Contingent teachers are treated like cannon fodder

“In American Studies, we’re a bit different,” the head of my department told me in a virtual meeting about a year ago. “We are not like history. We go into the field with our students. We work in the community.

I was stunned. A full-time faculty member expected me, an adjunct faculty member of color, to act as a Washington DC tour guide to a group of affluent white students. They also expected me to use my contacts in the nonprofit world to help these students liaise and work with social justice organizations on their research projects. None of those expectations came with extra pay, of course. And all this at a time when 200,000 Americans were contracting Covid-19 every day – and 5,000 were dying from it.

The amount of privilege shown by this department head still disgusts me. If I hadn’t needed the income, I would have quit right away.

This fall 2020 semester almost killed me. My blood pressure was sky high and my sleep was filled with Covid nightmares. In October, I spent 25 hours a week placing my students with relevant organizations. As most had closed or gone virtual, I also stepped in to help half of my students formulate a project they could do without meeting the community service requirement.

In another class, students complained that I couldn’t somehow make the pandemic go away and get them safely to the National Mall. They grew tired of our weekly class discussions on Zoom. This pettiness while my 89-year-old mother-in-law was dying in isolation in her nursing home. The 2020 election cycle and threats of insurgency added to my depression and it became hard to just get out of bed: forget about teaching, grading, or responding to emails.

I did all this for a university that had increased my salary per course by just $125, to $4,425 the previous year, while increasing the maximum number of students from 19 to 28 per course. These students were paying over $5,000 each to take a three-credit hour course with me. This meant that one student could cover my entire salary per course and four my average salary for a year.

I also teach at another university, at $4,200 per class, but that has long stripped away any faculty autonomy – including the use of our own lecture notes, books, and assignments. This meant at least no expectations beyond managing online lessons and discussions and grading assignments generated online. In my main job, however, I earn about $15 per student per week per course, in exchange for preparing, teaching, and grading my own material, with no pension or health benefits. If that’s not an example of rank exploiting, then I don’t know what is.

So when my department head asked me to be more like him, I thought of Jason Bourne’s movie mantra: “Look at us. Look what they make you give. An agent known as The Professor says it first during The Bourne Identity, after Bourne blew it up in a random French field. Bourne himself then tells an assassin trying to kill him on a Manhattan rooftop at the end of The Bourne Ultimatumclosing the figurative circle.

Aside from a brief stint online at the peak of Omicron’s rise to power, my primary institution has emphasized in-person teaching this academic year. This change happened due to student complaints about the efficiency of learning through Zoom. But I barely made it through the last semester. The only way to ventilate my classroom was to open the windows and I had to constantly remind students to keep wearing their masks. Their racial and socioeconomic privilege allowed them to not take a deadly pandemic seriously, but even with two shots of the Pfizer vaccine, this middle-aged black man still didn’t feel safe. So I wore a cloth mask, a medical mask underneath, goggles and gloves in class.

It was not an ideal teaching situation. Some students complained that they couldn’t hear me even when I was shouting. Others have complained about my reluctance to stay and talk to them after class or during office hours in person. At one point, amid technical and wifi issues, I said under her breath, “What am I doing here? It would be so easy for me to walk out of this class now, never to come back. No job is worth all that. I was about to quit again.

It is no exaggeration to say that contingent faculties are treated like mere cannon fodder, always in grave danger of being suppressed. I know contingent teachers who burned out, had nervous breakdowns or even died from the stress of the work we all do, even before the pandemic.

Recently, my main university offered us a salary increase of only 0.6%, citing declining enrollment and financial difficulties during the pandemic. But the university couldn’t have functioned at all if we hadn’t done our jobs for almost two years in frantically improvised online forms and dangerous classrooms.

The Bourne IdentityThe professor chose a career that could only end with his death. The physical and mental health of adjunct teachers is only slightly less at risk, especially given the added pressure of low pay or no pay for our work. All this to improve the profit margins of our employers. To my fellow contingent faculty, I repeat: look at us. Look what they make you give.

Donald Earl Collins is an adjunct professor at two American universities.

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