Adjunct Poverty, or Life in the Time of Coronavirus

I never intended on teaching college. I never intended on teaching at all.

I only got my degree in English because I love writing. I love reading. I love words. I love books. I knew that if I had to sit in a series of turgid classrooms for four whole years and produce work that would impress white professors, but still mean anything to me, I would have to major in English. I would have to write about literature and film and culture and history.

So I did. I took my hard-earned, precious scholarship money and used it to do what I must admit now is one of the most foolhardy things I have ever done: I got a BA in English.

This was back in 1994, though, so my professors still had a solid enough standing in the academic world to believe that an English degree was worthy of all the time, effort, and money I spent. English departments were still “important” to college and university campuses. People still bought into the idea that “educated” people were those that had received a “well-rounded” liberal arts degree. There were still a decent number of avenues down which I could travel professionally with my BA in English.

Yet, I should’ve known what was going to end up happening. Because when it was time for me to graduate, every professor in my department with whom I spoke said the same thing: “You’re going to get your Ph.D., right? And teach?”

No, I would tell them. Absolutely not. I was going to film school, I thought. I was going to be the Black feminist answer to Spike Lee.

Until I did my research and discovered that Tisch – my dream graduate school – would cost at least $250,000.

Then I knew I wasn’t going to film school. And I didn’t know what else to do with myself. And my BA in English.

I will be honest. I got my MA because I got a full fellowship to continue at my same university, in my same department for two more years after completing my BA, and I knew that it would be a piece of cake for me. I was being emotionally and intellectually lazy. I was being “safe.”

Looking back, what I should’ve done was began a career as a professional writer in earnest, but I didn’t. I should’ve applied to MFA programs. But that seemed like another pipe dream – writing poetry for a living.

So I continued to treat my poetry as a hobby, and I hid away from the “real world” for two more years in the cloister of my beloved Case.

I aced my classes, wrote a novella for my thesis, and taught for the first time in my life.

The first two things, I thoroughly enjoyed. The last, I hated with a passion.

Even today, experts are not completely honest about how biased students are against instructors of color and women instructors in college classrooms.

College administrators don’t own that by regarding liberal arts as less important because we are less profitable, they inject into the culture of academia a routine, almost ritualistic scorn for departments like English, religion, comparative lit.

We that end up at the front of classrooms where English, religion, comparative lit are taught feel that scorn from the students that end up in our classes either because they are required to take them, or they have no other elective options.

At 22, I was put in a classroom full of white 18- and 19-year-olds, the majority of whom had never had a black teacher in their lives (I know because I asked) and didn’t appreciate having me be their first.

They knew that I was a TA – that I had just graduated the June before I became their instructor (this was August); I was a student and not a doctor; I had been assigned my assistantship – I had not chosen to be their teacher; and I needed to succeed at the assistantship in order to pay for my MA.

None of this endeared me to them. Instead, they smelled the fear on me. And they fucking gave me hell.

Every class session, someone said something to the effect of “but you’re not a real professor.”

I even had one girl write me a lengthy, really shitty email questioning a grade I had given her and stating outright that the grade demonstrated that I didn’t know what I was doing because she had received high grades in English throughout high school, and her high school teachers were undoubtedly more knowledgeable than I was.

(In one of the only displays of my true personality that I gave during that semester, I wrote her back and told her she was disrespectful; questioned whether she felt safe or justified in making her assumptions and accusations because I was Black; and suggested she figure out how to make peace with me as her instructor because whether she considered me “real” or not, I was the person that would be assigning her final grade.)

The students in my first class fought me tooth and nail about the fact that I was using African American literature to teach writing even though that was my choice to make. They ridiculed the content of every reading assignment, and that included Toni Morrison’s Beloved. They bickered with me in class about every point I attempted to make. They were fucking awful.

So after that first class, when I didn’t have to teach anymore, I didn’t.

When the members of my thesis committee asked me what I intended to do with my degree, I told them anything but teach.

My first job after I graduated with my MA was working as a reporter at the historic Call & Post newspaper for $22,000/year and no health insurance.

I loved the gig, but swiftly realized that the pay was woefully inadequate, and I needed benefits.

So I dipped into the nonprofit sector – worked at a big citywide agency and a tiny upstart – and found myself content – more money, medical, interesting work, good people – but not “happy.”

On impulse (I wouldn’t recognize it as that for 12 more years though since I was 27 at the time and 39 before I got diagnosed with ADHD), because it was a place where I always felt at home and “excellent,” I decided to go back to school. I applied to a couple of Ph.D. programs and got accepted to the University of Chicago with a generous financial award.

