Tuesday, May 10, 2005


We're called "adjuncts." Definition: "attached in a subordinate or temporary capacity to a staff."

There are sub-categories. Adjunct professor. Adjunct instructor. Adjunct lecturer. Often "just the adjunct." Titles in academia rival the Pentagon's for subsets and delineations of seniority. Tenured professor, associate professor, assistant professor, visiting professor, professor emeritus. Senior lecturer, lecturer, part-time lecturer. Instructors, graduate assistants, teaching assistants. Fellows, scholars, visiting, research and otherwise.

A decade ago, everyone was much pickier about what they were called. The Ph.D.'s insisted on the "Doctor." Everyone else was "Mr." or "Ms." That's loosened up a lot, probably not for the better. Everyone's a "professor," whether they really are or not. (I wasn't, but would you read a journal called "The Phantom Adjunct"?)

Adjuncts are temps. We get hired by the semester on a four-month contract. There is no job security, there are no benefits. No health insurance, no pension, no 401K. Full-timers get free tuition for themselves and their children. We don't get any break on any kind of tuition (I paid my own way, full freight, for three years of night classes, completing a master's.) We either don't get an office or we share one with other part-timers who need a place to stash stuff between classes.

Adjuncts are limited to two courses per term, four in an academic year. That doesn't count summers. Adjuncts can teach one, two or more courses in summer terms. Kind of like a big king's X that lets adjuncts make a little more money while also keeping the campus classrooms filled while the full-timers and tenured profs are off on sabbatical, on vacation or teaching abroad.

Students rarely know who's what, titlewise. We're all profs to them. We don't know who other adjuncts are either. It's not like we have a special table at the Faculty Club. There are hundreds of adjuncts on every campus. We're cheap labor. We take up very little space. We do the job and vanish into the shadows.

The title thing goes both ways. I remember a time when college teachers addressed students formally by their last names, as in "Do you have a question, Miss Farquhar?" and "That's an excellent observation, Mr. Fenster."

I liked the formality of that. It kept a certain level of decorum in the proceedings and it was way easier to tell one Ashley from another that way. But that was long ago, in the olden days when girls didn't show up for class with their bellybuttons exposed and boys didn't wear caps in class because their mommas had taught them it was rude and disrespectful.

All different now. Except for the way adjuncts typically are treated. We are the professional phantoms of the campus, trudging from our faraway streetside parking spaces (because we can't afford the $250 decal and we're not assigned faculty slots) into buildings where we are as invisible to the administration as the guys in green shirts who plant the periwinkles out on the quad. We get the worst classtimes (8 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., often on the same days) and the ugliest classrooms. Nobody gets our name right until the second or third year we're around and even then we're still "just the adjunct."

I sat in on a faculty meeting not long ago where the full-timers came in chattering about one of the longtime prof's big birthday bash the weekend before. "Great party, wasn't it?" said one of them, turning toward me. "I wouldn't know," I answered. "I wasn't invited."

That's when it feels like high school. Being an adjunct is being the perpetual new kid, trying to figure out who to sit next to in the lunchroom. Nobody really makes the effort to include us because it's an investment that doesn't pay off. We have no power to share, no glory to bask in. We're the nobodies they need because nobody wants to do our jobs. And why do we stay? Because we always have that glimmer of hope that a "teaching line," as the admins call it, will open up and we'll get a full-time job with all the bennies.

Some of the classes I taught I inherited because the higher-level profs hated teaching them. I liked the basic writing class I got every term. The students liked it, too. Now I wonder who'll take it over, which hopeful new adjunct they've drafted to sit in that airless, windowless closet of an office and to stand in the classroom that overlooks the dining hall grease traps. I wish him/her luck. But I'd advise them not to worry if they feel left out.

After all, it's only temporary.


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