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Writing to Live: How To Weigh the Benefits of a No-Benefits Teaching Job

Adjunct professors who dream of writing full-time have a funny tradeoff, and with no benefits and limited prospects of becoming a full-time professor, you have to strike a balance between your dreams and financial stability.

by Kea Krause
Sep 1 2015, 4:00pm

Guille Faingold/Stocksy United

Last fall was a confusing time. I was done with my MFA coursework, going through a breakup, and just finishing up teaching my first ever undergraduate course at the same university where I was earning my masters. A lot of reset buttons were being hit all at once, which for a woman in her early thirties was unsettling. After finding a new place to live, there was the issue of money and, really, all I wanted to do was be a writer—exercising the skill and living the fantasy I had just thrown myself into debt for—but I needed real serious bail-yourself-out money. And health insurance. I had just enjoyed 14 glorious weeks of nurturing, for the most part, sharp and talented young minds in my creative writing course, and thought of all the great things I could do with my MFA. Maybe imparting my wisdom upon the next generation could be one of them; after all, pedagogy is one of the oldest occupations in Western history for women, outside of prostitution. And so began my courtship with adjunct teaching.

Academia has long been a secure, upper-middle class profession with cushy benefits like summers off and sabbaticals to pursue area-of-study related interests. Enter the stereotypes you will here: dusty chalkboards, corduroy, and cults of personality. But the notion of the tenured professor—a person who is paid a salary and is guaranteed a teaching position every fall until they don't want it anymore, is no longer as ubiquitous as it once was. These days, universities are more intent on hiring contingent (or adjunct) faculty members; teachers who are paid by the course and contracted semesterly. And now, in order to keep their soaring tuition costs down to propel or least maintain enrolment, colleges and universities rely heavily on this league of disenfranchised workers to buoy their own finances.

Pedagogy is one of the oldest occupations in Western history for women, outside of prostitution.

This didn't sound so bad—in fact, a part-time gig where I could get writing done on the side sounded ideal. I knew other people who were beginning to explore their adjunct options, and not out of desperation. Jaime Greenring, an MFA in creative nonfiction writing who is teaching two courses this fall at two Manhattan colleges, has even found kind of a groove. "I'm not one of those writers who can wake up at 6, write for an hour, and then go to work. I know that if I have a full-time job, I won't write. So my ideal situation—which, luckily, came to pass—was 2-3 well-paying adjunct jobs, which would allow me the flexibility I need to get any writing done," Greenring told me, describing what actually sounded pretty opportune.

Photo courtesy of the author

Perhaps there was a good balance to be struck between my craft and my teaching, but that certainly wasn't the initial purpose of adjunct teaching, where positions were originally designed to be held by professionals and specialists who were winding down in the own careers and now had time to teach in their fields. And I still was bothered by several reports released in the past couple years that revealed that the balance I was seeking and some adjunct instructors like Greenring had found was an elusive one.

Contingent faculty members are paid by the course, the median pay for a 3-credit course being around $2,700, and then it's up to them to take on as many courses as they need to stay financially solvent. Their schedules often become bloated with courses, and because these teachers are not getting paid to do things like write lesson plans, meet for office hours or grade, these elements of teaching become taxing and burdensome, despite being necessary to the success of a student-teacher relationship. Juggling around three courses a semester, the average salary of non-tenured-track instructor is $24,926 a year. Turns out that there are four occupations in our country that rely heavily on government assistance: fast food worker, childcare and healthcare worker and part-time, non-tenured teacher.

In the United States, 76 percent of appointments in the higher education system are non-tenured-track positions of all shapes and sizes: lecturers, assistant professors, adjunct instructors, and so on. Which is something that should make you pause. These aren't people nesting in Victorian faculty homes with rooms full of leather-bound books; most of the people who taught you everything you know are highly educated hustlers running their game across usually two universities or more. These people pinball between campuses, trying to balance many rosters of students, hundreds of pages of student work, and hundreds of emails worth of student needs, maintaining their composure, all while teaching you how to think and specialize. These people really give a shit about teaching and at one point, they made sure you left their class with brand-new information in your head that you could then go and apply to the rest of your life.

