The Life of an Adjunct and the Relevance of First Year Writing

Our final readings for the course put into words some of the frustrations that I (and I’m sure most of you) have experienced at some point or another in our (mostly short) teaching careers. As a part-time adjunct, the Marshall essay expressed issues I didn’t even realize I had—practically unlivable wages (to put it in perspective: before teaching, I worked as a delivery driver for a company called Munchery. While there, I made almost triple what I am now making), unpaid office hours and lack of proper office space (I share an office with 2 others and even though we are supposed to have set schedules for its use, there have been several issues with overlap), lack of benefits, and limited room for advancement, to name a few.

I think the main reason these issues weren’t on my mind prior to reading this article is something he mentions early on: gratitude. He says “I also felt grateful to have a job, proud (if largely unqualified) to be teaching college, and relieved to be able to subsidize my own graduate education, however insufficiently, without venturing outside the academy too much” (112). As I read this, I realized I feel the same way. Even though I am making less money than my previous job, I consider myself fortunate for the opportunity to teach, especially at a four-year college, and one that I hold in such high esteem. Furthermore, I know that others have it worse (larger classes, no office at all, etc). But is the idea that others may have it worse, or that we are, in a sense, fortunate to be able to teach in the first place, a good enough reason to be quiet and just go along with working in sub-optimal conditions? I’m sure the administration would like to think so, as when push comes to shove, it all comes down to money. Marshall makes some great points on the corporatization of education on page 117 but I’ll let someone else jump on that.

The most telling, and frustrating part of the article for me was on the bottom of page 114: “For years, academic professional associations and labor unions have decried the overuse and exploitation of adjunct faculty, but rarely have they taken the offensive in remedying the situation.” In other words, everyone agrees that the life of an adjunct is problematic for a variety of reasons, everyone agrees that something should be done, but no one takes the initiative to actually do something. Even Marshall, who took part in several advocacy groups, apparently was not that successful, as adjuncts today are still experiencing most of the same issues as they were when he started in the 90’s.

I don’t really have specific questions regarding the Marshall piece, but I am interested in hearing everyone’s experiences (especially Giselle, who is far more experienced that the rest of us) and general thoughts on what can actively be done to produce change–not just to talk about it, but to actually do something.


The Wardle article was an interesting read as well. I’ll save most of the discussion regarding her argument for those that are currently teaching 110, but there is one point I wanted to bring up in particular.

I agree that FYC courses have a difficult time in transferring skills to other disciplines, since in FYC, as Wardle states, the goal is to improve writing in and of itself, whereas in other disciplines, writing is simply a tool or means to an end, not the object. I do think, however, that FYC programs do still have some merit. In my undergrad I double majored in English and Psychology, and although the two disciplines are very different when it comes to writing, my experience in English still undoubtedly aided me in Psychology. Learning MLA format, for example, prepared me to learn APA style.

Some questions for everyone regarding Wardle:

Do you agree that FYC is failing our students and should be dramatically re-envisioned, either to “writing about writing” as Wardle suggests, or something else?

I know some of us are working in tandem with other professors in the FYI program. How has that partnership influenced your teaching, and are you experiencing the same difficulties as Karen did in the article?

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6 Responses to The Life of an Adjunct and the Relevance of First Year Writing

  1. Nick Earhart says:

    I agree with you about the strange dynamic between gratitude and frustration. It’s been great to learn more about teaching and have a chance to work with students, but it’s troubling to think of the job as symptomatic of the administrative failings in higher education. Your point, Alex, about hourly wages is pretty thought provoking. I imagine if I crunched the numbers and compared adjuncting with previous jobs I’d find something similar. This seems anomalous considering how much more difficult teaching is than anything else I’ve done, and unfortunate as one imagines all the misallocation of funds that must occur in a university-size bureaucracy. (Blackboard, for one glaring example from the readings.)

