In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve never felt it more
Adjunct professors understand that, by definition, we are expendable.
We lug our books from building to building, do our grading and prep in our cars or the university coffee place — if there’s a seat near a power outlet.
Some of us toil at the same institution for a decade or more without ever being invited to…anything. Sometimes we venture into the workroom to make a copy or pop a pod into the corporate Keurig and we hear our full-time and tenured counterparts making plans and swapping banter while we stand awkwardly, blending into the background, as pertinent to the conversation as the light switches.
We check our perpetually empty mail boxes, and politely pretend not to notice theirs, brimming with notes from meetings we’re not privy to (even though they often impact our lives), invitations to departmental events that don’t include us — and occasional tokens of appreciation like the top shelf candy bars in all the full-timer’s boxes last semester — rebranded with the university logo and a “thanks for all you do!” across the wrapper.
Adjuncting is a thankless job — if you enjoy awards, promotions, recognition, camaraderie — and a lot of us do. But what we enjoy more are our students. And every day we make the choice to sacrifice our professional self-esteem for the opportunity to be in one of the world’s most invigorating places: a university classroom.
But in the wake of this pandemic, we’ve never felt more expendable. The higher education bubble has been one ill wind away from bursting for a long time now. Many of my (largely affluent) students tell me that if classes aren’t on campus in the fall, they won’t be coming back — how much truer must this be for more marginalized students? Adjuncts know the pandemic will change higher education and we know that when it does, our positions are the most vulnerable.
Last week, I decided to see how these concerns looked outside my head and beyond the headlines. I went to a social media platform for higher ed professionals and asked, simply, how many adjuncts felt that the pandemic made them feel less appreciated and were considering career changes as a result. The response was immediate, emphatic, and was creeping toward triple digit responses when I took it down 20 minutes after posting.
As a writer, I felt strange deleting something that was resonating. But the instant solidarity created a sense of safe space that wasn’t real. Guards were lowered as people shared their bottled-up truths. And, as adjuncts, we’re all too vulnerable for that.
For those moments on that forum we were the colleagues standing in our own virtual makeshift workroom, forgetting that we don’t own the space — any space; forgetting that our jobs are on the line and we have no chips with which to bargain. So I hit delete. Broke up the meeting. Covered our tracks. We have enough to worry about without our virtual voices carrying beyond their intended audience.
But we can’t be silent forever. What I saw repeated in comment after comment was the idea that this way of being/working/living is unsustainable — if not at the university level, then at least as a life choice for so many of the educators who were compelled to comment.
So what do we do in this most uncertain of times? The best we can. That’s it. Get through the semester. Take care of your students. Reach out as you have time and energy. Ask questions. Show grace. Extend same to yourself.
If you like teaching online, then consider building those skills. There’s a decent chance they’ll save you.
On the other hand, if you’ve been looking for a portal to a new career, this is likely your moment. When the semester is over, see if you qualify for unemployment benefits. The smart money says we’re looking at a concert-free, sport-less, stay-at-home summer. Put out some feelers. Try on some new personas. Read some books. Journal. Breathe.
Whatever happens from here will fundamentally change our universities, our teaching, our students, and ourselves. Guaranteed, we’re coming out on the other side of this this changed. Maybe we all return to campus in the fall, and maybe we go back to hauling our backpacks from building to building or campus to campus again. That would mean our campuses were safe and our jobs were not cut, and that’s arguably the best outcome.
But, just in case…take a moment during this Big Pause for a thought exercise. Assume that your expendable job has reached its predictable conclusion. Assume that you can’t go back. What does that future look like? My guess is that in whatever scene you are picturing, you are anything but expendable.