Why do adjuncts teach for minimal pay?

Community College Dean wrote today about the bright side of economic free fall. It is, he posits, that the idea of obtaining a job by merit will be destroyed. Clearly people now are not significantly less good than the same group was two years ago.

It is an interesting discussion and one that may have a legitimate point, though one outside my sphere of discussion, but he said something else that I can address-and that I want to address.

I can’t help but wonder to what degree the otherwise-puzzling persistence of long-term adjuncts who just keep on plugging, looking for the big break, is driven by a felt need to redeem themselves in this value system. It’s not economically rational, but there must be something, or there wouldn’t be so many people doing it.

There are plenty of long-term adjuncts who want to do what they are doing, even for little money. They love their job and though it is not economically rewarding, it is a job they love.

Clearly long-term adjuncts can afford to do what they are doing, either because there is another worker in the family or because they have settled into poverty.

The adjuncts who have settled into poverty probably need help with career counseling. But where would they get it? They do not receive this as part of their work for the colleges and university and they can’t afford it. Many of them, especially those who came out of poverty, have already bucked their culture to get an advanced degree.

If they are working multiple colleges, as I am, they can teach a full or more than full-time load and make more money than they could in a minimum wage job. And many of them may have no idea what else they could do. They worked to get where they are and don’t know how to get anywhere else. I have not heard of that from adjuncts I work with, but I don’t talk to a lot of adjuncts either. I have heard it from full-time faculty who want to get away from the institution they work for and don’t know how…

But there are many long-term adjuncts, including me, who are doing what they want to be doing. They don’t want to have another job and they are able to take the low pay for one reason or another.

Now, most of us would prefer to do the work we are doing now for $15,000 a year for $50,000 a year. I don’t think anyone would turn that down. But we want to do what we are doing and we are willing to take $15,000 a year to do it.

Just last month I was told to get a high school teaching job, instead of trying for college. But it’s not the prestige factor that keeps me from doing that. It’s the fact that I would have to do a lot more grunt work, have twice as many people to talk to when someone gets upset, have much less freedom in my classroom, and have much closer restrictions on how and what I teach. I chose higher education because I wanted to make a difference and I wanted to be a professional and not a drone.

I am not saying that high school teachers are drones. I know many brilliant, hard-working, motivated high school teachers. What I am saying is that I am a drone when I teach high school. (I know. I’ve done it before.)

Right now I am still in a position where I can do what I want for minimal pay. So I do that.

If that changes, then I will do something else. But I have a bit of an advantage there. I teach business writing and I know how to write a resume. I have an idea of the job system outside of academics. It would be easier for me to move out of academia than for others, perhaps. But my guess is that most long-term adjuncts are still adjuncting because they want to teach more than they want to make money.

I know I do.

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