A place to file your complaints. Submissions welcome.
By Kareme D’Wheat
Another semester begins. I arrive early, well dressed, and prepared for action. Like a doctor making a house call, I bring all my own equipment, tools, toys, bells and whistles. I stand before you as the expert in the room. The adult with all the answers. The “Professor.” Which I am, in most regards. But I’m also a fraud, and not because I want to be. Your professor, the well groomed and eloquent person before you, is a fraud. Because the best I can hope to make for all this is $18,000 this year. And I’ll be lucky to make that. Because, as you may have guessed, I am “adjunct,” which is a sparkly way of saying “temp” in academic speak. Although in some regards this makes me the “fun aunt” of your academic career, it also pretty much puts me in the poorhouse.
It’s an awkward position to be in, conducting classes as an authority figure that essentially has little to no authority. I am somewhat like a temp boss or temp CEO—which sounds ridiculous. I conduct all the classroom business of an actual professor although I have no stability or ownership of my job. Glorify it by calling me a “hired gun” with “real-world” experience. Make it sound attractive by calling my working hours “flexible.” It’s a bit like having a street whore teach sex ed. And the stress from the monetary end of it is the most pressing matter. But the cherry on top is the way I get treated regularly by my colleagues, which ranges from resentment, envy and suspicion to total apathy. They are the real-deal: permanent, tenured academics. And I, by issue of circumstance, am a “fake” professor. A charlatan.
So what does this mean in the classroom? It means that what I say comes from a solicited place, and that in sharing my knowledge with you I also risk someday being in direct competition with you. And while much of what I talk about and teach you to do is phenomenal, I could do more given the right resources. Unlike my tenured colleagues, I am constantly searching for supplemental work in my field of expertise. While enrichments and stipends granted to my colleagues shine up their CVs with conferences and research endeavors, I am left to my own devices. This does not bode well for the adjunct academic. Some adjuncts I know (occasionally me included) are in a perpetual state of portfolio building, an act of desperate yet suspended animation and retardation that keeps adjuncts performing low-level work in their field in an attempt to stay current. I have been mortified by fellow adjuncts who admit to their poverty, who expose their conditions, and who literally ask their students for jobs. I also deeply empathize with them and wonder if that’s the way to do it. In some ways, we already feel proffered. Why not just go there?
Perhaps it’s the sin of pride that plays a part in my visual affectations and presentation. I am aesthetically sensitive, and can’t imagine teaching in anything other than dress clothes and professional attire. I can’t imagine slouching, or appearing disheveled. I have always done much with very little, whether it be furniture, clothing or other tools for living. I am a firm believer in trying to waste nothing. I often wear the same outfit many days in a row at multiple institutions. Recycled second hand items often look new if presented properly.
And in part, this makes me seem like an obvious success story. This confidence trick works beautifully on the surface. You look at me and think, “this professor has her shit together.” And mostly you’re right. I’m kicking ass every day with diminished returns. Don’t look too close, though. Most of these clothes are old. Like a decade old. And ill fitted due to fluctuations in size. Sometimes they are actually maternity clothes, although I am no longer pregnant. And I only wear certain pairs of shoes to teach, so those are never sullied by my actual life as a mother of 3, waiting in line at the WIC office. After I adjourn class, it’s likely that you’ll go back to your dorm rooms and your apartments with more spending money in your pocket than I may make that day (or quite possibly that week).
But when I stand before you, with my 5-year-old Walmart laptop I couldn’t afford in the first place and my clearance rack coat, I look good. I sound good. I am prepared for my lectures and have amazing visual aids. I challenge critical thinking, and show you how to do fantabulous things that will deeply impact your lives. And, I’m a charlatan. I’m the fucking music man selling you clarinets. And when you ask me about your career track, I’m compelled to help you, although I cannot help myself.
“But Professor,” you may say, “you have all the answers!” Sure. And who is the wiser?
For more Modern Disappointment on adjunct issues, see: