The Anonymous Adjunct

Nosha: Flikr, Creative Commons

A recent article in Inside Higher Education by an anonymous adjunct faculty member paints a stark picture of the professional (or rather, radically de-professionalized) lives of contemporary adjuncts. The author describes trying to teach high-quality classes despite a crippling course load, and encountering a striking pattern of marginalization and disrespect within the universities where s/he works.

The account of this anonymous adjunct struck a deep chord with me, though my story is different in most of its particulars.

I taught cultural anthropology for 20 years, most of them as an adjunct at a well-regarded research university. I never wanted to be on the tenure track — I’ve seen the stress that tenure-seeking colleagues are under, the nastiness of departmental politics, and the damage that negative tenure decisions can do to people’s lives. I also appreciated the flexibility that being an adjunct allowed me, especially when my kids were small. And, because I’ve always cared more about teaching than research, I was happy to avoid the “publish or perish” treadmill if I could still be in the classroom.

In comparison to many universities, mine treated its adjuncts well: the pay was considerably better than the meager standards of adjunct pay nationally, I was never given a teaching assignment less than a month before beginning, my photo was on the department wall near — if not with — those of full-time faculty, I was usually assigned an office of some sort, and I got a letter every semester from the department head commending me for excellent teaching evaluations.

I was lucky. Reading the increasingly scandalous stories of adjuncts teaching at multiple institutions and earning a pittance, I can’t claim to have been similarly exploited. But I understand the feeling of marginalization, the sense of embarrassment in having to explain to students why I didn’t have a proper office or why I wasn’t sure if I’d be teaching the following semester.

Adionn, Flikr, Creative Commons

I remember one time, while teaching on the University of Pittsburgh’s Semester at Sea program, the moment when a colleague from another university discovered that I was adjunct, not full-time, faculty. He looked flabbergasted, clearly dismayed that the program would let an adjunct teach in the place of “real” faculty. I wanted to grab him by the lapels and shake him, to point out that my classes were among the highest reviewed on the ship and that I was as real as he was. But of course I didn’t. Instead, I walked away, feeling furious but also vaguely ashamed.

Then there was another time, back at my home campus, when one of my students had plagiarized a paper, and I was called to a discipline committee meeting to explain what had happened. Rather than focus on the plagiarism case, one of the senior faculty members on the committee began to grill me: Why wasn’t my name on my department’s list of faculty? Why was there nothing about me on the departmental website? He acted as if I were an imposter, as if the committee were reviewing my academic integrity and not my student’s. Again, despite teaching real students, I was reminded that I was not “real” faculty.

Believe me, I know that there are bigger issues at stake for adjuncts than anything I’ve encountered: poverty wages and truly outrageous work conditions, among other things. But in the article by the anonymous adjunct, I recognized a shared experience: the feeling of being perceived as — and feeling— “less than.”

It was this feeling that eventually made me leave academia.

I now work at an ed tech start up. I miss teaching and I miss campus life, but I like what I’m doing. And in my current role, having a PhD, publications, and university teaching experience earns me respect. It’s refreshing. It’s also ironic that, after two decades of teaching in higher education, it took leaving academia to be considered “real” faculty.

Dr. Marie Norman is the Senior Director of Educational Excellence at Acatar. Norman has taught anthropology for over 20 years and worked in faculty development for 10 years. She is the co-author of the book How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching.

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