I took the award. I moved to Chicago. Again, I aced the classes. I reveled in being back in my element. I met new friends. I fell in love with a new city. I had a ball.

Life was good, until I hit my second year, and was told: “You have to teach in order to receive this portion of your fellowship.”

My mother had warned me. I had put it to the back of my mind. But here it was. I had to teach again.

I took a deep breath. I made a solemn vow to myself that I would not let any of these smug little fuckers get me off my game. I squared my shoulders, pushed my chest forward, and dove into the experience.

And it was awesome.

I was the writing intern for two literature classes, and I loved it. I liked my lead instructor. I appreciated the content. I admired and got along with the students. I learned a lot about the art and craft of teaching. I found my approach (knowledge, clarity, simplicity, humor, candor, and as much acceptance as I can healthily give). I had a good time. I changed my mind about teaching.

When it was time to start working on my exams and dissertation, one of my most respected and trusted professors had a really revelatory talk with me about my professional prospects.

She told me that universities were changing. English departments were losing stature. The number of tenure track positions in English was shrinking. Adjunct teaching was trending and soon to take over.

She told me I could spend the next decade taking out loans, paying U of C, finishing my dissertation, and still end up an adjunct. Or I could take my MA and excellent course transcript from U of C, take out no more loans, waste no more time, and start teaching now. At least if I ended up an adjunct then, I would be an adjunct with significantly more experience and less debt.

This was 2005.

It would take me three years to wholeheartedly take her advice.

I began teaching “for real” in 2009 at a rather notorious two-year college “chain” in downtown Cleveland.

Again, the pay was shit, and the culture was a mess, but I loved my work.

The main demographic of our students was Black women, ages 20-28. They loved me, and I loved them. I taught them reading, writing, information literacy, and public speaking, and they taught me about life, love, motherhood, adulthood, teaching, learning – so much.

I lost that job – my last full-time, salaried gig – because of mental health issues. I lost my grandmother in 2006. I had my daughter in 2007. I suffered from PPD until 2009. The depression exacerbated into a major episode that lasted until 2012. I lost my aunt – my mother’s youngest sister – in 2012.

I was a wreck of sadness, grief, anxiety, and anger. The only two arenas in which I was “good” were parenting and teaching. I was able to take care of other people, but not myself. So after years of coming to work late, calling off, probably being more raw and reckless than I should’ve been in my interactions with my colleagues and supervisors, I was let go.

This was 2014. So there I was. A single mother with no income.

The silver lining was the Medicaid for which I now qualified, which helped me to get my depression, anxiety, and ADHD diagnosed and treated.

The storm has been the last six years, trying to make a living as an adjunct.

I have to make this disclaimer before I go on with my post. I love teaching. The passion I have for it has never been lost, even in the hardship of working for inadequate pay with virtually no job security or protection.

I love teaching because one of the most gratifying things in the world to me is helping people. And one of the things I enjoy most is knowing things. And teaching allows me to combine these two experiences – I can help people by passing on the things I know then watch as they go out into the world, knowing more and doing better.

I believe with all my everything that knowledge is powerful, and one of the most edifying things you can do is to educate yourself – and no, this does not always mean in a school or by learning some prescribed curriculum.

I also believe very deeply that one of the most important aspects of human society is education.

We teach people how to be people, and when we shirk that responsibility – and privilege and honor – we all lose out collectively.

These are some of the oldest and most firm beliefs that I have. Put in me by my parents, who always stressed the importance of learning and knowing. And working. And helping.

Teaching is a perfect profession for me because it allows me to be a lifelong learner. It allows me to stay in touch with my intellectual passions – language and literature. It allows me to connect with people. It allows me to help people. It allows me to make a positive impact on the world. It allows me to play a role in shaping the future of this country, which I also love (and hate). It allows me to do work that aligns with my values. It makes the ten years I spent in college feel useful. It suits my personality. I enjoy it. I want to be effective at it. It is truly, deeply important to me.

That said, teaching as a contingent, part-time, contract worker with no union affiliation for less than $3000 per course with a limit of three courses per semester (so roughly $6,000-$20,000 depending upon availability of work) is hard.

Working a piecemeal schedule of three to six or more classes held between two to four different institutions is hard.

Staying healthy through all of this without health benefits, sick time, personal time, or vacation days is hard.

Routinely going without summer work, but not being able to file for unemployment as a laid off employee, is hard.

