For the Adjuncts: The Thanks We Get

Stock image

I recently received a beautifully written letter from a college student I taught two years ago and who is now about to graduate. My required course in public speaking helped her to change her major and the direction she wanted to take with her career.

“When I went into this course, I had every intention of being a biology major and sitting in a lab for my entire career, away from people,” she wrote. “However, after this course, I decided to explore my other passions — the social sciences and the law. This course pushed me to explore those passions because I was no longer afraid of public speaking. I would now be able to be a voice for those who often go in ignored and advocate for the marginalized members of society.”

The letter went on, but you get the drift. Teachers live for this kind of affirmation from students.

A few months earlier, I heard from a student from 2014, who thanked me for helping him get on the path to his career. I had long forgotten him (I teach over 200 students per year, and, for the most part, in only one class), but his stage name is Nonamus, and he is a highly successful rapper based in Tampa.

Another, just before the 2016 election, spoke up in my class for the first time about being a DACA student, an undocumented immigrant. The experience led her to be an activist and a few months later she showed up in the popular Humans of New York blog.

And still another student, Mahmoud Khedr, went on to co-found Flora Mind, which seeks to find solutions around mental health and education for underserved communities. He graduated in 2019 and has already appeared on stage with former President Bill Clinton and been recognized by Forbes Magazine. He gave a powerful TedTalk in 2019, beating me to that bucket list item.

These are just a few of the students I’ve heard from.

I posted the most recent letter, above, on my private Facebook page because I was rightfully proud, and I also felt the need to advocate for myself, since nobody else in power will.

My friends gave me wonderful comments about the letter and my teaching, and one friend wrote, “This is priceless.” Priceless? That made me stop and think.

I watched the debates leading up to the 2020 election waiting in vain for a journalist or town hall attendee to ask a question about education. I mean, isn’t that the most important issue that leads us to science-based solutions, ending racism, economic growth, awareness of history, and becoming civic-minded people? And yet those questions never came.

I am an adjunct. Saying that out loud sounds not much different than going into a room and saying, “My name is Kevin and I am an alcoholic.” We are addicted to a passion that pays us poverty wages and stresses us out year after year, wondering if we’ll be let go.

In the spring of 2020, adjuncts had the thankless task of suddenly going remote in mid-semester and either learning to swim or sink. Many who managed to swim were still laid off before fall, despite their heroics. I survived because I was on a three-year contract, a rarity for many adjuncts.

75% of college professors are now adjuncts, i.e., not on the tenure track. I am lucky because I work for a state university that gives me decent benefits. But after 14 years, teaching 3 courses per semester (considered a full-time load), my annual salary is $32,000 a year. Still better than most: the annual salary of adjuncts nationwide is $25,000. Nearly one-fourth of adjuncts are on some kind of public assistance. This is higher education?

I love how many tenured professors are quite liberal in their politics when it comes to giving society an even playing field through various economic justice initiatives. I’m right there with them. But I’ve seen few critically address the caste system that they seem to enjoy in the halls of academia. As we pass each other in those hallways, I can’t help observing that they are making four times my salary for the same work.

I’m aware that tenured faculty often have to do extra duties on campus and must keep up with their published writing and other community accomplishments. But it’s not like the rest of us aren’t doing those things as well. When it comes to the actual work of teaching, and the preparation involved, we are about the same. In many cases, tenured professors have assistants who grade their exams and quizzes. Adjuncts grade their own stuff.

Furthermore, while I love teaching the core courses (like public speaking) because I get to inspire those (like my student above) who wouldn’t otherwise take my classes, tenured faculty get the “fun” classes and few deign to teach the core courses.

Now, I did sign up for this. For me, the freedom to pursue other things was paramount, but I have never had just one job. Always teaching, kind of as a hobby, and then another job that would provide a full-time salary. Too many adjuncts, though, run around several campuses trying to teach five or six classes just to get a livable wage.

I probably could have gone to South Dakota and gotten a tenure-track position. But twenty-five students are twenty-five students, wherever they may be. The work is the same.

My work is priceless, in that there is untold value beyond the market value. But we should never mistake that for valuing ourselves any less. We are changing lives, which then changes society.

There should be a price for that, and it shouldn’t be cheap labor.

I am an author, freelance writer, and singer/songwriter. I split my time between Brooklyn, NY and my native Massachusetts. I teach at City College of New York.