By Michael W. Harris, BM, MA, PhD, and MS (in progress)
Disclaimer: This is not the normal fare for this blog, but I think I am going to begin transitioning this to a more multipurpose topic space…so consider this your warning.
Further disclaimer: This is MY experience. I know many adjuncts who love teaching, make it work for them, and don’t have the burn out that I experienced. I applaud their good work and hope that some day soon that work will be rewarded.
I graduated with my PhD in musicology in May of 2013, and by August 2014 I had all but decided to largely abandon the traditional academic world. I did not last long in the adjunct teaching rat race. All of one year and three total semesters (including summer), not counting the three years prior that I was technically an adjunct while also a grad student. But in those three semesters, I taught 35 credit hours and made (pre-tax) just over $44,000. I know that compared to many in the adjunct life, this was comparatively good, and I even had health benefits from one of the institutions I taught at!
So why did I leave?
Because I was exhausted, hated the type of teaching I was being forced to do with the load (and I was getting ready to teach 18 credit hours in the fall of 2014), and had no time to actually do what I love doing most—writing.
As many of you might know from the endless think pieces and confessional essays that have been floating around the internet for the past decade or so, higher education has increasingly relied on the over-educated and underpaid workforce called “adjuncts.” These are basically contingent faculty on semester-to-semester, or sometimes year-to-year, contracts that are paid near poverty wages with no job security. They are forced to teach more classes than any full-time, tenure-track faculty would ever be asked to do in order to just pay the bills. And many times to reach that just-scraping-by level they have to teach at multiple institutions over a wide geographic area.
For a point of comparison, I taught at two schools simultaneously during that year, one of which paid me $5,000 per 3 credit hour class and included health benefits once I reached the two classes per semester threshold. This is a pretty good deal as far as adjunct compensation goes. The other school, for which I had to drive nearly an hour to get to through early morning rush hour traffic for an 8AM class, paid me $1,100 per credit hour. My first semester I taught two courses as Institution A and three at institution B (which meant that I was paid less for three classes at B than I was for two at A). Such is the logic of cobbling together adjunct work. And I had around 50 students at institution A and around 120 at institution B.
But for me, the low pay and barely scraping by from month to month—since I live in one of the most expensive housing markets outside of California, New York, and Boston, AND had a car that was eating up gas and falling apart—was secondary to how I felt about my actual teaching. Having that many students in that many different classes (I had about three different courses I was teaching, with only one having multiple sections) forces you to streamline tests and assignments to allow for quick grading or else you get bogged down grading around 200 5-7 page essays. And since you are an adjunct, you can forget about having TAs. The Christmas of 2014, I actually went to visit my family with two Target bags filled with exams, essays, and quizzes to grade during the break. But because I needed to get grades out, I couldn’t spend more than 5-10 minutes per essay, and I made my exams so that I could grade one every 3-5 minutes.
But because of this, I had to simplify essay prompts, make exams more multiple choice, fill in the blank, simple song identification, and in general make things easier on me to grade. This made for less engaging work for them, and more robotic lectures from me (teach to the test!). Overall, it made the educational value less for my students, and yet modern higher education is built on an economic model in which you have higher tuitions but are really getting less because you have teachers who are paid less and doing more work.
Now I do enjoy being in the classroom, but not nearly as much as I love researching and writing. And adjuncting leaves very little time for either, and yet if you want to get out of the adjunct trap, publishing and presenting your work (raising your academic profile) is the best way. And yet adjuncts have little to no institutional support to do so: no sabbatical, no travel funds, and no time.
So to recap: I hated the type of teaching I was doing, I was depressed because I didn’t have time to research and write, and I was barely scraping by in terms of compensation. I was primed to Rage Quit from academia.
Enter my life preserver in the form of my old boss from a job I had in the university special collections department while completing my PhD. She called me up to offer me a year to year temp gig as an instructional librarian and collections processor (with some digital humanities work thrown in). She didn’t really expect me to take her up on it…but I leapt at it. I wanted out. I could not pull the ripcord on my parachute fast enough. Within two days of getting her offer, I was quitting all but one of my adjunct classes (I kept an evening class so that I could make an extra $5000 in both the fall and spring semesters just to live comfortably for the first time in my life since becoming an independent adult), and making plans to transition to a new life as a librarian.
Initially, I was thinking about keeping my options open of going back to teaching if the right job came along. But the more that first semester in the library rolled on, the more I knew that I was right to get out. The exploitation of labor, the kind of teaching I was doing that I felt ashamed of some days, and just how much I disliked grading! I enjoy talking about what I love, I enjoy writing about it, and I would love to run some seminars…but higher education is a business and it is all about butts in seats. And even PhD programs are all seemingly encouraged to churn out more graduates to feed the adjunct labor camps…I mean undergraduate elective classes. And the PhDs that actually do get the dwindling numbers of tenure track jobs are usually from the same 10-15 schools (the list varies by field). And sadly for me…I did not attend one of those schools in my field.
As evidence of this bias, I submit to you the fact that in my two years of actively applying for jobs/fellowships/post-docs (somewhere in the realm of 70 in total), I had a grand total of two phone interviews and no campus visits. And one of those was for a fellowship program designed to get humanities PhD out of the adjunct stream and into public sector work where their training could be a benefit to employers. It wasn’t that I wasn’t being productive in my field, though. I had presented a steady stream of conference papers and had articles, reviews, and essays in progress, under consideration, or published listed on my CV. Not to mention loads of teaching experience. Yet I had seemingly no interest from the market.
So, with all of this on my mind as I worked at my job in the library, I made the decision to completely abandon the academia ship and just go to library school. I was happier in my new job, I had time to pursue my own projects (though that has disappeared for now with attending library school classes on-line), and, most importantly, I could see a future for myself.
Granted, my job is still technically an “adjunct” position. I am a year to year temp (fingers crossed for another year renewal), and while I still see some of the same problems in libraries of a temp/adjunct/contingent work force…I feel like there is more a chance now. And to put myself in the best position possible for those full time jobs, I targeted and applied for the best of the best library schools with top ranked archive programs. I decided to play the elite school game.
Don’t get me wrong, there are still things I don’t like about my job, and I am still technically within the orbit of academia and all the problems that that brings with it: petty politics, budget crises, and entrenched faculty (and their egos). However, the biggest thing to come out of my time in special collections is the realization of what it is about writing and research that I do love, and it isn’t writing articles for closed off academic publications. It is writing for a more general audience. It is writing critical reviews and thoughtful reflections. It is telling the stories of the things I love. Because in the end, almost all that I have done over my life has been about telling stories.
From the THREE creative writing classes that I have taken for fun at various stages of my academic career, to damn near every paper I have ever turned in, my life has seemingly come back to storytelling. Even this very blog and the way I approach my writing in general is an example! The best piece of advice I ever got on writing criticism was to “tell the story of the event.” And that came from Pulitzer prize winning classical music critic Tim Page who kind of knows what he is talking about. (I briefly considered a music journalism career…but I am not really cut out for that kind of job hustling that modern journalism entails either.)
I consider myself a storyteller first, and that is why I love archives: the stories they contain. And as an archivist, I will have the tools and opportunities to tell and preserve these stories. Plus, once I get out of library school, I will also have the time to explore my own personal writing and other projects that will allow me to explore my storytelling via other venues.
But more about that in Part Deux…coming soon.