Never really knowing whether you will have work or what the work will be from season to season – what your income will be from season to season – is hard.

Teaching required courses that students often resent – under a bunch of needless, overcomplicated strictures and structures created by administrators that want to make their writing programs appear almost scientific so as to bolster their legitimacy (moreso than their functionality and usefulness) – is hard.

Being subject in terms of what little job security and protection you can procure to the wants, whims, and worries of teenagers that can never “understand” why skipping class and avoiding work does not earn them the As they claim to want so badly is hard.

Being subject to the complaints and wrongheaded or misplaced expectations of their parents is not hard, but it is a reality, and it’s very often ridiculous.

All of this, though, is part of being an adjunct. You go without the “[the] sort of security that tenure is designed to provide: a campus office of her own, health insurance, authority and respect with which to navigate campus bureaucracy, greater financial stability.”

You teach because you love to teach, and these are the opportunities available for you to teach, and you are punished for it.

According to New Faculty Majority in 2010:

  • 75.5% of college faculty are now off the tenure track, meaning they have NO access to tenure.
  • This represents 1.3 million out of 1.8 million faculty members.
  • Of these, 700,000 or just over 50% are so-called part-time, most often known as “adjunct.”

That was 10 years ago.

Also, according to AFT Higher Education, “Underrepresented racial and ethnic groups are even more likely to be relegated to contingent positions; only 10.4 percent of all faculty positions are held by underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.”

According to a 2016 report from the TIAA Institute, “Just as the doors of academe have been opened more widely than heretofore to marginalized groups, the opportunity structure for academic careers has been turned on its head.”

Why the tectonic shift from tenure track to non-tenure track, part-time, and adjunct? Because employees that don’t require union salaries and benefits are cheaper. Cheaper labor costs translate into bigger profits. And colleges and universities nowadays are little more than corporate human farms. They are big business – great money for the higher-ups that “run” them.

Johnathan Kramnick, in “What We Hire in Now: English by the Grim Numbers,” writes, “Tenure-track jobs command a smaller portion of the whole today than was the case in 1998 . . . Of the 3,412 jobs advertised between 1995 and 1998, 2,262, or 66 percent, were for tenure-track assistant professors in North America. Of the 2,611 jobs advertised between 2015 and 2018, 1,261, or 48 percent, fit that description . . . It’s not that we are hiring more at the associate- or full-professor ranks . . . The truth is simple and already well known: We hire more contingent instructors now than we used to.”

He stresses, too, that “all [English] jobs are down more than 50 percent over 10 years (2008-2018).”

In his article, “The Death of an Adjunct,” Adam Harris writes, “Nearly 80 percent of faculty members were tenured or tenure-track in 1969. Now [2019] roughly three-quarters of faculty are nontenured. The jobs that are available—as an adjunct, or a visiting professor—rest on shaky foundations, as those who occupy them try to balance work and life, often without benefits.”

He says, “To be a perennial adjunct professor is to hear the constant tone of higher education’s death knell. The story is well known—the long hours, the heavy workload, the insufficient pay—as academia relies on adjunct professors, non-tenured faculty members, who are often paid pennies on the dollar to do the same work required of their tenured colleagues.”

He concludes, “Academia is not an easy road for anyone to take, but especially not for women of color, and especially not for those who have been consigned to the adjunct underclass.”

Claire B. Potter touches on why many adjuncts continue to do these jobs that can feel so thankless on one hand and so gratifying on the other: “Although many people with humanities Ph.D.s do other jobs, this stubborn belief that they have trained for one thing, and one thing only, keeps many adjuncts on the hamster wheel long past a time when frustration and sorrow have turned to rage.”

She asks: “But what if those who feel harmed by contingent teaching just stopped doing it? What if enough people found other work they loved and universities did not have the large pool of overqualified people to draw on, a pool so large that they can get 15 courses for the price that five or six taught by a beginning assistant professor on the tenure track would cost? And what might persuade contingent faculty members that it would be all right to withdraw their labor from a system that isn’t working for them?”

I can tell you what persuaded me.

Adjunct poverty persuaded me.

After I lost my full-time job in 2014, I immediately began looking for another one. However, my journalism experience was too scant and old to get me a job at a newspaper. And all the newspapers were dying anyway. My non-profit experience was also limited and more than 10 years old. I didn’t have the technological expertise I needed to get back into either of those fields, and I was already $100,000 in student loan debt. I didn’t want to go back to school. I wanted to keep teaching, but I didn’t have a Ph.D., so I didn’t qualify for the precious few tenure-track positions that were out there. I went ahead and began applying for adjunct positions. And I got a couple. I was grateful. I am still grateful for these jobs. They have allowed me to pay my bills, feed my daughter, keep a car. They just haven’t allowed me to escape working poverty. Up until I got married in 2016, in order to live in a safe neighborhood with good schools, I had to live with my mother and father. I couldn’t afford even a one-bedroom apartment with the money I earned from working. And I was on campus five days a week, teaching anywhere from three to five courses between two different institutions.

