When I was in graduate school, I worked at a daycare. For the blissfully unaware, working at a daycare is basically like attending a GWAR concert every day. Remember GWAR? They’re the heavy metal band of grown men who dress up in costumes, growl like the bastard offspring of rabid dogs and Incubi, and pour viscera over a roaring crowd. All dressed up they kind of look like a Megazord from Power Rangers
and shoved some guitars in their hands.
For eight hours every day, my ears would be assaulted by the growling, shrieking battle cries of tiny, oozing cesspools who would attempt to mutilate everything in their paths (including myself and other children) while spewing buckets of bodily fluids on EVERYTHING until they (hopefully) collapsed into sticky little piles of sleep for two hours of napping in the afternoon. If a room full of roombas became possessed by Gremlins, the result would be similar. I would come home in the evenings, depleted, quickly change my clothes (which were usually covered in snail trails of snot) and head off to a 2.5 hour night class.
However, working at a daycare did have certain perks, like free weekends to nurse my battle-wounds and prepare for Monday’s onslaught. I also never had to work earlier than 7 AM or later than 6 PM (except for when thoroughly baked parents would ‘forget’ to pick up their kids, eventually rolling in surrounded by a visible cloud of smoke, blinking their heavy eyes, as they mumbled ‘Aw, my bad’). Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, the pay was well above the minimum wage with medical and dental benefits included. Granted, these medical benefits were not superb, but if I ever happened to have my hand gnawed off by a deranged toddler, my new hook hand would be on the house.
The resulting, necessary therapy, on the other hand (ha!), would not.
Naturally I assumed that after earning a Master’s Degree and beginning my “career” as a college instructor, my pay scale would increase and my working conditions would improve. These thoughts, apparently, were delusional on my part. I try to imagine the rich white people who decide the pay-rate of adjuncts, but the only images I could conjure were Scrooge McDuck, Mr. Monopoly, Lucille Bluth and Mitt Romney (I don’t interact with rich people very often – or ever – apparently). I think this is the closest approximation:
In my mind they are old men with diamond cuff-links and bow ties made out of 100-dollar-bills, sitting around a marble table, eating imported chocolate flaked with real gold leaf while speaking in the voice of Nigel Thornberry:
I then imagine them blustering in consternation, “Pay adjuncts fairly?!? Next, they’ll want us to start hiring colored people and dames, I suppose! We’ll probably have to stop bathing in pools of champagne and wiping our asses with cashmere sweaters too!” I feel for them. Really, I do. I’m all torn up.
I won’t bore you with my actual salary amount (well, really, I won’t depress myself by typing it out). Here is an informative article, if you are interested: Adjuncts Paid in Packing Peanuts
Yet I once calculated that when I first started working as an adjunct, I was making less than minimum wage when I took into account the amount of money I made compared to the number of hours I actually worked each week. Unlike my cushy daycare job, adjuncts don’t necessarily have the luxury of clocking out at the end of the day (this is the case with any teaching job, of course, but I’m speaking specifically from my experience as an adjunct). We take our work home with us. We grade papers late into the night, to the point of delirium, sometimes working 12 – 15 hour days. We answer desperate student e-mails at midnight, rehashing information we’ve gone over 2,064 times in class.
We try to relax, but the thought of tasks that we should be doing pulses in the back of our minds like the tell-tale heart, reminding us of our crime – the murder of our own sanity. Our work is almost always with us in one way or another, unpleasantly present, like an ulcer or a tapeworm. There is no such thing as over-time pay. Additionally, adjuncts are not provided with any medical or dental benefits, which basically means that I have been curing the flu and broken bones with healing crystals, incense and pig’s blood for the past three years and having root canals performed by a chisel-wielding felon named Smooove in a bowling-alley basement.
It makes perfect sense that prison inmates are more medically secure than college professors, right? We are, essentially, the Charlie Buckets of the academic world, staring through the window at the rich kids who get to gobble down unlimited diabetes while a dashing, mustachioed candy-man serenades them! We are relegated to the task of scooping quarters out of storm drains with the hope that we can one day buy a single candy bar. We inhabit the same world as those privileged children, but our experiences of it are so much different.
Hypothetically, I can increase the amount of money I make by simply teaching more classes, but enough classes are not always available and I don’t always have the mental energy (read: death wish) to grade 6, 500 essays every week. Oh, how I envy my colleagues with their answer keys and Scantrons! I see you, fellow cubicle dwellers, whipping through fifty tests in 10 minutes. Have you no decency? Can’t you do that in private? There are English instructors to think of!
When I first started teaching, I tried to solve this problem by teaching a few classes while working part-time at the daycare. This might have worked out fine but, unfortunately, I was also taking two night classes to finish up my degree and trying to eat and sleep like a human, not a giraffe. Did you know giraffes only sleep for approximately two hours each day?
Eventually I found I was working somewhere close to 80 hours each week which led to a fair amount of rocking, moaning, generally incoherent babbling and rolling into a blanket burrito of self-pity.
Most adjuncts either teach during the day while moonlighting as bar tenders, Wal-Mart greeters or circus clowns at night. Others teach at a few different schools to increase the chances of receiving enough classes to pay the bills and to increase their carbon footprint speeding across town in their jalopies five times each day. Still, even while teaching a full load of classes we’d likely make more money as exotic dancers.
Of course, the fly-covered cherry on top of this garbage Sunday is that, as adjuncts, we get the opportunity to watch our superiors do the EXACT SAME WORK that we do and get paid triple or quadruple what we make. That’s more than a few Benjamins, folks – we are talking about Madisons here!
They also receive medical benefits and an elusive, magical phantom known as job security.
