Josh Boldt

Contributing Editor at Vitae

Off Track: Adjuncts Are Addicts

Full_10292013-adjaddict

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.

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28 Comments
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  • Nice! I have decided to quit teaching as a adjunct, not for any of the very VALID reasons you list, but because I can't compete with cell phones/texting devices.

    Joseph Frame, Jr
  • @Joseph,

    Whatever the reasons, I see a future where many adjuncts start to walk away. It's just becoming too clear that it's a bad deal.

    Josh Boldt Josh Boldt
  • Good article. I put in about 100 applications over the summer outside of teaching. One interview call back. No results. I'm continuing to apply. But I sense that potential employers aren't taking my applications seriously.

  • My wife quit when the school she was teaching at wanted her to teach a 200 student section with no additional pay or assistance. Fortunately I am tenured and we have some security.

    Mark Stockman
  • Josh,
    Interesting analogy.
    Let me offer one that may be more appropriate: Adjuncts are whores.
    Adjuncts sell their services, via a middleman (their pimp). The pimp markets the adjunct's services to a series of buyers, promising love and succes. The buyers pay outrageous prices for the services of the adjuncts. The adjuncts perform their services. The Johns roll over and leave, paying the pimp the big bucks demanded. The pimp kicks the adjunct out of bed, slaps the whore, tells the whore to stop being so needy, and sends the adjunct back onto the street with a promise that there will be a direct deposit made in the next couple of weeks.
    The adjunct, feeling the need for more love, waits eagerly and anxiously for the pimp's next call.

    Kent Clizbe
  • Josh Boldt offers a powerful take on the life of an adjunct. Thanks for the insights ... the piece taught me a lot.

    Michael Riley Michael Riley
  • Thank you Josh for the article. As I push myself through the day's collective mass of five classes at five campuses, I too look over my weary-eyed body (and vehicle) and wonder if I am not selling my services to any buyer, any college, who offers another $50-$75 per hour. Perhaps I enjoy the Ah-ha moments sandwiched between the tiny voice reminding me to motivate, inspire, and provoke curiosity in the for-the-most-part attentive students? I'm still undecided if I can teach ten classes and remain a functioning compassionate human being, oh, and an instructor too.

    DEAN RAMSER
  • @Dean: I know exactly what you mean. And five campuses?! Dear God.

    @Michael: Thanks!

    @Mark: I don't blame your wife for quitting. Makes perfect sense to me.

    @Kent: Wow. That is all.

    Josh Boldt Josh Boldt
  • @Michelle: That's terrible. Were you applying for teaching positions or what?

    Josh Boldt Josh Boldt
  • Yes it has to be expensive because it is under-priced work paid below what a plumber, a carpenter an electrician makes or a car mechanic makes. This is a subsidy to the institution that the adjunct works for. And the longer you stay on it the more difficult it becomes to secure a job within the same institution you are working for. That addiction makes them take you for granted.

    fermin ornelas
  • Josh, thanks for this great post. While I do appreciate those who are spending a lot of their energy trying to make things better for adjuncts, and while they may bring about slight changes for the better at a few campuses, overall -- after watching the situation as an undergrad, grad student, adjunct, full-time faculty member and administrator -- I can't imagine the current system is going to change. The real alternative is for adjuncts to quit as soon as they can.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CqlsVypKIu8

    Richard Grayson
  • I've lost it! Actually, early last summer, I lost it. I lost the veneer of ignorance that put my mind in unrealistic hopes that I would earn a full-time position. I lost it because I was working teaching 7 classes and dependent on my physical well-being to take construction jobs in the summer to make ends meet. I lost it, my sanity, my complicity in the inequity, when I injured my knee and could earn no money to feed my family and realized that my income was not enough. I lost the innocence and the docility to believe that without protest, without physical movement to resist the exploitation that anything will change. Raise your voice. www.adjunct crisis.com

    John Rall
  • Fantastic piece Josh!

    Eliana Osborn Eliana Osborn
  • I've had the same issue. I was working 3 different jobs (Adjunct, Lab Tech., Tutor) more than 50 hours per week. I was barely making rent. Before ObamaCare kicked in, hours and teaching loads were cut, as was 60% of my meager (not even making rent and bills) income. I was getting ready to add a 4th job to the mix as an adjunct for another college. The year before, I had been a non-tenure track professor for 1 semester and went back to part-time. I was going to teach until my lease was up then bite the bullet and move to my home state, back in with my mother. Then another professor quit, and here I am again as a temporary full-timer. I'm interviewing now for the tenure track position. All I can do is hope I get it. If not, I move back in with Mom at the age of 31 with my insane amount of debt and only more adjunct positions to follow.
    My sister, on the other hand, is 4 years younger. She has $0 debt, substantially less education (undergrad only), makes way more than twice my salary, and is looking to buy her first home. Obviously, she is not an educator.

