Blood Money, or How Being an Adjunct is Like Being on The Sopranos

Hi, my name is Jilly Dreadful and I’m a recovering academic. I do not mean that in a tongue-in-cheek or even a hyperbolic way. I grew up around family that struggled with addiction to various forms of substance abuse. So, I do not use the word “addiction” lightly. For me, growing up in the abject poverty that I did, I thought the only way out of my situation was to go to college. So I became addicted to school because I believed the pop culture myth of the 90s: that if I was a stellar student, I, too would get a full ride to college. I graduated valedictorian of my charter school, and since I was poor, I thought I’d get full rides. I did not. Continue Reading.I won scholarships that covered out-of-state tuition, or 20% of tuition, but that’s it. (I also couldn’t afford to apply to very many schools because coming up with $30 application fees when my family was just trying to make ends meet was a financial burden.) I always wanted a Ph.D., I thought if I only had a Ph.D., I’d never be poor again–as a high schooler, I didn’t necessarily know what I wanted my Ph.D. in, but I knew that I needed one if I was going to avoid being in poverty as an adult. I know now that is false, as I am currently on WIC and Medicaid and I graduated with a Ph.D. from University of Southern California. As a senior in high school, I was in a serious car accident, and grew slightly dependent on Vicodin for a time; I assure you that the contact high/floaty feeling of euphoria I got then is exactly the same one I get from outside validation that drives my addiction to praise. As you might imagine, growing up in the circumstances I did, I didn’t value myself very much, so I constantly sought out validation from sources of authority. And that’s how academia became my drug of choice. I will be writing about my life both as a child of poverty and as a academic as a way to deal with the depression I am constantly struggling with. I am publishing these thoughts because 1) I hope I can foster a community of support and 2) I am experimenting with the idea of leaving academia in its entirety. I have avoided writing about these topics because I figured these are the kinds of topics that’d get me blacklisted if a search committee Googled my name. BTW: I am writing under my publishing name, Jilly Dreadful, not as a way to avoid the backlash from higher education audience (because I publish formally as Jilly Dreadful), but as a way to avoid my father–who used to stalk me online and threaten my and my husband’s life.

The following post was originally posted at: The Kindred Collective, August 2013, where we post creative work on weekly themes. I figure since it was the first time I actually was brave enough to write about my depression and rage, I’d start there. I am not editing the piece of time coherency, just know that this was happening at the beginning of the 2014-2015 job application season.

One final caveat: when I originally posted this, I was attacked by a tenured professor, who pingbacked to my post and proclaimed that she had no sympathy for people like me because I was saying that people like her only got her job by knowing a secret handshake, as opposed to doing good work. If you read my post, which hasn’t been edited since last August, I think you’ll find that I say no such thing. I do say that the only way I got the one adjunct gig I’ve been able to get was by being vouched for–like in The Sopranos–adjunct positions are not advertised in my area, it’s all about who you know. I tried commenting on her post and explaining that she was misinterpreting my words and twisting them (she literally cut and pasted two sentences together to form a whole new sentence that matched her agenda, not mine). But then she resorted to turning even my comments around on me to avoid taking responsibility for not doing a close reading and also spreading false information. When I originally wrote this post, I thought I’d be strong enough to handle criticism. And I think I am. But I wasn’t strong enough then, and I’m not strong enough now, to handle highly educated trolling. After that incident, even though Rebecca Schuman and several people like a random blogger named Z backed me up, I was so depressed that this whole incident sent me into another depressive spiral, where the only writing I did was for job applications. So. If that happens again, I’m just going to delete it. I am tired of allowing toxicity into my life.

Academic job applications are eating my life, literally: I have been staying up until 5-5:30am everyday working on crafting a perfectly worded 2 page cover letter about my life as a scholar, writer and teacher for tenure-track jobs.

This means that during the day, when I am with my 2 year old, I feel barely functional. I took a nap with my son this afternoon, and, as I drifted off to sleep, I realized it was Monday and felt a stab through my heart: I keep letting things like trying to get a job get in the way of having a life. Because I consider The Kindred Collective a part of my life. Even though it doesn’t seem like I am active, I am. It’s just… I have so little energy for … basically anything.

Which leads us to this week’s theme: Blood.

I have a Ph.D. and I am also living at the poverty line because my husband, who is a Ph.D. candidate himself now, and I refuse to break up our family just so I can have a job that pays decently. (I realize this reeks of privilege, but I’ll get to that.)

