By Helene Matheny
When I saw Les Miserables for the first time, my companion and I dashed into the New York City subway to escape frigid temperatures and make our way home. My friend then pointed out to me that one of the main actors in the production was speed-walking in front of us to catch his train. He quickly blended into the crowd, with no one taking notice of him. This prompted a discussion about how Broadway actors are quite different from their big screen counterparts. They often perform up to seven live shows a week, at a fraction of the salary of Hollywood actors while also being expected to be talented singers and dancers. Yet most I have met are wholly dedicated to their craft.
We adjuncts are not so different from that Broadway actor. We certainly command less attention, fanfare and praise than our tenured counterparts. We receive a fraction of their salary, and usually no benefits. We teach survey courses much of the time, which, like live performances, in my opinion, often require more energy to tie broad themes and information together.
I can most definitely relate to the invisibility that actor demonstrated in the subway. I can’t count the number of times I have been mistaken for a student — not only by other students but by administrators, as well. Usually, I just smile and say that I am, indeed, an adjunct instructor, and I am inquiring about my paycheck, not a student loan check (this just happened to me yesterday!).
These factors are especially highlighted in the life of the Freeway Flyer adjunct, who travels from campus-to-campus during a semester to piece together classes into a full-time schedule. Because we do this, we bear the burden of promoting ourselves and securing work each semester. And like the versatile Broadway star, we cannot function as a Freeway Flyer without those extra skills that come only from experience — organization, time-management, personality, willingness to speak up, knowledge of subject and, most importantly, flexibility.
In addition, since we don’t receive the same training as public school teachers, I have found that trial and error in the classroom was all I often had to guide me, though in the long run, this has served me well. I have, more often than not, been asked to teach at night, which made contact with other instructors or attending meetings difficult. Without departmental support a large part of the time, it became necessary that I take the initiative to make sure I was keeping up with my subject matter to keep it fresh and relevant.
So what compels us to take on these burdens? Without a doubt, what drives us is ultimately the same love-of- craft that the master thespian demonstrates. We choose to teach, I would hope, because we want to share some of the enthusiasm we have for our subject with our students, in hopes of helping them lay a successful path for themselves. We receive our rewards in little ways – a thank you, an opened mind, a student who does well in a class, and of course, being asked to come back and teach again next semester.