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Steven R. Van Hook


Wheels on the Bus Go Round & Round
An adjunct slams the brakes on a familiar adage.
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 by N.E. Adjunct

Perhaps you've been to an invitational 'we-love-our-adjuncts' banquet or luncheon. Some are annual soirees; others less formal affairs marking the start or end of a term. 

I've seen my share of them over a decade tramping between diverse campuses as a contingent teacher. The food is good, the smiles are fixed, the mood is manipulatively cheery, and the gathering's expense may well exceed the combined day's pay of all the adjuncts in the room.

As the low-wage instructors hungrily eye the awaiting buffet spread, the dean or program director warmly convenes the ceremonies and prompts round-the-room self-introductions (especially since most of the itinerant teachers don't know their fellow adjuncts beyond a mingled flurry of gear while swapping classrooms).
 
At an orchestrated moment the college president or other high-ranker bounds to the podium, lobs a few laudatory comments, then hastily retreats before encountering any off-book exchanges with preening or pissed-off adjuncts.
 
However brisk the presidential departure, the echo of a misty platitude clings to the air as some sticky aerosol:
 
"You teachers are where the rubber meets the road."
 
Ugh. There it is again. The more times I hear it, the sharper is my reflexive cringe at the metaphor.
 
It sounds commendable. It sniffs sweetly appreciative. And it is, unfortunately, apt.
 
Adjunct teachers are where the rubber meets the road.
 
Let's hoist it on the rack and try to figure why it rubs so wrong.
 
Granting a generous interpretation, the sentimental retread here is that adjuncts are frequently on the front lines of battle, the fingernail to the itch, the igniting spark where all aspirations and preparations finally combust into action (to kaleidoscopically mix metaphors).
 
But this tired one gets rolled out time and again. Indeed, in ways more than one, adjuncts are quite like wheels on the bus of academe (English instructors may note the imagery has switched from a metaphor to a simile):
 
We haul much of the organization's weight on our steel-belted backs. A sizable slice of all college courses are now capably taught by adjuncts, typically with advanced degrees and practical experience. However, the number of an adjunct's assignments at any one institution is kept strategically below the level that might obligate employer provided benefits. This smacks of an unspoken collusion between institutions: they collectively reap labor from instructors who may cobble together a fulltime teaching load up and down the road, while the HR budget is exempted from a fair share of employment costs. An institution's bottom line and its upper echelons catch a cheap ride on the overburdened, undercompensated backs of adjuncts. Let other professions beware: no position is immune to this type of cunning subdivision.
 
We leave a depleting tread of ourselves behind each roll of the wheel. Adjuncts care, and students love them for it as is often reflected in teaching evaluations above the norm. A recent American Federation of Teacher survey quantified the obvious: adjuncts teach for the enjoyment of it, not so much for the pay. Market economics can fix the precise measure of adjunct devotion -- it's the dollar discrepancy between what is fair and what is tolerated, even as those forces squeeze a teacher's joy right out of the margins.  Adjuncts are solitary wayfarers, with few opportunities to network and organize. Thinly succored with low levels of support and pay, adjunct instructors are run near empty with few rest stations to refuel.
 
When we're worn out and threadbare, we are easily discarded and cheaply replaced. No benefits, no notice, no worries. The current job market has legions willing or desperate to accept unfair conditions. Some may counter that no one forces adjuncts to work under slavish terms when they can simply roll away. That position is a kissing cousin to the brutish "love-it-or-leave-it" mindset. Those unarmed and unarmored adjuncts who bravely protest injustices see it's not just a right, but also a duty to an educator's highest ideals. The coward's way is to quit the field or to banish the fighters who shame the abusers.
 
So the truth of it is, adjunct teachers are where the rubber meets the road.
 
Have you heard it said, too? Did it drive you to higher RPMs of motivation, or did it fall flat as it wheeled by?
 
Simmering anger and resentment meld for an unsavory sauce, and even the finest meal is spoiled when talk from the dais is hard to swallow. And I'm disappointed that my attendance gives credence to the saccharin gratitude that ices our token cake, when we really crave fair compensatory bread. 

Motoring the 45-minutes homeward from still another obligatory adjunct fete -- yet even more rubber on the road trailing my ever-thinner tires -- the delectably-catered evening settles as malnourishing as my grocery budget between uncertain teaching assignments. If they really want us to feel appreciated, next time save a few bucks on the banquet and keep us at home with a small bonus check and a large pizza.

 
It may be well-intended as an inspirational accolade; or perhaps an admonition. Adjuncts are where the rubber met the road.
 
To my ear, it rings more like a eulogy for road kill.

Writer's Note: I've rarely been one to hide behind anonymity for any rants or outrageousness, at frequent lamentable cost. In this case, I will engage cloaking to protect three parties: 
1) Myself -- adjuncts are an insecure breed by definition. 
2) Other adjuncts -- perhaps any administrators reading this might assume it's by one of their own teachers and may treat their adjuncts with greater care. 
3) My employers -- I don't want anyone feeling obliged to coddle me more than other adjuncts by fear of publicity, 
rather than a sense of fair play.





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