I learned early on in my academic career that being a professor was similar to the military: you don’t necessarily get the choice of where to go. You’re go where you’re deployed. Most dual Ph.D. households end up either living apart for years; divorced; or, one person gives up academia, either temporarily or permanently–and I am including adjunct work as “giving up academia,” because being an adjunct, well, it’s more like being a “company gun thug” (as Raylan Givens might say) than being an academic. And given the recent violence on campuses, I don’t use that metaphor lightly and I’ll revisit this metaphor shortly. (Who am I kidding, I’ll revisit it longly.)

These days, it’s arguable what is considered “decent” wages for highly-educated people with a lot of student loans–in fact, whenever someone writes about how corrupt the system has become they are told to “change their job” if they don’t like it. But, as Dr. Karen, of The Professor Is In, says: when did it become okay to equate working in higher education with sacrifice (like, living in debt, or being alone)?

Blood Money

Full disclosure: I got offered an adjunct job two weeks ago at a college I had worked at back in 2008. I won the first of the three competitive fellowships of my career there. Back then, I moved from Los Angeles to upstate New York (for the first time) for that fellowship, and I was willing to do it because it paid $35,000 (with health benefits) to teach one class in my specialty area each semester, which allowed me time to write and also experiment with teaching and ideas in my classes. And I didn’t have a child to care for. It was hard living away from my husband (I saw him four times during that year because he had his own job that paid well at the time–he wasn’t a grad student yet).

New York is a big state. Sometimes I forget that. This adjunct offer was 200 miles and three-and-a-half hours, without traffic, away from my house in the other part of upstate New York (you can’t get to the college via freeway the whole way). The contract was for two classes. I would teach on Wednesday and Thursday, but I’d have to stay overnight on Wednesday because there’s no way I could commute that far two days in a row. The job paid $3700 per class, for a grand total of $7400, before taxes.

It would have cost me about $3000 to take the job in gas money and hotel fees. This is not including wear and tear on my 10 year old car that has 127,000 miles on it, nor the hours lost during driving time (buses took 8 hours to get there one-way, trains stranded me there for three nights, instead of just the one if I drove).

As my friend Lorie phrased it, “You’d be paying for the privilege to work.”

My husband thought I should take it because back when I won my predoctoral fellowship there, five years ago, it was the happiest year of my career so far. After the terrible year of adjuncting I’ve had at the local technological university–the class full of students literally hated my guts there, which has taken a harsh toll on my psyche because I’ve never experienced such hostility before (since I started teaching in 2005, I have only had two students hate my guts, according to my evaluations).

Whenever someone shines a light on what is happening in higher education right now–what is essentially a problem of supply and demand–those people are told to change their career if they don’t like d’em apples. So here’s the rundown on how that supply and demand is operating right now: the workforce has been bloated with too many incoming Ph.D. students for too few job opportunities. This diminishes not only the overall availability of tenure-track jobs at graduation, but then allows institutions to “buy” that highly skilled labor at extremely cheap rates.

To put this into perspective, at the same institution where five years prior I had earned $35,000 to teach one class in the fall and one in the spring, this current fall (of 2013) I was being offered approximately 80% less than what I made as a predoctoral fellow for twice the amount of work, teaching classes that I had never taught before, with only three weeks to prepare before the semester began.

But this time I had a Ph.D. in hand and publications under my belt.

I turned the adjunct job down.

It broke my heart to do so.

Interesting sidenote: at “healthy” market rates, like those seen before September 2008, it took $1,000,000 (that’s right: one million dollars) of endowment to create 1 tenure-track faculty line in order to pay them $50,000/year. That salary was paid out of the interest the endowment generated. Since the market has crashed, all those endowments have since “gone underwater.”

Academia is Like The Sopranos

So earlier I equated being an adjunct with being a hitman. It’s a problematic analogy that I am hesitant to use because I do not wish to diminish real violence on college campuses–especially because I’ve had friends on some of those campuses. But I still feel like the hitman analogy is an appropriate one for adjuncting because not only am I onlycontracted for the classes I teach (I am not required to have office hours, I do not engage in any university service), but YOU HAVE TO BE VOUCHED FOR TO EVEN GET AN ADJUNCT JOB. Higher education is like the mafia: I was only able to get the adjunct gig because the dean had met one of my mentors, and so I had to say, “So-n-So sent me.” We went to breakfast. She was lovely. She passed my name along to the department head who called me two weeks later to offer me an adjunct job last fall.

