Essential but Excluded

Adjunct instructors occupy a precarious and disempowered space in the institutions that have come to depend on them.

Lyndsie Compton, photo by Tojo Andrianarivo

Adjuncting has been described to me as a hopeless path, a trap, a dead-end job—in short, my last recourse in a career that has extended over fifteen years of teaching on the East and West Coasts to students as wise as fourteen and as young as seventy-eight. Yet I made the decision a couple of years ago to move across the country, leaving my full-time job with benefits, to adjunct at Portland State University (PSU). When I asked Toni, a student in my Spanish for Heritage Speakers class, what she thinks about when she hears the word adjunct, she confirmed my worst suspicions: “nonpermanent, temporary, provisional,” to which she added, apologetically, “probably less money.” 

The title of “adjunct,” a broad term to describe part-time instructional faculty positions in American higher education, doesn’t capture the full reality of our jobs and our experiences, our odd position in the body of a university. Lyndsie Compton, a fellow Spanish adjunct at PSU, says, “How many connotations does it have? Appendage, nonessential, subordinate, temporary, auxiliary. We are the appendix of the university.” There’s a caveat to this definition, because universities need faculty, and adjuncts provide cheap labor in times of shrinking federal support. Lack of investment in education has driven many of my colleagues to leave academia and has led to ever-increasing tuition, resulting in a student loan crisis that has reached $1.6 trillion. Adjuncts now make up about 47 percent of the faculty at PSU, and that number is growing. What happens when what is seen as nonessential becomes integral to the functioning of an institution?

Adjuncts occupy a significant but precarious space in the hierarchies of academia, somewhere between visiting faculty and graduate teaching assistants, or GTAs—who, despite the name, do not assist a professor but are instructional faculty completing a graduate degree at an institution. We face economic and job insecurities that full-time faculty don’t. Our contracts are renewed at best on a yearly basis, more commonly on a term-to-term basis, and we don’t tend to be offered summer classes. Because we often have more student contact hours than full-time faculty, we know more about our students and their financial and personal struggles. Our economic lives and experiences are more in tune with those of our students than the life of your average provost or dean is: they probably paid a lot less for their education and have no student loans, while many adjuncts, earning a fraction of a dean’s salary, are still trying to repay their loans. 

Adjuncts are also often the first contact students have with a university. “We tend to teach a lot of the required courses, so we see a wide range of students,” Compton says. “My primary job is to advocate for my students all the time, and I am a counselor or support for them when they try to navigate the university.” 

Because adjuncts often teach first-year students and introductory course sequences, we end up taking on the role of mentor or advisor. This commitment, I think, has to do not only with making sure students are successful, but also with making things better for them than they were for us. I have made a point to confer one-on-one with students each quarter to discuss their goals and the challenges they face both in my class and at PSU in general. This often leads to me referring them to an advisor, an office on campus that offers services for their particular needs, or even asking around or looking on the university’s website for potential solutions myself. And sometimes students already know about services and just need to be heard. 


Karina Bjork

Karina Bjork is an adjunct professor in communications who teaches at several campuses, including Mt. Hood Community College (MHCC), Portland Community College (PCC), and Clark College. When I ask her what aspects of her job go unacknowledged, she says, “The connections I make with my students on each campus. It often goes overlooked because we don’t have hard office hours where we have our own private office to meet with students; we don’t have the ability to stay after class if we only have thirty minutes to get to another campus. So you’re doing a lot of running and talking to a student on your way to your car. It’s the effort we put in to making sure we know all 180 of our students’ names at four different campuses; to make sure we know what Abby or Eric is going through. Those are really the kinds of things that go unnoticed, and it hurts.” 

One of the claims that universities often make about adjuncts is that we don’t have as many responsibilities as full-time faculty. As if we were half present when we teach, or respond to only half of our students’ concerns, or as if our classes were half the size of full-time faculty classes. My colleagues and I are fully responsible for our courses; we write letters of recommendation for our students; and we are advocates for and mentors to them. The average teaching load for full-time faculty at a community college is around twelve courses per year; Bjork teaches fifteen or more. At PSU, a full-time teaching load is around seven classes a year, whereas an adjunct can teach up to five classes a year and still be treated as a part-time employee without benefits. 

Beyond class preparation and grading, adjuncts are fully in charge of designing learning experiences for their students, without the monetary or professional recognition that these efforts suppose. We are active members of our unions and, when invited or allowed, we also participate as members of committees at our institutions. Just like full-time faculty, we are involved in creative projects, conducting research, writing, publishing, going to conferences, imagining new possibilities to make classrooms more engaging and inclusive, and especially maintaining our professional record, because many of us are on the job market every year. 


