Thursday, December 06, 2007


Stuck in Adjunct Hell

A long-suffering correspondent writes:

I'm an adjunct . . . everywhere. Note that I am sending this from the
Ringling College of Something Specific, where I have been teaching a 67
percent load for six years. I am also teaching for a local community
college that has several branches. The CC pays literally half what
Ringling does, and I am not treated nearly as well in a general-person
kind of way. Furthermore, the CC has to abide by certain state
regulations, which translates into significantly more work for me at
far less pay. My boss at the CC has made it abundantly clear to me
that I am his favorite choice. And why wouldn't I be? I am really,
really good at my job, the students like me, some of them fear me, I'm
very qualified, experienced, I always say yes and in the past I have
done some really Herculean favors for the school overall. Two years
ago, I was about fifteen minutes' pregnant and discovered I was to
fill in for a full-timer on sabbatical (at adjunct pay!), which meant
driving between three campuses in one day, teaching out of three
textbooks in one week, AND they changed the textbooks on me without
telling me, so I had to do entirely new prep from scratch in the midst
of all this joy, too. I did it, and I did it well, but I loathed it
the entire time. The only reason I continue to work there is because
they offer summer classes and Ringling doesn't, and we need the summer
money just to keep from being homeless. I could go on, but I gather
you are familiar with the plight of adjuncts generally.

Right now I am slated to teach one class there next term, from 7 to 10
at night about 30 miles south of where I live, and it will mean a) I
will get home at nearly 11, and can't see my husband, bathe the baby,
etc. and b) the other college had to rearrange my schedule in a very
inconvenient way to accommodate it. Now Happy Boss wants me to teach
another course (not a section, another course) on another night from 7
to 10. I so desperately want to say no that it's keeping me up at
night, seriously. But I'm afraid if I do, I won't be offered summer
teaching. He has shopped this class to every other adjunct he has, and
they've all refused it, so if I say no it's going to be cancelled, oy
the guilt. I have to give him an answer this week, and I don't want to
be rash. I should also add I'm in school (trying to make a better
future so I never have to do this again.) Furthermore, this semester I
had the delight of teaching a seriously disturbed student and I am
worried about my physical safety on campus late at night next term.
I've had a security detail assigned to my classroom, hooray.

What to do? I know this was overly long - I just wanted to illustrate
the egregiousness of how they treat me, and how I stupidly keep saying
yes in spite of it. I'm like . . . a really dumb girlfriend!

Wow. No sticky issues here!

I don't know your Happy Boss, so I can't say this with any finality, but I can guess both why he likes you and why things won't improve unless you make them.

You're solving his problems for him. He's grateful, and relieved, and he has learned to turn to you when he has a problem class. He probably does respect your ability, which is precisely why he's happy that you keep saying yes. He's getting quality and flexibility on the cheap. From his perspective, what's not to like?

And why, exactly, do you expect that to change?

He may sincerely mean it when he says he'd love to hire you full-time. Or he may not. Even if he does mean it, it may not matter. He may not get a line to fill for many years, and when he finally does, he'll have to do an open search, at which point his opinion will be one of many, and you'll be up against candidates you aren't up against now.

As I interpret it, you have two goals you're trying to attain:

  1. Non-starvation in the short term.

  2. A full-time job in the long term.

These are both worthy goals, but your chase of goal 1 is short-circuiting your prospects for goal 2.

More adjuncting at the same place won't improve your chances of a full-time position anywhere. At best, it will keep you fed. But there are other ways of keeping yourself fed. And those other ways might leave you more time to make yourself a more attractive candidate for full-time positions.

Good, hardworking people sometimes believe a little too strongly in the 'virtue will be rewarded' theory. It could be, but colleges don't hire to reward virtue; they hire to meet needs. If they don't need you, your dazzling endurance and heroic selflessness and general wonderfulness are simply irrelevant. That's not nice, but it's true.

(True example: my cc didn't hire anybody in my scholarly discipline for 35 years. I refuse to believe it was for lack of qualified people.)

With childcare, financial stresses, and the hassles of working at two colleges, it sounds like you haven't had the chance to step back and think about the long term. It's time to do that. Whatever you do, you need to break out of your rut.

