How would you like to be a full-time adjunct professor? Here’s a snapshot of the life, excerpted from a Washington Post magazine profile, published in 2002, of Larissa Tracy, a 28-eight-year-old woman with a doctorate in English literature from Trinity University in Dublin teaching five or six courses a semester on a part-time, non-tenure basis at three different Washington, D.C.-area colleges:
“On this chilly October morning she’s merging onto Interstate 395, near her Shirlington [Va.] apartment, and heading south on her daily 50-mile trek to Fredericksburg [Va.]. It’s 7 o’clock as her black Mazda Protege slides into the fast lane at 80 mph. She pushes hard on the accelerator and begins eating her toast. She needs to pass her first marker, the Quantico Marine Base, by 7:30–otherwise, she’ll be late for her first English composition class at Mary Washington College. The clock doesn’t stop ticking after that: She’ll teach four classes at three different colleges today. And those are just some of the six classes she’s teaching this fall term, double the normal load of a college professor. Or what used to be normal.
Tracy’s itinerary today has the precision of a train schedule: English 101 at Mary Washington from 8 a.m. till 8:50 a.m. Office hours from 9 till 10 a.m. Another English class from 10 until 10:50 a.m. Back in the car by 11 a.m. Up I-95 to George Mason University [in Fairfax, Va.]. Another class from 12:30 p.m. till 1:20 p.m. Talk to students for a few minutes. Back in the car by 1:45 p.m. and race to Georgetown University. Grade papers and prepare for class while eating lunch. Class on Shakespeare and film from 3:15 p.m. to 4:05 p.m. Back in the car before the meter expires and head home. Then she grades more papers until midnight. Six hours later it all begins again.”
It’s hard to figure how exactly much money Tracy made from all this, counting as costs the 110 or so daily miles she spent on the road, adding up to three hours per day of commuting at well above the legal speed limit. Adjuncts are typically paid about $3,500 a course (sometimes as little as $2,000 at a cheap state university, sometimes as much as $5,000 at expensive private universities on the order of Georgetown). So let’s say Tracy earned $38,000 per academic year for teaching a nearly inhuman load of eleven courses over two semesters—twice the load of a full-time assistant professor enjoying full benefits on the tenure track. Then let’s throw in the fact that as a part-timer Tracy got no health insurance, no paid vacations, no real office even though she was expected to keep office hours (her best office deal involved sharing a windowless room at Mary Washington, her worst, poaching in a full-timer’s office for a couple of hours a week), and no time to do the scholarly research that her six years at Trinity, Dublin, had trained her to do. Speaking of which, there are the $46,000 in student loans Tracy racked up while at Trinity, plus $10,000 in credit-card debt, over such contingencies as getting her car fixed. During summers when she wasn’t teaching, she had three job options: proofreading, office temping, and tending bar.
Would you want to live like this? I wouldn’t—and I’m about to complete a doctoral program myself. The point is that Larissa Tracy did. In fact, an Internet search reveals that she spent five full years–after receiving her Ph.D. from Trinity in 2000 and getting rejection letters from more than 27 colleges where she’d looked for full-time teaching jobs—hitting the road and teaching on short-term contracts for as little as $2,300 per course. Finally, in 2005 Taylor got to be one of the lucky ones, perhaps because of the Post magazine article about her. She landed a full-time, tenure-track assistant professor’s slot at Longwood University in Farmville, Va., part of Virginia’s state system. According to figures on average faculty salaries at Longwood compiled by the American Association of University Professors, Tracy may now be making about $55,000 a year, but with health benefits, vacations, and sabbaticals. That is to say, it took her a full nine years after her college graduation (plus back-breaking loads of debt) to achieve the earning power of a competent office manager who never finished college. Most full-time adjuncts never even get that full-time college-teaching job, because of after a couple of years on the part-time circuit, they start to look like losers with stale resumes that hiring committees won’t look at because there’s always a cohort of younger, hungrier, and fresher Ph.D.’s competing with their elders to get onto the tenure track.
In the eyes of many adjuncts, as well as the numerous organizations that have sprung up to battle on their behalf, the adjunct problem is essentially an exploitation problem: Colleges hire hordes of adjuncts instead of smaller numbers of full-times to cut costs (and they do; the Washington Post story noted that the percentage of adjuncts versus full-time faculty on college campus nearly doubled from 1970 to 1999, from 22 percent to 43 percent—and the situation is undoubtedly worse now, since 68 percent of new college hires are now off the tenure track). Critics call it the “corporatization of higher education”—the idea, heretical in professorial circles, that universities should be operated with fiscal efficiency So reams of fist-shaking manifestoes by adjuncts roll from the opinion pages of the higher-education trade press, such as this one in the Chronicle of Higher Education from Steve Street, a “lecturer” (that is, part-timer, or at best, relatively low-salaried full-timer without a long-term contract) in writing and literature at New York State University-Buffalo who has never been on the tenure track since he started college teaching 28 years ago:
“This year, don’t be kind to adjuncts. Don’t be kind to the 68 percent of appointments in higher education that are now off the tenure track, to the 46 percent of faculty members nationwide who serve part time. Don’t be kind unless you can also put equity for us — proportional pay, benefits, security, and opportunities for professional development and advancement — front and center in department meetings, faculty senates, budget allocations, and even mission statements.”
That may be all well and good, but the adjunct problem is also a supply-and-demand problem. In times past adjuncts were typically busy professionals who liked to teach a course or two on the side or retired professors who wanted to keep their hand in. Now, adjuncts are products of a university system that continues to grind out vastly larger numbers of doctorates in the humanities than, proportionately, undergraduate students who want to take courses in the humanities, especially given the postmodernist revolution that has turned the study of literature into a dreary Marxist slog. And many holders of those overabundant doctorates would seemingly rather commute over the ends of the suburban earth to make a couple thousand dollars a course so they can indulge in the glory of calling themselves college teachers than doing something productive and genuinely remunerative in the world outside academia–all the while hoping that they’ll catch the brass ring someday ike Larissa Tracy. Sure, the world of adjuncting is a world of exploitation, but that’s because, as colleges of and universities have discovered (and who can blame them?), there are so many marginal academics out there willing to be exploited. I myself intend never to become an adjunct unless I do it strictly for fun. You might decide otherwise—but if you do, quit whining about the life you chose and get out there on that expressway to drive 50 miles to teach two sections of freshman English at $2,500 a pop.