• August 22, 2014

The Curious Case of the Happy Adjunct

The Curious Case 
of the Happy Adjunct 1

John W. Tomac for The Chronicle Review

One day last year I began my day by pedaling my bike gently, so as not to break a sweat, to the Taipei Public Library, an eight-story concrete tower with tropical plants hanging from its angular balconies. Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more, another day of work: I logged on to see how my Shakespeare students in snowy Ann Arbor were doing, 7,500 miles away.

I never escaped the feeling that I was getting away with something. When I checked my email I was reminded of all the stress on campus—limited parking, students in distress, the firing of a much-loved administrator, and resultant seething among faculty. The campus was a hotbed of tension, and I didn’t have to deal with any of it. I dealt with getting my milk-tea order just right—with my beginner’s Chinese, I had to answer what size, temperature, and amount of sugar I wanted, and did I want small or large tapioca balls and about how many, and I had to choose among dozens of kinds of tea. And then I went to the library to grade my students’ discussion-board comments on mercy and justice in Henry V.

We were in Asia because my wife, a Ph.D. student, got a grant to study Chinese for a year. Our son was then 4 years old, and our daughter was 16 months; it was the last year we could relocate without the added question of our son’s school. I asked my boss at the community college if I could work remotely for a year—very remotely—and to our relief, she agreed. We sublet our apartment and bought plane tickets.

My online students, I’m aware, can also feel like they’re getting away with something. When I ask them, they openly talk about how they watch the video lectures while minding their kids; they take their quizzes and write the discussion-board posts on lunch breaks at their jobs. For better or worse, this is what college looks like for the six million students across the country who take at least one online class—a third of all college students in the United States, according to the Babson Research Group.

In fact, a few of my students last year got away with as much as I did: One was in Germany, caring for her grandmother, and another was on an extended visit to his in-laws in the Philippines, about an hour’s flight from where I was.

My classes are "asynchronous," meaning no one has to be logged on at the same time. I did meet with a few students over Skype, which required us to coordinate our 12-hour time difference. Otherwise, I taught, and they learned, whenever and wherever we could manage.

Then I pinched myself. I’m an adjunct. I’m not needed on campus. I could get away with this because of another phenomenon of higher education today, what colleges have managed to get away with: my low pay, limited hours, and lack of employer-paid health insurance.

Adjunct, part-time faculty members, what even the mainstream press (The New York Times, CNN) now call the "working poor" of academe, make up 47 percent of all college faculty in the United States, according to the American Federation of Teachers. Only 25 percent of all professors are tenured or on the tenure track. The remaining quarter comprises graduate-student assistants and full-time non-tenure-track instructors, often classified as "lecturers."

The tenured professor is now an elite minority, in other words, and the underclass is vast. At the time of my last "all faculty" departmental meeting, there were 15 full-time faculty members and nearly five times as many part-timers.

However, another statistic from the American Federation of Teachers has captured my attention. Half of us part-time adjuncts don’t want to be full time. Sixty-two percent report that they are "very" or "mainly" satisfied with their jobs. This could be for a number of reasons. Many adjuncts are retired; others work in their fields and teach on the side; others, like me, spend time raising our kids while our spouses work full time. Last year in Taiwan, at least, I fell into that category—the happy adjunct—thanks to my online classes.

Like many of my peers, I have my doubts about online education and I have my complaints about being an adjunct. Both are familiar to Chronicle readers—I need more sustainable income, and I crave in-person interaction. My year in Taiwan, however, has shown me how these two controversial trends in higher education can work together. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but in today’s landscape, online education and the adjunct faculty have risen to meet each other.

On what terrain do they meet? One that is at a great distance from the society that created it. One terrible day in Taipei, my son slipped and hit his forehead on the corner of a table at a restaurant. We rushed to the hospital, he left with three stitches, and we left with a vision of socialized medicine, having paid the bill of about $100 entirely out of pocket. The taxi ride to the hospital cost under $2; our restaurant bill—at a good place—was about $25.

I was a happy adjunct, in other words, because my wage was livable. This year we’re back in Ann Arbor—back to our smaller and more expensive apartment, our strict food budget, our one car and one computer. Our health insurance is through my wife’s Ph.D. program. That expiration date is near. I teach two of my three classes online because the convenience is unbeatable; my students and I continue to learn and teach wherever and whenever we can manage. But the feeling of "getting away with something" has worn off because my family can just manage to make ends meet.

Next year, when my wife finishes her degree, we both go on the job market. We’re hoping one of us can get something in the top 25 percent, the "haves"—or even the next 25 percent, the "contingent haves"—the lecturers—so long as the institution also pays for our family’s health insurance. If not, the next best option, if we want to continue our careers in higher education, may be to flee the country.

Brian Goedde is a part-time faculty member in English at Washtenaw Community College, in Ann Arbor, Mich.

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