About a month ago, I made a sudden decision to leave my fairly interesting, fairly well-paying, office job in order to return to teaching and writing. I had to move fast because the semester was about to start– I put in my notice, sent around my resume, and within two weeks had a full teaching load lined up for fall, and a slow, part-time phase out in place at my old job. I’d been planning to stick with the gig at least until the end of the spring semester– it wasn’t a perfect fit (gray cubicle, lots of meetings), but there was no strong impetus to look for something new. But you know, sometimes when you pray about things like work, answers come. With encouragement from Dr. G, I took the spiritual hint and shifted gears.

I knew for sure it was the right decision about a week ago– sitting in that gray cubicle feeling grouchy, exhausted, and headachy, with a persistent tickle in my throat. I had to go teach in a few hours and I decided I’d better do the whole class sitting down (usually I’m a roamer), with a throat lozenge. But within 10 minutes of setting foot in the classroom, my energy returned and my niggling aches and pains disappeared. I was happy to be there. It felt just right.

Being a college teacher sounds prestigious, and it is fun to be a part of the learning process with my students and focus my energy on what I know best. But actually, for most people, college teaching is tiring, low-paid work. That’s because the majority of college teachers are like me: “part timers” called adjuncts. In the community college system here, there is a policy of hiring up to 3 adjuncts for every two full-time faculty members. Adjuncts live class to class, semester to semester. No job security, no benefits, no vacation or sick time. An adjunct in my local community college system who taught 12 3-credit courses in a year (four per semester and four in the summer– the rules limit us to 3 per semester but sometimes there are exceptions) would make less than $29,000. An English composition adjunct would grade about 1200 essays during that year, and spend about 576 hours in class, not including planning time, reading time, helping students outside of class, and grading smaller homework assignments. It’s mentally and emotionally challenging work, though many of the adjuncts who do it love the work and being in an educational setting. They are dedicated.

Universities are also staffed more and more with part-time teachers and graduate student teachers and teaching assistants, rather than full-time faculty. Full-timers have more responsibilities than part-timers– they are expected to actively add to the knowledge in their field through research and writing, review and evaluate the work of others in their field, sit on planning committees that decide the direction of their department and their discipline, and, in many cases, bring money into the institution by winning grants. They also advise and mentor upper-level students. People are often surprised to hear that Dr. G teaches just a few courses each semester– that’s because he’s doing all those other things. He works year-round, even though he doesn’t teach a single class during the summer months.

There is definitely a place in higher education for part-time and student teachers. Adjunct teaching is good for both professionals and schools, because working people active in their field can come in and teach a class in the evening, pass on what they know, and earn a few extra bucks. They bring new perspectives and authenticity into the institution, which might otherwise become stuffy and insulated. And I believe that every graduate student should take a course in pedagogy and teach a class or two under the close mentorship of an experienced professor, as part of their training for a career in higher ed.

The problem is that those grad students are often not fully prepared to teach or closely supported while they do. And, as for the alleged “part timers”– too many of us are not part time. We cobble together a schedule of a few classes at this institution, a few more at that one, until our schedules are completely full. The schools save tons and tons of money operating this way. Even if a department has to go through the hassle of hiring 10 adjuncts to each teach three classes each every semester, it would rather do that than create five full-time positions and pay three times as much. At the community college (though perhaps this does not hold true at four-year schools or private schools), this hiring model may help keep tuition costs down.

The reason this strategy works is that there are so many people like me: qualified educators who have graduate degrees and are willing to make financial sacrifices to stay in a college setting doing what they love. There is no incentive to offer people $50,000 to do what they will just as eagerly do for $20,000.

But this is not just about educators– it’s about students. How are students best served? In most cases, adjuncts do not have an on-campus presence outside a mailbox and an email address, and are therefore not very accessible to students outside of class. They are generally not well connected to what is happening at the college and can’t alert their students to new opportunities and resources as well as a full-timer could. There may be professional development opportunities available that would help improve their teaching or expertise in their field, but chances are they are too busy making ends meet to attend. When those full-timer faculty committees are meeting to set the direction of the department, adjunct voices are likely not included. And, unless they take particular initiative to seek out their fellow part-timers, most adjuncts are unlikely to interact with other teachers and exchange ideas. Even the most effective and accomplished adjunct is less equipped to serve his or her students than a full-timer with the full campus community and network of resources behind her.

So, I’m gladly diving back in to a field I love, but I feel a bit like I am contributing to the problem. And yet, I want to do this work. I have to start somewhere and see what doors open along the way. I just wonder if there is any way I can contribute to improving the system in the meantime.