    K
  • Considering that only 23% of higher ed faculty are tenured or tenure track, the system would implode if it were not for adjuncts. I agree that adjuncts are akin to prostitutes and even those of us who are retired and on the government dole are considering, or are already, prostituting ourselves for a course or two.

    Robert Vos
  • I share Michelle's experience. After my rather unceremonious layoff (for "financial exigencies" from a for-profit online university after 12 years there and a 35-year overall academic career, I put in perhaps 50 applications for adjunct and similar positions. I had eventually two positive responses, both of which I am now teaching at (my total income from both ventures is about $1100, but I expect that to improve). I put it down to a combination of three factors: my age, my rampant overqualification for most of the positions, and - maybe most important - my not being currently employed. It's been well documented that a large number of employers automatically reject applications from those not holding a current job, and it's worse the longer you are unemployed. From this point of view, adjuncting may be one step ahead of sitting on the couch all day and collecting those lavish unemployment checks, but not much. Increasingly, there are structural barriers being put in place that pretty much guarantee the continued marginalization of our group. So our cause must address the broader area of contingent employment, not just the status of adjuncts at some particular institution.

    JD Eveland
  • Many can identify with this growing problem, but it is the parents who need to also know that some of their scholars teachers are collecting food stamps or doing second jobs....while tuition rises.

    Mary Berguin
  • The only effective response for adjuncts to remedy the inequity is to walk off the week before finals and let the administrators, unions, and tenured faculty explain why.

    Too radical?
    Does any adjunct really believe that the unions have their best interests or the best interests of the students at heart?
    Does any adjunct really believe that they can offer the same quality education to their students as tenured faculty while driving between classrooms?
    Does any adjunct really believe that administrations, unions, or the tenured elite care about your health and well being?
    Does any adjunct really believe that the financial distress we live with concerns the legislators, administrators, unions, or tenured elite?

    Do you think you won't be rehired for this method of protest? Who else will conduct classes the following semester, the newly commenced holders of Masters Degrees?

    I'd be interested in listening to any alternative to this extreme measure that would force the administrators, unions, and tenured elite publicly explain the inequities and the subsequent issue of educational quality to the taxpayers and students.

    Our work is not an addiction, it's a vocation, and this is the same vocation that the tenured elite profess to hold while claiming they didn't get into the profession for the money.

    Christopher Fell
  • Thanks Josh for the article! I guess I am an adjunct whore after reading this :)
    Your article confirmed my decision to pursue another career outside of my desire to teach full-time. I hate that I have to give up my passion in order to "work" and feed my family. Your article also showed me I am not alone in my plight. People always say adjuncts should not complain since we "chose" to work for pennies. I am not complaining. I do believe even the minimum wage employee (McDonald's) deserves a raise considering how much money the corporation is making. But...like many others here, I have too applied to other jobs, and nothing has come of it so I guess I am stuck (for now) in being an adjunct addict whore :(

  • Thank you for this. Now I know that I am neither alone nor crazy. I was beginning to think I was. As an adjunct with a PhD from an elite university, I am feeling the pain of not having a full time contract or a future. I teach because I love to teach and mentor my students. I believe I am an excellent teacher and the university is damn lucky to have a devoted teacher like me. My teaching is not an addiction. It is a choice and a skill I share. I teach at the American University in Cairo (AUC) a private university where 85% of the faculty are adjunct. We are paid miserably and receive no benefits at all, aside from taking the bus for free. I know I can make a living as an adjunct and so I hold down two other jobs. I write and get paid for it. Thankfully I really enjoy the writing. And I am just starting to work in a research/survey corporation which does the same kind of research I do as an academic however their clients pay for it! What a novel idea. No grant writing. The clients pay. I appreciated what Mr. Fell (above) had to say. I believe a very important aspect which is rarely voiced is the fact that many universities (AUC for sure) would not be able to function without the adjuncts. We teach the bulk of the classes. If the adjuncts at AUC all walked out together, the university would have to close many of its doors and lose many, if not most, of its students. The AUC model would collapse. It is time university administrators begin to acknowledge, reward, respect and pay adjuncts a descent wage. Without us the university could not survive as a teaching institution. If all adjuncts walked out and none joined, the university would be forced to hire more full time contracted professors. Another novel idea. My father was a professor in the good old days when a person could raise a family respectfully on a professor's salary. Today universities treat adjuncts like taxi drivers - some one you hire for a short ride (a semester). It is appalling. University administrators have followed the corporate model of caring only about the bottom line - thus they have outsourced, stripped down and obliterated our careers and have created the "adjunct professor" that is disposable and does not have to be compensated for her/his expertise. We are professors for hire. Mr. Fell is correct. Unless and until we unite together and demand our rights, better compensation, longer contracts and benefits - this will never be given. Until then we will continue to work three jobs with no benefits nor pension plan. Let's unite.

