May 23, 2014

The First Rule of Adjuncting is…

The first rule of adjuncting is you don’t talk about adjuncting.[1]

The second rule of adjuncting is… you don’t talk about adjuncting!

If you have seen the film Fight Club, a visually stunning piece based on Chuck Palhnuik’s book by the same title which savagely critiques modern consumerism, you know that I am making a link here between this film and the role of the adjunct in American higher education. In the film, this underground fraternal club revolves around cage-fighting style matches between two men in abandoned warehouses. These brutal bouts act as therapy for these men who feel emasculated by modern consumer culture. What does that have to do with adjuncting? Nothing and everything.

The first rule of adjuncting is you don’t talk about adjuncting.

The first rule of adjuncting is you don’t talk about adjuncting.

If you have read my two pieces on the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, then you know I have recently come out of the closet as an adjunct. You may not know what an adjunct is. Here is a blurb where I explain the adjunct plight in higher education.

An adjunct is a part-time knowledge worker who teaches 76% of all college courses in the US. We are contract workers (picking up jobs by the semester or year), transient populations (going where the jobs are), we rarely get benefits, are rarely hired in full-time capacity (because this would require we receive benefits), and we often don’t know if we will have work from semester to semester. Many of us have PhDs; some of us, like myself, only have a MA degree. Many of us have written for esteemed journals, published alongside tenured professors, and even written our own books.”

The closest equivalent in the U.K. is perhaps the fixed term temporary lecturer who primarily teaches. This is not to be confused with the more esteemed lecturer position which is more open-ended, fairly stable, and allows for both teaching and research. It seems there is a great deal of confusion regarding nomenclature even within similar systems. In the U.S., students and parents often have no idea how an adjunct (limited term, lowly paid, MA or PhD, instructor with few research opportunities) is different from other faculty… such as full professors (not limited term, well paid, PhD, who usually teaches and does research the rest of the time). Students only see what we do in the classroom… often they assume that those teaching their classes are not part of this underclass, if they even are aware such an underclass exists. Adjuncts don’t usually complain about their situation because they are already living month to month… and they can’t risk getting fired. This allows departments to pay them less and less. The tide is shifting though. Today, adjuncts are fighting for benefits, better wages, and representation in the university. In many small community colleges, adjuncts make up the majority of the faculty and work in less than ideal conditions (no benefits, low wage, no offices or shared offices, and no way to get out). In these cases, the 76% number rings true… where adjuncts teach a majority of the classes. In more prestigious state schools, like where I taught the last two years, about 17% are adjunct (this number is based only on part-time faculty). The count of annual contracted adjuncts is much harder to ascertain. I am sure you can imagine why, no college wants to advertise their use of this contingent labor. Some thinkers warn that the continued corporatization of the American academy is systematically undermining the values of higher education. Even Congress is worried.

So now that you know we exist and that you know that I was one (I taught 52 courses in 10 years at 3 different Georgia universities and colleges) I will explain why you might not have known that I was an adjunct.

Simple…I didn’t want you to know.

Why would I hide my identity as an adjunct? Hello_my_name_is_AdjunctM-773510

1. Fear: Speaking out makes your employers look bad. The first rule of adjuncting is that you don’t talk about adjuncting. The second rule of adjuncting is that you don’t talk about adjuncting! Why? Because if you talk about being underpaid, having no health insurance or benefits, no representation or recourse in administration, your department will be shamed by this disclosure (as they should be) and there will be retribution. I, like other adjuncts, who are disclosing what has happened to them, fear losing our current jobs and we fear that speaking up will make us social and professional pariah. We fear retribution. We also know that by disclosing this information we are burning bridges… I most certainly cannot ask for a letter of recommendation from a department which I have critiqued for unethical employment practices.

2. Shame: Speaking out makes you look bad. I never introduced myself as an adjunct because adjuncting is seen as the dying lands for academic stragglers. It is a job which slowly squeezes out the undesirables from academia. This is a way of culling the herd in the academic world. To say you are an adjunct is to risk being viewed in this negative light. If you are an adjunct, full-time professors want to know why you are an adjunct. They want to know what is wrong with you. If you are a perpetual adjunct, you must be damaged goods. Academia is a lot like high school… who you know, who you sit with, work with, present with… is indicative of your own academic status. Many academics only want to associate with other academics that can raise their scholarly stock. Associating with an adjunct might make your scholarly stock plummet.

So why would I speak out? Why say anything, if it is in my best interest to be silent?

