You get in your car. As you buy that early morning coffee, you consider the Starbucks workers who have better benefits than you. That latte doesn’t taste so good anymore. You get out of your ‘97 Geo to open the trunk that contains your professional life and grimace at the alumni sticker from the school where you got your master’s degree. You go to work and stay much later than planned – but there’s no overtime. You get back in your car. You drive, you drive, you drive – you park. Back to work. Passing offices, you try not to be jealous of their occupants as you set up your “conference table” at the public library. The meeting goes well. It feels good to make an impact. You’re a figurehead in your community, but you still feel misplaced. Driving home, it’s dark. There’s more work to do before bed.
“One of my early teaching jobs, I walked in the door and they handed me two sheets of paper and basically said, ‘Here, go teach this.’ One was a list of textbooks and the other was basically the name of my course – and that was it – that was all the support I got from the department,” said Mary Zambreno, assistant professor of English, about a former adjunct position.
In the 1980s, 20 percent of classes were taught by adjuncts – usually the kind who had day jobs and were just teaching courses at night to supplement their income. But in the past 10 years, adjuncts have been brought on en masse to reduce salary expenses, currently amounting to approximately 77 percent of the teaching staff here at Elmhurst College, according to a count of the staff directory.
Given Elmhurst’s current and ongoing deficits, adjuncts have become a tool to keep the school’s finances in line. Alzada Tipton, Dean of Faculty, approximates hiring an adjunct instead of a full-time faculty member can save the college $50,000 per year, when full-time benefits are factored in.
Adjuncts are hired on a per-course basis for a $3,000 – $3,500 stipend, totaling an average of $25,000 per year – $28,000 less than the average graduate with a master’s degree. In addition to the low wages, adjuncts deal with the stress of constantly fluctuating employment. “There is no stability for the adjunct teaching staff. They may be here next semester; they may not,” said former adjunct professor Michael Tolhurst, who experienced this instability first hand.
Keeping adjuncts contractually at bay allows colleges to offer jobs on a class-by-class basis. Meaning if a department decides to switch focuses – for example, from jazz to classical in the music department – every adjunct that specializes in jazz could easily be let go in order to make room for more classical instructors.
This also means if not enough students sign up for a specific class, adjuncts are the first to hit the chopping block.
“For tenured staff, or even somebody who is professional track like me, if they run short a course or if they only need me to teach two courses instead of three, they either have to find me another course, or pay me anyway,” said Zambreno. “Whereas with adjuncts, they can say, ‘Oh well, I’m sorry we only have two courses for you this year.’”
Given the volatile nature of adjunct employment on any given campus, many adjuncts teach courses at a handful of other institutions to pad their individual job security. “There are people teaching at Elmhurst who are teaching at three or four other schools at the same time. That’s a tremendous challenge – balancing schedules and keeping everything straight,” Zambreno said. “But at least that way you’re pretty sure you’re gonna have somewhere to work [next semester].” This daily migration can be detrimental to an adjunct’s eligibility to qualify for tenure, however.
Schools review applicants on the basis of teaching, scholarship, and service – but when an adjunct spends all their time trying to make ends meet by teaching an overload of courses (four or more), scholarship and service fall to the wayside.
“It is this terrible, tragic, vicious circle because you become an adjunct because you can’t find a full-time job, and then you spend all your time in the car, teaching ten courses a semester, and you can’t keep up with your scholarship so you become less and less attractive as a candidate for a tenure track position,” Tipton said, “Which is very, very sad.” Students can also be affected by an adjunct’s hectic schedule if they are unable to meet and form the kind of mentor-student relationships that many Elmhurst students hope to have with their instructors. “You have a good section of the university workforce that is not really a stable part of the community, and I think that can negatively affect a student’s experience,” Tolhurst said. Although there is nothing contractually in place, Tipton believes Elmhurst does what it can to provide a sense of inclusion and solidarity between adjunct faculty and the rest of the institution.
“I think we have some de-facto stability in that we keep hiring the same people back again and again and again – we’ve had adjuncts that have been teaching here for 25 years,” she said. “We have these long standing relationships with them, and the department chairs really appreciate those adjuncts and how knowledgeable they are. That’s not very much stability, but [there is] a sense of loyalty to our adjuncts.”
Before her promotion to Assistant Professor of English, Zambreno worked as an adjunct in the Chicago area for over a decade. In this time, she taught at five or six colleges, amassing more than a few horror stories – but can attest to the quality of adjunct relations here at Elmhurst. “Compared to other colleges, Elmhurst is very good about keeping adjuncts informed on what was changing curriculum-wise and the goals of the courses that we’d be teaching,” Zambreno said. “For years, this was one of the best adjunct gigs in the whole Chicago area. So I have no complaints about the way Elmhurst uses adjuncts, I just think the adjunct pool of available applicants is changing. I think the days of people like me coming in, who would stay for 20 years, are gone. And as soon as my generation goes, I don’t know who’s going to replace us.”
But Tolhurst can attest to the fact that adjunct positions are still in high demand. “For one position at NIU in my department, there were 300 applicants. That’s not uncommon in academia.” And when supply outweighs demand by a 300:1 ratio, the rate adjuncts are willing to work for deteriorates. If this trend continues, Zambreno worries about the end result. “The people who are willing to work part-time as a career, I think that’s gone. I don’t think that people can do that anymore – they can’t afford it. And if the college has learned to rely on [adjuncts], now what do they do?” Zambreno said. “The more colleges save money by hiring adjuncts, the less money they have for full-time people, the less likely they are to retain the good adjuncts…I don’t have any solutions, but I look at that and it concerns me.”
Tipton said the college is considering offering part-time salary positions, which would provide partial benefits and a stable work situation for professors without having to pay full-time wages. “We have adjuncts who are teaching so many courses for us, they’re really spending enough time here that they really ought to be paid more than just on a per-course basis.” Whether or not part-time, salaried professors are a viable solution for a nation of adjunct-heavy institutions, Zambreno warns that the structure of adjunct-professorships needs an overhaul before the profession implodes. “The profession suffers because you have all these really capable, competent, dedicated people who are basically living semester to semester, and who are going to leave the profession eventually.”