From PBS Newshour:
It was a nice spring day in 1999 — my second semester of teaching. I was walking past a campus tour group and saw one of my students leading it. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect: as I was passing them, a parent asked if all university faculty were full time. “Yes,” my student said. I was taken aback, because I’d told my classes about being adjunct, as well as a bit about what “adjunct” meant and how many of us there were in the English department alone teaching freshman writing.
The next day, I pulled him aside after class and asked him about it. “I’m not mad at you; I’m just curious: Your class knows I’m a graduate student, not a full-time professor with tenure. I don’t even have my doctorate yet. Why did you tell that parent all university faculty were full time?”
“That’s what the university wants us to say to parents,” he replied.
This is one of many moments in my career I’d like to revisit with the knowledge and dedication to activism I have now. Granted, things have improved a bit since then: another former student told me in 2013 that tour guides tell parents the school employs a variety of professors, and that some of them teach at other schools. This is slightly better, but still not ideal at a school whose tuition is among the highest in the country — yet whose senior administrators receive CEO-level compensation.
I’d love to visit as many colleges as possible during spring tours and back-to-school move-in time. Fifteen years of adjuncting — six as a Ph.D. student, nine as a scholar and hopeful jobseeker — has given me a lot of rich, sometimes troubling experiences that I’d want to share with parents and students. I wish, for example, a parent was with me that time I was in the elevator with my department chair, who quasi-complained about having to teach one class in a semester when I had four first-year writing courses across two schools. (To be clear: I’m not questioning how much work and how many demands chairs have. I’m questioning the myopia of this person’s comment.) “I guess I shouldn’t complain about this to you,” the chair said. “Yes, but it’s fine,” I said. “I manage, and I’m gaining good experience.”
Had some parents been with me, I could’ve added this: “Maybe you can explain to them why the university thinks it’s good to give students — especially freshmen — a string of part-time professors who may be teaching at other schools to make ends meet. Can you or one of the provosts meet with their children while I’m teaching somewhere else to approach a livable wage?” At the time, I was playing nice because I’d hoped (naively) that I could move up the ranks in the department to a full-time position. Perhaps I should’ve damned the torpedoes and just spoken my mind. Playing nice rarely helps adjuncts move up at any school.