O Adjunct! My Adjunct!

From The New Yorker:

I spent half of my undergraduate career figuring out what I didn’t want to do. I started off in the journalism program, switched to literature, was undecided for a few panicked, free-floating months, and studied photography for a time. But the spring of my sophomore year, I enrolled in a fiction-writing workshop with an instructor named Harvey Grossinger.

Harvey was a tall, broad man with a trim gray beard. He was gruff but kind to his students, without coddling them. He insisted that we sit at a round table. My stories would come back to me with his notes crammed between lines and creeping up the margins. His comments on my prose and on the psychology of characters—his particular specialties—were unfailingly astute. One story of mine ended with the protagonist speaking about a fuzzy photograph of a girl he’d known. “Her face is a blur,” I’d written, “and he doesn’t know why.” “Yes,” Harvey scrawled beneath. “He does. And you do, too.” I did. Stapled to the top of every returned draft was a piece of colored stationery—teal, gold, red—filled from beginning to end with single-spaced narrative comments. He signed every letter “HLG.”

These critiques treated my stories as serious things, as pieces of art worthy of real criticism. I took the class once, twice, a third time as an independent study. Eventually, I couldn’t fit it into my schedule anymore. I graduated—just in time for the recession—and moved to California.

What I didn’t know at the time—and what I wouldn’t figure out for the better part of the next decade—was that Harvey was an adjunct. He didn’t tell us, and I didn’t know to ask. As an undergraduate, I never heard the term.

Adjuncts are generally hired on semester-to-semester contracts, given no health insurance or retirement benefits, no office, no professional development, and few university resources. Compensation per course—including not just classroom hours but grading, reading, responding to student e-mails, and office hours—varies, but the median pay, according to a recent report, is twenty-seven hundred dollars. Many adjuncts teach at multiple universities, commuting between two or three schools in order to make ends meet, and are often unable to pursue their own academic or artistic work because of their schedules. In the past four decades, tenured and tenure-track positions have plummeted and adjunct instructor jobs have soared, second only in growth to administrators. Adjuncts have always had roles to play: filling in for a last-minute class, covering for a professor on sabbatical, providing outside expertise for a one-off, specialized course. But the position was not designed to provide nearly half of a school’s faculty or the majority of a person’s income. It’s estimated that adjuncts constitute more than forty per cent of all instructors at American colleges and universities.

The first National Adjunct Walkout Day was held late last month, reportedly prompted by a proposal from an anonymous adjunct instructor at San Jose State. Some teachers went on one-day strikes; others talked to their classes about what the walkout was meant to demonstrate. Around the same time, the magazine Pacific Standard published an essay called “Are Adjunct Professors the New Fast-Food Workers?” It generated so many responses that they have just followed it up with a special issue devoted to the topic. The uptick in adjunct advocacy can be traced in part to the 2013 death of Margaret Mary Vojtko, who taught for twenty-five years at Duquesne; Vojtko’s full story is a complicated one, but her death highlighted how little universities are providing for the kind of teachers they increasingly depend on.

Read the full story here.