Adjunct at/with heart: Gaining from others’ pain

For the second time in two terms, I’ve just received a good news/bad news notice from one of the schools I work at. The good news is stark: I’ve added a class in the middle of the term, which means a bit more work but also a paycheck that will double, starting in two days. This is surprise money out of the blue, six months after summer scheduling showed me I had only one section of one small course and was far, far down on the list for any chance of adding more. Because it is a different section of the same class I’m teaching, it will require little additional preparation and not much additional grading time. The money will buy me a computer to replace the one that’s been a rugged travel companion and is, now, in need of gentle rest. Cheerfully taking the class with short notice also (possibly?) endears me a bit more to my department.

But every benefit I’ll gain is now denied to the faculty member who can no longer teach. Speaking generally, part-time faculty members have little to fall back on when they have to unexpectedly leave a class. They are also more likely to have to do so, simply because many adjunct faculty are both constantly on the job market and under-insured, meaning what might be a minor, week-off health issue for someone full time can quickly become an ignore-it-and-it-didn’t-go-away-now-I’m-hospitalized condition for a PT faculty member. I also know that most of us non-contracted faculty members cling to our assignments like so much precious gold, both because it provides our livelihood and because it is a vocation. This means that a class left in mid-term is being left with regret and out of necessity.

I’ve read that many colleges experience competition between non-contracted faculty members (and contracted faculty, for that matter) to gain preferred times, dates, classes, assignments, etc. I haven’t much experienced this, and I’m glad, but I do know that I’m hyperaware of my place in the pecking order at both places I teach. When someone else falls from the seniority list, I’ve been trained by the situation to silently cheer — and then to equally silently mourn the reasons for their departure.

I’ve seen plenty of posts and tweets and comments recently about how full-time faculty could better recognize and support part-time faculty. There are many great ideas about professional development, paying for training, offering mentorship, etc. One of the great kindnesses, though, that I rarely see extended is the offer of substitute teaching. At both institutions where I work, I think this comes down to simple economics: If I’m sick and ask for someone to step into my class, because of our contracts, part-time faculty would be paid (hourly rates) to teach, while full-time salaried faculty would receive no additional money to do so. I understand that they face the same problems of having multiple demands on limited time that part-time faculty members do, and I will enjoy the money that comes from substitute teaching this course and others in the future. Still, even the gesture of once a term substitute teaching would go quite a ways in proving that our contracted colleagues have our backs.

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