The Rules of Adjunctification – or What I learned I had in common with Oliver Twist

This post has been a long time in the making.  A very long time — some 15 years, to be precise.  I started “adjuncting” while still in graduate school and have worked, steadily, at 14 different universities in Ontario and British Columbia since that time.  Heck, I’ve even worked in the UK.   My friends and colleagues joke I am the quintessential “itinerant professor” and they are right – but I have had to become so in order to survive.  So when I say that what I have to draw on in terms of experience is wide-ranging and I think I have the ability to make some general observations based on what I have seen and experienced during my time running to and from various institutions to teach everything from Western Civilization classes of 425 students to fourth year seminars of 10 students, believe me, I am not exaggerating.


During this past week, I have had a long-overdue epiphany about the nature of precarious work in academia and the rules of Adjuctification (largely unspoken) that apply to those of us who man the trenches of undergraduate education.  I know I have always been the optimist and that I have always argued that at least by piecing together various courses at a number of universities in any one academic year, that I have been able to continue what I love to do while waiting for the opportunity to stay still: waiting for the opportunity for that elusive permanent, full time job.  This week, however, I came to realize that if that job is posted, even if I work in the department posting it, that job will never, ever be for me.


So for the last few days I have, in some sense, been working through a particularly academic version of the various stages of grief that accompany a personal loss; in my case, a personal revelation (how appropriate for Easter weekend, yes?).  I am not sure how many stages there should be when one is mourning the loss of a career you have given a good deal of time, effort and money to prepare yourself for, but I am sure there are at least a couple.  During the past week, I came to realize that these stages correspond to, or at least result in part from, what I am calling the Rules of Adjuctification. For the record, I have never really been in denial about the realities of teaching as an adjunct or, as we call them in Canada, a sessional lecturer.  You are contracted, course by course, term by term.  There is never any promise of future work (Collective Agreements and contracts tell you this in blunt legalese), and your place on the seniority list is no guarantee of being given any in the future (in fact, many institutions place a “shelf life” on your seniority to a year or two if you don’t continue to teach at that institution).  I have always cast my net widely to make up for such problems.  No courses at one university? No problem. Work for another.  I have bargained with myself that at least I was doing something I love and while I was not being paid anywhere near what my full time colleagues were getting, at least I was making contacts at all these places and that was a good thing, right?


Well, I have accepted that it might have been a good thing to be employed in a field that I love – and, for the record, one that I am very, VERY good at – but it isn’t to allow myself to be treated in a manner that, at its core, reduces me to a second class academic citizen.  I have accepted that I am not as angry as perhaps others will say I should be, but neither am I content to sit back and say nothing.


Before I continue, it must be noted that, at least in Canada, the number of part time, sessional lecturers in universities has grown to mind-boggling proportions.  While some universities try to hold the number of adjunct/sessionals in the over all institution to an AVERAGE of 30%, at others, it is clear that over half of the faculty is part time.  The process of “adjunctification” is something that is more of a tidal wave, than a slow creep and is in need of more serious consideration throughout Canada and the United States.


So, based on many years of hands on research, here are my Rules of Adjunctification.  They have never been written officially down and likely never will be by any institution – unless you include the “we are not obligated to hire you again” language you find in Collective Agreements and on the very contracts they ask us to sign which outline the terms of our labour.  Many of these rules are unspoken but are there – and we in academia live our lives by them.  They are the Big Pink Elephant in the department.  In essence, they make every adjunct or sessional lecturer an “Oliver Twist” – we are given what the institution thinks we deserve and we are obliged to take it with a smile and be thankful (regardless of the rotten conditions or amount of grueling work) and to say “please, Chair, can I have some more work” in the meekest, mildest way when we would rather demand our rights.