Sarah Chivers

Sarah Chivers has worked as an adjunct in urban studies and social sciences at several institutions: community colleges, state universities, and a private liberal arts school, Pacific University. Liberal arts schools don’t tend to hire as many adjunct professors as public institutions do, and when I asked to interview her, I hoped to hear extraordinary tales about adjuncts who thrived in those pastures. But besides better pay per class, Chivers says she has found no difference in the treatment of adjuncts at private institutions: “I remember having this feeling of utter disregard and contempt for the people who had trained me and who had treated me like their equal when I graduated with my PhD, but when I came back with three years of international research experience and I was adjuncting, didn’t even invite me to the holiday parties. All the adjunct communities are the same, we are treated the same, and I don’t see it to be different at a community-college level, at a four-year university level, at a private school, or at a public school.”  

Chivers situates the beginning of her graduate education at a moment of shifting priorities in this country. She explains, “I started graduate school the first year of the Iraq War, and I remember protests on campus and realizing things were going to take a big shift. We went from funding education in a decent kind of way, where we could go to college and have it funded as a graduate student, to continuously being decimated in the interest of war and the military-industrial complex. I went through graduate school and watched all of the payment benefits that I had been promised at the beginning of my coursework just be cut and cut and cut, including my health care.” 

The landscape hasn’t changed much since Chivers graduated. According to USAspending.gov, in 2019 the Department of Defense’s budget represented around 15.7 percent of the annual budget, around $1.1 trillion; from that $1.1 trillion, just $197 million goes to the Department of Defense Education Benefits Fund, established by the GI Bill to pay college expense for military service members and veterans. Meanwhile, the Department of Education’s share of the budget for that same year is 1.7 percent, about $120 billion.

The possibility of mobility or advancing in rank from adjunct to full-time instructor or a tenure-track position is rare. Colleges also reserve the right to cancel an adjunct’s class, and deadlines for those cancellations can be as late as the first day of classes. “Something that I’ve noticed with adjuncts is we have a lot of fear around job security because we never know,” Bjork says. But she does see some improvement: “PCC is implementing a type of job security for adjuncts where they are now allowing us to work at all of the campuses” instead of just one, and working to “create more multi-year contract positions and more tenure positions.” 

Like Bjork, Compton wants to be optimistic about recent initiatives that PSU has taken up, sometimes in collaboration with the Portland State University Faculty Association (PSUFA), and sees the university embracing the idea that we are a unionized campus: “It gives me some amount of hope that they are not hiring anti-union organizations to run campaigns against us, and they’ve hired in the position of Director of Academic Employee Labor Relations a person who used to work for AFT-Oregon and who has been on the side of labor for decades,” she says. “I feel like PSU recognizes that we are all in the fight together to advocate for more funding from the legislature and from the state, and that instead of squashing union activity, we can actually use that to work together for a common goal.” 

Though some universities may embrace their unions, the effective and meaningful participation of all members, including adjuncts and GTAs, is necessary to modernize and democratize institutions that have remained unchanged for too long. Adjunct participation in committees is not equal to that of full-time faculty, and it is often devoid of any decision-making power. At PSU there’s only one adjunct member on the Faculty Senate, and we have no representation on the board of trustees. Compton sees this absence as a “disconnect where the people who are still making the decisions, and who we don’t have contact with, don’t seem to know anything about the day-to-day operations at PSU.” 

Bjork tells me she doesn’t belong to a committee because at the colleges where she teaches, adjuncts are required to take a class in order to apply to a seat on a committee: “It’s hard to be an adjunct and want to sit on a committee because of all the extra time you have to put in that you don’t necessarily have. We are severely underrepresented because we only have full-time faculty advocating for us—and they aren’t really advocating for us.” 

How can full-time faculty advocate for us if we are invisible? If we don’t sit at the table with them, don’t share the same offices, and barely know each other’s names? I want to think that my full-time colleagues are advocating for adjuncts when they sit to discuss the budget, but I am not certain they know much about me or what I do. As Chivers sees it, “The only way we can build power is to access all those places we are excluded and closed off from.”

Colleges are institutions where discussions about human rights are presumably happening in many classrooms; where patterns of state oppression are being examined; where our colleagues are engaged in conversations about freedom, democracy, and equality. Isolating the most vulnerable and exploited group of faculty in a college or university is ethically problematic. We work in a culture of silence where most have come to accept as entirely adequate that a large portion of the faculty doesn’t have health care and remains without a voice in the decisions of the school; entirely adequate that tuition for our students is proportionally much higher than it was for any of the professors and administrators who determine the cost of a student’s education; entirely adequate that whole programs remain underfunded when we ought to be investing in making sure students are having the conversations they need to have so that they can be active and engaged participants in their communities when voting rights are continually threatened. 

