I’m An Adjunct Professor. Why Do I Love A Job That Blatantly Exploits Me?

by Veronica Rose Popp


I am an adjunct professor. I am not paid for anytime I spend outside the classroom, including emailing and grading. Yet, after giving teaching up for a year, I felt like I had cut out an essential part of my body. I spent that time as a union organizer for adjunct professors and graduate workers, organizing colleagues out of the same deeply fragmented system that produced me, the fiery fourth wave feminist activist who showed the film Hot Girls Wanted in her class to show students the connection between a warm body in a room within porn performance and adjunctification.

Yet, I have never felt happier or more fulfilled than when I’m in a classroom. I dream about teaching and writing lesson plan on the whiteboard, every day, depending on the time, I write, “Good Morning/Good Afternoon/Good Evening 🙂 ♥.” This became my signature so much that one day I forgot it and a student was offended that I did not present the class with my heart that day.

Is my choice of a poorly-paid teaching profession an indication of my deeply internalized misogyny? The American Association of University Professors cites contingents as more than 50% of personnel. Last year, Kevin Birmingham, writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education, discussed “The Great Shame of our Profession.” His piece focused on the systematic encouragement of graduate school and the eventual deafness to adjunctification. Birmingham laments how the system of humanists breaks scholars of letters who love to teach and research, including how it affects women in greater numbers.

According to the Government Accountability Office report, “Contingent Workforce: Size, Characteristics, Compensation and Work Experiences of Adjunct and Other Non-Tenure-Track Faculty,” women teach fewer full-time positions and are the small majority of part-time professors: “across all institutions, women hold a substantially lower proportion of full-time tenured positions (38.4 percent) than men do, though women fill 48.9 percent of full-time positions that are on a tenure track but not yet tenured, and that are generally more recent hires. Across all institutions, women also hold a slightly greater proportion of contingent positions (about 53 percent).”

Every single and young female adjunct fears becoming the next Margaret Mary Vojtko, whose 2013 death provoked a conversation about the lack of health insurance provided to adjunct professors. The feminization of adjunct labor began as the “spouse hire,” where female faculty were hired in part-time positions along with their full-time faculty male spouses to use their degrees, but keep them away from achieving full-time tenured positions. As an undergraduate student, one of my own classically trained theater adjunct professors was diagnosed with cancer had no benefits to treat her disease. The National Women’s Studies Association has spoken out against adjunctification and the relationship between gender, as well as race and class. I know this, but why do I want to be an adjunct professor so badly?

I spent my time as a union organizer married to my job, until I met my partner on a blitz, an aggressive and accelerated union campaign. In the span of whirlwind six months, we courted, traveled and moved in together. He confessed a serious disenchantment with his job and a desire to find another position. Then the conversation turned to me: “I will support your dreams, whatever they are,” he said. I was taken aback. All I knew was the I was a deeply run-down union organizer, vastly approaching burn-out after joining my fifth non-winning campaign. (We eventually won!) I paused and realized them almost immediately: I wanted to adjunct again.

While I am a writer, I find I am an enthusiast of teaching the written word, more than composing it. My research interest is in 19th century fiction, particularly the Brontë sisters. Charlotte Brontë famously hated teaching, considering her students “dolts” who took time away from her writing. Emily Brontë told her students she preferred the school dog to them. Only Anne, the youngest and meekest of the writer siblings, loved teaching, yet hated the social issues associated with governessing.

The irony is that I once reveled in my single lady adjunct status. Now, with a supportive partner providing a financial buffer and insurance, I am in a position of privilege. How Charlotte Brontë’s roman à clef character Lucy Snowe would cringe! If my partner and I suddenly ended our relationship, I would be without insurance and a home, like a close female friend, who teaches seven classes and lives with her parents.

Faculty Forward recently released a brief survey titled, “Life on the Edge of the Blackboard,” with stunningly horrifying replies from over 750 Florida faculty who wish to unionize. The findings indicated one-third went without health insurance and a quarter risked homelessness. Research indicated that if I were a man, my evaluations would be higher. In a world where adjuncts are sometimes homeless, on food stamps, work for 25 years without recognition, or starve all summer — and where buildings can kill professors — the precariat is consistently in the news.

I know that continuing as a part-time professor, I will earn only $20,000 annually with no hope of advancement. There are only 851 jobs in English, according to the Modern Language jobs report for this upcoming year. With the increase of women in PhD programs, there will be a continued rise in female adjuncts. I’m not re-entering the part-time professorship as a passionate post-grad, wet behind the ears and full of enthusiasm. I understand that higher education in the humanities has a clearance price tag.

Now, as I enter the third decade of my life and approach taking a leave of absence from a full-time unionized position with salary, benefits, and retirement to a per-course salary, I feel nothing but joy. I’m returning to my home institution and beginning at a new one, teaching specifically within a program that helps first generation college students adjust to the demanding changes that college entails.

What next? Like Jane Eyre, I’ll do anything honest.

top photo: Pexels Creative Commons 

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