As an adjunct, I am not part of an intellectual community and I really miss that. It’s part of the reason why I turned down the recent adjunct offer 200 miles away; even though my husband thought I’d at least be happy there and we’d come out somewhat ahead financially, as long as the car didn’t break down in the meantime. But I knew that adjuncting there wouldn’t be any different than adjuncting at the place I’ve been at. I wouldn’t be part of a community. I couldn’t afford to be part of a community because I’d only have enough time and energy and money to be there for the classes I taught. It’s easier to work for so little money when it’s 10 minutes away.

As an adjunct, I am not given an orientation to the campus or its resources (I have to figure out who to bug for Blackboard access and parking on my own). I have to buy my own materials and I am not reimbursed (including textbooks–so there is no financial ability to be creative in the texts I teach: I can’t afford to teach books I don’t already own or am familiar with because there’s usually no time to prepare for anything but texts I already know). Also, I have had to literally hustle for students in a course that had low enrollment–I made flyers about my class and posted them to bulletin boards; I made virtual ads to appear on the LCD monitors across campus; I went on Twitter; I encouraged my 3 students to tell other people about the class so it wouldn’t be cancelled. None of that worked. Ultimately, two completed weeks into the semester, the university decided to cancel that course. I was never paid for the month of labor I put in preparing and actually teaching it. It was like Tony Soprano deciding not to kill his cousin after all–except Tony Soprano would’ve at least given me some cannoli for stringing me along. Feel free to define cannoli however you wish. Just remember that I am Sicilian.

If I’ve learned anything from pop culture, it’s that, aside from the contract itself, one of the most important parts of being a hitman is being invisible. But a hitman is different from an assassin, and I am definitely not an assassin. A hitman is just invisible enough to get away with the crime–maybe witnesses at the scene are too intimidated to call the police. Hitmen are kind of clunky (I’m thinking about that episode of The Sopranos when Chris and Paulie get lost in the “Pine Barrens” while running after a Russian they’ve failed to kill). Hitmen maybe use baseball bats if they run out of ideas (like when Jackie Aprile, Jr., was whacked). Assassins are surgical in their strikes. I am not an assassin. I’m probably more of the baseball bat variety of adjunct. I am simultaneously invisible when it matters and visible when students start hating my huts.

Also, more invisibility: when I’ve tried making appointments with tenured faculty, they have gotten cancelled at the last minute (by them) and I could never get them to reschedule. It was about important things, too, like a tenure job opened up in the department and I wanted to apply, but I also didn’t want to endanger future adjunct employment.

But I was a messy contract hire because halfway into the spring semester, students started complaining about me to a dean and suddenly the professor who canceled on me four months earlier needed to see me right away. During appointments students made with me, I was actually yelled at by them (I am not embellishing; it was humiliating). I was told repeatedly, “This was supposed to be my easy class.” I was teaching an entry-level writing class at a technological university. And even though I told students it wouldn’t be easy, they didn’t believe me and complained about their grades and claimed that I wasn’t clear in my expectations (luckily the syllabus and my assignment sheets and schedule were able to prove them wrong).

I don’t think I’m going to be offered adjunct work at that school again.

As an adjunct, I make less than minimum wage. I am in that weird middle-zone of being too poor to afford childcare that would allow me to work at a retail job, but would effectively consume my entire salary. The only upside is that my husband and I can work around my adjunct teaching schedule to account for our son’s childcare (since we can’t afford babysitters or daycare, and the closest family is 600 miles away).

The most important part of being a hitman, though, I think, is being detached. Call it what you will: sociopathic, heartless, whatever. But those qualities would help being an adjunct, too, but, fortunately or unfortunately, I am terrible at being detached. I care about my students. I have conferences with every student for each assignment to help them process it and to help them do well on it. During the first semester of adjuncting, I held office hours even though I didn’t have to. During the second semester, I had decided (before the semester began, so before active gut-hating) not to waste my time with office hours because no one came to them and I wasn’t paid for those hours, and my office hours were invisible to permanent faculty anyway. I still had conferences with each student for each assignment, though. After their first essays, half of my students requested appointments because they didn’t like their grades (I was allowing them to “revise and resubmit”), and I diligently and willingly scheduled those requested appointments. On my evaluations, I was knocked for not having office hours and for being hard to schedule appointments with–head meet desk.

