Multiple Models, Some Common Answers

When I started talking to people about the entire adjuncts/writing question, the first answers I got were sort of depressing: comments about writing got lumped in with general complaints about the overall state of affairs for adjuncts, which means comments on writing got lumped in with a lot of comments about money, health insurance, and respect (or rather, the lack of all three).

However, as I’ve continued to talk to adjuncts who write and writers who teach, I’m encountering multiple models that allow adjuncts to write (and even support them in doing so), and a few closely clustered answers as to why adjuncts who write do write…even when the supporting structure isn’t there.

The first point that these writing adjuncts have made abundantly clear is that circumstances for adjuncts differ wildly—even insanely. This won’t come as news to readers of The Adjunct Advocate, but while some schools treat adjuncts with respect and pay them well, others treat them with near contempt, as disposable workers. There is little or no continuity in pay.

I mention this basic point because it shows how fractured the traditional academic labor model has become. A second related basic point drives this home: what counts as publication differs from discipline to discipline. Adjuncts in the sciences or engineering who really are adjuncts— that is to say, who teach on the side while pursuing an full-time career in their field— may have their conference attendance fully funded by their corporate employers who want them current in the field. However, if you’re an adjunct in the sciences and not employed by a corporation, the odds against you go way up. (How do you get time to work in the chemistry lab when you’re teaching on four campuses?)

In fields like journalism and marketing, writing news and engaging in marketing is essential for staying current. Such professionals are the preferred teachers. In fields like English, where there’s a strong service component, a flooded labor market, and little or corporate literary publication…less support.

What has come up repeatedly in these conversations is that what determines pay for courses and often support for writing is one of two things. First, the presence of an academic union (especially one that actively supports adjuncts) actively shapes better conditions. Second, if an individual institution is committed to fair treatment, conditions are better.

As for why the adjuncts I’m speaking with write, the answers cluster in a few areas. The first is the one mentioned above: to stay current in the field. The second is more elemental: out of love of the discipline. When I asked adjunct/writer Jamie Wheeler why she wrote, she said, ” I write for therapy.  I write for beauty.  I write for compulsion. I write for love and loss and need.  I write because I love scholarship and becoming a voice in the conversation.”

Annie Logue, an adjunct in the finance department at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said something similar when asked why she wrote: ” Because I love to write! It’s all I’ve ever really wanted to do, and the fact that I get paid to do it is just so fabulous.”

And of course, there’s the third answer: the adjunct faculty members who are primarily writers, who write professionally and then teach for pleasure (or to stabilize a fluctuating freelance income).

At the risk of making this my week for stating the obvious, two conclusions seem clear here. First, the economics of academia and writing both depend on love: people are paid for their work in both areas in part in love/emotional satisfaction, rather than, say, money. Second, there isn’t a direct and reliable correlation between academic quality or aspiration and how schools support adjunct writing. Instead, good treatment depends on labor organization and/or enlightened institutions.

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