How easy is it for a humanities department to replace an adjunct who quits a week and a half before spring classes start? As easy as it was for them to find me a week and a half before this past summer session began.
I didn’t want to teach this summer class, but I needed the money. I didn’t have a full-time job lined up and didn’t even know if I had any teaching assignments to look forward to in the fall (they wouldn’t finalize adjunct assignments until late July or early August). So, I agreed to teach a class I had never taught before, a class that was only partially in my area of specialization, a week before classes started. Because I needed the money.
The class only had six students enrolled, and under normal circumstances, this class, with a cap of 35, would have been cancelled, but four of the six students were paying out-of-state tuition. I guess the university was making enough money from the out-of-staters to run the class.
The only good thing about this class was that it was small. The intimacy motivated the students to come to class prepared and ready to talk, and the lack of intensive grading made it possible for me to spend time on the prep I should have been able to do in advance – though, of course, I couldn’t make up the time I had never had to actually select and organize the readings.
It wasn’t a great class, and although it went better than I had expected, I didn’t feel good about teaching it. Didn’t my students, for all the tuition they were paying, deserve to be taught by someone who had given time and thought and care to a well-planned syllabus? Didn’t they deserve a teacher in whom the university had invested as much as they themselves were investing in the class?
I don’t know the adjunct I replaced over the summer (*update* 7/4/2011: I actually learned later, after posting this originally, that I didn't replace an adjunct but someone tenured who just decided ze had more important things to do -- read more about my experience teaching this class here), just as I don’t know the person the department found to replace me this spring, and it doesn’t seem to matter that there is neither a sense of community nor commitment here. I’m sure they found someone glad to take my composition section, because it’s easy – for those of us who’ve taught comp many times – to fill in at the last minute. The syllabus is standardized, and the students are none the worse for having a different body in the room. But my other course? Well, my replacement’s book list suggests ze agreed to teach a course ze had never taught before a week before classes started for the same reason I did last summer. I had actually put some thought into this one and was somewhat looking forward to teaching it. If only my department could have made a small commitment to me, offered me four classes – even three – instead of two, I might have been less willing to flee. No longer a graduate student with loans deferred and family support available, I can no longer support myself on the salary from teaching just two classes.
But spring enrollments were down, and I guess departments like to spread things around among the adjuncts, keeping as many of us around as possible, you know, since we’re so prone to quitting.
We already know that the adjunct system doesn’t benefit adjuncts. In what possible way does it benefit students? It doesn’t. It benefits no one and nothing but the administration and their bottom line.
How do we change this system? Undergraduates are a key part of the solution. They have the numbers – and ultimately the financial power -- to demand change, but most of them don’t even know what an adjunct is.
If you’re currently an adjunct, come out to your students this semester. In the name of transparency and change, tell them who you are and why they should want their institution to make a greater commitment to you in terms of job security and salary. An investment in you is an investment in their education. A commitment to you is a commitment to them.