I know I’m not supposed to admit this, but I’ve lived my entire adult life on the edge of financial ruin. I’ll be 34 in a few months and I’ve never had a positive net worth. Ever. My debt has always overshadowed my savings. About two years ago, I was in the worst financial shape of my life. My debt-to-income ratio was pitiful and I had no idea how to change it.
I was six months out of my graduate program, and my financial-aid payments were about to kick in. I was buried in credit-card debt that I took out to stay alive as I finished my thesis and began looking for a job.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Wait—what? This is your story, too? If you’re nodding your head in recognition, you might be an adjunct.
I’ve just started my fourth year as a non-tenure-tracker, and I’ve done some dirty things to feed my teaching habit: sold plasma, gone entire days without eating, came damn close to getting my car repossessed, borrowed money from parents and friends, pawned possessions, sold my entire collection of music and films. At one point, my apartment was a Thoreauvian nightmare of hyper-simplicity as my furniture vanished into the Craigslist void. Have you ever watched Jeopardy in a lawn chair? I don’t recommend it.
My teaching habit is expensive and it’s cost me everything. One of these days I’m going to kick it. One of these days ...
Sounds familiar, I know. Since February 2012, about 7,000 adjuncts have taken the first step toward kicking the habit by admitting they have a problem. They have visited the Adjunct Project and admitted they have an unhealthy obsession and are in an abusive relationship.
“We admit that we are powerless over [teaching]—that our lives have become unmanageable.”
As long as we refuse to admit we have a problem, we’ll never be able to change anything. Too many of us continue to sacrifice over and over again for this addiction. And why? For the students? They wouldn’t know the difference. For the institution? God, I hope not, because they obviously are not sacrificing for us. For ourselves? That doesn’t even make sense. For the craft? A romantic ideal, but the only craft you can eat begins with a K.
The fact of the matter is tens of thousands of us fall on our swords every year. Just like any good addict, we are expert manipulators—except we are the victims of our own justifications.
“Got a class? Anybody got a class? Just need one class to get me through. You holding?”
But that one class only gets us back to normal. We’ll never get ahead, never have enough. The system is designed that way. You realize that, right? Living as a full-time adjunct really is a lot like living as a drug-addled tweaker.
Over the past few years, I’ve talked to adjuncts across the country who are living this trainwreck every semester. It’s a measly manner of existence, as Biff laments in Death of a Salesman.
Ultimately, there’s only one way we can guarantee our freedom from this destructive addiction that plagues the majority of university faculty members: Admit we have a problem and then take steps to change the situation so we can reframe our careers in a way that’s mutually beneficial for us and our employers.
Some might interpret this message as me telling you to quit. I’m not. I’m telling you to step back from your situation and think clearly about it. Defamiliarize. Decide if you are spending your time, intelligence, and money in the best way. Would it make more sense to head in another direction?
For me, the answer is yes. It makes more sense for me to cut back on teaching and focus more on writing. For you, the answer might be different. Maybe teaching is the best place for you. Or maybe you want to hang in there and work to change this inequitable system from within. If so, I applaud you. I would never suggest that anyone knows better what to do with your life than you. But whatever your situation, confront the circumstances and make an informed choice.
Personally, I hope five years from now I can tell you a totally different story. I hope we all can. It’s possible to break the addiction. You just need to take the first step.
So, here goes ... My name is Josh, and I’m an adjunct.
Tweet me @josh_boldt if you want to compare scars.
Off Track examines the multifarious worlds of faculty who aren't on the tenure track. Josh Boldt is a writer and editor in Athens, Ga., where he also teaches at the University of Georgia. Connect with him @josh_boldt.