THE BLOG
10/01/2013 12:53 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

An Adjunct's Odyssey

As an adjunct instructor in higher education, September's editorial about the death in destitution of Margaret Mary Vojtko, after 25 years of service at Duquesne University, is particularly heart-breaking and alarming. I imagine her story being similar to many others, including my own.

After a decade in the corporate world, I decided that a shift to the respective fields of art and education would be fulfilling and important. Knowing the unpredictability of art as a means of income, I counted on a parallel career in education to sustain a decent living (you know, until the time my novels became best-sellers and made into major motion pictures). Being able to teach on a college level was a major factor in my decision to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing. The idea of leading discussions on literature and writing in a classroom of college students filled me with excitement.

Even before finishing my graduate studies, I was hired as an adjunct instructor of composition at a community college in New York. The absolute thrill of being in front of the class for the first time is one that stays with me six years later. I love teaching in higher education; however, I soon found out that higher education does not love many of its teachers.

Pay at the community college was very low (under $1,500 for a three-credit course). They made up for this, somewhat, by offering ample hours of tutoring, which added some much-needed income. So, while finishing up my MFA, I taught three courses, did my tutoring, embraced the craft and paid my dues. After graduating, I went up to six classes and, combined with the tutoring, was still making an indecent wage. Then, in a subsequent semester, the college greatly reduced the tutoring hours available to adjuncts. I had to teach eight classes that semester in order to equal the meager income previously established (the college has since eliminated all tutoring for part-time employees while not changing any pay rates).

I began looking for new employment immediately. Since that time, according to the cover letters in my hard drive, I've applied for more than 150 jobs at colleges up and down the Eastern Seaboard (mostly in New York City, where I live), seeking full-time employment or even more lucrative part-time situations.

Clearly, I wasn't having much success in finding gainful or tenable employment in higher education. So, I continued on at the community college, teaching an average of six courses a semester, three semesters a year. That's 18 courses every 12 months. And I was still making around $25,000 annually. Eventually, I was hired as a full-time faculty member, with a modest salary, but the demands (even compared to what I'd grown accustomed) were excruciating: six classes per trimester, tutoring, committees, mentoring, management, hiring, grade disputes, student behavior issues, and plenty more. When, in the fall of 2011, two of my many cover letters got me two new part-time jobs, I resigned from my full-time position but had to stay on part-time at the community college to still -- while working three jobs -- make around $40,000.

Thankfully, between assets/investments from my previous career, intermittent income from writing, and my wife's employment by the NYC Department of Education, we earned enough to live modestly and keep us and our children insured, but still, the grind led me to doubt the field I so dutifully served because, surely, this is no way to make a living.

What does it say about higher education when many of its most accomplished products who, in turn, choose to serve its mission as instructors, are not deemed worthy of a decent wage? We are indentured servants with advanced degrees; and the servitude is doled out by those from whom we paid for said degrees. The classroom, for many of us, resembles an ironic sweatshop.

According to a recent New York Times report, roughly 75 percent of college classes are taught by adjunct instructors, a rising trend as colleges are cutting back on tenure-track hiring. I understand this. The salaries and guarantees and benefits of tenure-track positions are a bit absurd. But so are the salaries of the college presidents. And the salaries of athletic coaches. And the fees paid to commencement speakers. And so on...

Higher education needs a correction.

Adjunct instructors need a clear path to the position of full-time lecturer -- one without tenure or a six-figure starting salary, simply a job with reasonable requirements, insurance, and appropriate income that one earns through commitment and competence. You know, the kind of scenario someone with an advanced degree from higher education would expect.

September was my last month working at the community college I so dutifully served for six years. This last four weeks have been a tsunami of teaching, as I had to overlap the new fall semesters at my other jobs with the ending of a summer semester at the community college. As a result, this September, I taught 10 classes at four different colleges (seven different courses/22 individual classes per week). If I kept up this Herculean workload up for an entire year (12 months of teaching), I would make just under $70,000.

Can you imagine?

This is a matter of fair pay that needs to be addressed by Congress or unions. Let's use the memory of Margaret Mary Vojtko as an inspiration to right this wrong.

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
Life hacks and juicy stories to get you through the week.