    Universities leverage the hierarchy of academia to justify low wages. At the same time, they use the hierarchy to assure students and parents that they’re getting their money’s worth. And they placate adjunct faculty in affective terms—something like “Don’t you realize how lucky you are to have this remarkable opportunity?” I’m really happy with my experience at QC, and I don’t mean to be cynical, but one doesn’t have to think terribly hard to begin to imagine the deep, deep flaws of the system. I sympathize with people who are trying to make it work, struggling to earn a living on adjunct pay rates. It seems next to impossible in this city, and yet administrations are, in their actions, if not their words, saying “tough luck.”

    When I was on Facebook, I used to always notice academic friends/acquaintances complaining about this very issue. It seemed at a little overblown to me at the time, thinking in terms of class. Anyone pursuing a PhD could probably find another, better paying job. I understand the issue better now, and relate to the struggle. I also recognize adjuncting is untenable going forward, unless I view it as a supplement to more lucrative freelance work, which I may very well do. Still, I am a bit mystified at the class status of an adjunct instructor with an advanced degree. How do we talk about this issue in relation to other, perhaps less privileged instances of labor exploitation? What can be done to change this situation? I’m especially interested in talking over the specifics of the labor union, and the potential for collective bargaining among adjunct teachers. Also, I’d be interested in hearing people’s thoughts on the academic profession, more generally, and how to navigate what seems such a precarious and forbidding job market.

  2. Giselle Shohet says:

    A response to Alex and Nick
    I too feel gratitude and frustration for having had the opportunity to teach high school English for so many years in the NYC public school system. There can be a profound love between teacher and student, as Roethke narrates in his poem, “Elegy for Jane.” I think that we all have experienced this on both sides of the desk. (Admittedly, there can also be a dislike! But why go there?) We do this work regardless of the salary. It is meaningful and interesting. (Certainly, characteristics that are hard to find in any job.) Still, the conditions are frustrating. (The conditions of the teacher restrooms can be enough of a reason to put in for an early retirement!) NYC public school teachers have no offices and their salaries go up at a snail’s pace. Specifically, it takes twenty-two years to reach maximum salary. And to secure a better pension you should teach for twenty-five years minimum.
    Part of the reason that I chose to teach in the city K-12 school system initially was the better wages, benefits, and job security, or so I thought at the time. Still, I realize that this decision is not for everyone, especially those of you reading this blog, as you have obviously made another choice, at least for now. I will explain the system as I experience it. There are still some vestigial traces of seniority. For example, I am one of the last English teachers in my school to be excessed because of seniority. On the other hand, I have less options. Overall, senior teachers are less likely to be hired, as they can hire two new teachers for the price of one senior one. As of the Bloomberg years, teachers’ salaries are part of the school’s, rather than the city’s, budget! This is why the senior teachers are, in reality, less desirable. Also, younger teachers may have less domestic responsibility and be more available for after school and weekend events, which may or may not be paid. Additionally, a tenured teacher is only observed less often. She/He could still be fired in a short period of time.
    The last point that I want to make is many that teachers are talented with an ability to communicate a topic, relate on a profound level with other human beings, and have some mastery of a given subject. Aside from this justified hubris, it seems that the some of the public is jealous of our summer vacations, short teaching days, salary and benefits. Maybe the public needs to be better educated about what it takes to be a teacher.

  3. Daisy Atterbury says:

    Alex, Nick and Giselle, thank you for your responses, which I found cathartic to read after digesting the Marshall reading and the “Statement on Working Conditions for Non-Tenure-Track Writing Faculty.” After sitting with the question raised last week (“Why are we each here, why did we enter this profession?”) – to which I apologize for offering no answer at the time – I sat with the readings this week with a weary feeling. I used to be a vocal critic of what I used to think of as “graduate student ungratefulness,” especially as someone coming from the poetry world, where no one is compensated at all for their intellectual work, affective labor, performance work, research or other (numerous) professional pursuits. I saw graduate school as a “good deal” – health insurance, time off, support for research, teaching experience, etc. From New Mexico, where you can only get seasonal work catering to tourists or second home-owners while everyone else lives out the realities of working in the poorest state in the country, academia sounds like a fantastical dream. After spending a few years thinking about the realities of contingent faculty compensation, university budget cuts, personal efforts to get health bills paid through the CUNY insurance (which thankfully exists), and more issues that others in this thread gracefully raise, I’ve changed my tune. Eric Marshall is one of a few who have provided welcome insights into the status of contingent labor in academia in his essay – beginning with his title, “Teaching Writing in a Managed Environment.” The managed environment. In which we all must manage our expectations and micromanage our affects.

