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One adjunct’s rant, but not mine

Every few months, someone posts a rant online detailing his or her outrage over the plight of adjunct academics. They can be compelling, but just as often, they’re not. They may even do harm.

To wit: the latest such rant to land at my digital doorstep was this one about Karen Gregory, an adjunct instructor at Queens College, part of New York City’s public-university system (CUNY). A PhD candidate in sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center, Gregory is getting a lot of attention for a syllabus for a course she’s teaching this spring on labor studies, which she posted online. In it, she makes herself — as an adjunct — a subject of that study.

She devotes an entire section of the syllabus* to the “realities” of adjunct academics: tenuous appointments, low wages, and general disenfranchisement from the departments in which they teach. She writes in her syllabus that adjuncts are “instructors” who are treated unfairly, so to “remain conscious of the adjunctification of CUNY,” she asks that her students “not call us ‘professor.'” She also writes that students “deserve to be taught by properly compensated professors whose full attention is to teaching and scholarship,” and that it is “not in [a student’s] best interest to ask an adjunct for a letter of recommendation” because “institutions tend to take such letters less seriously than those written by full time faculty and adjuncts are not compensated for this time consuming task” — or, for that matter, to grade papers, prepare for classes, or any other work outside the classroom.

Leaving aside the awkward position she put her students in by actually writing all of this on her syllabus, I want to focus on her claims themselves. Because they’re largely false.

I have been an adjunct professor for more than nine years, the past seven of which have been at CUNY’s Hunter College. I did some Internet sleuthing and found that Ms. Gregory and I even crossed paths in the Department of Film & Media Studies at Hunter back in 2006, though I do not recall ever meeting her. The fact that she was at Hunter, though, and in my department there, makes her claims that much more surprising to me.

Gregory claims that adjuncts wish not to be called “professor” because we are not “professors,” but “instructors.” This is not always true. I was hired in December 2005 with the title of Adjunct Assistant Professor because I am a working journalist and I was hired to teach my craft in a department with a strong vocational focus. I am paid accordingly, and I have come to know several of my full-time colleagues quite well. I have sat on committees, served as the advisor to a senior honor’s thesis project, and taught courses ranging from introductory classes to senior-level seminars. I have also been at Hunter long enough to have earned a modicum of security, in the form of yearly — as opposed to term-by-term  — appointments. And my hourly wage is high enough that I certainly do not think of it as solely for so-called “contact hours” — or time spent in the classroom. I think of it as a fair wage for the time I put into grading papers, preparing for classes, and writing letters of recommendation.

To that final point, I have written countless letters of recommendation in my nine years of teaching, and many of those students have been admitted to their desired programs. This includes law schools, PhD programs, and all kinds of M.A. programs. You can’t tell me my letters held no sway for those students.

Just to be clear: I am not saying that being an adjunct is ideal. I wish that I had the security and salary of a full-time professor, especially when I am teaching as much as my full-time colleagues and paid a third what they earn (or less). I sometimes wish that I could just be a professor and not also all the other things I have to be in order to cobble together a life in New York City. The living I earn at Hunter would be unsustainable without other sources of income. I wish I had reliable health insurance whose terms were not constantly being debated, and whose future looked something besides grim. I wish that I could grow old teaching college and help steer the department of which I am honored to be a part.

But it is not all bad. I get to teach college — this is an enormous privilege. I have cultivated years-long relationships with students who, I hope, will think of me as I continue to think of my own professors from college — as people who truly challenged me to think, and in some cases, became friends in the process. I get to do other things as well — write magazine articles, anchor this blog, teach a course at another school if I want. I have enormous freedom to pursue multiple careers simultaneously, and I like to think that I’m a better teacher for it. It’s one thing to enter a classroom having just left your well-appointed office down the hall, and another to go in having just come from the field itself.

