Being an adjunct college professor can be awful | Bleader

Being an adjunct college professor can be awful 

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

click to enlarge "A student said it 'must be cool to be a teacher and not have to work in the summer.' I met this comment with a bombastic laugh."

"A student said it 'must be cool to be a teacher and not have to work in the summer.' I met this comment with a bombastic laugh."


I've had a sore throat for six straight weeks. To soothe my pain and preserve my voice, I've tried the typical home remedies: drinking fluids, avoiding cough drops with menthol (which dries out vocal cords), and sitting in my steam-filled bathroom. If I really wanted my pain to end, I'd have to give my voice a break and go to see a doctor. But I can't do either of those things because I teach six college courses and have no health insurance. 

Since getting my PhD in 2014, I've juggled a trio of teaching jobs at three different Chicago universities. I regularly teach between four and six classes a semester. Taking on a course load this intense is the only way I can make rent, pay the bills, and chip away at my student loan debt. If one of the universities offers me a course, I have to accept it swiftly and without reservation, no matter how overcommitted I am; I would be quickly replaced by another, equally eager adjunct if I turned down any class offered to me.

Because course scheduling is incredibly unpredictable, it's also necessary, unfortunately, that I work for (and remain in the good graces of) at least three universities at a time. A school may offer me two classes one semester and zero classes the next. As an adjunct, my classes are scheduled last, after the needs of full-time and tenured faculty are met, so I'm often unsure of my job prospects until a week or two before the semester starts. In addition, any courses I sign up to teach may be canceled at the last minute due to low enrollment, budgetary concerns, or simply because a full-time faculty member decides they want to teach it. I'm forced to strategically overcommit, then pray that only one or two of my classes is cut.

There's one additional reason why I'm forced to teach at three schools, and it's perhaps the most infuriating and unjust of them all: universities categorically refuse to give their adjunct professors enough courses to qualify as full-time employees. It doesn't matter how long I work for my employers, how glowing my student evaluations are, how reliable I've proved to be, or even what the school's teaching needs are: I'm not allowed to teach enough classes to qualify for benefits and health insurance.

One of my employers, Loyola University Chicago, used to permit its contingent faculty to teach as many as three courses per semester. A three-class load approached a livable wage and allowed adjuncts to devote themselves to teaching at a single institution. However, this policy ceased after the Affordable Care Act was passed. Now the university's adjuncts are barred from teaching more than two courses per semester, lest the school be legally required to provide health insurance.

Policies like these exist at all three schools where I teach, and they absolutely have a direct, negative impact on my teaching. On a typical day, I walk to one campus, teach a morning class, take two buses to my second campus, teach two classes, then take two more buses to my third and final campus, where I teach a night class and hold office hours. I'm spread thin emotionally, logistically, and cognitively. Necessity forces me to streamline my lectures and grading as much as possible; only students in my upper-level classes receive detailed, lengthy feedback on their writing assignments. If a student cannot make my regularly scheduled office hours, it's unlikely I will be able to meet with them at all. I'm not able to provide advising or mentorship outside of the classroom, and struggle to learn the names of my 140-plus students. I approach my three separate university e-mail inboxes like rapidly sinking boats I'll never fully bail myself out of.

I'm not alone in feeling this way. A fellow adjunct told me that she has to choose between teaching a few courses well and teaching enough courses to earn a living wage. "If a university values undergraduate education," she said, "they should be ashamed of themselves for overburdening adjuncts who need to teach four or five courses a semester just to support themselves and their families. The undergraduates suffer from the adjunct crisis as well." Most of my students are unaware of the plight adjuncts face. Last spring, a bright-eyed business major said to me that it "must be cool to be a teacher and not have to work in the summer." I met this comment with a laugh so bombastic and bitter that the student took a step back. I told him that if I don't teach, I don't eat. Students are similarly baffled when they discover that I don't have an office and don't know which classes I'll be teaching next semester or even if I'll be teaching at their school at all. In explaining my situation to them, I have to be careful not to complain. Adjuncts have been fired for less.

The National Labor Relations Board ruled in December that it has jurisdiction over Loyola, and in January, the university's adjuncts voted to join the Service Employees International Union, following in the footsteps of other Chicago-area contingent faculty who have unionized in recent years, including those at UIC and the University of Chicago. According to a union representative with whom I spoke, Loyola's two-course teaching cap was a deciding factor in the votes of many adjunct instructors.

If universities in Chicago and elsewhere were to remove their teaching restrictions and allow full-time contracts, I'd enjoy health insurance and financial stability, allowing me to quit at least one of my jobs and more deeply devote myself to improving the education of my students.

Loyola, however, is proving intransigent on this front. Back in February, the university filed an appeal to the NLRB's ruling, maintaining that its adjuncts, as employees of a religious institution, have no right to unionize under the NLRB's jurisdiction. In moments like this, I wish that Loyola actually did treat me the way it does members of the clergy. I don't think priests get fired if they can't deliver a homily due to strep throat.

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  → 

Popular Stories