I was doing just as much work as a full-time tenure track professor if not more. The prepping. The lecturing. The meeting with students. The emailing. The grading essays. The grading secondary assignments. Plus, driving to two different campuses, each 40-minutes away from my home. Making do with no office of my own, no computer of my own on campus. Just free desk copies of textbooks and parking passes.

Adjunct poverty is boutique poverty. Artisanal poverty. It doesn’t register with most people because you go to work every day. You have a degree or two or three (many adjuncts are actually Ph.Ds), which makes you “impressive” to most people. They don’t blame you for being poor. They choose to view your deprived lifestyle choices as “philosophical” or “political.” And you play along with that sometimes. It’s less embarrassing than admitting you don’t have money.

In America, money trumps intellect. Money trumps education. Money trumps everything.

Still, as an adjunct, you are somewhat respected. You listen to NPR or have a blog or know wines, or whatever bougie shit you’re into, and it gives you a social boost. Typically, if you live in a bad neighborhood, people don’t know it. Or your interior is artsy enough to make up for it. Filled with books and exotic compensatory whatnot. If you’re receiving SNAP or some other form of aid, people don’t suspect it. Some semesters, you’re lucky (unlucky?) enough to receive Medicaid, so you have insurance. You can get your glasses replaced or your cavities filled before your income fluctuates, and the county takes your coverage away again. You can afford your Prozac for four months. Or your insulin. Your blood pressure medication. You can try to squeeze in that surgery you need although probably not, because how will you remain afloat during the recovery if you can’t work?

(There is no long term illness when you’re an adjunct. You can’t afford it. Some chronic illnesses become terminal because you can’t afford to treat them. Some mental illnesses stretch from episodes that would’ve lasted a few weeks into a string of attacks and spells and slumps that take up years.)

Adam Harris writes, “If adjuncts were birds, they would be fighting the drag of the air, exerting bursts of energy again and again and again.”

Yes, adjunct poverty is livable. A privileged sort of struggling. You make it semester to semester, year to year. You do all right. You get to teach. You make due.

As long as there are no crises. Then, it’s just like any other kind of poverty. It renders you incapable of taking care of your business. Of taking care of yourself and your loved ones. Powerless. It flattens you. Lays you bare. It makes you terrifically vulnerable to all the worst case scenarios that come out of having no money and nothing else to fall back on.

One of the ways I have dealt with it over the years is living with my parents. I have availed myself of county assistance when I could get it. I have worked side gigs. I have gone without prescriptions. I have filed for bankruptcy. I have robbed Peter to pay Paul.

One of the things I have done all of my life, but I got very serious about once I began working as an adjunct, because I knew that I would be buried by the struggle otherwise, is write.

I began to write more regularly and with more commitment than I ever had before.

And that is what helped me to make the paradigm shift that Claire Potter is urging more adjuncts to make in her article.

Through my writing and reading out, I got an invitation to work as a writer-in-residence at the Cleveland School of the Arts.

And through my work with those brilliant, beautiful kids – and my wonderfully supportive supervising teacher – I have discovered that I really enjoy working with high school students in the secondary setting. I have decided to become a high school English Language Arts/creative writing teacher.

Until now, I have only worked with high school students as part of TRIO Upward Bound – in the university setting. The ostensible focus of that work was to prep them for college, but I realize that I really did so much more. I tried to give them so much more.

I tried to help them figure themselves out a little. Figure out the world a little. Broaden their horizons, even outside of “going to college” and “getting a job.” I tried to get them to embrace reading. I tried to get them to write – to express themselves. To love poetry. To love each other. To love learning and life.

I realized that if I could see them every day – interact with them in a classroom whose tone I set and whose culture I shape – with their help, of course – I could do a lot more. I could give a lot more. I could learn a lot more. I could teach a lot more. I could do a lot more of the work that means so much to me. And yes, I could earn more money.

I never opted out of teaching high school because I thought college had more prestige. I taught college after grad school because I taught college during grad school. It was what I knew.

