Scrounging for Change with a Cut Up Foot: The Way Adjunct Professors Are Paid Should Be Illegal
I am an adjunct professor in the Southern California area. I had a one-year assignment as full-time faculty. It was supposed to lead to a tenure track position, but despite my excellent scores on my teaching portfolio and observations, the college expressed that it had some sort of internal problem and demoded me back to adjunct status. While I do concede that being any kind of professor isn’t a bad job, I can’t even count the times when I’ve been financially insecure because of my adjunct pay rate. There’s been times that I literally had to do all of my grocery shopping at the 99-cent store to stay afloat. Early on in my adjunct career, I even accrued debt paying for medical care because part-time professors weren’t eligible for benefits. The colleges I currently work for pay more and offer more benefits now, but I definitely have been the archetypal adjunct who had to scrounge for change while limping around injured. I once had a massive cut and stitches on the bottom of my foot, but I had to go to work anyway because at the time, I did not have enough sick time to pay for more than a week of absence. Besides, my classes would have fell behind, and so I went to work on crutches and made the best of it.
I’m more than willing to admit that there isn’t a perfect life, and though my lips may protest at times too much, I try to keep complaints at a minimum. There is such a thing as being too agreeable, and that is where thousands of adjuncts professors find themselves. They are over qualified, academic types and a wild guess would place a good handful of them as being rather soft spoken and mild mannered. Along with their fellow full-time faculty, they may, in fact, be some of the most intelligent people in the world. Sure, they aren’t C.E.O.s of multi-billion corporations or performing heart surgery, but they are the ones teaching those people. Where would anyone be without their teachers? Professors are the ones teaching more advanced subject matter and preparing students to enter the workforce. With the brains and heart involved in this profession, people easily assume the pay and benefits are great. For full-time faculty, the pay out is worth all of the time and effort. Remember, teaching isn’t just assigning work and grading papers. It’s managing a schedule with a vision of the learning trajectory that flows weeks ahead into the future. It’s finding ways to make complicated ideas accessible, to make the invisible visible. Sometimes, it even involves people management, which includes everything from having to make tough disciplinary calls to designing groups for maximum efficiency. The thing is that despite what appears to be a high pay rate, adjunct professors are financially left in the lurch, making far less than their full-time colleagues and often not receiving benefits. At this time, there is a bill up for consideration that aims to provide equitable compensation for adjuncts by 2027, but considering how much unpaid work adjuncts do, proper compensation needs to be prioritized.
To be fair, full-time faculty are required to do around six hours of service to the college every week along with additional office hours and observations; however, most adjunct professors also do office hours and various forms of service to the college, which are often not paid. Colleges claim they can’t afford to hire more full-time faculty and that many adjuncts do not have the experience necessary to warrant a higher pay rate. Originally, the position of adjunct was created to fulfill a temporary need, but there are more adjuncts than full-time faculty, and they are making a living through teaching. There are far too many career adjuncts. Some of them are in marriages and with the extra help with the bills, they may not need or want the full-time position. They may even work different jobs. Still, many of them believed they were entering academics to become full-time professors and ended up stuck year after year. For the first few years, new adjuncts do need to adjust and learn the ropes, but adjunct faculty do so quickly if they hope to have successful students as well as earn decent scores on their own evaluations. For the most part, adjuncts provide quality education equivalent to that offered by full-time faculty with individual variation being a given in any professon.
There are reasons some adjuncts who want to climb the professional ladder stay stuck. With union protection, even the most incompetent instructor can keep a job. This happens sometimes, but I would like to think that this doesn’t happen often. Most of the adjuncts I know are incredible teachers, and the college would be robbed without them. The union protection is a blessing in a career so open to the vengefulness of spiteful or entitled students and the bitterness of other colleagues. The adjuncts that aren’t actually good at their job end up developing a reputation even if behind the scenes, and they don’t get hired for full-time because their home college may not want to make them a full-fledged department member. In other cases, some adjuncts may be excellent teachers but have subpar grooming or lack decent social skills. They may eat tempura sushi in the adjunct office, spilling crumbs everywhere, while reeking of body odor in the pajamas they came to work in, for example. There are even adjuncts who come to work and loudly insult new adjuncts or gossip about faculty. They may be great teachers, but in a permanent position with the college, their manners would probably cause more problems than not. Still others are introverts. They might speak freely in a classroom full of students, but their shyness or quiet nature causes complications during the interview process, which is often held by a large committee that holds the entire unfurling of the interviewee’s destiny in their hands. The committees require a teaching demonstration as well, which is often an awkward ordeal considering that some of the people on the committee may purposefully start throwing curveballs in the middle of it, and the stakes are so high for these adjunct professors who are hoping that they will finally get hired permanently and not have to constantly worry about survival. These stakes are incredibly high for getting the job they already do. All of these variables manifest themselves within full-time faculty, however. I have known a handful of tenured faculty who would often come into work red eyed in crumpled clothing smelling of stale booze. Others have reputations akin to third world tyrants. Students would whisper horror stories in the halls. Some of them would attend each department meeting saying absolutely nothing and nearly running out the door at the passing of the hour, their brilliant and effective teaching making up for their obstinate introversion. As you can see, being the best of the best isn’t always a deciding factor on who ends up with a viable career versus a dead-end job. To say this without tenured status is inflammatory to say the least. Most full-time faculty would be so affronted that the dignity of their station was in question that they would swear to throw away the offender’s full-time application materials if they ever came up in the screening process as well as snarl at the person each time they passed him or her in the hall. Nevertheless, it is the truth.
