modern disappointment.

A place to file your complaints. Submissions welcome.

Adjunct. The Modern Indentured Servant.

full classroom

By Sinnamon Rohl

I’m an adjunct. That means that when I am in the classroom with you, I’m your professor. But when I am in the company of other faculty or administration in the educational institution under which I am employed, I am a second-class citizen.

Recently, the title “adjunct professor” came into the public vernacular with the death of an adjunct French professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. Margaret Mary Vojtko, who had taught for the University for 25 years, was found lying on her front lawn after suffering a heart attack at the age of 83.

Although tragic, on the surface this story seems garden variety. Old people die, and they have to die somewhere. But it’s the back story that makes this narrative especially tragic. She was living in poverty. She could not afford to maintain the home in which she lived, and was struggling to continue working through serious illnesses for which she had no health care. An account given in the Pittsbourgh Post-Gazette of Margret Mary’s life stated that even at its peak when she was lucky enough to teach 3 classes a semester and 2 during summer, she only grossed $25,000 a year. Without benefits. Shortly before her death, she was clearing less than $10,000 annually due to class load restrictions. At the time of her death, she made nothing, because they had effectively fired her by failing to renew her contract—and adjuncts are not eligible for unemployment.

Between 20-50% (some references list as high as 75%) of all professors employed to teach at an institute of higher learning are considered part-time or contingent, and this does not include graduate assistants. They take on nearly all the responsibilities of what a full-time or tenure track professor is charged with, including faculty development and maintaining accreditation standards. They make themselves available to students outside of class, even though they may not have an office. They do not, however, sit through endless hand-wringing meetings and coffee hours where decisions are made that affect their futures. They have no assurance beyond good faith that they will still be working in the same capacity for the next academic term. Frequently, an adjunct needs to work at more than one job in order to quilt together some semblance of a steady cash flow.

Let’s break it down. If you are adjunct you are likely to have:

  • No health care
  • No unemployment benefits
  • No FMLA – if you get pregnant and need a maternity leave, or any medical leave for that matter, expect that your classes will be taken over by another adjunct, and that they will likely keep them
  • Tax consequences for holding more than one job
  • Typically no provisions from institutions for hardware, software or office supplies which are needed to complete the job
  • No office from which to conduct their work—you’ll be lugging all your work around in your car
  • No guarantee of continued employment
  • Typically no annual raises or raises at all
  • No paid days off/vacation/sabbatical
  • No company retirement program
  • No protection by law, with the exception of possibly OSHA
  • No monetary allowances for professional development or continuing education required for employment
  • Multiple part-time jobs and bosses
  • A workload just below what is legally required for benefits, thus limiting your income
  • No severance pay or due process for termination
  • Heavy competition—your adjunct colleagues are often those vying to teach the same classes, making camaraderie and networking difficult

You can play, but you have to bring your own ball at your own expense. And you better play like a big time pro. And you might be benched without warning. And the rules might change midway through the game. Oh, and you don’t get any protective gear. But no matter, you can be replaced.

How does one end up in this position? One study out from the AAUP states that the majority of adjunct or part-time educators currently working do not want a full time job. They simply wish to work adjunct and reject the idea of being tenured. It’s been my experience that nearly ALL adjuncts wish to have a full time job. Most acquiesce that an adjunct position will temporarily suffice until they can apply for a full time position. Often, institutions offer adjunct positions with the implication that it will lead to a full-time proposition.

Obviously, given the percentages, it rarely does. It’s a carrot and stick game that once you are in, it’s very very hard to get out of. It’s especially difficult if you support a family or need to care for small children. Your schedule is “flexible,” which might seem like a “work when you like!” situation, but it is not. YOU are to be flexible, which means available. This often means that adjuncts are given classes that full-timers don’t want, such as nights and weekends.

Even if we take all of the above as a given, as the price of doing business regardless of wanting a full-time position, wouldn’t any adjunct want equity of pay and decent working conditions?

The inequities are built into the system. There was a time when earning a PhD meant that you were subsidized by an educational institution as you transitioned into a tenure track. You might be teaching at the institution as you complete your doctoral studies without tuition costs, and even receive a modest stipend for living expenses. This is no longer the case, and typically “terminally degreed” hires come to the institutions with papers in hand and crushing debt having funded their education themselves.