  • Thank you for this. Now I know that I am neither alone nor crazy. I was beginning to think I was. As an adjunct with a PhD from an elite university, I am feeling the pain of not having a full time contract or a future. I teach because I love to teach and mentor my students. I believe I am an excellent teacher and the university is damn lucky to have a devoted teacher like me. My teaching is not an addiction. It is a choice and a skill I share. I teach at the American University in Cairo (AUC) a private university where 85% of the faculty are adjunct. We are paid miserably and receive no benefits at all, aside from taking the bus for free. I know I can't make a living as an adjunct and so I hold down two other jobs. I write and get paid for it. Thankfully I really enjoy the writing. And I am just starting to work in a research/survey corporation which does the same kind of research I do as an academic however their clients pay for it! What a novel idea. No grant writing. The clients pay. I appreciated what Mr. Fell (above) had to say. I believe a very important aspect which is rarely voiced is the fact that many universities (AUC for sure) would not be able to function without the adjuncts. We teach the bulk of the classes. If the adjuncts at AUC all walked out together, the university would have to close many of its doors and lose many, if not most, of its students. The AUC model would collapse. It is time university administrators begin to acknowledge, reward, respect and pay adjuncts a descent wage. Without us the university could not survive as a teaching institution. If all adjuncts walked out and none joined, the university would be forced to hire more full time contracted professors. Another novel idea. My father was a professor in the good old days when a person could raise a family respectfully on a professor's salary. Today universities treat adjuncts like taxi drivers - some one you hire for a short ride (a semester). It is appalling. University administrators have followed the corporate model of caring only about the bottom line - thus they have outsourced, stripped down and obliterated our careers and have created the "adjunct professor" that is disposable and does not have to be compensated for her/his expertise. We are professors for hire. Mr. Fell is correct. Unless and until we unite together and demand our rights, better compensation, longer contracts and benefits - this will never be given. Until then we will continue to work three jobs with no benefits nor pension plan. Let's unite.

  • You're priceless. You have marketable skills. Debt is forgiven. Effective teaching requires habit. Learning isn't always a problem. Addiction is clinical. Learning is transferable. You can't really change anything, other than your mind.
    Why do so many dissatisfied and unhappy adjuncts wax romantically and use militaristic metaphors? Post-colonialist fallout among the elitist sons realizing the emptiness of the unrepeatable sins of the fathers.... Do you concede?
    (The Qianlong emperor replied, "No."
    "Aw, shoot, we got horn-swoggled ag'in," observed the frustrated presbyter somewhat later, at his post on the Yangzte, then again, later, hanging off a Humvee,....
    And, still, the moon wanes, and all is well, but not in this world.
    Begin again.
    In five years, begin again.
    This is absolutely clear.
    There is no other way.
    Do not take another step.
    Your journey is complete, unless it's not.
    Bazinga!)

    Greg Eddy
  • Dear Kent Clizbe,

    It is sad to read your comment saying adjuncts are whores. I am working as an adjunct since 2011, not because I chose, but because I have no alternative, I am forced to live like that. I have been assistant professor at (University of Arkansas - Pine Bluff , Virginia state University ) and associate professor and interim chair at Virginia Union University, but for reasons I do not know I could not get tenure track faculty positions at all. Even nearby universities could not offer me an adjunct faculty position. But I have a family that depends on me to survive, and I have gotten an adjunct position at a community college which is a good life saving thing for me and my family to say the least. I was looking for faculty positions that commensurates with my experience and education, in teaching and research which I have been doing for more than 27 years of my life, authored and coauthored several articles published in peer reviewed journals, participated in joint mathematics meetings, but suddenly could not get a tenure track faculty employment. If I can not get the position, then what can I do? I do respect your comments however.

