Adjunct Shuffle

I’m a college professor.  This is not something I ever thought I’d say about myself, and I still get a kick out of telling people, especially people who’ve known me for a long time but haven’t seen me in years.  The response to this, so far, has always been positive, sometimes even impressed.  Sometimes the people who are genuinely interested press for details about my job.

“What do you teach?”


“Oh I bet that’s a lot of reading.”

“It is.”

“That sounds exhausting.”

“It sounds that way to me too.”

Once in a while, they’ll ask, “Where do you teach?”

The answer changes, depending on the year, but it’s always some version of, “Mt. San Jacinto College, Riverside City College, and Cal State San Bernardino.”  The response is always the same:

“Why?”  Meaning, why three colleges?

The short answer is this:  The only way to earn a full-time living as an adjunct professor, is to cobble it together from several part-time jobs.

Before I continue I’m going to qualify everything I say here with the following:  I LOVE being a college professor.  It’s the single best thing I’ve ever done with my time here on earth.  Helping my students become stronger writers and communicators, especially my community college students, is one of the great privileges of my life.

So, one of the problems with saying you have to figure out a full-time living from several part-time jobs is that it’s not terribly specific.  I’d love to tell you that by working at three colleges, I can earn $70K a year if I teach two classes per school.  Truth is though, I honestly don’t know how much I’m earning in a year until I get all my W-2s together the following February.

When I was working in the private sector, if I was earning $25 an hour, working 40 hours a week, I was earning $52K a year.  Period.  Because math.

As an adjunct professor, I get paid a lecture rate for time spent in the classroom, a lab rate for time spent in the writing centers, and it’s all calculated by the semester, and then doled out monthly, and it changes depending on holidays, or just on how the calendar works in that particular year.  My first two paychecks for one school at the start of this last semester was almost double what it normally is because I also taught over the winter session.  It was great, but I couldn’t have predicted it in a thousand years, which means I wasn’t able to rely on it.

Because the adjunct life is a life of inconsistency and uncertainty.

Also, just real quick, any adjunct professor reading everything up to this point is about five seconds away from asking, “Why hasn’t this guy brought up the part where we get paid for the four hours we’re in the classroom every week, and then the 10+ hours we spend prepping and grading, that’s just time we have to donate to the cause?”  And the answer is, because this article is about inconsistency, and that part of the job is consistently bullshit.  Know what else is consistently bullshit?  The ongoing surprise of tax season.  Another time.

Another problem with saying you have to cobble together a full-time living from several part-time jobs, is that the jobs don’t consistently offer you work.  Once again, in the private sector, if I get a part-time job delivering pizza, the hours might change, but I can probably count on 20 hours a week of schlepping “food” to people who don’t want to cook.  Let me take you through the last few months:

About ten weeks back, I get an email from one of my schools that there’s no work for me in the fall.  Okay.  No idea why this would be the case, but there’s a lot I have no idea about, so I shrug my shoulders, say, “Thanks, please let me know if that changes,” and I blow grading off for the rest of the day and apply for adjunct work at three different colleges (because relying on any one school for work is clearly a bad idea).  This lack of classes at the one school means I only have two classes for the fall.  This causes some stress, as two classes isn’t enough to pay the bills.  To get by on two classes I’ll have to substitute teach at the high school level, which is fine, but not at all what I want to do for a living (I like teaching adults).

Three weeks pass, and I finally get an email from one of the schools asking if I’d like to come in for an interview the following week.  Obviously yes, so I set that up, and then five minutes later, I get another email from the school that didn’t have any work for me in the fall.  They want to know if I want a class for the fall.  Obviously yes.

Okay, great.  Three classes in the fall, and if I get this new job, that’s at least a fourth class, maybe a fifth.  Personally, I’ve decided four classes is ideal, but I’ve done more, so this is fine.  A week later, I get another email from the school that didn’t have work for me in the fall, asking if I’d like a second class.  Obviously yes, but fucking hell.  Apparently they’re having a strong enrollment for the fall, so I get two classes.  Awesome.

I go to the interview, I’m in there for over an hour, and it goes great.  I walk out of there feeling pretty certain that the only thing standing between me and a class at the new school is my own schedule.  Two days ago, I get an email from the new school, and they thank me for coming in, and tell me it’ll be August before they know if they’ll have work for me in the fall, because they’ve had lower-than-expected enrollment for the fall. I’m fine with this.  Honestly.  Four classes is plenty, and if I don’t get classes at the new school in the fall, I feel confident I’ll get them in the spring.

Then I get an email from the chair of a different department from the school that didn’t have work for me in the fall, and he’s offering me a class. And I absolutely take it. I email the school where I interviewed and tell them I’m unavailable for any classes in the fall. It was nice to have a good interview I guess. Maybe it’ll work out to teach there in the future. Anything’s possible after all, because the adjunct life (a life that I love, in spite of all the negatives) is a life of inconsistency and uncertainty.