My recommendation – and wise and worldly readers, if you have better ideas, don't be shy – is to turn down these classes, and take some idiotic (and definitely non-academic) job in the meantime if you have to to eat. Get some distance on your situation. After a couple of months, when your brain starts to snap back to its original shape, ask yourself again what you actually want. It may be that tenure-track job; if it is, then start organizing the short term around improving your chances of that. Or you may discover that, while you like teaching and you're good at it, stepping away isn't the end of the world. There are other rewarding and valid – and often more lucrative – ways to make a living.

Either way, it's not selfish to take a time out and step back. It's self-preservation. You're allowed.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

The only way I survived adjunct hell was to realize that my committment to them was only as long as their committment to me. You don't even know for sure there will be summer work from the CC, you are going on hope.... either the sections will be there or they won't.... if you are the favorite, you have room to say no to the night class and still get the summer sections.

So, I'd say no -- the time slot doesn't work for me -- especially not at that rate of pay.

Also, the system won't change until you say no -- DD makes a great point, why would it change?

Besides, I'm guessing you could work tem jobs over the summer and make the same as your CC is paying you...
I am with Dean Dad on this one. People are less motivated to change a situation if they are not experiencing any "pain" from it, and by your own account you are definitely bearing a disproportionate amount of the burden, with only the vaguest of possibilities of reward, that is a full time position in the future.

As DD also points out, however much your immediate boss likes and recognizes your contribution and talent, with regard to a F/T position, other factors will undoubtedly come into play at that time over which he has less (or no)influence.

I think for your own well-being as well as that of your family you need to begin thinking more strategically with regard to your own self interest. In the shorterm, different activities than what you are currently engaged in, may be necessary to reach your long term goals of F/T employment in your chosen field. You may also need to begin seriously entertaining the possibility that your future employment prospects lie elsewhere.
I wanted to chime in to mention that I completely agree with Dean Dad on this one too. I worked two jobs one semester. An adjunct position and waitressing. I made nearly twice as much waitressing. It's not glamourous. There aren't perks. But you can eat and not feel quite so used.
Adjuncts getting the harsh end of the stick? No news there. But Bibkit makes a good point. No one is motivated to remedy a situation unless they are feeling some "pain." DD's advice to the adjunct is well-intentioned, but misses the larger point. If this situation instead caused genuine pain for the Deans of the world, they might be motivated to do something beyond shooing away a symptom of a larger problem and finally get down to the business of ending the exploitation of those dedicated professors who are more and more becoming the backbone of their departments.
Too often adjuncts are told to move on and save themselves. Good advice. But that does little to address the real problem. My advice to that adjunct is to organize, then come back a make your Dean's life a living hell. Then we'll see what advice there is for the untouchables of academia.
Anonymous #2, you might want to rethink that last sentence. As DD has pointed out repeatedly, deans are not "the untouchables of academia." Very often the deans are put in positions of responsibility without power, and are forced by outside forces (budgets they don't create, tax issues they can't change, tenure) to do bad things.

Be angry, sure -- it's exploitive as hell. But please do us all the courtesy of figuring out who's to blame before venting fury, okay? Don't yell at the paperboy that the headlines in the news are depressing.
I'm quite interested by the last anonymous comment about 'organizing' and making Dean's lives hell, but I'm not quite sure what that means! If you expect this woman to unionize herself and her fellow adjuncts on top of all her other tasks and worries that's ridiculous.I am lucky enough to be protected by Unions, one of them was formed recently and it took a massive effort.

In essence I agree with Dean Dad. I'm an adjunct at two Universities, usually in three departments, and have gotten similar offers that I have to weigh very carefully. Finally I just decided that honesty was the best policy and I would tell my Deans, straight up, that I was afraid of losing work with them in the future but I would have to turn down X course because of scheduling conflicts, overwork...whatever my legitimate excuse was. And I'll be damned if one of them didn't offer me another position just to keep me around (not as great a course, but it fit my schedule). I have no guarantee of work beyond that, but I think the Dean and I have an understanding now about the fact that I love working in his department but I won't sacrifice better opportunities elsewhere or my family life/sanity to do it. He respects me for making good choices for myself and my family, and I respect him for recognizing this and trying to work with me.