    Dejenie A. Lakew, Ph.D.
    (Mathematician)

    Dejenie Lakew Dejenie Lakew
  • Et tu, Josh? I once sold plasma to buy gas to get to my adjunct teaching job! The institution which shall remain nameless (cough, Ivy Tech, cough) did not pay contract employees until two months into the semester. Ironically, students who didn't pay their tuition were kicked out two WEEKS into the semester. I'm now a full-time writer too. Still living in poverty without insurance or job security, but at least I have hope and control over my own schedule.

    Rebecca Roady
  • Dejenie,

    My analogy is not meant to demean adjuncts, or anyone. My goal was simply to provide a much more realistic analogy than comparing adjuncts to addicts.

    Just as prostitutes are in their job for a variety of reasons, so are adjuncts.

    That said, however, you do have a choice. I'd suggest that your feeling as if you have no other choice is very much akin to the feelings that trap prostitutes in their pitiful state, and make them pliable to exploitation by their pimp (the university).

    Selling your skills is just like selling anything else. There is a market for your skills. You need to either develop your skills for a market that exists, find a new market for your existing skills, or package and market your skills for various markets. This process is not intuitive for an academic--especially if you've set your sights on the tenure-track love-fest that the pimps promise.

    A more productive way to consider your situation, and that of all academics in this situation, is the ask yourself, "Where else could I apply my skills?" Research, explore the job market. Find an alternative, commercial application for your mathematics skills. There must be one.

    If there is not an alternative application to your academic expertise, then you should probably build a new skillset.

    If there is no market for your skillset, you can't blame the market. You must adapt.

    The academic marketplace has been a highly regulated and rigid unnatural market. It is changing--rationalizing. There will be a shake-up soon, and it is happening now. It's unlikely that the good old days of tenure track professors working an hour a week will continue. It's more likely that both the administrators, the infrastructure, and the teaching portions of academia will need to deal with significant reductions in funding.

    What's your Plan B?

    Good luck.

    Kent

    Kent Clizbe
  • I've been teaching as an adjunct for 23 years. I love to teach and the pay isn't that bad compared to the standard working class wage. I only teach three classes and augment my income with a second career (artist/craftsman) which keeps me afloat financially and is a source of creative joy. This option of a second source of income might work for others who really want to teach but are stymied by the exploitative system we have now.

    My heart goes out to the adjuncts I see around me - good, intelligent, well educated people that just want a satisfying career that makes a positive difference in the world.

    I teach philosophy and make rising inequality one of the major themes we cover in all my classes. The next generation needs to know that the economy they will enter is not their father's economy of opportunity and a good wage.

    William Leslie
  • such a frustrating habit. we keep looking to that carrot (FT position) the administration holds and we keep towing the line and being 'team players'. If this was a personal relationship, someone might call abuse. I have seen more and more bright lights move on to jobs in other fields for the insurance and other benefits (money). I have spent summers jobless because the FTers want OT and take all the available classes. I have been bumped from classes because a FTer wants that time slot....same old story I know. over 75% of faculty at my college are adjuncts; why are we so powerless ? Because we are expendable. siiiigggghhhhh. I love where your head is....

    marcy murray
  • I've been following the adjunct situation for some time because so many of my colleagues are adjuncts and as an MFA I'm expected to teach college. But I've probably been following it closer lately because the stories so match my own as a struggling artist. That puts me off topic, here, but I feel a kinship. Because I've never been able to secure adequate letters of recommendation and I never had a chance for a real TA, I've never been a candidate for even a temp teaching position at a college. Many of the academic sites have no category for someone who spent half his life in academe but is neither a teacher or student professionally. But I think that, given the situation for MFAs, which is often compared to a pyramid scheme (what isn't these days?), it would be great if there were a support system and some shared battle plans for people who earned those terminal degrees and have still found nothing in the way of a permanent, full-time, with benefits, cost-of-living position, teaching or not. I graduated in 1992 with my BFA and after 22 years still haven't found a job. Adding two more degrees (MA and MFA) hasn't helped. People keep telling me to get a teaching job and I tell them, no way--even if I had the minimum qualifications, which I don't.

    Brian Jacobs