Teachers need stable work and students need stable teachers. The adjunct system cheats them both.
On Friday, January 26, I was in a good mood. I was about to start teaching for the spring semester on Monday. I had set everything up online, and my syllabus was ready. I’d even emailed my students to let them know which textbook to buy.
Then I got a phone call from my boss: Two of my classes were canceled because too few students had signed up for them.
Minutes later, I checked my email to find out that my third class was canceled too.
Suddenly, I’m unemployed.
You might think that getting a master’s degree or even a doctorate is a route to getting a good job. You might assume that college professors have cushy jobs and steady pay. Sadly, that’s not the case for many.
Even as college tuitions have skyrocketed in recent years, colleges and universities have found a clever way to cut labor costs.
I knew going into graduate school that I would spend years as a poorly paid teaching assistant while attending school. I thought once I had my degree, life would get better.
Well, it hasn’t yet.
Colleges and universities have two classes of professors: full-time permanent employees and part-time adjuncts.
Full-timers get stable employment, good pay, and benefits. Not adjuncts.
Full-timers can get tenure. Not adjuncts.
Each semester, colleges count the number of classes they need taught, and hire just enough people to teach them. After filling up the full-timers’ schedules, they begin giving work to adjuncts.
Already, this is rough for adjuncts. Each semester you have no guarantee of work. Your pay is low and your benefits non-existent.
More infuriatingly, you don’t actually have a secure job until classes actually start. It doesn’t matter how many classes you were hired to teach, because they might be canceled.
It doesn’t help the students either.
Adjuncts have to take on heavy teaching loads — if they can get them — just to make ends meet. That means less time per student. Some schools don’t pay adjuncts for office hours, which means students get less help from professors outside of class.
I was lucky to get hired the first semester after receiving my master’s degree. One college hired me to teach three classes. It wasn’t enough to live on but, I told myself, I was getting my foot in the door.
The next semester I applied everywhere, again. I was fortunate enough to get interviews at three schools and offers at two.
I was headed into the semester with three classes to teach and not quite enough money to live on. I’m simultaneously working on my doctorate, so I was going to be financially stressed and overworked even before losing my classes last minute.
That’s bad for me, but it’s also bad for my students. They’re paying and working hard for an education. They deserve professors who are fully present and classes that aren’t pulled away suddenly.
I get why this is financially advantageous for schools, but it’s an entirely unacceptable condition for employees. Especially when tuitions are climbing and university presidents and athletic coaches are pulling in six or seven figures.
Seems like there’s lots of fat that could be cut without hurting vulnerable teachers and the students who need them.
OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It. Distributed by www.OtherWords.org.