I suggest you try this strategy before you go off and get a job waiting tables (although I am in full support of this option, get some lunch gigs at a busy spot and you'll rake it in). There is risk involved, but not much, and given how stretched you sound what the hell? Don't be bitchy about it, but be honest and see where it gets you.
Stever, Who's angry? "Untouchables" refers to the adjuncts. The line comes from a NYTimes artcle on the very same issue. I understand that DD is a swell guy who should not be confused with Zues, (maybe Narcissus). I also understand that when more and more (State!) college presidents join the Million Dollar Club, and their individual staffs swell to reflect that tippitytop-ness, the money must come from somewhere. Without question, DD is in the crosshairs of that dilemma. No fun there. God bless him, and his children too. But nothing will happen until someone higher up the totem pole than some exploited adjunct demands genuine change. And yes, I do expect that adjunct to organize everyone everywhere, between curing prostate cancer and doing the laundry. Yikes. But wasn't it a good thing that a union came to your rescue, dbm/gaa? They certainly didn't fall out of the sky. Only Zeus does that. No doubt, somebody, somewhere, had had enough. But hey, if nothing gets done? No worries. Starbucks is always hiring. Tally-ho! Gotta go bitch about making lattes for the Man.
As a wise person once said, you have to teach people how to treat you.

Right now, you're broadcasting that you are so desperate/grateful for any job that involves standing up in front of students that you'll bend your life around it, and do it for chickenfeed. Unless you want a heapin' helping of that for the rest of your life, you have got to stop.

You're also asking your "good" employer, Ringling, to contort their schedule to accommodate your exploitive employer. I think I'd be more inclined to see if I could work a little more at Ringling during the work year, save the $, and then not care whether I could teach summers or not. In other words, CC can get what they're willing to pay for, or they can go hang. Otherwise, they're going to keep expecting heroism on a shoestring.

I did one adjunct gig once that was similarly ridiculous (insane workloads, poor coordination). I finished out the semester, and then sent a tartly-worded but professional letter to the head of department, explaining why he should not bother calling me next time he had a section open. I then found another adjunct gig in the same college that was 1) much more fun and 2) paid twice as well.

(Also, as DD suggested, there are many other ways to make a living. Several of them are more fun than adjuncting. Trust me.)
I basically concur with Dean Dad and a few other posters. It's time to bail on the CC.

Some places will combine adjunct terms with small-time administrative summers (particularly grant-funded centers). There might be a research center on campus that needs your skills (administrative, writing, proof-reading of grant proposals).

Then, there is the bail on academe strategy. Folks who hold Ph.D.s tend to be really smart, not just in their narrow field, but more broadly. It might be time to find a far more lucrative endeavor.
But sadly, non-academic options are a priori unavailable to those with a Ph.D. because of the "over qualified" wall. At least, that's what I've run into every time I've tried to get out.

In my view, you have two options. One is to take the class, but to develop the hardened skin of a pro adjunct. In other words, keep a smile on your face, appear incredibly hard working, cultivate your popularity amongst the students and get good evals, all the while recognizing that the college or department will only get as much from you as it pays for. Or, alternatively, because you apparently have a spouse/partner and will not be in dire straights if you say no, then say no.
Bailing out would be great if we lived in a world where college jobs were as available as baristas at Starbucks. I am at the crux of a similar situation and personally I have had enough. For three to four years I have been given few classes and the worst ones at a 4 year state college, so I bailed to a CC. The chair and several staff at the 4 year were genuinely upset that I left and offered me a schedule for the following semester and I took it. I returned for ease in teaching classes and lack of prep time. Big mistake. Scheduling for the next semester has arrived and my chair tells me to email him with my availability and classes I would be interested in teaching. He printed out the email, but ignored it and gave me days I was unavailable to teach. He changed it a now I have one class and not one in my choice listing.

Now, I received the availablity request from the CC and their schedule is horrible in terms of times. It would conflict with the 4-year and my child's school. They have a strong adjunct union and I am low on seniority in terms of class picks.

The 4-year chair is stepping down in the spring and I am thrilled. This is the only reason I am holding out one more semester. If that doesn't fair well I am considering opting out of academics altogether. I have had my fill of the system and never knowing if one has a job from semester to semester. With the level of education one has to have employment should be better than this in colleges.
Second Line: But sadly, non-academic options are a priori unavailable to those with a Ph.D. because of the "over qualified" wall. At least, that's what I've run into every time I've tried to get out.

Not true; I have several counterexamples among my circle of friends, and may yet become one of them myself.

Yes, if you apply for an entry-level gig meant for someone with a HS diploma, you bet you're going to get the "overqualified" line. The average employer is going to figure that you've either got massive personality problems, or will be gone in three months. Either way, no sale.

Sell yourself as a skilled and motivated career-changer (with some documentable stuff to back it up). Mean it. You are not a failed academic; you are potentially successful (new field of choice here).