I also don’t have to worry about not getting tenure. This may sound like a sour-grapes consolation, but think about it: If you earn your PhD and get hired in a tenure-track position, after about six years one of two things will happen — you’ll either get tenure or you won’t. If you don’t, you’ll be asked to leave. Given the rate at which young professors are being denied tenure these days, it’s ironically more secure to be an adjunct. Tenure-track professors at colleges nationwide have come and gone in the time I’ve taught at Hunter.

So to Ms. Gregory, I say this: You have every right to complain about how you are treated, and to ask your students not to call you “professor” or ask you to write letters of recommendation or even expect you to spend one second of your time outside of the classroom on them. But you do not speak for all of us. I am a proud part-time professor of media studies at Hunter College, and I will gladly perform that role for any student who comes my way — in the classroom or outside it.


*It came to my attention after publishing this post that Gregory’s comments on her syllabus were penned by a group of adjuncts who collectively put the same comments on their respective syllabi.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Andrea Siegel February 5, 2013, 11:02 am

    I too was in the Dept. of Film and Media Studies at Hunter in 2006-7 as an adjunct. 85 adjuncts shared an office with three desks in an old closet, and only one computer worked. One of the adjuncts had a hoarding problem, and used that closet to express himself. I too loved the students but my direct experience was we were outrageously exploited. The point for me is that over 50% of college faculty nationwide earn McDonalds wages. Glad you have different sources of income and I appreciate you have a different experience, but for me I am outraged that we don’t see fit to decently compensate the people who are preparing our college students for the future.

    • David Alm February 5, 2013, 11:19 am

      It’s true that we’re not compensated as fairly as we could be, but this is not the fault of the Dept. of F&M, or even Hunter in general. It’s a bureaucratic system that denies adjuncts fair treatment. But we enter it willingly. The way adjuncts talk about their “plight” you’d think they were forced into it by the East German Stasi. When you’re hired as an adjunct, you know what you’re getting.

      Most adjuncts come and go, but as with any job, longevity pays off. Adjuncting, like anything else, is what you make it. I decided to make it a component of my career, and I consciously never mistook it for my sole career (or as a weak consolation prize for being a full-time professor).

      But I am aware that my experience is just that — my experience. What bothers me is that other adjuncts, like Karen Gregory, make universal statements of “fact” and purport to speak on behalf of all adjuncts. I would never deign to speak for her, and it bothers me that she’s out there representing me when she has no right to do so. If one of her students wound up taking my course, she might not ask me for a letter of recommendation because of Gregory’s advice, and that would be a shame.

      All that said, we have new computers in the adjunct office, and the printer usually has toner in it now. Still, the office is still rather dreary.

  • Roscoe February 5, 2013, 11:19 am

    But this line for me is the kicker: ” especially when I am teaching as much as my full-time colleagues and paid a third what they earn (or less).”

    And I would guess that this figure does not take into account benefits and health care. A disparity, I can live with. They happen. But it is the size of the disparities here that is galling. Can anyone point to any other segment of the labor market where the disparities are so great for much the same workload?

    Yes a prof”s salary would also be intended to support research in many or most institutions, but an adjunct hoping for an eventual tenure track position would feel just the same amount of pressure to do research.

  • Brian Alm February 5, 2013, 2:30 pm

    Following in, or rather preceding, my son’s footsteps, I have been an adjunct for 20 years, at first one night a week, one course, and since I officially retired from my day job 8 years ago, three courses, two days a week. It started as a hobby and has grown to be a passion. I’m treated like full-time faculty, complete with full say in faculty meetings, full classroom freedom, full retirement fund contributions, Honors courses, even a U of Chicago hood at commencement, and yeah, they call me “professor” and that’s OK. I’ve never had a better job. But no, I don’t have to make my living at it, I don’t get or need healthcare benefits, and I don’t get full-time pay — but I get enough, and for me it’s not about the money anyway. But that’s me; if I were on the other end age-wise, career-wise, I suppose it would be a different story. But for me, the personal rewards of teaching, the gratitude of the students, their applause on evaluations, the academic environment, the life of the classroom, the fulfillment that comes with helping students grow their minds and their self-esteem — priceless.

