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End-of-Semester Notes from a Disgruntled Adjunct

It's been a semester.

By Sarahmarie Specht-BirdPublished 2 years ago 7 min read
End-of-Semester Notes from a Disgruntled Adjunct
Photo by Nick Page on Unsplash

It's been two months since I wrote a word on Vocal. In the summer, I was committed to writing and publishing every day.

Then the semester started.

I'm an adjunct instructor in composition at a community college. This means that I teach the same course load as a full-time instructor for a fraction of the pay and no benefits. Full-time jobs are very hard to come by in my field, so many people take the adjunct route. We pick up the slack by teaching at multiple places. In my case, I teach for two online enrichment programs in addition to my four college classes.

In general, I love what I do. I believe in writing as a means of communication so deeply, and I want to help my students develop their ability to express themselves not just in school or college but in life. I love helping my younger students strengthen their sentences and build their critical reading skills. We play games. We have interesting discussions. We write and edit a lot. Not everyone loves my classes, of course, not that that's a prerequisite. But for the ones who show up and do their best, I try to give them what I can.

It's just hard on the bad days to remember why I'm doing this.

One of my college classes has 22 students, and last week, between 10 and 14 showed up both days. The attendance has been steadily declining ever since October, not that it was ever perfect to begin with. And when students do come, I often have to repeat myself multiple times throughout the class and answer questions that I already covered moments earlier. The essays have been all over the place, if they get turned in. Often, students will stroll in halfway through the class without a care in the world.

When I'm rested, fed, and not having an existential crisis, I can laugh this off. I can acknowledge that these students have so much going on in their lives, often working at least one job and sometimes caring for children or family, and my class is but one in a chain of things that they have to manage on a daily basis. I can realize that the majority of students are actually doing quite well, or at least soldiering on. When I think about it, I can understand that it's really only a handful of students that I worry about or am upset with, and everyone else is doing their darned best.

But a lot of the time, when I haven't gotten as much done the previous day, or when I haven't slept enough, or when I have spent hours fretting over what I'm even doing with my life and whether I'm doing anything right, it is hard not to take it all personally.

One of the things I hate about being an adjunct is that it is very isolating. There are over 100 adjuncts in my department, and apart from a beginning-of-semester meeting or two, there is no expectation for adjuncts to attend department gatherings, go to a happy hour, or even be on campus past our class commitments.

I've been to the English department office a total of three times. I've talked to a handful of other instructors. They are very kind and gracious, and people reach out fairly frequently with support. But since there are so many of us and none of us has an on-campus office, it's just not possible for any kind of community to develop. Or at least, not that I'm aware of.

I know that much of life is about putting yourself out there and trying to make connections. I have tried to do this, but maybe I haven't tried hard enough. Or maybe everyone feels this way. I just miss having coworkers.

Another very obvious thing I hate about adjuncting is the pay. We are paid on a contract by the contact hour, times 1.25. So for a 3-hour class, I am paid as though it is 3.75 hours, with a whole 45 minutes per week built in for planning, grading, and email. Ha. I'm at $54 per contact hour now, which would be fine if I literally only worked during the class time, but obviously, like every other teacher, large swaths of my weeks go to mountains of grading and lesson planning.

I don't say this to complain or to get pity—well, maybe it is just to complain. Maybe I need to vent.

Even though there are moments with students that drive me up a wall, the students are not the problem. Without coworkers to vent to, it's hard to know if what I'm experiencing is normal. It's hard to know if I'm doing something wrong, or if this is just how the semester is going. It's hard not to take it personally or wonder about my skills. I feel like over the past two years I have stagnated professionally, and I wish I knew if other people felt that way too.

It also makes me wonder about the whole system. I have students in my class who are working 40-plus hour work weeks on top of taking a full schedule of classes. One student just told me that they work 70 hours a week: one job during the day, and another at night. I suggested to take this class in another semester, but they wanted to finish their degree as soon as possible.

The degree. The piece of paper. That's what everyone's after: not learning how to write, not knowing how to conduct oneself in a college environment, not understanding audience or purpose or genre—the degree.

As a society, we are obsessed with college degrees. You have to have a college degree to do so many things now. And then when you get one, what kinds of jobs with what kind of pay will you get? It looks a little bleak.

I saw a post on social media the other day saying that millennials are the best educated generation, yet the worst paid in history. This resonated deeply. I graduated with high honors from a top-20 university. I have two master's degrees with distinction in English. And I am an adjunct. I have an ACA healthcare plan that is barely useful. I have to work three jobs to save any money. I'm wondering what the hell I am doing.

I look at my students trying so hard, learning how to find and evaluate sources, learning to put information together in a logical way, and I am proud of them. But I wonder sometimes why they are even in this class or in college to begin with.

I wonder why we hold college up as this shining ideal, like it is the only benchmark of success or progress. I believe in education for its own sake, and I think that what I teach has far-reaching meaning beyond simply knowing how to write an essay in MLA for school. But recently, it all feels a bit absurd.

These students should not have to be in my class to matter. They should not have to use Times New Roman, double-spaced, 12-point font, MLA format, with sources cited in parentheses at the end of a quote or paraphrase. They should not have to be forced to write in this specific way made up by a bunch of white guys in the 60s in order to get a piece of paper that says "you did it, you matter, now go get a job."

The whole system is stupid. It's a capitalistic white-centric university-educated circle-jerk. The whole privileging of college and academic writing as an ideal is inherently awful. No wonder my students don't know how to cite a source in MLA. No wonder they look bored to tears when I talk about word count. They should be writing because it's beautiful. They should be writing to tell the world "here I am." They should be writing as a way of understanding, or trying to, as a way of learning more about themselves and the world. But instead, they have to remove themselves from their writing, take out their emotions, set aside their personhood to meet expectations.

So here I am, at the end of the semester. I have one week of classes left. I will finish up my silly little gradebook and send my silly little end-of-semester emails. I will tick all the boxes, fulfill all the requirements, assign grades based on how well they met the college-standard rubric. I will breathe a sigh of relief for a couple of weeks until it all starts over again. I will wonder, from here until the future, if I am doing the right thing, and how I can possibly work within such a broken system.

I will keep trying.


About the Creator

Sarahmarie Specht-Bird

A writer, teacher, traveler, and long-distance hiker in pursuit of a life that blends them all. Read trail dispatches and adventure stories at my website.

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