by Emily Van Duyne
Tuesday was my last day of class at Stockton College, one of the two schools where I currently teach. As I wound down our final class– I brought bagels, and the kids got to talk about what aspects of the course worked better than others– I got a text from my good friend and co-adjunct at the college, Lauren: “Your post is up at Adjunct Nation!”
Quick turn around! As someone who has mostly been published in the poetry world, I’m used to waiting months to hear back from a magazine; I had sent my short essay on healthcare and adjuncting out just the day before, on what I thought was a fluke. It pleased me to no end to see it suddenly up and viewable by a much wider audience than I’m used to having. After class, I found Lauren sitting in the office of the Writing Center supervisor, who got a shout-out in my post. We gabbed; they asked how I was feeling, and Lauren said, “Hey! I meant to text you– I have a little bit of codeine cough syrup left over, if you need it.” I laughed, and thanked her. I wandered out of the building toward my car, daydreaming of chicken soup and a nap, and thinking how lucky I was to work with such great people, at such a great place.
Lucky. The word implies success from chance, or providence, rather than one’s own actions: it is synonymous with a kind of narrow escape. And I am, we all are, lucky, or fortunate, to work at Stockton. It’s a four year liberal arts college with burgeoning graduate programs, one in which I’ve seriously considered enrolling. But more than that, there is that sense of camaraderie that is so absent at the community college level. I am good friends with many of the full-time faculty; my students and I regularly meet for coffee or lunch and discuss issues both in and out of class. I have a TA, a former student I adore. I’ve been encouraged by full-time faculty to propose courses on Plath, on censorship, on the rhetoric of the American protest song; in the fall, I’ll teach a course on writing reviews that one of the co-chairs of the writing department designed just this past year.
All of which adds up to me loving my job there very much, and not just the part where I stand in the classroom for two hours. I love the campus, and the Writing Center, where there is always pizza or donuts or coffee, and where the peer tutors hang out even when they’re not being paid. What the hell, I hang out there when I’m not being paid. It’s set up to make you want to come back. I wouldn’t have been offered that course on reviews if I hadn’t hung out there, become real friends with the faculty. If they hadn’t gone out of their way to get to know me. But here’s part of the point: Stockton is doing this education thing mostly very right. Unlike many colleges. When I was hired to teach there in the fall of 2010, there was about 24% adjunct faculty at the college; unless things have ballooned wildly since then (doubtful), it’s probably about the same, today. They make a point, at least in my department, to try and hire young, former students (I attended the college for a year in 1999-2000; the aforementioned Lauren completed her bachelor’s in literature there) and, wonder of wonders, they pay us. $1200/credit for four credit courses. Because of Stockton, I can pay Hank’s health insurance without overdrawing my bank account every month. We are offered union membership. We are also limited to a 2:1 course split over the course of the academic year. We are what are defined as being– we pick up extra classes only when the full-time faculty is unavailable. I recently met with Women & Gender studies faculty to discuss the possibility of my teaching Feminist Perspectives in Spring 2014; she emailed the entirety of her department about it, and the responses were all the same– Great, so long as full-time faculty has already been offered the course first.
Of course, this changes everything about the experience of teaching at an institution. I usually can’t wait to get to Stockton. I’m usually sad to leave. Another friend and co-adjunct there once told me it, “saved [him], financially.” Considering the way things are going for adjuncts, lucky certainly seems to be the proper word to describe the coup of nabbing classes there. And yet, something about it sticks in my craw. The intense gratitude, the relief– how terribly undervalued we must be as a labor force if pay that is merely decent, as opposed to abysmal, makes me feel this way. If the fact that my co-teachers know my name, ask me how my day is going, does the same. Lincoln famously said that labor is “the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration,” and yet, the less we are paid, in American society, the less we are valued, the less we are taught to value ourselves. During that final class at Stockton, our discussion veered into these waters. “A society’s institutions will reflect a society’s values,” I told them. “It’s inevitable.” I don’t need to get into what adjunct pay says about American values toward either labor, education, or those who labor to educate; we’ve been through it all, before. But what about the students, those 23 faces looking to me for answers? They pay the same for me as they do for a colleague making $60K/year with full benefits. Or their parents do, or the state, or the federal government. Shouldn’t there be some kind of converse continuity? At least at Stockton I can guarantee they’re getting a qualified teacher, whether they’re full-time or not. But we’ve all heard the horror stories from the community college adjunct pool from our students– no shows, an hour late for class from week to week, fake degrees, sleeping at the desk– just last week, several of my English 101 students regaled me with tales of a teacher playing “Candy Crush Saga” on his phone while they did crossword puzzles. What does this say about the value we place on our students’ education? Or on the money they spend, for that matter? “Capital,” Lincoln said, “is only the fruit of labor.” True, but remember, it’s not the only fruit– the students, too, are products of our labor, the hours we spend in those florescent-lit classrooms, getting dizzy on Dry Erase fumes. The longer adjuncts are exploited and abused– and make no mistake, that’s what’s happening, everyday, in the American higher education system– the longer the students’ money and time and minds are potentially at risk for the same.
That last day at Stockton, a young woman, a math major who has stared silently from the third row all semester and who I was sure hated my class and my person with the white hot intensity of a thousand suns hugged me, fiercely, and told me she was taking my reviews class in the fall. I was stunned, and moved. “I’m so pleased to have you again,” I told her.
“Thank you so much, I loved this class,” she said.
Lucky– that’s really the only word for it. A narrow escape into the job of a lifetime. I wouldn’t do anything else if they paid me– because maybe someday, they will.