  • Roscoe February 5, 2013, 3:37 pm

    I think that the other side of this question is the need for entering graduate students (particularly in PhD programs) to be presented with a realistic picture of the academic job market. Departments who do not doing this are doing a real disservice to their admitted students. There is a systematic problem of increasing program sizes that produce a glut of qualified individuals with the goal of becoming professors (and who feel that this is all they are qualified to do after this overly specialized training they have received). This oversupply of labor then makes it easy for administrators within the university justify the hiring of adjuncts. Tenure track positions represent a huge sunk expense.

  • Anton February 5, 2013, 4:36 pm

    I don’t think–even according to your own characterization of Gregory’s syllabus–that you can fairly characterize her position or project as a “rant” by any definition of the term. It’s about making the system of academic labor transparent. And this is a topic explored in the context of a course that requires students to think about what–in terms of labor–constitutes the very fact of that class. That doesn’t really seem very rant-like to me. Nor is it about simply “not wanting” to write recommendations or do office hours, as you kinda misleadingly recast the issue at the end of the post.

    I do wish there was more transparency in your own post, which refuses to be completely upfront about a fact that absolutely demands to be in the foreground: your primary career as a journalist. This constitutes a HUGE difference in perspective between Gregory and yourself. From the allusions above, I assume I’m not mistaken that journalism indeed is your professional foundation–so to speak–and teaching you do for personal enrichment.

    That’s great for you. I’m sure the rest of us would eat cake too if we could afford it on adjunct wages without healthcare.

    • David Alm February 6, 2013, 7:51 am

      Anton – I’d hardly say that my “professional foundation” is journalism. That profession is about as shaky as adjunct teaching these days, as I’m sure you know. In fact, I have not had a fulltime job in journalism since 2000. For most of the past seven years, I have earned about a quarter to a third of my income from freelance writing and the rest through adjunct teaching and waiting tables.

      I bit the bullet in 2005, when I moved back to New York after living in Chicago for three years, and accepted that if I wanted to escape the poverty of my 20s (I ate a lot of peanut butter in those years), I’d have to get real and work a job that would keep me alive, while also granting me enough flexibility to do what I love, which is teach and write.

      This is obviously not ideal. I finally was able to quit the restaurant job late last year because I got a job doing communications for an organization in New York that involves one of my avocational passions, long-distance running, but I spent most of my 30s as a waiter/professor/writer. It was a very fractured and exhausting existence, but I stopped complaining about it after a few years and accepted that I’d simply have to suck it up if I wanted to be in such unstable, part-time professions as teaching with an M.A. and freelance writing.

      I work very hard, and I’m not scared of hard work. I often get the sense from adjuncts who complain about their wages that they’ve never had to work that hard before, that they’ve never had to climb their way up through a system. No, it’s not fair, but as our parents all told us when we were kids, life isn’t.

      I’m absolutely all for raising labor awareness and fighting unjust treatment. But in a world where there is *real* injustice going on, I have little patience for 26-year-old PhD students who jumped from college into grad school without ever getting their hands dirty (and yes, I know I’m generalizing, but this does describe plenty of PhD students out there) only to bitch about the difficulties they encounter upon entering the workforce.

      • Anton February 6, 2013, 11:17 am

        Well, I certainly understand wanting to reach a state of acceptance with respect to an intractably crappy situation. And that’s exactly how the system will perpetuate itself.

        • David Alm February 6, 2013, 11:32 am

          Yes, unfortunately, this is the spot between a rock and a hard place in which we find ourselves.