I must also state here that all of my teaching experiences have been in unionized environments, so I know that my experiences may be quite different in parts from those of others who have not had that opportunity.  Sad to say, however, that being in those environments has not really done me much good.  In fact, that was the main reason I became involved (two years ago now) in union work advocating on behalf of adjunct/sessional staff.  I note this only in the spirit of full disclosure, not to suggest that what is presented below is in any way a “union call to action.”  Trust me, some of the unions I have belonged to in the past were quick to throw part time staff “under the bus” in labour negotiations, especially if something could be acquired for full time faculty.


My list is not exhaustive.  You will likely have your own to add and I would be pleased to hear from readers as to ones I have missed.


  1. You are a warm body, contracted only for a short time. We owe you no loyalty at all. – This is the one rule that governs all others.  You matter to your department only so long as your contract is valid.  While they will reiterate they owe you nothing past the date of your contract end, remember that works both ways.  You are not beholden to them, either – and there may be some solace in that.


  1. Related to the above rule is this one: We will hire you when we please – whether that is 3 months or 3 days before the start of term. And we will expect the same preparation and performance from you, regardless of what timelines you are given. We will not be entirely pleased when you turn us down citing “other work” when we hire you at the last minute. We have a long memory and will remember your refusal but not the good you have done and will do for the department.


  1. We expect you to act and to produce/teach in the same manner as our full time faculty. You will be given minimal or no help in doing so. – Whether you are hired well in advance of term (something that happens rarely in the academia) or whether you are hired with merely days to go before the start of classes, the department in question will likely expect you to spend your own non-contracted (and thus, non-paid) time to put together the course.  You will not, as your full time colleagues do, get time worked into your terms of employment for curriculum development.  They will expect you to work before your contract starts (developing the course or coming to “orientations”) and, if there are any deferred exams or papers, they will expect you to work after your contract ends – often without payment.  I have worked in departments where this is not the case; and I am grateful to those few institutions that realize my time is valuable. But these were few in number and more prevalent is the idea that “as you work for us as faculty, we’ll expect exactly the same of you as our full timers.” The idea is, of itself, an interesting one.  The reality is far different.  If I am to be treated as your full time faculty, I need to see that reflected in the terms of my employment: give me a paycheck that reflects my training, experience and expertise (which is often equal to and at times greater than my full time colleagues); give me paid time to prep my courses; provide me with some form of office space so that I can see students and discuss their concerns in a professional way; give me library access ahead of my course so that I can do that prep and so that I can see what the university has in its holdings in order to prepare thoughtful and workable assignments for my students; pay me enough so that you have my full and undivided attention; or, if you can’t compensate me adequately, please realize that you will not be the only institution I will be working for and do not get upset when I cannot do what you want as quickly or as efficiently as you would like me to.


  1. You will carry the same student number per class as regular faculty. You will have the same duties and obligations.  We will pay you a fraction of regular faculty salary without access to benefits and/or professional development funds.  You may complain, but we reserve the right to argue that “you knew what you were getting into” in response. – I think this one needs no explanation.  I have experienced it a number of times.  My favourite was at a university in Ontario where, over the course of the first week of term, my teaching load grew from 1.5 courses to 3.5 and was essentially one tutorial group short of a full time load.  (A tutorial group would equal an hour’s worth of in-class time, and grading marking for around 20 students.) When I asked the chair to consider giving me one more group and thus make me a full-time contract employee (if only for one term), I was told that it was not possible (even though I knew there was one more tutorial to be assigned – and that they were desperately looking for someone to teach it).  He added if he knew I would be making such a “ridiculous request” he wouldn’t have assigned me the extra work in the first place.


