I think the better question is how hasn’t job insecurity affected me as an adjunct? Working semester-to-semester, praying that I can cull together enough classes to support myself and keep my health insurance…
When I started teaching in 2005, a class was taken away from me because a full-time professor who was supposed to go on sabbatical changed their mind and was given my class. I wonder if that professor and the others who have come before and after gave a second thought to the person whose work they were taking away. When this happened, since I thought at the time I wanted to make a career as a college writing instructor, I enrolled in a doctoral program with the intention of eventually becoming a full-time instructor. Right now, I’m writing my dissertation and hope to finish next fall. I don’t know what next. All of academia is abysmal.
Recently, a friend and I figured out how much I, as an adjunct, would make if everything I do at my rate of pay translated into a 40-hour workweek. It was less than minimum wage.
For several years, losing this one class was the only instance of something like that happening. But, more and more, classes are being canceled or taken away at the very last minute, 1-2 days before a course is supposed to begin. In those cases, it leaves the adjunct with ZERO options to find replacement work on other campuses. Before a new semester, I check enrollments on CUNYFirst religiously and wait it out. It’s a horrible feeling. And the worst part is there is nothing I can do to circumvent losing work this way except quit and find a job outside of academia. An employee at Starbucks has more job security.
This summer, I was assigned to teach a class that was cancelled. I was notified after business hours on the Friday of the Memorial Day holiday weekend. The class was supposed to start the following Tuesday. What do I do with that? I can’t collect unemployment because adjuncts aren’t eligible for benefits in between semesters. The “reasonable expectations” letter sees to that. When there aren’t enough classes, CUNY strings adjuncts along with one class per semester. If that adjunct turns that class down, they can’t file for unemployment because they’ve refused work. And their health insurance is disrupted. CUNY doesn’t want it both ways, they wanted it every way.
With no income, I went on food stamps. It was the most humiliating, dehumanizing experience of my life; not only the idea of it as someone who grew up in the middle class, but the way I was treated by the Department of Social Services. My case was badly mishandled. Every day for a week in July, I received a call from someone demanding a new document. I’d hang up and cry. I spent money on faxes that I could have been using to buy food. When I was told that I needed to go to my local social services office to sort things out, I waited for two hours to talk to someone only to have that woman roll her eyes at me and tell me to leave. The situation was only rectified once I involved my local councilman’s office. It took six weeks. I don’t know, but I think at least some of the problem was because the people I dealt with didn’t believe that a college instructor would need food stamps. I can’t believe a college instructor would need food stamps. I only told the closest people in my life. Regardless of the circumstances, shame is shame when you’re paying for your groceries with and EBT card.
I’ve always been a hard worker but since this happened, I feel myself withdrawing. I don’t involve myself with my department at all. Since I teach a writing-intensive class and spend dozens of UNPAID hours per week reading and commenting on student writing, I don’t think I owe my department anything outside of my classroom hours. I’m also trying to scale back the time I spend on student writing, which, to me, is not sound pedagogically, but I get angry and resentful when I could be working on my dissertation or living my life.
After my experience this summer, I feel like something broke in me. I have less enthusiasm for my job than I used to. Part of me also feels like a hypocrite towards my poor and working-class students who believe that education will deliver them from their struggles. For me, it did just the opposite. I do my best to fulfill my ethical obligations to my students but I know that my bitterness and cynicism affects the quality of my teaching in conscious and unconscious ways. Again, how could it not?