If memory serves, Evil HR Lady had a similar case on her blog...a woman with a law degree who was trying to get an entry-level HR position, and failing. (You should, incidentally, read Evil HR Lady for other stuff too---she's great.)

Potentially dangerous situation with wacko student.

Not enough time to spend with your new baby.

Low pay, long hours and people who take advantage of your good nature.

Sounds like you'll either burn out trying to make everyone happy or start losing your edge in the classroom. Either way, you lose.

I'm with the explore other options crowd - waitressing sounds good and I would encourage you to look at things in healthcare because there tend to be high pay positions with per diem shifts available in the summer when people go on vacation in different areas. EMT, phlebotomy, technician work, ward clerk - you can work with patients or paper but the bottom line is that an intelligent organized person who's good at communicating would have lots of things to choose from. You don't have to have a science background to apply for many of the jobs available.
This is an interesting conversation and all, but I have a question. If everyone eventually wises up and moves on, where does that leave DD? Will it reflect poorly on him if he is forced to cancel courses, or worse, finds himself forced to throw any warm body in a classroom?

Pete, when instead of 10 applicants for every teaching job you have 2 job for every applicant things will change.
My sympathies to the adjunct; I know what it's like to weigh the low pay vs. overloading-till-you-go-crazy route.

I'd only add that if she has a kid, she should weigh in the cost of childcare too, if she's using childcare --- didn't DD have a couple posts running through the math of wages vs. childcare costs and pointed out that in some cases it's way cheaper to stay home? Not that I'm saying she has to stay home with the kid, just that this is another element to stir into the mix.
Pete:This is an interesting conversation and all, but I have a question. If everyone eventually wises up and moves on, where does that leave DD? Will it reflect poorly on him if he is forced to cancel courses, or worse, finds himself forced to throw any warm body in a classroom?

Hence the point about sharing the "pain wealth" a little more evenly. Right now, based on what the person wrote, everyone else are happy as clams with the situation.

If poor reflection is something an administrator wants to avoid, perhaps they will be more motivated to seek alternative options that are more equitable for all concerned parties.
Bibkit: Exactly. Right now, the average administrator can't justify paying a proper wage for an adjunct, because lots of qualified people are climbing all over each other to do the job for half that. If the administrator simply can't find a competent teacher at the offered wage, that allows him/her to make the business case to the higher-ups about a salary increase.

The original writer noted that the lousy course she was offered had been turned down by every other adjunct at the CC. If she martyrs herself and takes it, then the college gets all the benefit, and she gets nothing. If she says "no", too, then the college either has to cancel the class and forfeit the tuition, or must offer some sort of additional inducement to get a teacher. In other words, market forces work. :)

I mean, this is how wages are set. Any desirable characteristic in an employee (reliability, ability to think independently, good sense, skills, etc.) is purchased with wages or other carrots (flex scheduling, learning opportunities, prestige, etc.) If our letter writer is willing to sell her skills, time and dedication for nothing, then her employer gets a real bargain, but she sure doesn't get much out of it.
Great question originally and a great conversation thread. I agree with Dean Dad. Find a non-entry-level job in academia or elsewhere, and use your spare time to build up your c.v. But I also like the poster who said, in essence, that you need to downshift your emotional investment and do the minimum: give them what they pay for. Both options will at least save your sanity. I think option 2 leaves the original inquirer too susceptible to the emotional connection, so I'm again with DD on option 1: leave. - TL
You have a baby, you have a life.
I'd turn down the evening class. They will reschedule it or cancel it since no one else wants it either.
I'd also seriously consider leaving if they do not take action to remove the disturbed student from the campus--if the student disrupted your clases and you feel that you are in danger, you are probably right.
No job is worth wrecking your health or life.
I spent four years as a full time temporary replacement. I am leaving, and good riddance, and taking a job elsewhere at nearly double the pay. If you are good, you can do this--though it might mean leaving Florida. It all depends on what you want out of your career and life.
Become an asynchorous, online instructor. Blanket the available market with your CV. This process may take 3-9 months but, over time, will yield more profitable streams of income which are at least sustainable as the cc postions you mention. Once teaching online with your school(S0, position yourself to teach multiple sections of the same course. Your income-to-work ratio this increases dramatically. Enjoy the ability to work from home; why commute when there are no benefits attached to your positions?

Dollar, Dollar billz ya'll.
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