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.


Most of my colleagues, like myself, pursued academia as a vocation. We could have earned a four-year degree that would have brought more money than our doctorates. I suspect that there will be far fewer people willing to invest in the education necessary to become professors in the future, possibly leading to a different sort of crisis for universities. The exploitation of adjuncts will be a less viable strategy in that case.

To Jim: What we need is MORE not fewer professors! Class sizes are too big and instruction has been limited by corporatized administrators, bending to the whims of big donors who who have a better idea about what it means to be an educated person. Do not give up your vision!

This is a helpful article because of the concrete information and illustrates the unfairness not only of contingent faculty employment, but of the whole higher education compensation system.

Thank you to my hardworking adjunct brother or sister. This hit all the nails on the head. I too am teaching three courses this fall and grateful to have the work.
I have 15 years in and several years ago moved to a different state to get my PhD as it was very clear I would never to TT without it. I have it now but COVID hit and in my state’s bad economy (even before COVID) has all our institutions of Higher Ed under hiring freezes. Like you, I continue to take what I can get and love the work but am frustrated with ‘the system’.
Yes, I also ran into many of the issues in the article with different systems, software, and rules. I am paid a bit less than your $3700/term from one employer and less than $2,000 per class from my other (they recently went to a pay by the head system. That means I go into the term without a contract and by the third week they tell me what I will be paid – talk about blind faith. What other occupation does that??
It may sound petty but here I sit having to had purchase a better computer (none of my employers will give those to mere adjuncts) and a printer that scans, as well as a light so my students can see me when we stream our live classes. I bought extra masks and sanitizer for the 'in person' course for my other employer as they would not let classes go online. They are not testing anyone either, so I keep hoping to dodge the virus. No I don’t get health care, but I suspect anyone reading this knows that too.
I also took a week-long and a month-long course this summer on student engagement and the technologies for teaching online so that I can make sure to be the best instructor for my students. My university let me attend but only after I literally begged a Dean and many of the full-time professors, who had sign up priority, backed out the night before. Had I been full time I would have gotten a $1,500 stipend for attending one of the classes. As an adjunct I got nothing.
We hear a bit about how grad students are taken advantage of, but no one seems to know about the plight of adjuncts. I would add up all the ‘free’ hours I worked this summer in preparation for my classes – one of which I was asked to teach less than a week before the term began and had to learn completely new software for – but I think it would make me ill.
Again, I love what I do, I just pray that there is justice and the conditions for adjuncts will improve.

To "Nameless adjunct"--I think EVERYONE knows about the plight of adjuncts--they are just either unwilling or unable to help in any meaningful way. Our time has not yet come. Keep up the good fight!

Perhaps the supply and demand situation for adjuncts will change in the long term. I certainly hope so. There is a big difference between having a rewarding, fun, low paying job and just a low paying job.

To Jane B: Supply and demand is not the issue. It is the corporatization of universities that results in the control and abuse of educators who don't matter. We need more educators, not less! The vision for higher education needs to change to better serve our young adults who are demanding a stronger vision for what it means to be well-educated in a democratic society.

I want to reach out to the brave author of this article. I hear you and the same happened in Kansas. We bent over backwards for our students' sake in spring -- I would like to share my experience to Academe and share about what I learned from the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Terrific work here, and I understand why you have to be anonymous. I would only add that there are also long-term adjuncts who teach upper division and even grad courses who have also been marginalized and abused. Some of them have the PhD or equivalent. It is LONG past time for the caste system in higher ed to be ended. The best idea I have seen is to form ALL-faculty unions that also link up with grad student unions and K-12 unions. The over-arching problem is that instructors at all levels are treated poorly in order to save money. Educators do not seem to matter. The net results are that students suffer with class sizes that are too big, and instructors are denied a role in governance and so have little say in the delivery of educational services. Keep up the good fight!

Maricopa Community College District has completed a 2-year faculty contract which includes the adjunct faculty. The major topic of leadership, compensation, innovation, etc, has now started the process of building a new decade of inclusion of adjunct faculty. These agreements should be mandatory with the growing option of health care, financial planning, retirement, classroom choice, and other areas. The endless nonsense has finally come to an end and the University community needs to have a mandatory contracts for full time and part time faculty.