    I have recently followed the Columbia Graduate Student workers’ fight for unionization (against union busting tactics and extreme anti-union PR campaigns from the provost) with interest, having previously wondered how elite students at Columbia could think their fight for unionization is a relevant concern given other labor struggles in this country. I’ve since decided that fighting for unionization (and supporting within existing union struggles) is one of many ways to support and join forces with labor workers both in and outside the profession. The more graduate student and part-time academic faculty consider their work to be outside and above the work of other contract laborers, the more they risk alienating potential class allies and fighting corporate greed – together. At CUNY, we need to acknowledge that what we do is WORK – that seems to be the first step to humbling ourselves to the realities of contingent labor everywhere and admitting that there are other ongoing struggles against “the managed environment.” Allies are out there, they just may be fighting fights that academics forgot to notice.

  4. adouglass says:

    When I think about the question of the exploitation of adjunct and graduate labor in the university, I can’t help but think of it within the specific context of English departments and to think that the current state of affairs feels almost inevitable considering the way in which our departments are positioned within the university, the role of English programs being largely perceived as a service position. English programs are looked to by the university, essentially, to generate students in all majors who can operate as competent writers in their respective fields. As we all know, that task is far too big to be met by full-time English faculty, and so adjunct and graduate labor must be over-utilized in any attempt to meet it. As we were told last week, ENGL 130 at Queens was shared among various departments specifically because English did not feel we could reasonably be expected to cover that additional course, even despite the comparatively vast size of our department: covering two required semesters of writing instruction, even with adjunct labor, was too big a task. And yet, conversely, we consistently feel as instructors that those two semesters aren’t nearly enough to prepare our students for the kinds of writing they will have to do in college. It seems clear that the job of training all students on campus to write at a university level is simply beyond the capabilities of one department, and placed under such a requirement, it seems inevitable that English departments will continue to stretch their budgets to poorly pay enough instructors to meet that workload.

    In response to such a situation, wherein it seems clear that universities need to provide more and better training in writing, but wherein the demands of our current training programs are already exceeding the capabilities of English departments, I can only imagine a solution that heavily centers WAC programs and, ultimately, demands a shift in the way universities understand the role of writing instruction, so that it is located more equally in all disciplinary areas. Writing is a central mode of thought and knowledge-building across the board in academia, and the careers of almost all academics depend on it. If we do not reimagine writing instruction as a central concern throughout university education, and if we continue to demand that English departments take on that burden alone, that state of affairs will continue to necessitate a huge population of part-time English faculty who the field does not have enough full-time positions to support.

  5. Sophie says:

    Thank you, everyone, for your thoughtful posts on this topic. I’m going to engage with a lot of what’s been said, but perhaps not in the most linear or coherent fashion, so apologies in advance.

    When I was teaching high school, I often worked for 10 hours straight, arriving at 7am and leaving at 5pm. Though I had an hour for lunch, that hour was usually spent in my classroom, working with one, but usually more, student(s) on extra credit or makeup work. Sometimes the students in my room weren’t even in my class, just kids I’d had the year before, or in Model UN, or who knew me from the hallways and felt comfortable asking me for help. I didn’t usually eat between 5:30am and 4:30pm at the absolute earliest– that fact always seems to shock people the most. No one ever explicitly told me that I had to spend my lunch hour working with students; it was just consistently implied that I should be working with students with IEPs outside of class on their extracurricular goals, or that if students failed it was my fault (an issue Giselle brought up last week during our brief discussion of charter schools). And though school let out at 4pm, when I left at 5pm, I was usually one of the first people to leave.