Other educators make due with a master’s degree, hoping to find a position that supports their continued education and provides some provisions for earning a doctoral degree. The irony here is that educational institutions, which typically are hell bent on retaining their undergrads and providing sources of subsidies and support for paying students, feel that it’s not their problem when it comes to enriching those who are directly responsible for their own students’ academic successes.


To give some perspective of the cash flow difference, full-time faculty earns an average of $65,407 for 9 months of work, while someone operating in a similar capacity part-time earns and average of $11,160 annually. This statistical finding comes from the AAUP.

This firmly puts an adjunct in a position where another job is needed to make ends meet, and it also makes continuing educational and professional fees (like earning a doctorate) prohibitive. So the number of adjuncts grows, and those in tenured positions are unaware of the very real restrictions and poverty their counterparts face.

There is the misconception that if you are adjunct or part-time that you are either doing it as a hobby like a bored housewife, or that you are a loser who isn’t good enough to be employed as an educator in a more trustworthy position. To the later notion, I defy anyone to show me ALL of their tenured terminal-degree holding professors were exceptional and above reproach. Mostly, tenured professors have a reputation for being disconnected and steeped in the ivory tower of academia, sometimes to the point of not actually practicing good teaching habits.

Here are my observations: Some (not all) tenured faculty freely abuse their secured positions. I have watched tenured faculty repeatedly cancel classes, answer personal calls on their cell phones during classes, and keep their offices in a state of disarray that resembles ransacked construction sites. I have watched them arrive to teach classes disheveled and distracted, wandering in and out of classrooms. I have watched them dash off sloppy emails and letters of recommendations for their students that would embarrass any college undergrad. I have watched them focus more on the hen house of faculty interactions than what is happening in their classrooms. Short of thievery or sexual harassment, these professors are comfortably settled in for life and have very little ambition to meet professional standards.

As an adjunct, one needs to be nearly perfect—smiling, professionally dressed, organized and running like a race car. Like a any professor, you need to provide timely grade turn around, accountable grading practices and be available to students when needed. Some institutions require that you provide students with your personal phone number. You need to appear to always put the interests of the institution and students above your own and speak in a professional manner. In addition to exceptional evaluations from supervisors, student evaluations of your classes must be constantly high—You need to be popular to survive. These need to be met without fail, because you can easily be replaced. You are expendable. There is no room for human error.

In other words, you need to operate as if you have an office, hardware, software, amenities, an office phone, and no other jobs. Track record means nothing, and achieving excellence in the classroom one semester does not translate to job security for the next. Every educational institution is like this. It’s very likely that the institution that you are working for expects that you treat your adjunct position as you would a full-time job, although performance expectations are more lenient when applied to tenured faculty. That’s the cow they own. You’re the cow they get the milk from for free.

The New Faculty Majority, founded in 2009 for the purpose of improving higher education by transforming the working conditions for contingent faculty, puts it rather succinctly:

…. adjunct and contingent faculty are doubly invisible. Since we do the same work, students and their families cannot tell which of their teachers are not compensated equitably. That is, we are invisible in the sense that we are indistinguishable from any other rank of faculty.  At the same time, we are invisible in the opposite way, largely ignored by administrators and by other faculty in our own and/or in other institutions. NFM aims to change the status quo by uniting 800,000 faculty and making them distinctly visible as a coherent force in a better America.

And so this is the landscape of higher education in American, from the inside. What may look balanced and distinguished on the surface is actually buttressed by an expendable, struggling, powerless contingent workforce. We are in your classrooms presenting ourselves as stable, reliable authority figures when in reality we are straddling the poverty line. We are the paid experts in the room, mortified by our double lives, and hoping that we don’t end up in a cardboard coffin like Margaret Mary.


“Who Are the Part-Time Faculty?” AAUP. Web. 10 Nov. 2013.

Rhoades, Gary, and The Opinions Expressed in This Commentary Are Solely Those of Gary Rhoades. “Adjunct Professors Are the New Working Poor.” CNN. Cable News Network, 01 Jan. 1970. Web. 10 Nov. 2013.

Jamieson, Dave. “Adjunct Professor’s Tragic Obituary Mobilizes Union Activists At Pittsburgh University.” The Huffington Post., 09 Oct. 2013. Web. 10 Nov. 2013.

Sanchez, Claudio. “The Sad Death Of An Adjunct Professor Sparks A Labor Debate.” NPR. Web. 10 Nov. 2013.

30 comments on “Adjunct. The Modern Indentured Servant.

  1. fred
    November 10, 2013

    Totally insightful well done.

