Adjunct voices

At times Lana Sumpter skips meals so her dog can eat. She doesn’t have air conditioning and lives in Tennessee, a state where the temperature often tops 100 degrees during the summer. When she can’t find work, she doesn’t pay her mortgage or health insurance bills.

No, Sumpter is not a barista or bus driver. She’s a professor. An adjunct professor. An adjunct is basically a part-time professor hired on a contract, temporary basis.

Ahead of National Adjunct Walkout Day on February 25th, American RadioWorks asked adjunct professors around the country how things are going for them, using APM’s Public Insight Network. The short answer? Not well. Sumpter sums up her current employment situation as “stuck in adjunct hell.”

Stories like Sumpter’s are popping up all over the country. A report last year found that non-tenured and non-tenure-track staff – so called “contingent faculty” – make up more than three-quarters of the college faculty in the U.S.

In many cases, even a PhD won’t land you a tenure track position. Susan Harper says she earned a PhD from one of the best programs in the country in her field, yet is unable to find work. Now she fills her time as an adjunct professor at four separate institutions in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. “I’ve had a painful broken tooth for over a year [but] I go without health or dental care,” Harper says. She applied for but was denied SNAP food stamp benefits.

The data bear out Harper’s experience. A study from Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives in January called most adjuncts part of the working poor. The median pay rate per course for adjuncts is $2,700. Contingent faculty make one-third or less than their full-time peers – and most often do not receive benefits.

Ruth DeFoster, an adjunct in St. Paul, Minn., says that she had to take a second job to supplement her income. “Ironically, my bar tending job pays better, on an hourly basis, than my job as an adjunct professor,” says DeFoster.

Even more than pay or benefits, adjuncts complain they are not properly supported by their institutions. Unlike their full-time peers, adjuncts don’t typically have individual offices. So they are essentially forced to lug their teaching equipment around and it can prove difficult to find places to meet with students. Adjuncts may be hired weeks before the beginning of the semester, and enter the classroom under-prepared.

Despite the lack of support, many adjuncts face the same demands as any other college professor. Nicole Anderson Cobb, an adjunct at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says as the one of the only female African American professors on her campus, she is constantly asked to write letters of recommendation, sit on department committees and hold office hours.

There are reasons people keep working as adjuncts. Many say they enjoy teaching and are good at it. Being employed part-time leaves room for flexibility in professors’ schedules. Anderson Cobb reports she started as an adjunct to care for her child.

Yet working part-time often means teaching at several different campuses, and that can involve long commutes.

Sumpter teaches at four different colleges in Tennessee, two in person and two online. Most days, she gets up 5:30 AM, drives across town, teaches for five hours, and commutes home to confront the slew of assignments, emails and discussion board posts that awaits her attention. Then she hustles back across town for night class and teaches for five more hours, getting home after 11 PM. This is her schedule – seven days a week, close to year-round.

The commute, working at multiple institutions and institutional demands all mean adjuncts have less and less time to give to their students.  One adjunct in New York, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of losing her job, says, “I just don’t have the energy and time to give students what they need, and what they are going into debt for.”

Here’s a sample of some of the hundreds of responses we received from adjuncts:

An adjunct in Colorado: The janitors who work at the campus I teach at get paid more than I can hope to make just from teaching at my college. Also, they get health care, sick time, 401K and other benefits that I have no access to. 

An adjunct in Arizona: I’m on the clock from the minute I wake until I go to sleep. I teach five classes per semester of very needy undergraduates who expect me to be on-call 24/7 to answer their emails. Handling emails alone can take a couple hours a day. I am a single mom who often has to choose between trying to get grading done in the evenings after a 10-hour day on campus and being a parent (i.e., cooking dinner, helping my daughter with her homework, driving her to her soccer game, etc). There are many days when I have to either give my students lees than I should or give my own child less. That is no position for anyone to be in. 

An adjunct in California: I will say this much for me and my wife who are both adjuncts. It’s a little depressing. My wife tells me we can’t have kids until we buy a house and one of us has a full-time job. For me that is the biggest setback. 

An adjunct in New Hampshire: My child and I are on food assistance, child care assistance, Medicaid (though mine is suddenly and mysteriously “pending”), and sometimes TANF. Since I have joined and become active in the union, my teaching activities have been closely monitored. I am supervised by people who have never taught the courses I teach and who have no education training.

Next week we’ll talk to a university administrator who will share a different perspective on the role adjuncts play in the college system.