Dear Commons Community,
Jill Carroll, a writer in Houston, had an op-ed piece in yesterday’s Chronicle of Higher Education, detailing her life as an adjunct and why she is happy she left it. Here is an excerpt:
“At the height of my adjunct “career” teaching writing, world religions, and general humanities courses, I taught up to 12 courses a year at three different institutions in the Houston area. I juggled about 400 students a year in my courses, and each student wrote three to five papers. Do the math — that’s a lot of grading.
I worked that oxymoronic full-time adjunct load for a decade — in addition to teaching a few continuing-ed courses just for kicks and extra income. In short, I taught more students and graded more papers in a decade than most of my full-time colleagues at the same university would teach in their entire careers.
For a while, I was sort of an adjunct guru. I self-published a book called How to Survive as an Adjunct Lecturer: An Entrepreneurial Strategy Manual and ended up writing a monthly advice column on The Adjunct Track for The Chronicle. I also provided coaching to other non-tenure-track instructors to help them figure out ways to work the system and squeeze as much money out of it as possible. The idea was to come as close as they could to an income that honored their knowledge and credentials — or to at least not have to wait tables on nonteaching days to make ends meet.
I did well financially. I made my mortgage every month and managed to save a little. But I shoveled my share of hate mail from people who said I was justifying an exploitative system when, really, all I was trying to do was find a way to survive (maybe even thrive for a few moments) within it.
Back then, there was talk of revolution, of course. Most of us, at least in the humanities, had read enough Marxist critical theory in grad school to envision ourselves joining in some sort of massive collective uprising to overturn academe and force it to give us full-time jobs. Many of us would have settled for having our own desks, school email accounts, phones, photocopying privileges, and maybe free access to the campus health clinic: Adjuncts of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but the rolling briefcases you pull around in lieu of an office!
It seemed clear to me then — as it does now — no such revolution would take place. The market is still glutted with fresh Ph.D.s, especially in the humanities, who will accept adjunct positions just to stay in academe and not feel like they wasted their time and money on an expensive degree. I can’t blame them. Even if a university’s contingent faculty could manage to organize enough to collectively strike — a big “if” — the campus would shut down for a week or two, but soon would find plenty of replacements to staff the vacated positions.
Also, it seems to me that in our post-2008-recession era, adjuncting is now just another example of the gig economy. Adjuncts do short-term contract work alongside Uber drivers, Taskrabbit workers, and people who sell their skills on Fiverr. Increasingly more people are freelancers in America’s late-stage capitalism. Fewer and fewer companies pay full-time salaries with the hefty benefits packages of even a decade or two ago. The country as a whole, it seems, has become more comfortable with — or at least resigned to — contingent employment models. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”
“They were good times. They were exhausting and frustrating times, too. I’m glad they are over. I never intend to grade another paper.”
Jill’s story is important for those of us who teach in doctoral programs designed to develop academicians. While applications continue to be strong for Ph.D. programs, we have to be honest with our students and ourselves about career possibilities.