When I was an adjunct, I was always mightily annoyed when full time faculty fell into a piteous lament about the “plight” of part time faculty. It wasn’t just that these moments of disingenuous sympathy often occurred just after the full-timer in question had just bumped me from a class; more, it was the idea that my fellow freeway flyers and I were helpless victims of a system that neither we nor the tenure-track faculty could influence.
In some ways, of course, this assessment of the over-reliance on part time faculty in higher education is absolutely accurate. Part time faculty are underpaid, and hence they often overwork – often at several colleges, often long commutes apart – in order to pay the bills. Students, in something like at least half the classes at most institutions, end up with exhausted professors whose energy must be scattered among some more-than-reasonable number of classes. The faculty themselves, moreover, are expected to provide a quality education even though they do not have a permanent workspace, dedicated computers, or even, sometimes, a file cabinet for stashing their stuff. If these disadvantages were not enough, in many institutions the adjunct offices are housed in overcrowded Siberias relegated to the most distant edges of the campus, where they are conveniently removed from the life of their home departments.
In these Siberias, legend has it that adjuncts never get full time jobs, that they sometimes get full time jobs but never where they have worked as part time faculty, and that they sometimes get full time jobs, but only if they are anointed to these jobs within a certain number of years, which varies depending on whom one asks. When I started as an adjunct, it seemed to me that the dusty, grayish film that coats everything in these offices had penetrated deep into the morale of my colleagues, who were dedicated and skilled teachers staggering underneath a massive lead cape of injustice.
It is true that the numbers of part time faculty vastly eclipse the number of full time positions available, and that this situation will persist until public higher education receives adequate funding. It is also true, however, that nearly all the full time faculty everywhere I have ever worked – six different community colleges and a for-profit, but who’s counting? – were once part time faculty. If part time faculty never get full time positions, how can this be?
Before I got into teaching, I worked in the private sector, where, at least when I entered the workforce, there were two prevailing views: one, employees should get promoted for loyalty and seniority; or two, they should get promoted for doing superior work, regardless of seniority. Well, we all know how that dichotomy played out.
Before I worked in the private sector, I was a student, paying dearly (with the help of my parents) for the privilege of slaving over papers and scribbling notes in overpriced books. Why do we students pay for an education, even though we’re overworked and largely uncompensated? Because we’re not uncompensated. We’re getting an opportunity to learn things, and from people, we would otherwise not be able to access. A degree itself has no particular value; as I’ve occasionally quipped to whiny students, “If you don’t want to learn, just make a diploma in Photoshop.” It is the ability to apply and synthesize an education that makes it valuable.
I have written in a different blog entry about the incredible mentorship I received from full time faculty during my adjunct years. I was amazingly fortunate to work with colleagues who were so generous with their support. At the same time, though, I was the consummate freeway flyer, routinely zipping to three campuses and teaching five or six classes in a day, sometimes covering 200 miles from the time I left in the morning until the time I returned at night. I kept a file box behind my front seat, since I usually didn’t have file space; at one campus, I held office hours in the copy room because I didn’t have an office or a desk. It was only when I became full time that I realized how much time had been usurped as I sorted and moved files from campus to campus. Several times I had classes taken away at the last minute. More often, I accepted more classes than I could handle because I was afraid that if I said no I would never be hired again at that college. In a given year, I worked 166% of a full time load to make less money than a full-timer.
But I still refused to call it “plight.” In colonial times, fourteen year-old boys signed up for seven-year stints with master craftsmen, their only compensation the skill they would take with them when they completed their apprenticeships. Early child labor laws limited workdays to twelve hours, at least on paper, the implication being that the actual work hours were probably longer.
I found it helpful for both my professional growth and my morale to think of adjunct teaching in similar terms: apprenticeship, not servitude. As in college and graduate school, I was paying to gain knowledge, experience, professional development, and familiarity with the discipline. I could use the time passively, teaching my classes and then going home; or I could use my scattered existence as a pretext for learning how different colleges solved common problems. Teachers constantly talk about “stealing” ideas from colleagues. How amazing that I could steal from colleagues at six different campuses! I might have limited opportunities at any given college, but by doing so, I was able to piece together a fairly rich professional existence.
It is the time of year when a lucky few are notified that they have crossed the threshold into full time employment, while the much greater numbers of the not-as-lucky sink into a seasonal rite of discouragement. This discouragement motivated me, finally, to broaden my search to out of state colleges. In the private sector, was a given that just doing my job well was not enough. In the summer months, when disappointment flowed and work opportunities ebbed, I found it helpful to remember how much I was learning from my itinerant existence; and to remind myself that by learning a little bit more, my chances would improve in the next hiring season.
Many of the benefits of my approach weren’t evident until I started working full time and using what I’d learned. Because there are many aspects of contingent employment that are truly exploitative, I can understand why some of my colleagues might find my attitude controversial. I can say, however, that (to paraphrase Simon & Garfunkel) I’d rather be a hammer than a nail…or, in other words, that my apprenticeship had far more dignity than my plight.