Now, I understand how meaningful high school teachers are to the lives of their students. I understand that I have a knack for working with high school students. And I understand the importance of doing something you love and getting paid the best you can for it.

I am writing this post today because the Covid-19 outbreak has underlined yet again for me how exploitative and unhealthy adjunct teaching is for the thousands of us out here that have opted and/or have been impelled to do it.

This spring I have one class on my college roster. If it weren’t for the contract work I have been doing in public schools, I would have been living off $3000 for the semester. That’s from January to May.

Still, I felt blessed. At least I had those contract gigs. I was ramping up to go back to school to get my master’s degree in urban secondary teaching. I was getting closer to professional fulfillment and financial stability. I was excited for both.

Then the Coronavirus hit. The emergency stripped me back down to my one adjunct course. And all the worst that comes with being an adjunct for a living.

It reminded me that I have been intending to write a post about what it’s like to be an adjunct in the American academic machine. An overworked, underpaid, vital but devalued cog.

It also forced me to grapple with the anti-imperialist discussions I see up and down my social media feeds – that I rather lazily, even glibly scroll past because we’re never going to dismantle The System, amirite? The best we can hope to do is get a big enough piece of pie to eat until we die.

Except…

Except…

It’s virtually impossible in the current system to make a “comfortable” enough living that a major emergency or protracted crisis won’t ruin you, whether you are an adjunct or not.

Adjunct poverty and all its sociological brothers and sisters are offspring of two major problems with the economic structure in America: political self-interest and corporate greed.

I don’t know that these things can ever be “cured,” but in a system that does not so readily and copiously reward them, they can be more effectively mitigated. They can be fought.

If this pandemic teaches us nothing, it’s that the most virulent sickness in America – that needs addressing – is rampant capitalism (commercialization, commodification).

That is the biggest culprit of the total system failure triggered by, first, the election of Donald Trump, second, the reification of his leadership, and three, the disaster that occurred when Coronavirus came into being, and the country needed an actual president to lead it but had to make due with a trust fund fuck boi poster child for US kyriarchy.

Rampant capitalism is what keeps us poor poor while the rich get unfathomably richer with every passing day.

Rampant capitalism is what has made it so that many working people like me are more terrified of what will happen to us if we can’t return to work in the next few weeks than of what will happen to us if we contract Covid-19.

I have survived adjunct poverty, but it is not abject poverty – the root of the word play. I realize they are very different – that one is absolutely worse than the other.

I also realize that two or more months of lost income will plunge my family (my husband has also lost work due to the shutdowns precipitated by the Covid-19 outbreak) into a financial situation that is more deleterious than any we have ever known.

Only America can have us here – wishing to remain poor rather than becoming poorer.

Only America can have us here – hiding in our homes from an illness that if we catch it, we have no resources to fight.

Only America can have us here – educators – doing important work that we love and desire to do, yet paying for it like we are wrong.

3 thoughts on “Adjunct Poverty, or Life in the Time of Coronavirus

  1. As my education professor told me you won’t get rich teaching. I have struggled with poverty too as a Teacher on the elementary level and continue to do so. I too did not like teaching from Preschool to Middle school because of the politics of education from administrators, parents, and children who have the upper hand on Teachers and discipline problems that is why Teachers are exiting the classroom. The solution to my woe was to reinvent myself by getting a Master’s NOT in Education and gained experience in sales and marketing. My experience as a Black woman in Ohio is that landing an opportunity in the Nonprofit field has been challenging. I often here the refrain of my former professor when I was in my public administration program suggest that there would be more opportunity in business. He was right I have in the past did well on commissioned sales and see more opportunities for me in marketing because we live in a capitalist society.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you…I have a better understanding of the adjunct experience. I have always been concerned about the position with no power. Yet, there are teachers like you, people that have been “on the faculty” for years are depended upon when plans are made, yet have no voice…I had no teaching experience when I began to teach graduate students..well I did have experience, such as it was, with elementary school classes…again I thank you for this piece. I will seek out others…peace!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. There’s so much I felt strongly here…I can’t even type it all.

    My last year has reminded me how powerful education is. I chose tech as my career and through various ups and downs in the field, the times where I felt best, I was sharing knowledge with folks. I spent some time subbing in high schools in Stark County. I wasn’t sure how I, a middle-aged (where did the time go?!) Black man would be received in suburban and rural, mostly-white districts in Stark County, Ohio. For the most part, it was an amazingly humbling (in a good way) experience. I’m working in tech again (at a higher ed institution, coincidentally enough) but I know even more now that it’s not a matter of if I teach but how and when.

    Like

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