  1. We will praise you only when you do something worthy of being put on the department’s web site and/or worthy of being put in a departmental report to administration. But we will do little to help you get the funding and/or opportunities you need to be able to do something worthy of our attention. So don’t hold your breath.  Given the culture in academia, it is not surprising there is an increasing emphasis on things deemed to be “more important” than teaching, like giving interviews in the media on “trending topics,” winning a fellowship or a book prize, publishing a monograph with a “significant national” publisher.  If you are a part timer, chances are you are not eligible for funding from national granting organizations because you are not full time.  And I worked at only a handful of institutions that gave anything in the way of professional development or research grants to part timers. Many of those institutional grants were welcome, but they were a fraction of what was given to full time staff and involved restrictions on dates and usage (want to go to a conference that happens AFTER term ends? No way. And many conferences happen after term ends.) Moreover, part timers who win teaching awards (usually given out by the institution or by the student associations) will likely never have that recognized by their department, no matter how loudly the same department would crow about that same award if it had been given to full time faculty.  Adjuncts will never be trotted out as the “poster child” for a department’s success, for it’s ability to connect with the community – despite the fact that many adjuncts are doing great things with next to little, if any resources. I have come to believe that departments don’t celebrate their part time faculty’s achievements because doing so would likely raise the question they do not want to hear: “So why don’t you give them a full time job?”


  1. If you apply for a full time job in the department we will consider your application but not with any view to hiring you. We may decide to interview you out of politeness but we will never consider you a serious candidate. – Rest assured that no matter how high your student teaching evaluations are, your application will be judged by those very things your employer department and institution have come increasingly to value: publication, research and dissemination of research. I once had an interesting discussion with a chair of one of the departments I worked for on this very issue.  It was, in many ways, a wonderful department to work for but the chair admitted to me that while they valued my teaching, it be at my “scholarship” that would be the deciding factor in any full time job search in that department.  When I pointed out that the department did not provide any support for me to do that work, and that the pay at their institution was such that it obliged me to find additional work and thus limit the amount of time and funds available for research/writing, he had the decency to admit that it was a failing on the department and institution’s part.  But he did add, however, that they couldn’t just hire excellent teachers as that “wasn’t industry standard.” I have heard from colleagues who are given interviews for full time jobs in department in which they have worked as a part timer, and their experience was eerily similar to mine in the same circumstances: a lecture/job talk that was so sparsely attended by faculty as to suggest an obvious lack of interest, no “free meal” (unlike out of towners who were given the full treatment of expensive lunch and dinner) and a discussion with the Academic Dean which focused on “what the university needs in the future that wouldn’t really be served by your being hired” rather than the individual’s qualification and what they could bring to the university/department.


  1. We will publicly, and even in conversation with you, express the conviction that the plight of adjuncts / sessionals is an important issue that the Administration needs to address. We will, however, take no action on our own to address any of the issues you raise.  After all, we’re not the administration and it is their responsibility, not ours to sort this out. – To some degree, this is true.  Departments do not make policy; that is the institution’s purview.  But that should not give them a free pass to carry on policies that put an increasingly significant part of their faculty at decided disadvantage.  This approach always reminds me of a particular scene in the fabulous classic move Mrs. Miniver.  A conversation about how to bring about change in the world turns to the question of action vs. words and one character suggests that talking alone won’t do anything – “a little bit of action is required now and then.”  I think departments should take that to heart – because it is very likely that if they and the institutions they are part of don’t take action, that their part time lecturing staff will.



3 thoughts on “The Rules of Adjunctification – or What I learned I had in common with Oliver Twist

  1. Pingback: The Rules of Adjunctification – or What I learned I had in common with Oliver Twist | Merle Massie A Place in History

  2. Lydia Snow

    Thank you for your articulate and compassionate analysis of the adjunct dilemma in academia. I have only one rule to add to this and it may seem crass but like you I woke up in the middle of the night and the epiphany moment was intense. Adjuncts live in a world that is entirely dependent on their desire to help educate their students. When one has taken all this time to get educated and then taught intensely for many years, the students become the focus of the discussion. But we are faculty believe it or not. We are not indebted to our students, nor do we owe them anything. It is their choice to come to college and they are paying for it. So stop using that as an excuse to stay silent about abhorrent working conditions. We owe it to ourselves, not our students, to demand the human right to teach our disciplines.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s