An Adjunct’s Story

This week, for at least the third time in my fourteen years as an adjunct lecturer at SUNY Plattsburgh, I got the dreaded news that adjunct positions were going to be cut due to a budget crisis.  In order to make up some shortfall, someone who crunches numbers for the college told deans and chairs that $178,000 needed to be cut from the adjunct budget.  This means that about 16% (or higher) of adjuncts hired by the college will be terminated.

Let me start off by saying, I am not writing this to argue for my job, or argue for a reasonable wage, or argue for better benefits.  While I could and should argue for those factors, that is not my purpose today.  I have been an adjunct for two colleges over my twenty-plus year teaching career, and I know the drill.  I am contingent faculty; my job is contingent upon many factors at a college: enrollment, budget, tenure faculty teaching requests.   I sign a contract every semester knowing that my schedule could change, and many times has changed, drastically up until the first day of classes, with or without a contract.  This is the nature of the beast.

I am writing this essay because the one thing that I want those who crunch numbers and those who decide who does not get a contract next semester to know is that each and every adjunct has a story; each and every adjunct values their contingent profession.  While the details of my story are uniquely my own, every adjunct has a story similar to mine.  Our contingent careers deserve the recognition and respect that tenured professors receive; our stories are not contingent.  Our stories deserve to be heard; we deserve to be valued as professionals, not hobbyists.  

I first registered as a non-matriculated, non-traditional student at SUNY Plattsburgh in Spring of 1988.  I came here a failure.  I failed in my marriage, I had failed in a half-hearted attempt at  a private college (for which I had to pay thousands of dollars out of my own pocket with nothing to show), I was severely depressed and underweight, and I was, to put it mildly, a mess.  I lacked self-esteem, direction, and purpose for life.  I came to SUNY Plattsburgh to re-invent myself, to start over, and  to become who I was meant to be, whoever that may be.   Little did I know then that SUNY Plattsburgh would be an integral part of my life for over three decades, without ever having been hired here in any full-time, permanent capacity.  The only time I was ever here under the term “full-time” was when I paid the college for my education. 

My first adviser suggested I become an Elementary Education Pre-K- 6 major because I had told my advisor I like children, and I was female.  I had no idea what I wanted “to be”, so I went along with the program and took the required courses.  I knew I had somewhat of a brain, but I didn’t consider myself anything remarkable or worthwhile (major self-esteem issues before “self-esteem issues” were a thing).  Then, in the Spring of 1989, Dr. David Mowry, who had recently established the Honors Center, talked to me after an Introduction to Philosophy class.  He said I stood out to him and would I want to be part of the Honors Program.  Me!  Wow.  That moment changed my life.

I joined the Honors Program and changed my major.  I was suddenly recognized for my brain.   I had something of value, me and my ideas, that I could add to the world.  I changed my major from Elementary Education to English, and I ended up double majoring in English and Philosophy.  

My undergraduate journey was filled with some wonderful professors, some of whom are no longer with us.  I was one of those students who, to paraphrase Tom Morrissey’s eulogy to Bruce Butterfield, sat outside Dr. Butterfield’s office “counting rosary beads.”  I sat in a frustrated, disillusioned, ready-to-retire, Art Newgarten’s summer 200-level philosophy course filled with students from the hockey team, and listened to him tell us “everyone gets a ‘B’ whether you show up or not” speech (which by the way, I did show up every day to his class on Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel.   Dr. Newgarten was a genius with a wonderful sense of humor); I studied and analyzed  Shakespeare in classes taught by Alexis Levitin, accompanied by his dog, Shep; I studied Paradise Lost as  taught by Anna Battagelli; I attended courses taught by Paul Johnston, Peter Corodimas, and the late Dennis April; I sat in Honors courses where Daphne Kutzer shared her own lesbian poetry with the class; in Tom Morrissey’s classes where he brilliantly brought mythology and Lord of the Ringsto life with relevant lectures about current society; I listened to Janet Groth read from Jane Austin novels in her mellifluous voice; well, you get the picture.  I grew, I learned, and all these professors helped me find value in the world, and value in myself.  I valued the liberal arts program.

