Wednesday, March 31, 2010

An Open Letter to Martha Kanter, Under-Secretary of Education re "living as an adjunct"

Thanks to Betsy Smith from the Contingent Academics Mailing List ( for letting us know Martha Kanter, Under-Secretary of Education, is interested in knowing what adjunct life is like. Here's my take on it (see the letter below) -- if you'd like to let her know what you experience, also, here's the address:

Dear Secretary Kanter:

Thank you for expressing interest in adjunct, or contingent faculty, life. After years of using my M.A. to teach "on the side," while pursuing my primary profession, my company consolidated and laid everyone off. When I had no luck finding an equivalent position in the Detroit area (I chose not to move for family reasons), I decided to try piecing together a full-time living teaching in multiple universities and colleges. This began about 12 years ago--the point at which I ceased having job security, a decent wage, health care benefits, dental coverage and hope of ever retiring. Because the job market is so tight, I hope to have classes to teach next semester, but I usually don't know for sure until a week or two before those classes start.

Despite this insecurity, this past year I've worked longer hours than ever (60 hour work weeks are not unusual when you teach 3-4 freshman writing courses), all for gross wages under $30K. I worked throughout the year (had one week off in the summer, in between assignments), picking up teaching and tutoring assignments piece meal as they become available. No matter what an outstanding job I do in the classroom (I take my job very seriously), my experience actually works against my ever getting hired full-time by a university. Even a short stint as a contingent limits an instructor's hopes of ever being hired full-time or getting tenure--it's like we wear a big red "A" on our chests, too, like Hester Prynne. As an adjunct I truly am a "day laborer" in the academic world: working far more than full-time hours semester after semester for mostly the same schools (a so-called "perma-temp,"), but for part-time, temporary conditions.

I enjoy teaching (why else would anyone put up with this?) but I resent more and more the disparity between the expectations placed upon me as a professional, and the sub-standard wages and non-existent benefits handed out. Universities couldn't function without our collective efforts (and they know it), yet they are allowed to continue cheapening the value of higher education with their treatment of us, and their eliminating of more and more full-time positions every year. As schools are forced to further corporatize because federal and state funds have become less available, this situation will only get worse, and chances are very real that the U.S. will stop being the destination for international students seeking quality education. U.S. students would be wise to go elsewhere, too.

Adjunct life is not just about universities -- it's a wake-up call for anyone who feels secure in his/her full-time job. Any professional function can be broken into part-time fragments, and while there should be, there don't seem to be any laws in place to prevent this from happening to American workers. I hope the federal government wakes up and does something to reverse this destructive trend soon.

Thank you for listening,

Raye Robertson


  1. Well put~ post linked tweeted at @NewFacMajority. I'm saving letters as they appear

  2. Raye,
    You bring a lot of energy to this "cause." Do you think there might be a way to put people's feet in it? Not a walk-out, but a walk-to? Wearing regalia, etc? As a long-time adjunct, I had no idea until recently that there was adjunct activism, and I'm still shaky on it ... For some of us, unions aren't the way due to state law. Sadly, some of the union disappointments I'm hearing about greatly concern me--poor gains over the long-term.


  3. You raise a great issue -- I've thought something as simple as developing a national adjunct "business card," (which we would ideally hand out liberally) would begin to forge a collective sense of "We" that's so sorely missing. I think we enable the universities to hide our numbers by accepting our invisibility and fragmentation. A piece of regalia worn at university occasions might help, too. Showing up in numbers at the unemployment offices during off-semesters would also help. We need a good national brainstorming session!