Things I Learned While Surviving As An Adjunct

“You know this is unsustainable, right?” asked a tenured professor whose office was next to mine.

I just finished catching her up on my fall schedule of teaching 8 classes at 3 different campuses spread across the Denver metroplex. “Yeah, you’re probably right, “ I responded, even though I still thought I could sustain myself this way. (This was also while I was still single and with few other obligations.)

Two year later, I have to admit that she was right. For anyone unfamiliar with the status of part-time college instructors, plenty has been written on the subject to catch you up: the tragedy of an 80-year-old, insurance-less adjunct who died nearly homeless after battling cancer; adjunct pay being on par with working in the fast food industry.

But, as I enter my 4th year as an adjunct, I finally believe that tenured professor. I’ve never made much more than $40k/year as an adjunct, and that’s with a smattering of side jobs and teaching through the summer.

I’m considering other careers for the near future (or being able to get into a life-saving adjunct union). But for those who love teaching as much as I do and decide to continue playing the adjunct game, here’s some things I learned.

1. I took advantage of adjuncting while finishing up my Master’s, which lead to continuing to adjunct at a university level research institute after I graduated.

2. I always taught at 2–3 different colleges in order to get enough classes to pay the bills. And when teaching at one college become financially unviable, I let it go and worked to replace it with one that was. Similarly, taking as many sections as possible at higher paying schools also is necessary to survive.

3. Over the 6 years of teaching, I’ve taught at: #1 — the aforementioned university-level research institute; #2- a state school; #3 a community college; and #4- private Christian college. This order is also the pay ranking of each school, with the Christian college paying even below community college rates.

4. While teaching on the semester system, the Spring can be wildly unpredictable for those teaching English Composition. Most freshman are assigned this class in the Fall, creating a need for more adjuncts. Spring semester lacks this surge/need, leaving many adjuncts floundering for work.

5. Adjuncting at a community college is essential for spring semesters and summers, when there’ll most likely be no available classes at a university or state school. Also, adjuncting at a community college that’s further away from one that’s in high demand could also mean more possible sections. After a year of teaching at my particular community college, I was able to take as many sections as I wanted (which included two summer classes).

6. Teaching at the private Christian college was pretty much what I had feared from most evangelical colleges. Faculty were hired more for their ability to fit an ideological mold than for teaching their teaching ability.

7. Blocking your classes back to back at one school (or within a short amount of time) when possible can make teaching across multiple colleges more manageable. I was able to accomplish this, though I still had one semester where I had to drive from an eastern suburb college to a western suburb college on the same day.

8. Side jobs are essential to surviving adjunct life, and I’ve had many: writing tutor at just about all my colleges; staff at an event marketing company (where I now currently work alongside a former student from my first year of teaching); gopher/errand boy for a company CEO.

9. Save up for taxes because some colleges essentially 1099 you, though this is how you can take on a full-time load and still only get paid as an adjunct.

10. When faced with a stack of papers, some booze during your last hour of grading can help you to be a happier grader (especially after plowing through a particularly discouraging and frustrating set of papers).

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