  2. Pingback: Article: Higher Education’s Darkest Secret | NW Adjuncts Unite

  3. Modern Disappointment
    November 17, 2013

    Here’s another account authored by the president of the New Faculty Majority that supports Sinnamon’s article above, with even more dismal statistics (thanks for bringing this to our attention, “NW Adjuncts Unite”):

  4. joeschickeJoe
    November 17, 2013

    I was diggin’ this until you began dogging the tenured faculty. Let’s not do that! They can be (and many are) our allies.

    • Silvia
      December 1, 2013

      You’ve got to be kidding me. Are you on the market yet (are you even a phd candidate)? I get the feeling you’re not even close to finishing your degree, if you’re a phd candidate–either that or you’re the spouse/offspring of tenured faculty.

      • joeschickeJoe
        December 3, 2013

        I’m a community college adjunct. No Phd. I’m not married and my parents were in the restaurant business. I work with adjuncts, GTAs, and tenured profs at my college and at the nearby university. We use activist theater to raise awareness about our common cause, contingent labor in higher education. I really did love your blog post. It connects lots of the arguments against contingency that I hear into one cohesive piece. That’s why the tenure part threw me a bit. I appreciate you showing how perfect we adjuncts have to be in order to keep our precious yet exploitative jobs, I just disagree with the way you vilify the tenured people to make the point. I get it- some tenured folks are irresponsible and do a shitty job. But aren’t some adjuncts the same way? That’s not my point, though. My point is that the problem is only partly a result of bad tenured profs. I would argue that more of the problem comes from the overall corporatization of higher education and the casualization of the profession.

  5. VanessaVaile
    November 17, 2013

    Reblogged this on As the Adjunctiverse Turns.

    • Modern Disappointment
      December 1, 2013

      Thank you for the reblog, Vanessa! I enjoy reading the Adjunctiverse. Keep up the awesome work.

      • VanessaVaile
        December 3, 2013

        Thank you – compliment much appreciated. I don’t get to spend as much time as I’d like on the Adjunctiverse so it is mostly aggregation on the fly.

      • Modern Disappointment
        December 3, 2013

        Hey, I hear ya. And who has time when working at multiple schools managing hundreds of students and 7 bosses? Although Modern Disappointment represents many diaspora, I know first had the travails of that line of work. And I appreciate any other voices! Believe it or not, for years I felt that I was alone in it, somehow failing. Now I find out that my position is painfully common. I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry.

  6. Modern Disappointment
    November 17, 2013

    Also wanted to point people to Bert’s rant on the same topic:

  7. Keith Wayne Brown
    November 17, 2013

    Reblogged this on Reason & Existenz.

  8. Jean Waggoner
    November 17, 2013

    It’s amazing to me how people and reporting organizations, even AAUP, waffle on adjunct statistics. AAUP reported in 2011 that 75% of American college and university faculty were part-time and that only 15% were on tenure track or tenured. Given that the financial crash of 2008 is still having adverse affects on adjunct rolls and that institutions are cutting adjunct hours to avoid “Obamacare” costs, that shouldn’t mean a reduction in numbers of people working part time — only a reduction in our ability to make a living!

  9. Neko
    November 17, 2013

    Uh, I think it’s actually Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania if you’re going for accuracy here. We contingent faculty can’t ever stop grading. 🙂

    • Modern Disappointment
      November 18, 2013

      We concur, Neko! We have some of the modern disappointed clan in Pittsburgh, and we totally know where you are coming from (and that goes for you Pittsburgh Online faculty as well). Unfortunately, you all are not alone. The word from Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee and Peoria report that the weather is pretty much the same–all thrown their hats in the ring in support of Sinnamon’s perspective. And for all of you out there who don’t want to comment in the peanut gallery, you can email us and let us know what you think! Not to mention (*cough, plug, cough*) we are accepting submissions on all topics disappointing!

      For more on the joys of being an adjunct, check out Bert’s rant/advice on our site:

  10. jrhoskins
    November 18, 2013

    Reblogged this on The Adjunct Crisis.

  11. Dr. Waitress
    November 20, 2013

    I’m still hoping my Adjunct Revolution catches on. You are all welcome.

    • Modern Disappointment
      December 2, 2013

      Oh, I’m on board, Dr. Waitress. I wish I could just bail, and drive off in my battered car, but I’m shackled to this sinking ship until the next one comes in. But you can count on me to bring the flask.

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