So to have the students end up hating me because that was “supposed to be their easy class” and they’re only getting “A-“s instead of the “A”s they have calculated (based on info in my syllabus–and this was a 3-week email exchange I had with a student after the semester was over), it hurts my feelings a lot and makes me doubt my ability to be a good teacher.

After numerous conversations with colleagues, I have been repeatedly told to lower my expectations (which is just code for grade inflation). I was told by a tenured faculty member at that school that I was “trying to do too much” with that class after he evaluated my syllabus and assignment sheets. But that he also wanted to use my assignments to invigorate his own teaching. Color me confused. But the general consensus from friends in academia I’ve talked to about my student evaluations at the school I’ve been teaching at is to just lower my grading standards–it will ease my workload and make the students “like” me, giving me good (recent) evaluations to turn over for job applications. Since I’m just an adjunct at this time, I feel like self-preservation might possibly be the winning strategy–although perhaps too late (I have no job security for the rapidly approaching fall). I’d like to see a study done about the correlation of inflated grades as they correspond to the teachers who give them, particularly when it pertains to people who get interviews or even achieving tenure. I’d also like to see how much grades have been inflated since higher education has started to rely more on temporary faculty: I have now discovered that there is a lot of motivation to arbitrarily inflate grades

Increasing institutional reliance on temporary labor (adjunct professors, like me) increases a student’s likelihood to drop out of college. After being an adjunct, I understand this phenomenon more because we literally cannot afford to care. All those hours I spent preparing my adjunct courses, holding “invisible” and underutilized office hours, conferencing with students to help them revise their essays to get better grades (instead of just handing out the higher grade to begin with) dug into my personal time: with my husband, with my child, and, most importantly, with my writing. And my teaching evaluations were still horrible, no matter how many hours I poured into a class that shouldn’t have taken that long to prep for because I was trying to be as creative as I could to try get through to them.

All those prep hours are effectively wasted because I didn’t give the students the grades they wanted, and, in return, they didn’t give me decent evaluations–which, incidentally, also seriously impacts my ability to get tenure-track jobs, all of which explicitly ask for “evidence of teaching excellence.”

I don’t know when higher education turned into a consumer mentality. But it’s no longer focused around a scholarly mentality. Therefore, it literally does not pay to care as an adjunct.

I sunk in and out of several deep bouts of depression over the last year. But I can’t afford to see a therapist. (Thank goodness I saw a therapist during grad school, sometimes the stuff I learned back then is the only thing that holds me together now.) I hold my students to high standards and I’ve never had such resistance to these expectations before. And this resistance is not only killing me on the inside, it’s killing my possible job prospects. (Thanks so much ratemyprofessors.com, it’s a permanent reminder of how terrible that class was–sub-question: why don’t any happy students write reviews, ever? Is this how restaurants or salons feel?)

Blood is Thicker Than Water

I have spent more than 80 hours over the last two weeks crafting the perfect 2 page job letter, curriculum vitae, and 2 page teaching philosophy for a tenure track job that I know I could rock the hell out of, and, in the meantime, I have been neglecting my writing, my family, and my life (I used to have hobbies, like playing video games and reading books).

I allow the prospect of obtaining just an interview to eat my life with revision after revision of writing THAT DOESN’T FUCKING MATTER. This is not writing that is meant to be published or even to get a grant or a fellowship. And yet IT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT WRITING OF MY LIFE. Last week, I asked two of my closest friends who obtained tenure-track jobs of their own to look over just my 2 page job letter. To be fair, I asked for a quick turnaround because I wanted to submit my application as soon as possible so I could stop thinking about it and get back to revising my dollhouse (I have deadline with a prospective publisher for my dollhouse, and I have seriously gotten derailed with all this job application stuff). I specifically asked my friends to let me know if they could get back to me in a couple of days, and that it was cool if they couldn’t, but just let me know. They both committed to giving me feedback. They both pretty much flaked out on me. And in case they read this, I love them dearly, but they have to admit: they did kinda did flake out on me.