    • Wendy May 20, 2013, 12:25 am

      I couldn’t agree with you more Anton. This is not a question of whether one “loves” their job or not, it is a question of equity. Equal pay for equal work, regardless of whether or not you “love the job.” This is not a rant. This is simply a case a person being denied equal rights in the employment workplace. For example, if I were to tell you that men make significantly more money for doing the same job as a woman, would you think this is okay? Would it make any difference to you if the woman said, “But I like my job and all the workers make me feel included?” The word Marx has for this is false consciousness. Because we have the title “professor” and we get invited to meetings, we believe we really ARE a professor, when in fact our real conditions of existence, (e.g. our rat infested apartments, our inability to buy new books), tell a very different story. It is tough after years of being seduced by an emotionally abusive lover to rip the band aid off and see things for how they really are, which is what this professor is attempting to do. I know because I adjuncted for several years before I coming to the conclusion that I would have never enough money to put anything away for retirement (yes, some of us don’t have that good job to fall back on and NO, believing in the dream isn’t all our own fault–remember, there are people just like the ones of this board that will keep convicing you it isn’t that bad). If one is being paid as a substitute teacher, call it as such, and don’t ask them to do any marking, lesson planning and exams. Don’t give people a sense of false validity.

  • Rit Premnath February 5, 2013, 8:30 pm

    I dont think Karen Gregory was suggesting that she does not like to write recommendations or that they do not hold weight. Just that we adjuncts are not compensated properly for the amount of time we spend preparing for classes and on our students. This has nothing to do with the fact that we enjoy teaching or that we gain richly in other aspects of our lives. The fact that many of us (in NYC) live precariously by cobbling together several teaching gigs certainly has to do with the fact that this city is chalk full with over-qualified people. There is always someone just as good waiting to fill your shoes!!

    In a labor studies class it seems perfectly appropriate to discuss the economics and labor of pedagogy.

    • David Alm February 6, 2013, 8:03 am

      I agree with you that it’s perfectly appropriate to discuss academia (because yes, it’s very much an imperfect and possibly even broken system) in a class on labor. But I disagree that we’re not compensated fairly. I realize that there are different pay scales for adjuncts, but we do get raises the longer we’re on the job. It’s actually a very good part-time job, if you look at the numbers. No, I can’t support myself on teaching three classes per semester — which for me comes to around $22,000 per year — but it’s a sizable piece of my annual income, which is comprised of other jobs as well.

      The amount of time I put into teaching is commensurate with what I earn, I think. When adjuncts complain that they’re not earning enough, I wonder: do they expect to enjoy the luxuries of a full professor’s schedule and salary? I’m sorry, but that’s just not how it works.

      I’d be embarrassed to stand in a classroom at any CUNY school and gripe about unfair treatment and being overworked when my schedule involves about 7 hours of contact hours per week (including my office hour), and the other 159 to prepare, grade papers, etc. as I please. A lot of those students work full-time and go to school, and many of their parents are working class people who toil away at all kinds of *very* hard jobs, working 60 or 70 hours per week, to support their families.

      For an adjunct professor, who most likely had the luxury of a very good college education and all the opportunities in the world, to complain to such people about his or her 7 hours of work plus a few more grading papers at a coffee shop somewhere, is offensive.

  • Now Really February 6, 2013, 10:33 am

    The problem isn’t necessarily the system for instructors, the problem is that all tenured jobs are being phased out and it’s now impossible to not be an instructor forever. The standard practices of full time college professor as a traditional job simply will not exist within a decade. Anyone who does not already have tenure will never get tenure. The system needs to change to accommodate that. I work in administration at an extremely expensive college. The senior admin prefers we hire new instructors every semester because it makes it impossible for them to advance. They know students will pay $40,000+ a year in tuition regardless of the fact that the person teaching them often has no teaching experience of any kind. They prefer it that way. If your school is a name brand, no one will care that your teachers would never be allowed to teach if it required certification. No one will care if you are paying the instructor less than a babysitter. The person who wrote this article seems not to care that they are personally being systematically ripped off. The rest of us need things like food, shelter, health insurance.