Of course, I’ve seen enough comments on articles about adjuncts to know that some people genuinely wonder, “Why are you whining? It’s your fault! You chose to go into English. You chose to teach. You should have gone into physics or computer programming. You should have known teaching English wasn’t going to pay well. I’m so much better and smarter than you. Are you some kind of troglodyte? Do you live in a cave?”
Yes, I studied English and chose to teach it because I am incredibly stupid. You are so insightful.
I teach English, specifically writing, because it’s important. Most employers agree with me. In fact, the National Association of Colleges and Employers lists verbal and written communication skills in the top 10 employer-desired skills and qualities:
The American Association of Colleges and Universities corroborates this finding and also reports that of the 318 employers surveyed, 80% think colleges and universities should place more emphasis on strong written communication skills.
So, as much as my students and the general public might want to think that math/science rules and English/the humanities drool, this doesn’t seem to be the case, at least not to employers.
But I think the importance of the humanities goes far beyond simply churning out desirable worker bees. I don’t strive to simply teach students how to make a paragraph, cite their research, slap a title on it and call it a day; I try to foster the habit of questioning – questioning their assumptions, questioning the world, questioning me. So many students come into my class never asking why, never thinking or reading against the grain (never doing anything, really, except playing Candy Crush on their phonesIcan’tafford). I try to change that as much as is possible within the course of a semester. I agree with Mark Slouka when he writes in Harper’s that, “The humanities, done right, are the crucible within which our evolving notions of what it means to be fully human are put to the test; they teach us, incrementally, endlessly, not what to do but how to be.” He goes on to argue for the political value of the humanities:
Because they complicate our vision, pull our most cherished notions out by the roots, flay our pieties. Because theygrow uncertainty. Because they expand the reach of our understanding (and therefore our compassion), even as they force us to draw and redraw the borders of tolerance. Because out of all this work of self-building might emerge an individual capable of humility in the face of complexity; an individual formed through questioning and therefore unlikely to cede that right; an individual resistant to coercion, to manipulation and demagoguery in all their forms. The humanities, in short, are a superb delivery mechanism for what we might call democratic values.
You should read the entirety of his article: “Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School” Smart stuff.
Education is about more than simply rote learning – spitting out facts, accepting them at face value. I try to teach my students to consider alternatives, resist closure, interrogate critically the answers that present themselves quickly or easily. Whether or not I succeed is another story, but I have to try because without this ability, we are automatons. We are Fanny Crowne in Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World, sucking down soma and parroting the axioms that have been playing into our sleeping ears since birth.
So I teach with the hope that I can stir the sleepers.
I also teach because I want to help people to think critically, think creatively and express themselves fully. So many of my students have remarkable ideas swirling around in their heads but lack the ability to fully communicate that vision to others. I want to help them do that. (Then again, sometimes I wish I could protect the world from the minds of certain students by actually redacting any communication skills they’ve ever learned, ever, in their entire lives, but alas. Usually they mitigate the written spread of their own crazy well enough on their own – again, it’s like deciphering Mayan hieroglyphs).
And to those who argue that going into the field of math or science would solve my financial/career woes, I will add that I see just as many math and science adjuncts as English adjuncts milling around the adjunct cubicle. I recognize them. They’re the ones with the damn answer keys, grading at warp speed while I grade at the speed of a tandem bike minus a second person to pedal with me. The plight of the adjunct is familiar to the ‘hard sciences’ as well.
When we choose to be teachers, we do not labor under the delusion that we will be wealthy. I’m sure that at some point in high school or college, we all attended some small group gathering in the home of a teacher whose modest, shabby surroundings made us uncomfortable. We all had those awkward ‘running into teachers outside of school’ encounters (Its like seeing a dog walk on its hind legs.) that made us cringe with unfamiliar pity. We saw our futures. I’m sure we all understood that we were not going to make the same money as a neuro-surgeon. But I think what we did (albeit wrongfully, apparently) assume is that we would make a living wage – you know, enough money to subsist on more than a steady diet of government cheese in a van down by the river.
We believed that education is valued enough in our country to compensate educators accordingly. Instead, while college administrators enjoy their six figures, we live paycheck to paycheck, praying that something calamitous doesn’t happen in the meantime.
On a lighter note, I’ve compiled a list of possible career alternatives for those who need to supplement their adjunct income:
1) If we have learned anything from watching Breaking Bad it is that teachers can absolutely deal drugs on the side while eluding authorities and also having cancer and mustaches. However, if you’re an English adjunct like me, maybe don’t start with meth. You will probably die. How about a nice, hydroponic grow house?
2) Also, I hear plasma donation centers and sperm banks are popular refuges for teachers. There are places literally begging for your fluids. Since I have a seizure at the mere thought of a . . . needle (there, I said it) and I don’t have a penis, any braver or more-penis-having adjuncts out there are free to use this means of making money.
3) Give in, buy some boobie tassels and get ye to the strip club. Try to find one with a fun name like Starbutts or Leave it to Beavers because that will amuse future employers. Bring plenty of tissues for when you are crying in a ball of self-loathing in the corner.
4) Cardboard, sharpie and poor hygiene are all you need to make a sizable fortune as a pan-handler. Most people will assume you are a drug addict or an alcoholic trying to get a fix, so don’t be afraid to play to that. Be creative. Throw out some pretend-honesty in the form of a sign reading, “I just want crack and drug cigarettes.” Pedestrians will applaud your candor and reward it with coveted dollar bills they were just going to shove into the g-strings of your colleagues over at Starbutts.
Mmmm. Alcohol Research. Speaking of – Happy Murica Day everybody!