There are four occupations in our country that rely heavily on government assistance: fast food worker, childcare and healthcare worker and part-time, non-tenured teacher.

These celebrities of your youth also face rampant marginalization. Despite the numbers being about even in terms of gender distribution in the contingent teaching world, adjunct teaching is well-known as being overtly feminized in the sense that it is a group of workers who are overworked for about half the pay of their more prestigious counterparts; tenured professors. They are often referred to the 'housewives' of the world of higher education, getting the dirty jobs done during the day, only for the breadwinning spouse to return home to reap the rewards of a clean house, and a warm dinner. It was a tough sell even for me, a woman who had fallen in shrine-building, internet-stalking love with nearly every single professor I had encountered in graduate school. Me, who had glamorized teaching at a university to a level of Dead Poets Society perversion.

It was true too, that some of my favorite teachers, who conducted classes where I achieved the most stimulated learning, were adjunct professors. Rivka Galchen, an essayist and fiction writer whose reported work appears regularly in the New Yorker, taught one such class in my program. When I asked her about her adjunct position, she made clear to me that to her, the classroom was kind of a magical environment. "I actually like teaching," she told me. "It kind of brings thinking into a mini-crucible, with everyone ideally trying to bring their best into the room for this brief, higher-energy span of hours." Some things clicked into place for me. Galchen, who on top of freelance writing, writing novels, and teaching, is also a mother. She juggles, but she makes it to the classroom every week because for her, it's about the enjoyment of being present.

And that was another looming question for me: motherhood. I also wanted to know how I was going to be a woman and cover some woman-in-thirties bases with a part-time teaching assignment. I needed health insurance for birth control to prevent a baby and then, in some dream timeline, eventually to have one. A friend of mine who is beginning to teach composition as an adjunct writing instructor in New York this fall and is encountering similar maternal ideas broke it down for me.

"I see a couple of channels—one where I work in a writing center, adjunct in two well-paying places, write essays, freelance as a proofreader occasionally, and have a baby." She continued, "There's another where I adjunct until my book sells and land that beautiful fantasy of a full-time professorship and have a baby. There's another where I do it for two years, feel run ragged, and look for low-stakes desk jobs or an academic administration or coordinator job that lets me write and have a baby. The next few years are really going to tell me for sure if adjuncting is sustainable in terms of the emotional and financial demands. And if I get to have a baby." Amen, sister.

It's a funny tradeoff, though: teach to write or write hopefully one day to teach.

I didn't decide to go the teaching route. Anything but adjunction seemed like a no-brainer, but for me it wasn't much of a choice. In basically one of those weird life-planet-star alignments, I got a full-time job with benefits that still allows me to write. It's in midtown and I emotionally eat at a place called Bread Market nearly every day because midtown sucks, but I have the things I need right now: money for my debt and money for myself, insurance and time to work on my writing, which I hope one day will be my full-time, actual job.

I don't want to end this all starry-eyed, but something in me is angling hard for it because if I ever return to this field, I don't want to be so cynical. Contingent teaching seems like a full-blown life ruiner, but it doesn't have to be. For Porochista Khakpour, the author of two novels and many, many essays, the part-time teaching path has worked out. "I've personally always enjoyed teaching because it runs in my family," she told me but admitted that she always tries harder when she is an adjunct to ensure she gets an invitation to return the following fall. This strategy is common among adjunct teachers, who try to out-perform the full-time faculty with the hopes that one day they will get those same coveted roles. I first heard Khakpour's name when she was adjunct teaching in my MFA program, but today she is a Writer-in-Residence at Bard College, where she is no longer part-time and has benefits like health insurance, having achieved that golden dream of being a writer and a full-time professor.

It's a funny tradeoff, though: teach to write or write hopefully one day to teach. The bottom line is, you must value teaching enough over all the things that could factor against you as an adjunct faculty member. The transmission of new ideas to fresh and open minds must be the driving force behind your motivation. As Galchen put it, "the classroom remains the classroom, and it's a nice eddy out from the other 97% of the minutes spent outside the classroom."