To be an Adjunct Faculty Member Anywhere is to Live with Insecurity

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What me, insecure?

To be an adjunct faculty member, anywhere, is to live with insecurity. That’s the unwritten contract, or, to be more accurate, it’s usually put into writing. We may or may not actually teach the course we’ve been offered, depending on enrollment and on whether or not a full-time faculty member decides to take that class at the last minute. We may or may not be asked to teach again next semester, depending on some mysterious combination of factors such as the convenience of the department and someone’s assessment of how well we’re doing.

Student evaluations and faculty observations seem to play a similar role to that played by standardized test scores in evaluations of public school teachers. Or perhaps these reports don’t mean anything at all and no one reads them. We contingent faculty don’t know, but we can’t help worrying. It helps if someone tells us, off the record, that we’re well thought of and will always be asked to teach. But in a way this is a reminder that our job is dependent on someone’s continuing to think well of us, which could make some people feel insecure. In some cases, after a few years, we get an official letter from the college reassuring us that we’re going to be teaching for the next one or two terms, and that helps a lot in terms of planning.

My first semester at [college omitted], my student evaluations weren’t great and one student even wrote something intended to do me in, a comment to the effect that I hated America. Having such a thing in writing in my file would have been frightening if I had known about it at the time, but either the Department didn’t read the comments or they decided to take that comment for what it was worth and stand behind their faculty member. Or maybe they believed the student but also are sworn to defend academic freedom. In any case, they gave me another chance.

Since then things have been going well. I have Social Security plus a City pension with benefits, so the money from a few courses (two here and maybe one somewhere else) is enough to live on. This means I have the time to concentrate on developing and teaching good courses. I’ve taught quite a few different courses, often to fill in for people on sabbatical. I’ve been having fun and stretching my brain, the faculty who’ve been observing my classes have been laughing at my jokes and writing nice things about me, and the students seem to be doing pretty well, too.

I had been feeling really secure until recently, when I began to sense a bit of backlash at some of the things I was saying about the need to address the equity issue, about the inadequacy of office space for adjuncts, etc. It was just a comment by a full-timer, followed by the disappearance of something I’d taped to the adjunct office door, but it made me realize that I don’t have freedom of speech, not really. Had I made someone uncomfortable by revealing CUNY’s (and the Department’s) “dirty little secret”? To top it off, there was an incident when I needed to apologize for a mistake I’d made that affected a full-time faculty member. Confounding the interaction was the fact that we both knew that this faculty member was going to observe my class a few days later. Would my apology be perceived as insincere? These incidents reminded me that I too could be “disappeared” if someone changed their mind about me.

The bottom line, even for an adjunct who is relatively secure, is that we are here for one purpose and one purpose only, the convenience of the Department. If we are secure it is because we are meeting a need. Some of the requests that are made, in late night last minute phone calls, for example, show that we are the temps who fill in and help out when the “real” faculty can’t do something. I’m not saying that the chairs and faculty aren’t wonderful professionals who act with integrity and respect. I’m saying that the structure is such that a truly collegial relationship is impossible. Some chairs and faculty who set up the schedules may be very helpful and try to accommodate our wishes, but in the end it is all about what the Department needs. We can be replaced.