Day in the Life

Photo on 1-5-13 at 11.07 AM

Adjunct Day in the Life

A Response to Work and Other Labours of Love (an article title that tells you exactly how much work we still have to do–no adjuncts mentioned, unless I’m mistaken and I’m sure Gregg Eddy will let me know — wink)

I am woken up on any given workday by 6am “mental math.” I have no idea how I will be able to pay my bills given the latest cuts in work hours or increased expectations of donated time per online or face to face course. Since my day feels like a treadmill, I tend to avoid the fitness club which is easy since I haven’t been able to afford a membership since before starting graduate school.

If I had any time to think about not having enough time to attend to personal health, I would spend countless hours recalculating the lost time and money since the mid-1990s which would make difficult thinking on how I might manage some difficult students or force my expertise into a curriculum discussion or find the patience to attend another passive-aggressive adjunct orientation or meeting about how I need to know how to obey, to mind my place because a good team player does not complain about low wages and high demand and fatigue. I found that shutting down emotionally is the best exercise to help me deal with the length of my days.

The handwritten sticky notes I keep in course folders could very easily forge a sail to coast me away from the endless meetings and events that last well into the evening. I am a member of the Adjunct In Kind Donation Board and Adjunct Avoidance Committees at my college, in my region and across the nation, so these activities occupy quite a lot of my typical day. Then there is unpaid one-too-ones with every student and message by message replies to emails, posts to course discussions online, phone calls to students who “think the government is watching online so they prefer to use a land line,” ad hoc meetings with rebel adjuncts and student allies and administrative double agents and state legislators, local politicians angling for re-election by pretending to care about labor abuse and the gross mismanagement of public education funds and maybe once or twice a term an ad hoc meeting with a college senior team member who carefully listens and expresses deep, very profound concern about adjunct labor matters but ultimately ends the meeting, the same meeting, for seven years, by saying, in one way or another: it’s just business.

I therefore consciously have to block out most of the emotions and thoughts I experience any given day. I make time for detachment and nonviolence, to write clear sentences rather than rage-filled fragments and to be able to walk around the college and actively avoid chatting with staff and students for at any give moment they may mistakenly ask, “How are you?” I fear my answer; I fear for my very sanity should I actually answer that question without finding more power for the defensive shields that have been pounded for more than a decade by the enemies of higher learning.

I try to plan three hours ahead, as that seems to preternaturally fit the adjunct abuse cycle. I am constantly moving from triage to triage so I cannot reserve time for any form of “big picture” meeting. I have yet on even the best day found myself able to transport a course, a student, an idea from triage to intensive care. I failed most days to make a three hours deadline—prep, email, phone, meeting, paying this bill with this credit card, calling that parent or that relative or that colleague or sometimes the very person who cut my hours at the college for just a moment of sweet fiscal relief—a gas card, a grocery store gift card, an Exxon/Mobil discount auto service card. Needless to say, I am confronted by the simple yet deeply unnerving thought that I am not going to make it.

I’m often moving between car and classroom, cafeteria and library, downtown coffee house and WalMart café, because you cannot spend time in an office when you don’t have one. The McCafe is not glamorous and doesn’t have an excutive feel to it, but it is spacious and open, with one wall that serves as a window to the other contingent workers I get to know. Many of them offer me free lunch because, well, that’s just how they roll. We admire the new multimillion dollar renovations together as we sip our stolen Hi-C orange drink and devour the “comp’d” quarter pounder and cheese, large fries, and milk for the kids. I tended to eat with my family whenever we could plan a park day while I taught my classes, the wonderful blank stainless-steel façade of our faces changing colour in the different light of different working poor situations.

When we talked to Senior Staff recently about workloads, their response almost always avoided the important matters such as not having enough income to pay bills, buy insurance, or pay for basic necessities like rent and food. Rather than address our concerns, the Senior Staff introduced electronic punch cards to monitor our online and advising activities. Even though the numbers proved our case that we were working 6-8 hours above the contact hours without compensation for prep, grading, etc., we were told to log in less or help them by keeping our actual work hours off the records. After all, we’re a team and we’re all under pressure by the System (state offices) to work within budgetary constraints.

The Senior Staff expressed concern when we complained of the tyranny of email. They suggested we have a ready to use copy/paste series of statements we can forward to students to save time. So, if Billy wrote a complex question about Descartes or wanted to explore class issues in Buchner’s Woyzchek, I would best answer both questions with “Thank you for writing [insert student name here]. Your question is a very good one that requires more time that I can give at this moment. Please bring your question to class or post it in a new thread on the discussion board.”

It was also clear that my time spend email student was a function of my own choosing, not an intricate part of the learning process that strengthened the relationship between student and teacher. To do my job, then, I needed to volunteer my time and talent whereas Senior Staff and Full Time faculty were compensated and contracted for their essential duties.

Every evening is occupied by work-related events. They felt most like a chore because they were unpaid. The pleasure of working closely with a student solving complex problems or exploring ways to overcome learning difficulties were always clouded by the simple fact that my superiors thought so little of me and the people assigned to my care. It was most satisfying to learn that my in-kind donations and extracurricular work with a few students across my time as an adjunct moved deeply impoverished and broken men and women from nothing to something, from feeling lost in the world to finding and embracing their own self-driven goals toward a life they were promised by an admissions counselor or orientation speech delivered by the Vice-President for Academic Affairs.

I enjoy activities outside work, but often time doesn’t allow for deeper or more sustained engagement with music, writing, hiking, and theatre. So, no instead of donating my time teaching, I earn a considerable living in mass media (theatre, television, film, and internet) while donating my time to teaching and supporting adjuncts around the world in their struggle against the laziest of bee keepers ever to keep watch over the colony. I do not have time for my garden or exploring Food Network or even take in a full length DVD or Netflix program. I cannot tell you the last time I attended a sports game.

I feel very lucky as I never enjoyed my adjunct job and now enjoy even the most mundane of tasks with a production unit or the most satisfying moments of closing a multi-million dollar development deal. I have already experienced the lowest points and difficult moments across my late twenties and all of my thirties. But, my belief in the value of people taking their broken lives and weaving them together into a revolutionary community of teachers and activists means I am prepared to volunteer whatever time it takes to dismantle and rebuild higher education in a way that celebrates the day in the life of an adjunct rather than the mundane professional and highly paid struggles of university upper management.