    I was never compensated for all those extra hours. Like in adjuncting, where we are paid a flat semester rate for our labor, I was paid a flat annual salary. These were essentially hours of unpaid labor. And honestly, I didn’t mind doing it most of the time. I felt a kind of moral responsibility to help those kids. It’s different with college students, though. I think part of it has to do with the fact that the training wheels are off, in a sense. They are adults, and so I don’t feel responsible for chasing them down and making sure they attend office hours. And I hate to admit it, but it also has a little to do with the money. As an adjunct, I am compensated far less than I was as a high school teacher (which is saying a lot), and so I feel far less obligation to be putting in hours and hours of extra labor. That is not to say that I feel no responsibility to do my job, or to do it well; I just feel more compelled to complete my tasks efficiently. Unlike in high school, where I was content to spend hours completing a task, with my adjunct work I want to complete the task well, but do so in as little time as necessary. It also has to do with the fact that, unlike when I was teaching high school, my attention is now split between my own work and my teaching. I feel a constant pull between the two tasks, and quite selfishly resent when teaching takes more time than I expect it to (not so much with office hours–when a student proactively seeks help, I’m happy to work with them. I mean more so with grading or reading blog posts, things one might consider to be “busy work”).

    I agree that one solution to this problem of unpaid labor is collective bargain. Having worked at a charter school that prohibited unionizing, I can definitely attest to the powers of the union. And while I am compensated less for adjuncting than I was as a high school teacher, I do feel much more represented, and that my working conditions are far less austere, than when I taught high school. But I do bring up my high school experience to point out that unpaid labor isn’t just a problem at the university level–it is a systematic problem that plagues all levels of our education system. I think it’s a broader issue of discrepancy between what we expect from our teachers versus what we’re willing to pay them, and a discrepancy between what we expect our students to achieve and the level they’re actually at (and a fundamental misunderstanding of how much labor it will take to bridge that gap). I don’t think this problem will be solved simply by unionizing, or sharing the burden across university departments, though I do agree that’s a step in the right direction. I think that, as a society, we need to begin to value the teaching profession far more, and start to think far more critically about the gaps that I just pointed to.

    I also want to raise the fact that there is a strong gendering to the issue of unpaid labor. Part of why teachers are paid so little is that the profession is now mostly women; as women entered the field, pay decreased (there have been studies to this effect). Women are also expected to perform more outside labor, such as talking to students and helping them with work outside class hours, because we’re supposed to be more nurturing. It was pointed out last week that the English Department adjuncts have been becoming more female over the years; and so I wonder if perhaps more demands are being unconsciously placed on adjuncts, simply by virtue of our sex.

  6. Kristi says:

    Thanks everyone for your extremely thoughtful comments, and I agree with what everyone seems to agree. We’re expected to do too much for too little pay. And, I appreciate Sophie bringing in gender into the equation because it is an important thing to note.

    I also wonder how much we need to also turn to the students for decreasing our labor. Well, yes, the majority of our demands are on an institutional level, the students, especially incoming freshman, EXPECT a certain level of hands-on attention like Sophie and Giselle talk about giving high school students. In an extremely small way, forcing the students to acknowledge that we don’t have the time/money to give that level of attention early on might be beneficial. I know a lot of the extra work I put in (answering emails that a fellow classmate or the syllabus could have answered, for example) would clear up.

    However, I also know that the majority of us care for our students and would go that extra mile if it was asked of us. You don’t get into teaching if you don’t care on some level, which makes the question of labor even more difficult. I want to do everything I can for these students and dedicate hours of every day to helping them, but I can’t afford to. I go to school full time, teach two classes, and do work study, and that’s all before actually having a life outside of school and work.

    The fact of the matter is, we all deserve to be paid more. However, we won’t get paid a more livable wage until full-time faculty petition for us on a more widespread level. And, unfortunately, that won’t happen on a larger scale until the full-time faculty get paid more reasonable salaries. Can we go back to the days when educators were paid as much as doctors?

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