an adjunct position, which might be easier to get, but this is because I categorically refuse to. I refuse to let the institution of academia insult me in this way.

    For the time being, many PhDs will continue to work as poorly paid and institutionally abused adjuncts because there is still some degree of social status associated with teaching at the university level, which compensates a little bit for the grumble in one’s stomach and the late rent check. However, college students and the societies that sprung them are quickly realizing what their college TAs and adjuncts really are: the low rung on the social latter. And since basic human psychology orients us to ignoring the losers and gravitating towards the winners, it will not be long before students simply stop listening their teachers, just as they never listened to their janitors. At that point higher education in America will have fully collapsed, and society will perhaps follow suit shortly thereafter.

    This is why I plead with one and all PhDs who are unable to get tenure-track or otherwise dignified academic jobs to please boycott the adjunctification of our universities by not accepting such horrible jobs. If we all did this, we could save American higher education from its demise.

  61. If people refused to adjunct, the universities would be forced to hire full time staff. The adjunct life is awful, but we feed into it by taking the jobs and doing the work. We’re as much the problem as the universities who hire adjuncts.

  62. Full disclosure: I am two weeks shy of my 71st birthday, a full-time professor with the functional equivalent of “tenure” and as economically secure as anyone in these “uncertain” times; I am also an activist in my faculty union and am currently a “shop steward” at my college campus.

    In my view, all academic employees are “working class” (professionals control entry into, discipline within, and exit from their profession; most are able to set performance standards and fee schedules, whereas classroom educators suffer the same subservience and insecurity as any other employees in clerical, manufacturing, sales or other occupations).

    Unfortunately, appeals to “solidarity” rarely persuades tenured professors that the exploitation – overworked, underpaid and lacking job security – of adjuncts is sufficient reason for them to become active in support of their second-tier colleagues.

    So, I’d like to mention just two (of many) reasons why an appeal to naked self-interest should mobilize full-time professors to join in the demand for better wages and working conditions for “contingent” faculty.

    1. Pensions – with roughly 75% of teaching now done by part-time people, who is going to sustain post-retirement defined pensions for current full-time teachers?

    2. Academic freedom – since precariously employed professors have little to no protection against managerial malfeasance, how long will it be before the intimidation of contract faculty (who can be terminated without cause for annoying the authorities) will have an effect upon tenure – now already under attack.

    The conditions of adjunct faculty are just one aspect of the corporatization of higher education. Together with the commodification of curriculum, the commercialization of research, the intervention of technologically mediated pedagogy, the adoption of “entrepreneurial” business plans (often called “academic capitalism”) and so on, the transformation of colleges and universities, the deskilling of educators and the pervasive market mentality is turning Associate Professors into the scholarly equivalent of Walmart Associates.

    Welcome to K-Mart Kollege!

  63. This is a well done essay on these terrible issues of adjuncting that have gone on now for decades. (In California they are known as “freeway fliers “.)However, I wish to add to the issues that one of the root sources of this problem that we often ignore.

    It is caused, in large part, due to our overproduction of PhDs in many disciplines. When single universities continue to pour out dozens (even scores) of PhDs chiefly to keep their current tenure-track faculty happy (and their programs highly rated) because they get to work with doctoral students, then we are perpetuating the problem and aid in the creation of the ethical problems of how we treat adjuncts.

    We need to look into ourselves as faculty and ask, How many grad students can our discipline handle?. We have been in denial too long.

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