Yes, I am calling the adjunct professor path a dead-end job. Some adjuncts do manage to get a full-time spot and eventually pass tenure review. Whether their lives reflect the fantasy they held in their minds when embarking down the teaching path is a mystery. Either way, far too many adjuncts stay adjuncts. They never know if their classes will get canceled last second or if there will be classes at all. They are at the mercy of enrollment and all of the social variables that play into it, such as economic strength or financial aid. When times are good, some adjuncts can make decent money. The going rate for adjunct professors in Southern California is around sixty to eighty dollars an hour. However, adjuncts are paid by the unit, which means if they have two four-unit classes, they only get paid for eight hours of work a week. Most adjuncts work at at least two campuses to get a full-time load equivalent of sixteen units. They rush from campus to campus, shoveling lunch down their throats in the car while the tension cramps their back and increases their blood pressure. If times are good, and they have a full set of classes, they can ignore all of the times that are bad. If you look at what adjuncts actually make per year, however, most of them make something similar to what a worker at Amazon makes. It is true that these adjunct professors don’t have to do the hard labor and overtime of Amazon workers, but they still aren’t being adequately compensated when compared to what their similarly qualified but much luckier full-time colleagues make. To be real, many of them rely on unemployment every winter and summer, which was a right won in court since they have no reasonable assurance of a job once the new term begins. They are temporary at-will employees, and thus, they have to roll with the punches, also known as the end of term lay-offs. Despite the dismal reality of their position, most adjuncts spend large chunks of their unemployed time reading, researching, and refining their course materials. All of the work is unpaid. During fall and spring semesters, if you spread the 60 to 80 dollars out and imagine that all of the unpaid hours are covered, things might seem okay. It would be like having a full-time job that pays around twenty dollars an hour. This was how the situation was explained to me when I first started working as an adjunct. At the time, it seemed fair, but when I contemplate how much work is needed to be a quality instructor and how much time I have spent working over the span of my career without being compensated, the reasoning seems hollow, like a trick used to gloss over exploitation.
A popular argument used to smooth over the wrinkled brow of a questioning adjunct is that the population is dropping and so is enrollment, so the department doesn’t need the extra full-time faculty; however, departments keep hiring new adjuncts even as they fail to offer two classes per semester for the adjuncts they already have. The departments claim they wouldn’t do that, but each fall, I see at least two or three new adjuncts at the meetings and wonder how they have two classes while another colleague may only have one despite his or her seniority. There have certainly been times when I really needed an extra class but was told only one was available; meanwhile, some new and somewhat clueless adjunct was asking questions about how to teach his two new classes. New professors need work too, and I don’t particularly buy into the age-old concept of envy. By a certain age, at least for me, envy seems more and more silly in the cosmic scheme of things, and I know that it is the hiring system which is flawed. Sadly, this reasonable line of thinking only contributes to the problem’s life span, and most adjuncts have been far too reasonable, only thinking about how lucky they are to have work at all or perhaps worrying that if they protest too much, they might end up getting a class canceled for what on the surface seems like a legitimate reason but what may actually be passive aggressive retribution.
On top of that, adjuncts are often snubbed by their fellow full-time faculty who more often than not have identical educational and professional experience. I have sat silently during break room and department meeting discussions, listening as people who don’t have to ever worry about paying their rent or having enough money for food and gas disrespect adjuncts who are pouring their hearts and souls into their work. Many adjuncts want to be called part-time professors in order to remove an appellation that suggests inexperience or foolishness. When this issue is brought up, full-time faculty may weakly sympathize but mostly they roll their eyes. They don’t have their colleagues’ backs. If they did, perhaps adjunct professors would get pay equivalent to the work they actually do. Maybe they would start having less in common with students who at least are allowed to utilize the college food pantries and have free basic medical care from the college clinics.
One thing that is clear to me now after ten years of teaching in higher education is that adjuncts are not being paid properly, and that the way they are treated should be illegal. This is a strong statement, one that in real life would be met with a pat on the back and an “I understand why you are confused.” Although the minutia of the adjunct contract may be at time confusing if but for its long length and dry diction, the overall picture is clear. I am not confused, nor are the adjuncts who are struggling to survive. Adjuncts are, in fact, being taken advantage of considering that they are supplying their students with an education equivalent to what a full-timer could offer while having less resources at their disposal. No one is forcing adjuncts to stay adjuncts. Some get hired full-time and many others leave for some other type of work. On the other hand, most adjuncts went to college and have undergone a good deal of extra training because they were born to be higher education professors; it’s their vocation. For all the good teachers who have suffered because of the adjunct compensation system, I hope that there will be a reversal to this blatant exploitation before 2027. For those of you who work in higher education, you probably know that equity is the big trend. If colleges are so concerned with equity, perhaps they could more earnestly attend to equitable pay and benefits for their part-time professors.