Several weeks ago, I approached my friend Jenny (not her real name) for information on how to get hooked up with a teaching position at one of the local community colleges. Jenny currently works at five different schools — three community colleges, one private university, and one online university. My guess was that if anyone could point me in the right direction, it would be her.
I always figured I’d end up in academia. While in graduate school, I taught a semester of undergraduate creative writing, but then after a few years in elementary-school classrooms, I gave up on the idea of teaching. Still, I keep it in my back pocket as a go-to if I absolutely have to do it again.
I approached Jenny not because things have gotten dire, but that the scramble from one freelance writing job to another is beginning to take its toll. I figure why not take it easy for a while, supplement my income with a consistent, guaranteed paycheck and balance out the uncertainty of the freelance life. And, yes, after years of living hand-to-mouth, I have lofty dreams of tweed, sabbaticals, retirement plans, and picking up the check while drinking beer with graduate students.
But, halfway through our conversation, after we’ve covered whom to contact, what to do with my résumé, and which schools not to bother with, Jenny knocks my professorial fantasy on its ass.
“It’s really political,” she says. “There’s an atmosphere where we don’t feel safe to talk [publicly] because we’re afraid our opinions and our thoughts can work against us. We’re constantly in this fear that this could hurt me from getting classes assigned next semester or my comments could hurt me when I’m trying to apply for a position.”
Apparently, this is the point when I become way too interested and change my posture from that of friend to reporter, because she stops speaking briefly to request anonymity.
“You can share that I’m not coming across as a rebel or a troublemaker,” she says, “but this is just how I see things and how I’ve experienced things so far.”
She goes on to explain that it’s not just the department chairs or hiring committees she’s afraid of upsetting; it’s also her fellow faculty members. Adjunct (or part-time, or “contingent”) faculty, she says, can be separated into two basic groups: the brown-nosers/optimists and the cynics/activists. Most of them want the same thing, a tenured or full-time position. But those positions are hard to come by, and the two groups are often at odds.
“I also don’t want to seem like I’m against my fellow colleagues who are in the struggle with me,” she says, “just because I see the positive.”
“We didn’t get the job because there is no job.”
One thing that came up in my conversation with Jenny was a website started by some of her colleagues. The site is called AdjunctCrisis.com, and though at the time I began my research it was not yet live, when I Googled the term “adjunct crisis,” I got 4,700,000 hits. Most of those links connected to articles and references written in the past two years.
When AdjunctCrisis.com does go live, the first post is by John Rall, an instructor who writes about how he was barred from advising a student group at Mesa College.
“Through my dean I learned that the administration does not want adjunct faculty to be advisors because they do not want to have to compensate them for the time they serve the students,” he writes. “Adjunct instructors cannot have more than a 67% load, and adding time as an advisor is not permitted. I also learned through my dean that the school has had cases where an adjunct gained over 67% and it led to the full time hiring of that adjunct on technical contract grounds. The administration learned their lesson and closed the loophole that allowed adjunct faculty to gain full-time employment.... I offered to be an advisor as a volunteer, but the school is highly skeptical of such altruism and does not want to take a chance.”
A week after my first conversation with Jenny, Professor Rall shows me around the adjunct office in the Mesa College English Department. The office consists of five tight cubicles, officially shared by the department’s 85 adjunct faculty members, though not all of them use it, and the attached 36-square-foot “conference room,” where we settle in at a small circular table. The 73% of part-time faculty members in this department is just above the 70% average for community colleges, according to the American Federation of Teachers.
When Rall began teaching here in 2004, he envisioned himself no more than a couple of years away from an esteemed professorship with an office and parking spot. With three degrees under his belt (bachelors’ in philosophy and anthropology, and a master’s in comparative literature), and a combined 13 years of teaching at the high school and college levels, he considered himself a prime candidate for a tenured position.
“I got here thinking I was going to eventually move right into a full-time position after a couple of years,” he says. “Now I’m mostly just trying to swallow the tough pill that I’ll probably be in my 70s still in a part-time position with a poor retirement plan because I’m an adjunct,” he says.
Adjunct Professor John Rall
John Rall talks about the opportunities and challenges of being a non-tenured, "adjunct" professor of English in San Diego community college systems.
To clarify, “adjunct” officially means “part-time,” an appropriate definition, given that California’s education code currently caps adjunct course loads at 67 percent of full-time (per school). In my mind, however, the term “freelance” paints a more accurate picture, as many “part-time” professors, like Rall and Jenny, create full-time schedules across multiple campuses, often equaling more hours than tenured (or full-time) professors.
This semester, Rall is teaching five classes: three at Mesa, and two at Cuyamaca. Although less than what he was doing before, it’s still full-time work.
“On a week when I don’t have essays, I’m probably doing six-hour days, four to five days a week,” he says. “As soon as the essays come in, I’m probably doing nine-hour days and weekends. I’m adding probably about 20 hours a week during those weeks, and it comes every other week throughout the semester.”