The Impermanent Adjunct

This piece appeared at Chronicle Vitae on February 26, 2014.

As my year off moves by slowly, I often wonder how I arrived at the situation I am in. Was there a pivotal moment that set me on this path? When did I begin to doubt that I would ever fit neatly within the academy? When did quitting become an inevitability rather than a possibility? There’s one answer to all these questions: when I became a contingent laborer.

I never planned to have a temporary job. I fell into one, as people often do. While finishing my dissertation out of residence, I started adjuncting. I moved with my husband to a place 23 hours from home for his paid internship (which eventually turned into a paid postdoc). I was lonely and isolated. My cohort was far away, as were my other friends and family. I missed teaching—in my graduate program, we taught early and often—and I craved familiarity. Adjuncting put me back in the classroom, and it was (supposedly) a way to avoid the dreaded gap on my CV.

I ended up adjuncting at a community college and a university simultaneously. At the university, the pay per course was about $1,500, with a promise of $1,800 when I finished my Ph.D. At the community college, the pay was less, and I had no control over curriculum or books. This 20th-century Americanist ended up teaching Early World Civilizations.

Most fall and spring semesters, I taught two courses for the community college and one for the university. In my second-to-last semester, I taught a total of five classes between three campuses. I had agreed to teach only four courses, but at the forceful cajoling of an administrator, I took over one more.

An adjunct-turned-professor had broken her leg in a nasty fall, the administrator said; she had become immobile. She had been adjuncting at the community college for at least 20 years—maybe even as many as 25; I can’t remember the exact number—and she had finally moved into a tenure-track position just the semester before. The injury forced her to retire early. Can you imagine years and years of adjuncting coalescing at last into an elusive tenure-track position, only to be taken away by slippery snow and unsteady feet? Fate is more often cruel than kind.

This was the beginning of my life as a contingent laborer, and I was blissfully unaware of it. Like many graduate students, I assumed that adjuncting was a pit stop. I would go on the job market and earn a tenure-track job, because that’s what happened to good students (or so I had been told). When I broached jobs with my advisor and committee members, they assured me that I would have no trouble getting a job. They seemed to be right since I was invited to four campus visits for assistant-professor jobs in 2008. During one visit, I was told that I would be an excellent diversity hire, because the department needed “at least one” woman.

What I soon realized is that I had no problem getting a job teaching as an adjunct or, later, as a full-time, non-tenure-track faculty member. The problem was finding a permanent position rather than a contingent one. Maybe I should have been more specific in my queries to my advisors and mentors.

We moved again in September 2009 for my husband’s new job. (Computational-science Ph.D.’s are more employable than religious-studies Ph.D.’s, as if you didn’t already know this.) I started adjuncting again in January 2010 as a fill-in for a religious-studies faculty member on leave. I taught part time on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays not only in religious studies, but also in American studies. I juggled part-time teaching with child care. Part-time often felt like full-time.

The American-studies department bungled my paperwork, so I wasn’t paid for my course until almost the end of term. This happened not once, but twice. The head of the department apologized profusely. How could this happen? he mumbled when I confronted him about it. You’ll be okay until the money comes through, right? I pasted on a smile and assured him that I would be. In my car on the way home, I cried. My husband’s salary covered us, but I felt like a failure. I couldn’t even get paid my paltry salary on time. We had rearranged our family’s life for this part-time gig, so my husband and I could watch our daughter when the other was working. And I couldn’t even get paid for my labor.

Yet, I kept doing part-time work semester by semester. I wanted some connection with the university and some form of employment for my CV. I naively hoped that being a good department member would lead to a tenure-track job in religious studies. (American studies was a program with no real faculty, so it was a lost cause.) So I did extra, unpaid work to show my willingness to be a team player. I attended evening events, worked with the undergrad majors in their religious-studies association, and volunteered to help out wherever I could. This was a small department with more lecturers than tenure-track and tenured faculty. There was always something to be done.

The department head even instituted “voluntary” service for lecturers, so we could improve our “portfolios” for the job market. Each lecturer was basically assigned a service task. While we were technically asked to do service, how could we turn it down? The head assigned all contracts for lecturers and had the sole power to revoke them. Saying “no” could have jeopardized our employment, so we did the work—even though all lecturers are on a teaching contract with no service requirements. More labor and no pay.

Still, I felt like I couldn’t complain too much. I had a job when many didn’t. I had an office (though I was moved three times). Most of my colleagues treated me with respect. A new assistant professor did ask me to make his copies as a joke; I didn’t find this funny. I had some control over my schedule, thanks to the new associate head, who factored in my daughter’s daycare. I received some funding to go to conferences.

Yet my job was not fully secure, and this bothered me. Each semester I hoped that the department’s budget would allow me to continue to work for $4,000 a class. I feared that I might be replaced by someone else. I clung to this job because at least it was a job.

Eventually, I transitioned from part-time to full-time with a yearlong contract. A modicum of stability came with a heavier teaching load. I was employed for the whole year, but anxiety loomed when it came time for my contract to be renewed.

I duped myself into believing that I needed to stay in that tenuous position, so I endured the indignities of being an “irregular” faculty member (the regular faculty were the tenured and tenure trackers). When I missed a meeting of the seminar designed by a senior faculty member, he complained to the head. The next day she scolded me in the hallway about my absence and told me that I must attend so as to not hurt his feelings. To avoid missing the seminar, I rearranged my teaching schedule. This is just one example of many.

My contingent status meant I was treated as just a lecturer, but called on to be so much more. I was expected to act as a fully-invested member of a department that didn’t seem to want me on its permanent roster. I was supposed to be loyal to an institution that was not loyal to me.

Here’s the thing about being a contingent worker: Life begins to feel contingent too. I could never truly settle down because my job could disappear with the new budget cycle. Making long-term plans seemed fruitless because my situation was unstable. My life was stalled. I was not moving backward, but there was no forward motion either. The gears were gummed up. I felt like I was in a tedious holding pattern and I might stay there forever.

I couldn’t live this way, so I stopped. And now? If a contingent position is my only option, I doubt I’ll ever return to academia. Maybe this is why quitting feels inevitable.


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