(Now actually one Friday! I wrote this a while ago, but I’m resurrecting it because I’m elbow-deep in papers. Again. By the way, this doesn’t reflect my reality. Much.)
Adjuncting to Survive
I’m a good teacher—I have to be. It’s the only way I’ll eat.
It used to be that people like me taught at public schools, preferably high school—six to eight classes a day to feast upon. But then it became far too much testing, not enough instruction. Barely enough to keep body and soul together.
But then—and I shiver with excitement at the thought, came the rise of adjuncting. The ability to string together classes at multiple universities and colleges with, get this, no oversight. I could teach at a hundred places if I wanted, and no one would know or care. Glorious.
Some of us do just that—or near enough. After all, there’s plenty to go around. I know it’s tough to feed a brood second hand or with what they can skim from essays and homework. It’s not my place to judge. We all have our struggles.
I teach two days a week at the local community college and two at a branch of a state university. I start my day printing up activities and essay prompts, copying, and complaining to my colleagues—better to blend in, my dear.
Then it’s time to face the class. After all these years, I’m still nervous. It’s a little like the traditional anxiety dreams before the semester starts—what if I don’t have a syllabus? What if they won’t listen? What if there are one hundred and fifty of them, and I’ve accidently been assigned Advanced Underwater Basket Weaving, even though I can’t swim? The day-to-day stuff is more like—what if the seven things I have planned only take fifteen minutes? What if no one looks up from their cellphones? What if they decide to argue about everything? What if everyone decides that they don’t need to learn how to write and they leave? Not only am I not eating that day, but I’m probably going to have to look for another job.
But I take a deep breath and unlock the classroom. Students filter in, of all ages, races, sizes, shapes and levels of experience. They creep up to the desk and ask questions, which helps settle me. In between, I write on the board, lay out what we’re doing, and ask after kids, spouses, jobs, and hobbies. Appetizers.
I greet them and start class. In groups, they talk to each other and explain. The looks of comprehension satisfy me, but not as much as when I can help them as I walk from group to group. This is why teachers love group work—that and it’s pretty easy to grade.
They discuss things as a class. I have them write. I can tell that this is going to be yummy writing. Some people write furiously, others stare at the ceiling or walls until a thought comes, and a few need just a small prod from me.
We talk about the next paper, and their faces light up with understanding. This is what I live for, to achieve my goals. There are certainly worse ways. Like my… I suppose we could call them cousins in the entertainment field. Touring constantly, with ever bigger sets, bits, songs and stories, never being able to settle in one place, always chasing the next laugh or the next round of applause. Experimenting with substances to see if they’ll get an edge, but it’s all unpredictable.
Or my even poorer relatives, the writers. Poor bastards. They can put hundreds of hours into a piece and have it rejected by editors feeding on unrepaid work, or worse, critics who devour despair. Is it any wonder that writers are so anxious, so beaten down by the process that thousands each year just give up, lay down and die?
No, I’d rather be what I am. A teacher, teasing out insights and revelations, delighting in something learned, loving all of the homework, assignments and papers. Even if I do have to pay a stipend to each dean and administrator who employs me. It’s why I prefer to teach at community colleges and branch campuses—far fewer greedy, hungry, grasping thieves with hands out. And it takes forever to pay, which is why you can never find an administrator. They are always at “meetings” or “conferences” or “out to lunch with donors.” Like a university needs patrons with all that sweet tuition money coming in.
I do my part as well, spotting that person who comes alive during group work, the one who sparkles when a classmates gets an idea (no, not literally. We aren’t vampires to glisten in the sun instead of burning). One day, we’ll have a conversation in the hall, or after class, about what that feeling means, and I show them how to succeed, to get fat and happy.
I always assign enough to get through the weekends. The real problem is summer. If I can get a class, it’s wonderful. If I can’t, I have to tutor, even though it’s not always satisfying. Only one student at a time, but the realizations are more consistent; although if the student is resistant, it’s deadly.
All in all, it’s not a bad way to make a living. There are people who complain, of course, but they aren’t in this for the right reasons. They demand benefits, stability, tenure track jobs and a living wage. But I don’t need any of that, not really. As long as I get a steady stream of what I need, I’m fine.
Some might think it unfair, to mine my students, their thoughts, their inspirations for life and energy. But I’ve got a right to live like anyone else. So the next time you read about starving adjuncts, part-time faculty on food stamps, and other agitators, the next time people talk and write about social justice, the next time that people advocate for people like me, just remember. I’m doing fine.
After all, I’m a good teacher. I have to be—I need to eat.