The Realities of Working as a College Adjunct Professor

The Realities of Working as a College Adjunct Professor

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After a long weekend of grading essays, I submitted the final grades for English 101. Then I got an email from the scheduling coordinator. Just a heads up, she wrote, likely you’ll have just one course next semester. We were about to head into our winter break. That meant I had less than a month to find yet another source of income to pay my bills. My teaching workweek was practically full-time, but I had two other jobs. And even though the semester was technically over, I was still receiving requests from students for extensions on their assignments: Hey Professor…

Most people hear the title “adjunct professor” and are impressed. Maybe they envision tweed jackets and book-lined offices with a view. I used to as well — it sounds prestigious and respectable. But many don’t realize “adjunct” is a fancy word for part-time contract work.

I first got into teaching because I loved kids and I loved books. It seemed like the perfect career for me, especially since I had worked as a babysitter, a nanny and a preschool assistant. It was fulfilling to come up with educational activities and to see the impact it had on the children I worked with. And as I learned more about educational inequality, I wanted to help however I could.

After college, I got my first job as a sixth grade humanities teacher in south Los Angeles. While I loved working with that age group, I eventually left my school largely because administration favored scripted curriculum and discouraged teachers from augmenting lesson plans. My master’s degree in education through a social justice graduate program radically changed how I approached teaching. Ever since I’d read Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” the idea of “banking” education didn’t sit well with me. I took a break from the classroom to pursue writing in New York, and later to work as a private educator abroad.

When I returned to the U.S., working at a university as a professor seemed like my dream job: educating students in a supportive, empowering environment surrounded by highly motivated peers continuing their own specialized research. I envisioned summers off where I could write in a quaint cottage and return in the fall fully recharged.

Reality Sets In

My first adjunct instructor position was at a community college. It was an evening side job while I worked full-time, and though I enjoyed it, I wouldn’t have been able to support myself on this alone. It also wasn’t sustainable. I sat in two hours of traffic the nights I taught my hour-long class.

I’m now an adjunct professor at a minority-serving university teaching freshman English courses. Since the pandemic moved everything online, I’ve been fortunate enough to stay working remotely. This flexibility allows me to be a caregiver for a family member while I continue to search for more stable career options. Though I have two master’s degrees and more than a decade of professional teaching experience, as well as positive reviews from students, it’s still tough to get a tenure-track position at a university.

Over time, I’ve realized higher ed institutions do not value my time, skills or experience. It’s not that different from being a wage worker — long hours that are not compensated and work that is not appreciated.

But at first, the pay seemed great. It’s written out in the contract as a lump sum for the semester. My first paycheck, which I received a few weeks after the semester began, I realized was divided into five payments, then taxed. For each course (three credit hours), the university estimates it’s about 10 hours of work a week. So teaching three courses is about 30 hours of work per week. Aside from the actual teaching hours, it’s the office hours, emails, lesson planning, grading, letters of recommendation, emotional labor and miscellaneous tasks that add up. The rate quickly looks less appealing.

Many adjunct professors work semester to semester, and like me, get their schedules a few weeks, or in some cases, one week, in advance of the semester starting. Students asked me what I’d be teaching next semester and I had no idea. They were already registering for courses even though it only said “instructor.” I learned about one of the courses I was teaching when a student emailed to say they were in my section. For weeks last semester I wondered when I was going to get my official contract, even though I was already weeks into teaching. This makes it challenging to plan long term, and mostly we are unemployed during the summer.

Colleagues I know adjunct at several school sites, commuting or Zooming for up to five different employers just to make ends meet. They juggle all the different platforms and paperwork and meetings.

In my case, last semester I taught three courses on Mondays and Wednesdays from 10 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. This semester I only have one course, twice a week starting at 1 p.m. Those lost hours will be gigs I can cobble together because a traditional full-time job is not viable with a class in the middle of the day, narrowing the jobs I qualify for.

With the loss of courses taught, I’m now ineligible for health insurance through this employer. (The minimum is nine course credits.) This is manageable for those who are on their spouse’s health plan, but for someone unmarried like me, I have to find another position that offers it, pay for private coverage or apply to state health care. Of course, this could change again next semester — maybe I’ll have zero classes, or four. Nothing is guaranteed, and low enrollment could also cause a last-minute change in income.

Adjuncts Do Essential Education Work

For many students, freshman courses are their first experience of a college education. Adjuncts teach the required core classes that set the foundation for their college career success. Yet institutions assign inexperienced graduate students and emerging educators, including adjunct professors, to teach these introductory courses. Faculty like associate or assistant professors on the track to receiving tenure have seniority to choose better courses, schedules and pay. What’s more, the pay for adjuncting is the same whether you have a master’s or a doctorate, one year of experience or 20.

The university where I work said my course load this semester decreased because there is less of a demand for online courses. But I don’t see these going away anytime soon, pandemic or not. Students with physical disabilities, mental health issues, transportation obstacles, caregiving obligations and the like opt for the convenience of it. Others like the self-pacing aspect, or are self-conscious and prefer to interact in class with the text-chat or voice-only feature.

Teaching at a university is an incredible opportunity that I’m so grateful to have, and I would love to continue working there. But so often adjunct instructors and their needs are at the bottom of the intuition’s priorities. Their budgets favor athletic departments, award-winning writers and prominent names in each respective field to attract more students and donors. But let’s be honest — being an expert at something like 17th-century British literature does not necessarily translate into being able to teach others. How many of us at 18 years old could sit still for over an hour or two listening to a lecture and retain something practical, absorbing that material to become better for the jobs we’d soon be seeking?

If universities, community colleges and state schools truly valued us as educators, they’d do more to retain us. Maybe they could offer a guaranteed minimum number of classes per year, rather than a per-contract-semester basis, and a living wage for the base salary. They could offer a higher salary with health insurance for those who have credentials, or years of teaching experience, and an easier bridge to tenure-track roles to help us build our careers and plan for longevity. Students should have the transparent option to choose novice instructors and perhaps pay on a tiered scale. More trivially, institutions and departments could include us in things like Teacher Appreciation Day by sending an email to acknowledge our part in educating the next generation of thinkers.

For now, I’ll continue applying to additional adjunct positions to get my foot in the door and hopefully start to work my way up the ivory tower of higher ed. Maybe one day I too could make a six-figure salary while delegating the busywork of grading to my TA and enjoy my summers along a seaside village.

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