Adjunct Limbo: A Case Study


Last week I sketched out the issues surrounding adjuncts and grading in general. This week these issues were brought home in a specific experience, one that is particular to the adjunct’s situation (and exacerbated by living in the information age).

The situation? A student had a problem with a paper. To be specific, she submitted a paper that was an exact copy of one of her earlier papers. I’ve had this happen before in instances where I judged it to be completely innocent. In these cases, the erroneous submission is followed within a short time by a hasty (and sometimes teary) phone message, email, text, and /or office visit with the real paper attached, clutched, or promised. I’ve also had students submit the same paper twice in what seemed to be a calculated cynicism (as in, they thought I wouldn’t notice and said so when asked).


The context? I teach for more than one school, and right now I teach for more than one school online. That’s crucial here, because when this student contacted me in a panic, she did so via email. That email was her personal email, not a school email. She had chosen an email address that didn’t include her last name, and her first name was common. When she emailed me her plea regarding the paper I “claimed” had been submitted twice, she didn’t sign her name. Finally, her discussion of her paper was so general that I couldn’t tell if she was a graduate student or a freshman.


The result? I found myself paralyzed, adrift in the Sargasso Sea of the responsible adjunct. One school I teach for has very specific policies favoring the student. (They get to submit the papers over, without any penalty.) Another school allows me to make a policy. I’d done so, and posted it in the classroom. A third school held the student responsible. One of the schools I teach for is very strict about which details can be sent to non-institutional emails. Another is pretty lax about these details, accenting flexibility in instructor response mode.


I found myself unable to respond. My mind raced in a little circle, trying to guess which female student this was, from which school. I simply couldn’t. My heart surged into the details of the narrative, trying to decide what I thought was the right thing to do in this situation…and then I kept realizing I may not be allowed to do the right thing.


I could email her and ask what school she’s from, but that leaves the situation hanging (and, though it may be honest, may make a panicked student even more anxious). Do I delay a response until she writes again with her name (breaking policy on required response times at some schools?)? Post notes in all classes asking all Lindas/Susans/Janes to sign their emails using their last names? (I’d already done the general note, asking all students to sign notes, so that wasn’t enough.)


Any teacher at any school might get an unidentified and unidentifiable message from a student, and be unable to track it even by class. I couldn’t even track it by institution or policy, and so every attempt to do the right thing left me burning more time I didn’t have. I couldn’t judge freely, because I was contractually constrained. I couldn’t even conform, because I couldn’t figure out what institution’s policies to conform to. (And I cannot teach for only one school and make enough money, so…)


Dante’s limbo included virtuous pagans who could never enter heaven. I guess this is my version of Adjunct Limbo: the virtuous instructor who can never enter tenure. My torments aren’t really tortures, but they grind on and on and on…






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