I appreciate the author's perspectives, and totally agree. This is an important essay and names many of the systemic issues we must confront. However, we need to move beyond just naming them or shaming administrations that perpetuate these cycles. When will we be politically organized enough to demand structural policy changes that protect adjuncts? Guarantee them benefits? Compensate them for additional training and time they put in? Now's the time to ramp up our advocacy efforts to state legislators, Congress and (election pending) the U.S. Dept. of Ed on these kinds of issues. Otherwise adjuncts remain at the mercy of a system that is totally rigged against them.

At this point I almost hope it does collapse. Unless the accrediting agencies get involved and demand that colleges convert adjunct gigs to full time lectureships and there are effective unions everywhere, the system will not be reformed. So-called state universities are operating like for profit corporations, except that it seems most corporations treat their workers better. Many colleges cut back adjunct classes -- and also staff hours -- to avoid the Obamacare mandate, leaving many having to pay for the privilege of remaining uninsured on a reduced income, and now we are expected to teach in person in the midst of the pandemic, or if we teach online, we are not compensated for the time undergoing required training -- I believe most corporations pay workers for training time. No one seems to notice or care that even when sports have been cancelled, the possibility of putting the coaches, who are frequently among the most highly paid "faculty members," on furlough while we are just laid off and in many states are not eligible for unemployment. We are expected to treat students like customers and there have been instances of adjuncts fired for not having enough "passing students" or for too many negative customer reviews -- I mean student evaluations -- even in "universities" with canned classes where all the "professor" does is grade. Meanwhile, the budgets for administrator salaries keep increasing while the libraries can't afford to keep books and journal subscriptions, entire departments are being shut down, and all that seems valued is business and technology, and those who are good at IT can do very well with industry certifications and skip the load of student loan debt. These "institutions of higher learning"are conning the students and us. Let it die.

A good article, except for the mention of accreditors. An entire faculty learned, during an historic strike a long time ago (30 years, hard to believe!) that relying on Accreditors to insist on and maintain standards is leaning on very weak reeds indeed. In a reaccreditation year, NEASC withdrew all its criticism after a meeting with our Administrators, who blamed all its very-real faults on an out-of-control faculty and a contract that "made it impossible to manage"; the State accreditors took the Administration's word, as well as we could tell from some very heavily-redacted documents, and various profession-accrediting organizations ignored our pleas that they take a stand concerning mismanagement and duplicity in programs they had been funding with grants. All that was demanded by accreditors was the assurance that the budget would be balanced within a year (which it was not, but never mind). We must fight, but except insofar as we can tap the alas-limited resources of AAUP and our own solidarity, we fight alone.

Faculty across all colleges & universities, adjunct, full time & graduate TA, need to unionize and then go on strike to demand that higher ed faces up to its responsibilities. The current Administrative approaches will not change willingly.

Yes, being an adjunct is a terrible job for all of the reasons that have been discussed over and over again. The pandemic has made things worse. Why don't adjuncts quit and find better paying jobs? No one is forced to be an adjunct college professor! A well-educated person who is smart enough to get a Ph.D. should be smart enough to leave academia when it's clear they will never be competitive for a tenure track position.

Adjunct faculty are most definitely divided and ruled. As individuals we have zero leverage.
The university where I teach required all faculty to complete a "personal development program" over the summer, for which there was no compensation. Enrollment was down, there was a hole in the budget, so basically "suck it up; you want a job? Then do the training."
So I did the training. I even did all the optional bits (what can I say, I like learning about how to teach better).
Now, half-way through the Fall semester, teaching remotely, I apply for accommodations to continue teaching remotely next Spring. I have asthma and am over 60.
It takes a week for the VP of HR to respond with "your request is on hold because you have not completed the required personal development".
In short, the administration makes all faculty complete some training, in order to keep their jobs, but doesn't have accurate records about who has completed the training.
Imagine if a faculty member was as cavalier with student records!
As an individual, I have no recourse other than to work with my Dean to establish that yes, I did the training. My only other option? Quit.
However, as the author rightly points out, adjuncts carry the load of essential introductory courses that students have to complete. Adjuncts are key to student sucess and retention. If only there were a nationalized union negotiating on our behalf... I am sure a widespread withdrawal of labor by adjuncts would have the boards of trustees looking at ways and means of finding adequate compensation.
Anyone agree?

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