Adjuncting Over Time

In Philly Blog on August 20, 2014 at 2:10 pm

Post by Elizabeth Spencer

This fall I will return to the classroom after a year’s break. During this year, students continued to contact me, no doubt assuming that I continued to hold positions in the two universities I worked at. They asked what I was teaching in the spring, or for me to write them recommendation letters to different graduate schools or even serve as a reference for a potential employer.

“Please forgive my delay in responding,” I’d write them, “I’m on maternity leave this semester. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.” And then I did. In between feedings and diaper changes, in a haze of sleep deprivation, I wrote recommendations for employers, study abroad programs, and graduate schools.

Of course, you know—or maybe you don’t; my students did not, and they are in many ways very familiar with the ins and outs of higher education, though not of employment prospects in many cases (either theirs or mine)—there are no sabbaticals and no paid or unpaid official absences for adjuncts.

In the final weeks of my pregnancy I didn’t know how long I would be away from my job. It’s not dissimilar to the position all adjuncts are in at the end of every semester as they wait for an email inviting them back.

As I read and responded to the university e-mail accounts for the two schools I’d taught in, I contemplated my obligation to do so. Since I wasn’t being compensated and there was no guarantee my job would be waiting for me when I wanted to go back, it seemed counterproductive to spend an occasional hour of my suddenly very limited time writing recommendation letters for students to whom,  according to my university  appointment letter, I’d already fulfilled my obligation.

In fact, some adjuncts never write recommendation letters. They refer students to tenured professors. Technically, adjuncts aren’t supposed to perform these kinds of extra responsibilities; our pay doesn’t reflect things like committee service or the writing of recommendations. But students don’t know this. They pay the same tuition regardless of who teaches the class. To students, we are all “professor.”

When I was an undergraduate I knew nothing of the division of the academic labor pool. I selected the teachers I asked for graduate school recommendations based on my performance in their classes. Of the three who wrote letters for me, one was tenured, one was full-time non-tenure-track, and one was a graduate student employed as an adjunct.

So how can I not write recommendations for my own students? I believe it’s my duty to do so, not only as a teacher but as an adult who would not be where I am without someone else having done so for me.

This is what drove me to log into my email on a regular basis during the twelve months I was not teaching and not receiving a paycheck. In return, I received thanks from my students and the occasional update on travels, achievements, and job searches.

But it would be nice to have more than that. It would be nice to have recognition from the schools that hire us that an adjunct’s work isn’t easily quantifiable, nor is it bound by the dates on our appointment letters.