Those invested with power to make changes in higher education don’t seem to realize how their policies disproportionally affect students and adjuncts. When I ask Compton about the risks institutions take when they don’t ensure the participation of all members in budget decisions that affect tuition increases, salaries, and employment agreements, she tells me, “The most underserved, underrepresented, and the most vulnerable students and employees will continue to experience even more vulnerability. The inequity gets worse.” 

While Chivers doesn’t experience much of a difference when she goes from the campus of Pacific University to PSU, but she has found ways to organize with other adjuncts working at both institutions. In one instance, an exchange of sticky-note messages at an adjunct office space at Pacific led her to connect with a colleague who later became involved with the bargaining committee at PSU. “If we all did that with only two people, it would change it all, I think,” she says. “We’d stop applying for the same job at the same time; we’d have different tactics and strategies.” 

The adjuncting system ensures that we stay isolated, and it is only through unexpected acts of solidarity, or a strong conviction that institutions must become more democratic spaces, that we can break out of this isolation. In my first year adjuncting at PSU, I never went to the adjunct office. I didn’t use the photocopy machines. I only went to campus to teach and hold my office hours at the library. I was completely disconnected from other adjuncts, and it took some time for me to begin to attend union meetings, to participate in committees and get to know other adjuncts. The union grounded me and made me more active at PSU. Now, aside from my teaching, I serve on two committees on campus, and I’m collaborating with the Queer Resource Center on a workshop on gender-neutral pronouns in Spanish. 

When it comes to addressing the neglect and invisibility of adjunct faculty at institutions of higher education, I am interested in how we are going to assume an ethical stance in the face of precarious working conditions for adjunct faculty and the rising costs of tuition. As Chivers says, we will need to devise different tactics and strategies in order to have conversations that radically envision the university and education as more democratic- and community-minded.

Comments

5 comments have been posted.

I can relate to many of the sentiments and experiences of these extraordinary teachers. It is inspiring and encouraging that adjunct instructors are speaking out, without shame or fear of retribution. Also, it may help to discern differences between individual departments and the general campus environment. For instance, I have great experiences with staff members on campus who have helped enhance my performance as a university, adjunct instructor. Specifically, I've appreciated the help and support I have received from staff members in the department front office, the Offices of the Dean of Students, Library Services, Campus Safety, Writing Center, TRIO, International Student Services, DRC, food service, and housekeeping. One person can't meet all the needs of our students. Also, I am aware that many of them may have lost their jobs due to PSU's present financial circumstances.

Karen | May 2020 | Portland

Thank you for this good work. You nailed a lot of the issues right on the head. While all the colleges talk about making decisions based on hard data, and talk about "equity and inclusion" - this is a huge blind spot - or more likely willing ignorance, because it's looking them right in the face, if they'd only look. The data is out there, and the research is out there, and colleges don't want to look at it or take it into account because if they did - they'd have to change. I was part time faculty for 14 years and now have taught full time for that same amount of years. At PCC where I teach very incremental improvements have been made, typically because of collective bargaining. But the problems are intransigent and we need to keep pushing.

Sylvia Gray | April 2020 | 97202

I appreciate the work that went into this piece! I would love to also hear how tenure track faculty are pummeled by this same system that expects them to be everything for everyone all the time. While they are paid more and have benefits I have too many friends whose workload ultimately costs them their health. Which is a related outcome to the adjunct experience. As an adjunct I view this as a systemic problem where faculty are primarily valued for the money they bring in through research grants and articles published, not their teaching skill. It's not much different than other flawed systems that dehumanize those they profess to support.

Tia Ho | April 2020 | Portland, OR

Well-written article on a subject that should be given more press. The quality of education can't be uncoupled from the working conditions of teachers. When Oregon politicians speak about needing to improve education, I never hear talk of the university. These same Oregon children grow up to go to Oregon universities where they are taught by underappreciated, underpaid, and overworked part-time teachers.

Rob L | April 2020 |

This is a brilliant and must needed piece. As the author conveys in her article, this is a matter of human rights. Inequality should not be tolerated anywhere, and academia should not be the exception.

Rebeca Moreno | April 2020 | Maryland

Add a Comment

Related Stories

Also in this Issue

From the Director: Waiting for the Break

In Brief

Editors’ Note: Union

Reciprocity of Tradition

Organizing from the Outside

Essential but Excluded

My Parents’ Exes

The Struggles That Unite Us

The Privilege to Raise Our Voices

One Country Again

Posts

People, Places, Things