by Emerson Clouse
In 2006, I finished my Masters degree and got a position at a mid-sized Midwestern university. Officially my title was “Artist in Residence,” for the music department but I figured out pretty quickly that I was a glorified adjunct. My duties included teaching private music lessons and classes, performing, recruiting, and I could optionally pick up extra classes to augment my salary. Considering my salary was a whopping $16,000, I chose to augment it as much as I could.
What surprised me was not the money; going from my stipend in graduate school to the salary as an artist in residence was a pay increase. What caught me completely off guard was the culture and environment. Grad school had been a little chaotic, but there was a pleasant (and necessary) margin of error as I learned the ropes. When I entered the halls of my new job, I had no mentor, no support, no office, no supplies . . . and no margin of error. Basically, it was a desert. At least until it came time for those inevitable errors that come in your first year of teaching. Then I had no shortage of feedback, and little of that was pleasant.
I tried to contact other adjuncts, other artist-residents to form some sort of support group, or to at least learn something, but that wasn’t a success either. Everyone had been pitted against each other, competing for class contracts, posting fliers in the hall to get students into their sections over other teachers’ sections. As I learned, sections of various classes were added to the schedule and adjuncts hired, and any class that didn’t fill was cancelled and the students moved to another section. Any conversation I might have had must have come across as a play to undermine my colleagues. I recall one time where I had expressed some frustration at a situation over beer with one of my coworkers, and gotten called in by the chair the next day. It seemed unreal.
I learned at one point that the adjuncts in the music department were paid less than adjuncts in other departments because of some mistakes the previous interim chair had made. I couldn’t figure out why I was being penalized for the actions of someone who wasn’t even calling the shots anymore. Had he been penalized? And no wonder the other adjunct teachers (I think there were 20 or 25 of us versus maybe a dozen full time faculty) were so territorial: they–we–were being actively discriminated against.
But I think the strangest lesson of all was what followed.
I made the decision, despite all evidence to the contrary, that higher education was the place for me; I just needed a terminal degree to earn tenure. I finished two years at that job, working my hardest to serve the students, develop my skills as a performer, scholar, writer, and composer. I decided to enroll in a doctoral program, earned an assistantship, moved to another state, and had a positively wonderful time. I don’t regret it a bit. My adviser will remain one of my chief influences and confidants for as long as we’re both around. But one night while out to dinner with some faculty, my adviser, and his wife, I commented on the topic of tenure, teaching adjunct, and the state of employment in higher education. And they looked at me like I had turned green and sang the Macarena in Greek.
At one point I said that tenure seemed to be dying: either tenure lines were being cut, or no new hires were being made in favor of semester-by-semester “contingent” teachers. I had even taught adjunct at a private college that had actually taken that step: eliminated tenure, and replaced it with a series of reviews, contract renewals, clear job expectations. In all honesty, it sounded a lot like tenure, but it was called something else, and maybe that was the point. But the effect of my observation was immediate and just what one would expect from an audience that holds tenure. My adviser’s wife got upset and told me I was wrong, there was some shuffling of feet by members of the party, and the conversation swiftly leapt to another topic.
I get it. I understand exactly why she was upset. It’s upsetting stuff. I also understand why conversation moved swiftly past my social faux pas, but I wish someone would have acknowledged it because I wasn’t making it up. I’d lived the adjunct life, saw others who were trapped there with a family to raise and no way to jump to the safety of a doctoral fellowship as I had. But everyone at that table was insulated from it because they had gotten their jobs at least 10 (some 20 or more) years before. None of them knew any of the adjuncts; they were not represented at faculty meetings. No one there was looking at the job postings with the eager eyes of a soon-to-be-minted Doctor of Musical Arts.
Here’s what my eyes told me: there was one full-time posting in my area of specialization that year. There had been only one the year before. I was lucky–I had done my masters in a different area of musical expertise and teaching experience, so I could apply for those “slash” jobs: ***/theory or ***/history. But even broadening my search out a bit yielded some long odds, even if I was willing to move to remote areas, like the town of Resume Speed, WI.
After some time, I brought the topic up to my adviser in private. I opined that college felt a bit like a pyramid scheme–recruit high schoolers into your program, recruit graduate students into the masters program, groom doctoral students to do just the same. He listened kindly and acknowledged my points. And then pleaded no contest. Perhaps it was the wisest of responses. He reminded me that he hadn’t pushed anything on anyone.
He’s the sort of man who gives college professors everywhere a good name. His combination of rigor, joviality, gregariousness and enthusiasm for his work earned him a spot as an assistant dean, a position he stepped down from because he liked teaching more. He’s beloved by his students and many of the graduate students know him as a fair and engaged committee member. These are big deals in the typical academic culture where over-worked faculty are the norm.
So it isn’t lightly that I say his opinion is uninformed. Not because he hasn’t stitched together the information presented to him in a cogent manner, but because the information he has is not the whole picture.
As I learned, being an adjunct teacher is a good bit like being a migrant worker. Each season might be an alright one, but it really depends on the weather. And how many other adjuncts there are. And if you’re healthy enough to do the job. And if they like your performance last time. And if, if, if. You’ll never do well, but you’ll survive. But I also learned that no one up the ladder knew we were there. They weren’t disrespectful, but they just didn’t know. In my doctoral program I taught classes, so I actively sought out other graduate students/teachers as my cohort. I noticed classes being taught by people who were not graduate students, were not full time; they were “other.” They were that underclass I had lived in just a few years before.
I write about this not because I’m bitter. I’ve actually moved on and have a great career in software. I still gig regularly and am getting ready to publish some of my compositions. I even go to conferences–both software and music. Life is really great, and I’m so glad for this strange path to a rich life. But I know so many of my friends from graduate school are stepping into a trap. Some were so excited at their first part time college teaching jobs, and now I just hope they don’t get mired there.
So I suppose the reason I write is because I have a story to tell. And I think it’s a story that in part resonates with a lot of people. I think those stories need to be told, and not just among the adjunct army, but among the tenured, the administration, and the college-focused public. A college should be a force for social good, and if it balances that display of good on the backs of any class of people, it has lost its way.