Being an academic, I have learned that being able to live in the same house, having our son, and an intact marriage, is a privilege. (When did this become a privilege?) 73% of tenured female faculty are unmarried, compared to 40% of male faculty. And childlessness, whether it’s desired or not, is commonplace, especially among women. So having our family is a privilege that we are paying for. We go deeper into debt every month I don’t adjunct. Plus, we lose anywhere from $30-50,000 a year because of my inability to secure a tenure-track job at this point–if I opened up my search geographically, maybe I’d have more luck. But I am not certain.

Blood From A Stone

The saddest thing of all though is: I am spending all this time and energy creating these job documents and I am not even sure I want to be a part of academia anymore. Higher education has become an industrial complex like any other–and that’s part of the reason why I chose academia all those years ago because it seemed different, because it opened my eyes to these industrial complexes. Continuing to participate in this broken system feels like complicity in corruption. And while a lot of academics would shout in the comments of this post: if you don’t like it, get a different job, or, you’re just suffering from sour grapes–I mean, I would and I probably am.

I would change careers. I have tried. I applied for a writer job at Irrational Games and never heard back. I even tried to virtually intern for free for io9.com, and Charlie Jane Anders (one of my favorite writers) contacted me to let me know that I made the decision really difficult, but they ended up going with someone else (ultimately I wasn’t good enough to work for free). We are literally acquiring $400-$800 a month in debt (depending on the financial crisis) every month I don’t adjunct. I can’t get a retail job to save my financial life. Because I am so highly educated, I am considered a flight risk for retail jobs (even though retail has a high turnover anyway). Plus, I can’t work full time at a retail job because I’m stuck in the cycle of poverty that prevents affordable childcare.

I have a certain amount of momentum with this academic job stuff, so I feel compelled to continue to apply. I mean, I got educated for this career path. But each job letter, each postdoc app, has to be tailored for the institution and it’s hard not to think of it as a waste of time when I could be working on writing that I desperately want to do instead, especially when I don’t even get a single interview (sour grapes, indeed).

“I won’t pay. I know too much about extortion.” –Tony Soprano, Season 3, Episode 7

At ReaderCon this summer, I went to a panel on the work/life balance which ends up really being a work/work balance that plagues writers (and probably lots of other professions, but, as any kind of work-from-home profession, it’s particularly insidious because there’s so many other things that feel more productive than writing. Washing dishes = tangible, visible productivity. The contact high is most distracting). The most important piece of advice that I got from that panel was to think about my writing as a long-term investment. Thinking of my writing in this way was allowing me to be productive on my books (I rotate procrastinations) and not feel guilty about that time away from my family or housework. And I was finally starting to come to terms with not having adjunct work lined up for the fall because I was going to finish at least one of those books by December (two, if you include my dollhouse). I was only going to apply to a few academic jobs that felt like the right fit as opposed to spamming every job I remotely was qualified for. I was going to conserve my creative energy for the projects that matter: my son and my writing.

Then I got offered that adjunct job 200 miles away and my whole world flipped upside down. I have lost sight, once again, of that beautiful zen-like state where I was valuing my writing differently. Writers, and probably most artists of any kind, learn to live a different kind of existence than normal 9-to-5 job people: we don’t go out to eat much. We don’t go to the movies, we go to drive-ins, rarely. We value our time more than we value money because we need that time to make art, so we spend our money in strategic ways to save time for art making. And because I turned down money, I feel incredibly guilty, even though it meant driving 400 miles and 8 hours round-trip a week, spending a night in a hotel room every Wednesday from now until December, and essentially, getting paid to teach one class even though I’d be teaching two because the amount of money it’d cost to travel that far. I still feel guilty.

My husband had an astrobiology party to go to. A month in advance, he told me about it, showed me the email. It specifically said: significant others and children welcome. I was one of the few significant others that went and our 2 year old was the only child. I overheard my husband talking to someone (his voice carries) and he said that I had a Ph.D. already. In English. The woman he talked to laughed a little too loudly and said something to the effect of, “So that means she doesn’t have a job.” And he replied, “She’s trying!”

And the depression is coming back really strong.

And I have a deadline quickly approaching.

And the debt is piling up.

And I hate myself for spending so many hours on job application materials for a job I simultaneously don’t want but desperately need, and strangely crave, because I have a terrible addiction to praise, and obtaining an interview, let alone a tenure-track job, would be the highest praise, and, thus, the validation of my working life.

I know that’s bullshit but I can’t help myself because I’m on WIC and Medicaid and I have a Ph.D.

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