During these years, the academic environment was different.  There was a bar on campus where students, the Plattsburgh community, and professors could freely mingle.  Professors weren’t afraid to invite students to their homes or out to dinner.  Society was different.  The Point, the campus bar located in Angel Center, was one such place.   Many nights I discussed philosophers and authors , abstract ideas, the meaning of life, with professors who would come in and have a beer, shoot pool, or play darts with students. I even met the man I would eventually marry (and later divorce) at the Point. Professors from the English department held holiday and end of the year get-togethers and invited students.  The Honors Center held picnics and trips for students.  Some professors even invited small groups of students out to restaurants to discuss literature.  What a wonderful community SUNY Plattsburgh was, and I am thankful for those memories.  The college community shaped the course of my life.

I graduated college, and the plans I had to go away to graduate school didn’t materialize for a variety of reasons.  I didn’t get the score I wanted on the subject GRE, and I didn’t retake it.  Instead, I enrolled in a graduate program at SUNY Plattsburgh.  I was working towards a Master’s in Education so I could teach high school English. I got married. Right before I was to start  the Student Teaching block, I was offered an adjunct position at Clinton Community College.  I was pregnant with my first born, and I needed to make money.  In 1994, my life as an adjunct had begun.  I changed my concentration, and earned a Master’s of Liberal Studies degree, with a concentration in English Literature and Reading in 1995.  The English department stopped offering that graduate program shortly after.  Apparently, I’ve been told, my degree is not that valued in the academic community.  

For me, however, I am a product of SUNY Plattsburgh’s educational system, and I did the work, wrote a thesis, and as a bonus, I learned how to teach.  I took courses in Education on how to create tests, how to evaluate students, studied different methodologies and pedagogies that work for students, how to manage classroom behavior and create a positive learning environment.  Many tenured professors, while experts in their specific disciplines, have not taken many, if any, education courses and have not learned how to impart their knowledge effectively to students.  I learned how to write, I analyzed literature, and I learned how to teach.  I value the education I got from SUNY Plattsburgh. 

When my children were young, I chose to stay home with them, and I postponed my teaching career.  I opened my own daycare because I didn’t want to miss the first tooth, the first broken arm, the first time my child said “Mama”.  When I was diagnosed with cancer, I stayed home and recovered, while still running a daycare.  When my children started school, I decided to teach again, as an adjunct as no fulltime positions were open.  After my divorce, I needed health benefits, so I applied to teach at SUNY Plattsburgh.  I worked three jobs: I taught at two colleges and I became an accountant.  I taught English, prepared taxes, did payroll for companies, and parented.  Over the next fourteen years, I have worked one, two, and three jobs at a time in order to support myself and my three children.  My passions lay in parenting and teaching.  Two careers with lousy pay.

Being an adjunct over the years has had certain benefits: I never missed any plays or concerts my children were in; I was able to drop off and pick up every day; I was able to spend time with my children.  I made my choice: my children came before my career.  And now my children are grown, and my career has not grown.  I am still contingent faculty.  I would not change my life decisions.

I made decisions that have had  life-long consequences.  I chose to stay in a profession that offered me no stability, no livable wage, for over twenty years because it is what happened.  I may lose my only profession I am passionate about, in an institution that has been a part of most of my adult life (it’s been in my life longer than some marriages…), because of choices I have made, and because, in part, of the lack of respect, recognition, and the complete exploitation of people who may not have any other choice.

If you know me, you know I’ve said, “I’m good at two things in my life: parenting and teaching.”  That is who I am.  I am a professor and a mom.  I’m damn good at both. I am proud to tell my students that I am a product of the college that they chose to attend.  

 You know, when I was a kid, teachers and high school counselors would often say, “What job would you do for free?  Whatever your answer, that’s the job for you.  That’s your passion.”  Teaching is my passion, although I would rather not do it for free.  Navient is still expecting my student loan payment from my years at SUNY Plattsburgh.  Yes, another topic for another day.