  • Karen February 6, 2013, 10:55 am

    Hi David:

    Thank you for raising a counterpoint to the Billfold article. It was picked up by them without me knowing and frankly, I was surprised by how quickly it spread. This is obviously an issue that people feel passionate about and I want to thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings. I also want to clarify a couple points for you since you seem to have reacted quite quickly and without maybe understanding the entire situation. Here is the Inside Higher Ed story that ran today:

    This can give you the history of the “adjunct text.”

    And, here is my full interview: http://karengregory.tumblr.com/post/42426709000/the-full-story
    Hopefully, this will clarify for you that I am not “complaining”, “ranting”, “griping” or even “bitching” about this situation. I am a dedicated researcher, scholar, teacher, and a peer of yours. I do not intend to speak for all adjuncts and I use the text as part of a conscious and productive pedagogy in a specific class. I completely understand that this text may not work for you or your classes. Unfortunately (as I think the over eight thousand shares the text received), it does it work for other people and is working to bring people into this conversation.

    Also, I am not sure what you mean when you say are you surprised by my time at Hunter. I was TA for Stuart Ewen’s Media Course and learned a lot of him and from the experience. I am also currently a Fellow at Hunter College, so perhaps you will get a chance to see me in the hallway someday.

    Finally, I am not a 26 year old who has “never gotten their hands dirty” working. After college, I successfully developed and ran educational programs in the Providence Public schools. Following that experience, I worked at Columbia University, where I learned to fundraise. I then went on to coordinate the September 11th Support Hotline for the City (and then later, worked as FT Advocate for the Domestic Violence Hotline, which I thought would be the basis of my dissertation.) I too bring a world of professional skills with me into the classroom.

    I’m always happy to talk, particularly about labor, organizing, and teaching. If you would like to continue this conversation, maybe we can do so over email: karen.gregory@gmail.com

    Best of luck with your own work and have a good semester.

    • David Alm February 6, 2013, 11:25 am

      Hi Karen – thanks for writing. I should first of all acknowledge that “rant” is not a fair description of your syllabus. I used that word primarily because other such sentiments, when posted online, often are “rants.” My use of the term was largely rhetorical, though you are right that what you presented in your Intro to Labor Studies was not exactly a “rant.”

      I also know that you’re not 26. I Googled you! We’re the same age, in fact, having graduated from college the same year, and like you, I’ve held many jobs and seen a lot of different “industries” from multiple perspectives over the past 16 years. My comment about 26-year-old PhD students who’ve never gotten their hands dirty was not directed at you, but at the many adjuncts out there who are inclined to whine about their unfair treatment when they’ve jumped from one tony campus to another and are disillusioned to find themselves getting paid just $20,000 per year for what amounts to about 15-20 hours of work per week. I’m sorry, but that’s not that bad – anyone who’s ever worked at a coffee shop or book store will say the same.

      When I said I was surprised that you’d have this position given that you’d spent time in F&M at Hunter, I was simply referring to the fact that F&M is a vocational program whose vitality is the result of having professionals teaching the classes. I’ve known a lot of very interesting and accomplished adjuncts there who, I think, not only deserve to be called “professor” but are more than capable of teaching the classes they teach.

      I wholeheartedly agree with many of your positions, and I also do not like the direction in which academia is headed. But my complaints with the system have more to do with over-saturation and an unwillingness to acknowledge the merits and value of non-scholarly college professors in the 21st Century. The fact is, more and more people are going to college than ever before, and while this is good in some ways, it means that not all students need to have “scholars” teaching them. Some of them need people like me, who have years of professional experience and a proven ability to teach them something as fundamentally important as how to write.

      I do hope we’ll have a chance to meet in the halls at Hunter. I trust that we’d have a lot to talk about and enjoy getting to know one another.

  • Karen February 6, 2013, 11:36 am

    Yes, I hear what you are saying at the end. And, absolutely agree that we would have a lot to talk about. Hope to meet you this semester.