It is no longer in my best interest to be silent. I tried that route and it didn’t work. I have decided to leave adjunct teaching. After all that work, I have finally had it. I had my Towanda moment. I like to call it my Breaking Bad moment… minus the whole becoming a homicidal drug lord part. Once I saw that my department was now hiring annual contracted ‘lecturers’ (PhDs who will teach full-time for up to seven years before a possibility of promotion to senior lecturers), I realized that now that departments could get PhDs to teach classes for pennies on the dollar, they would not need me. Oh they would continue to hire me on a part-time basis semester to semester when these lecturers leave two weeks before the semester starts for a better job. I would still not get benefits. I still wouldn’t be able to even cobble together a living by teaching, tutoring/ etc. at various state schools. I would still need to get a signed letter every single semester from my department so I could check out books from the school library.


I may be leaving adjunct teaching for a living wage and benefits but I am not leaving academia. I love higher education but I can no longer pretend to be blind to the exploitation in my midst, to the exploitation happening to me. I love to teach, write, and research about religion but the cost of this part-time living is too high. I am personable, resilient, skilled, published, and highly educated… and now fully employed. Most adjuncts are so crippled, emotionally, finically, and physically… that by asking them to fight back you have only given them another job… another job for which they won’t be paid, a job which will likely get them fired and shunned.

I will still speak for adjuncts.

I am breaking the first rule and the second rule of adjuncting.

[1] *editors note: ‘Adjunct’ is a term used in America to denote a college professor who typically has the same and/or greater teaching responsibilities as a tenured professor at a university, but lacks anything even approaching the job security, benefits and stipend of a tenured professor. As Kate has mentioned, 76% of all college courses in the US are taught by adjuncts. Even many PhD’s are adjuncts. As the number of tenured teaching positions in academia continues to shrink, it is likely that most wishing to at least ‘earn a living wage’ will either have to find jobs outside academia altogether, or accept being a contingent laborer who not only teaches but has to compete with the very students they teach for jobs at a local pub for minimum wage – just to make ends meet. You should care about adjuncts for many reasons, but as tenure positions appear more like pipe dreams it’s likely that, if an academic career is your dream, you yourself may be in a similar position one day trying to make ends meet.


5 replies to “The First Rule of Adjuncting is…

  1. Anonymous

    Excellent post, Kate. One aspect of this issue that has received too little attention, however, is the way in which it discloses the professoriate’s ambivalent feelings about its historic purpose, viz., teaching. Adjuncts are teachers. We are hired to instruct and only to instruct. In a different universe, those who devote themselves exclusively to the education primarily of young adults would sit atop the academic hierarchy. In this world, sadly, anything more than mere competence in the classroom can be as much a stigma as incompetence should be. This is not the place to explore why. Suffice it to say, gender is an important factor, i.e., teaching in the United States, especially at the K-12 level, has long been a profession for women. A related factor, surely, is the professoriate’s need to distinguish itself, via the abstruseness of its scholarly endeavors, from the common crowd. In any case, when I was a graduate student delivering his first paper at my discipline’s largest annual conference, the man who introduced me took time to ridicule my background in high school teaching. I could cite other instances of such attitudes. I do believe, therefore, that the status of adjunct instructors as academia’s “great unwashed” is at least partially an outgrowth of self-loathing, for lack of a better phrase, on the part of full-time tenured and tenure-track professors.

    P.S. Only in the topsy-turvy world of today’s higher education could a student evaluation like this one, of recent vintage, be regarded as worth merely an indulgent pat on the head, at best, or at worst, as an indication of some weakness or character flaw: “Dr. Anonymous is one of, if not the best,teachers I have ever had. Students had already told me about how much they loved him and so I was already looking forward to taking a class with him. I truly cannot express how awesome he is. He is one of those professors who are ‘life changers’ or ‘leaves a lasting impression.’ I would take any class that he teaches and encourage everyone to do so.”


  2. Scott Cyre

    Thanks for the article. I am a Master’s student, graduating in May. I read that you gave up adjunct-ing for a salary and benefits. May I ask what kind of work you are engaged in? As a religious studies man, soon to be with a ThM, I am eager to know my career options beyond adjunct work and pastoral ministries. Any light you can shed on the subject would be most desirable. Thanks.


    1. Kate Daley

      Thank you to all who read the article and responded!

      Scott, I currently work as an academic advisor and I love it! My background in teaching at the university level helps me navigate the ins and out of higher education. I make a living wage and have insurance. I work closely with students. My supervisors are phenomenal mentors and while I don’t make a ton of money… I make sure more than I could have made as an adjunct. I do miss teaching … seeing the light in a student’s eyes when something finally clicks and they become invested in what we are studying.

      My ‘break up’ with academia proper has helped me review my priorities and removed from scales from my eyes regarding the commodification of higher education.

      Good luck out there!


  3. Lydia Snow

    I have a “good” job teaching gen eds and also upper level classes in music education. How I admire the young people who come out and teach with such heart and soul. My own son is living in South Korea for his 2nd year after graduating. He says it’s a great job. He is so thrilled to teach English. How I wish I could go to graduate school and pass on my love of literature, talking, making sense of this nonsense that involves the corporatization of higher education.


Join the discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *