How the Adjunct Crisis Hurts the Students and the Importance of Fighting Back


Adjuncts are frequently told that basic necessities like a living wage and health care are not “in the budget” of the institutions that employ us, where we work full time hours as contracted, part time labor in a semester-to-semester purgatory state of what-ifs, often at multiple institutions with little to no control of our teaching schedules. We are the lowest paid, albeit terminally educated and skilled, employees at our institutions where we are treated like untouchables by virtually everyone on campus except our students who, until recently, had no idea we were teetering on the edge of financial ruin and emotional collapse. When we approach management about an increase in pay, a living wage, our intentions are questioned and we are accused of putting our own monetary needs above our chosen profession, teaching. At the same time, the people who are in it for the money—college presidents, upper administration, sports coaches—continue to earn raises like we collect white hairs while watching our students and our own children fall deeper into debt.

Tenure track and full time faculty speak of themselves as “we,” as in “we, the department”; contract professors, better known as adjuncts, are the outsiders, the “you guys”, separate and inferior no matter how long we have worked at a particular institution or how many classes we teach. “Thanks for helping us out,” they say. “We appreciate your flexibility.” While I realize this internalized superiority is not necessarily a result of conscious intention, it is damaging nonetheless, especially because this ideology is continually reinforced by the polarized working conditions of the two-tier faculty campus (see Jane Elliott’s Brown Eyes/Blue Eyes exercise). Although I consider myself lucky to have worked with many interesting and considerate colleagues in a variety of roles in my professional life, I would not be surprised if it were suddenly “in the budget” to build separate bathrooms for adjuncts; that’s how deranged the adjunct crisis has become, at great cost to our students and higher education.

Most people don’t pursue a career in higher education for the money. While I was in graduate school, however, I had no idea I would soon be entering a two-tiered system of academic apartheid where the majority of professors earn poverty level wages with absolutely no job security or benefits. I never envisioned a work environment where people lucky enough to have tenure or slightly more secure teaching contracts would walk past their adjunct colleagues in the hall and avoid eye-contact, choosing to look at an empty wall instead of saying hello to equally qualified professors with identical credentials. This behavior is destructive in numerous ways and it doesn’t stay outside of the classroom, even if our lips are sealed for our own protection. After all, adjunct professors are never safe. We must watch what we say and do at all times and can be fired for no reason.

The adjunct crisis is also a student crisis. How could it be otherwise? When a student attends her first college class, odds are she will most likely be taught by an adjunct professor, a member of a class of contingent workers who make up the majority of all faculty in the U.S. Instead of encountering a professional role model, as one might expect, students find themselves sitting before a frequently disheveled contingent laborer, quite possibly on the verge of eviction, as adjunct professors have to survive without pay for nearly two months between fall and spring semesters. Many colleges relying primarily on adjunct labor do not issue first paychecks until three weeks or more after the start of the semester, five weeks after we have begun work preparing syllabi and planning our courses (what I deem the indentured servitude period). Summer, for many of us, is a perennial catastrophe.

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