I taught as many as five classes each semester at four campuses in D.C. and Maryland, crisscrossing town by bike and public transportation during work days that sometimes lasted 13 hours. I never knew what my employment would look like the following term and constantly applied for part- and full-time teaching positions in case I didn’t get rehired. Many of the courses I taught—composition, professional writing and journalism—were required for undergraduate or graduate students, yet those programs ran almost entirely on the backs of adjuncts.
There were things about the work I loved. One student wrote an excellent research paper on creative arts therapy as a healing tool for depression sufferers; the paper landed her a fellowship working with cancer patients. When I saw students nodding their heads during lessons on essay structure or avoiding wordiness, I felt reenergized. In fact, engaging students was a challenge I loved. The working conditions were what drained me completely.
For one thing, there was the pay. I earned between $2,700 to $4,196 per course, which is generally better than the national adjunct pay average of $2,700. But my employers capped courses for adjuncts, meaning I couldn’t teach more than two classes per semester at all but one of the schools. Fewer course offerings during the summer limited most of my course assignments and earnings to the fall and spring. In fall of 2012, I earned $13,600 before tax. The following spring, I made $14,100. One of my employers offered only two pay periods per semester for adjuncts, meaning I went three months without pay from that job. All told, I made between $27,700 and $35,000 a year from teaching. This is not an insignificant sum of money for many people, but was less than I was paid at my first job out of college, even though I have a terminal degree in my field.
And the schedule was untenable. In spring of 2013, I started my Thursdays at 8 a.m. in College Park, Md., taught at 4 p.m. at American University in Washington, D.C., and ended the day in D.C. with a Trinity Washington University class that wrapped up at 9 p.m. Some days I spent almost three hours commuting. Weekends were for grading papers.
I couldn’t keep up this circus for more than two years, though many of my peers have been doing it much longer. At some point, I realized there was no ladder out of adjunct purgatory, no full-time positions within my reach. Nobody, especially none of my supervisors, wanted to admit this. (To be fair, not all administrators realize the employment status of adjuncts on their campus — many of these hiring decisions are made at the department level.)
Ann Pauley, Trinity’s Vice President for Institutional Advancement, wrote to me in an e-mail: “The majority of Trinity’s adjuncts are employed full-time in their professions,” meaning they have other jobs that provide their primary income. But according to national figures from the American Association of University Professors, this is not the norm: The majority of contingent faculty don’t have careers outside of academia.
Anne McLeer, Director of Research & Strategic Planning at SEIU Local 500, says: “There’s no question there’s a role for adjunct faculty and professionals with outside experience coming in to teach a class or two. But the problem is a disproportionate number of classes, especially in the humanities, being taught by adjuncts who don’t have any job security or opportunity to advance up the levels.” This was certainly my experience. A 2013 survey of George Mason University’s contingent faculty revealed that roughly half were financially dependent upon their adjunct earnings. I supplemented my teaching income with freelance writing and a part-time remote job, but that money only added up to the equivalent of one course.
Why are universities relying so heavily on this type of labor? According to Marisa Allison, co-author of the George Mason University survey, administrative bloat is at least partly to blame. “The university is the only space where you’ve seen an increase in middle management, in jobs that were never there before,” she says. “That is definitely a culprit.” In places like Virginia, sharp cuts in state funding for higher education are also leading universities to curb costs. Others point to rising executive compensation, especially for campus presidents.
And there are the graduate programs, which keep churning out people with MAs or PhDs, even though there aren’t enough positions for these graduates to move into. For many of us, our graduate programs didn’t tell us that teaching in academia was no longer a guaranteed — or even sane — route on which to rely.
Many adjuncts love their jobs and want to make it work. Take Mitchell Tropin, who has been teaching at Trinity and four other universities since 2008 after a career in journalism. Despite the lack of promotion opportunities or formal job security, he says he feels respected and valued by his Trinity supervisors. He finds being an adjunct sustainable only because he has already paid off his mortgage and his kids are all adults. But he understands how younger people can’t make do.
After a year-long job search, I’m now an in-house writing coach and editor at a nonprofit education consulting firm. I’m compensated and treated very well, given access to a full slate of benefits, and I get to do what I love: help people become better writers. My teaching experience helped qualify me for this job, but that doesn’t mean I’d ever wish the adjunct hustle upon anyone else. Nor do I ever—not even for a second—miss my old life.
The system is not incapable of change. The majority of adjuncts in the D.C. area — including those at Howard University, George Washington University, Georgetown University, American University and the University of the District of Columbia — are now represented by SEIU Local 500 and have access to collective bargaining, a channel to air grievances and negotiate for improved wages and other benefits. Union contracts have as much as tripled pay for some at George Washington University and won year-long contracts for Montgomery College adjuncts, says McLeer. SEIU has initiated activities to form a union at Trinity, and the administration has stated their relative neutrality. A letter from President Patricia McGuire in September of last year stated that “adjuncts are free to express their opinions without fear of retribution.” Unionization isn’t a silver bullet—it’s going to take a lot to reform how universities structure their spending—but mobilizing those still doing the tough job I used to do will result in real — albeit slow — changes.