The House of Cards

Will COVID-19 finally bring down a system that pairs the most overworked and least supported faculty members with the neediest students?
By an adjunct faculty member in the Northeast

This article is part of a series, "Reflections on Faculty Life in a Pandemic." 

Scrambling to make the transition to online teaching this past semester was rough for everyone. Relationships were disrupted, classroom dynamics dissolved, learning communities scattered to the winds. But adjuncts had it especially bad.

Last spring was the first time in my now fifteen-year academic career that I was teaching at three different institutions, but many, if not most, adjuncts work at multiple colleges. As it happened, each of the three colleges at which I worked had a different online learning management system (LMS), so during the two weeks after they shifted to remote learning I had to learn how to use three different computer platforms to post readings, set up discussion boards, and create assignments. Each institution also had its own teleconferencing system and accounts to be set up. Each had different requirements for syllabi, some of which had to be entirely rewritten and resubmitted in multiple drafts for reapproval midsemester. Each of the three colleges went its own way with new grading policies, which had to be incorporated into the new syllabi. Luckily, only one of the three had multiple required meetings, while the others relied on emails and trusted faculty members to ask for help when they needed it. Not one of these colleges paid us faculty members a penny for any of the many hours of additional work.

None of the three colleges offers health insurance to its part-time faculty and none offered to pay for COVID-19 testing for us if we needed it. Luckily, I didn’t need a test, and I have health insurance courtesy of a unionized spouse. Many of my friends do not.

Most adjuncts teach introductory and general education classes, classes that are both large and frequently filled to capacity. My course load last spring was no exception, with one seminar-sized class and three additional sections of roughly thirty students each, for a total of ninety-four students. Among these ninety-four students were some in severe mental distress, some who had become sick with COVID-19, and some who were competing for the use of computers and internet access at home. There were also single mothers, now without childcare; students who were doing their schoolwork on their smartphones because they did not have a computer; scared essential workers who had to cover extra shifts as their coworkers fell ill; and one student who needed help finding a food bank for his unemployed family. These are the kinds of students we adjuncts most often serve: working-class students at community colleges and modest four-year institutions. They are the ones for whom an email message, maybe checking on them when they miss class or asking if they are all right when they don’t turn in an assignment, can make all the difference. These are the students whose stressful and perhaps collapsing lives call for flexible timelines and individualized problem-solving.

In other words, these are the students who most need faculty attention, time, and care. These are our students, the ones who most often study with contingent professors, professors who themselves juggle the relentless demands of being gig workers in a brutal academic ecosystem. The academic house of cards has paired the most overworked and least supported faculty members with the neediest students, and year after year we all struggle to make it work. COVID-19 has nearly brought down that house of cards. All the goodwill and conscientious attention in the world wouldn’t make it possible to track down all the students who stopped showing up to class or to respond adequately to all the emails from lost, teary, and overwhelmed students that fill three inboxes. This spring was, in corporate lingo, yet another lose-lose proposition for adjuncts and their students.

Having limped through the semester, and while wondering what kind of world we part-timers would emerge in as so many colleges scrambled to retain students for the fall and to keep their doors open in the years to come, I received a document unlike any I’d ever seen. I was offered two courses for the fall and was required to sign a notarized document attesting that, since I had been offered courses (although, it was noted, they could be canceled at any time!), I had a “reasonable assurance” of a teaching job in September. A new low had been reached. In the midst of an economic collapse, miserably compensated and precarious faculty, who had just spent untold unpaid hours and effort to get their students and their institutions through the fallout of the pandemic, were being legally cornered to ensure that they could not apply for unemployment compensation over the summer.

At a recent meeting at one institution, my faculty colleagues and I were informed that those classes with large enrollments would have to stay online this fall, because there weren’t enough large rooms to allow in-person meetings with the necessary distancing among so many students. Other, smaller, classes would meet in person. My suggestion that we reduce the high enrollment caps at least a little, to accommodate the hard, extra work required to build and maintain relationships with students we meet only online, was quickly dismissed. During the summer, to get ready for those online fall classes, the ones whose sizes won’t be reduced, I was offered a thirty-hour training in a new LMS that will be used in the fall. I was told I would not be paid to take this training. Keep in mind that I do not make a living wage; in fact, I earn $3,700 a section, which is less than the tuition that one of my thirty students pays to take my course at that institution. The president of that university makes north of half a million dollars a year, according to public records. Ponder whether you would commit those unpaid summer hours to mastering yet another electronic system you had no voice in choosing. For now, I resist joining the ranks of those who quit teaching and hold to the hope that next spring will bring better days.