My gig work as a professor is more precarious than ever in this pandemic

One of the most grueling college semesters I’ve ever taught ended on 6 May. The following morning, I woke to nine emails from former students asking for help. Four requested letters of recommendation; two asked for comments on graduate school applications; one wanted advice about what to do now that the summer internship I’d recommended her for had been cancelled; another hoped I could suggest ways to make a 10-page essay on the concept of Enlightenment in modern German philosophy stronger; and the last wanted me to “quickly” read a 12,000-word dissertation chapter before he submitted it to his adviser that afternoon. 

Despite my guilt, I told them all, “No.” My first priority was to fill my two kids with waffles, then log them in to their respective online learning platforms. My second was to file an unemployment claim, so I could pay household bills over the summer (I live in Boulder, where the cost of living is not cheap). Not one of these students seemed to realize that I am nothing but a gig worker for their university and my gig is now up – perhaps permanently. 

Like most of the 1.3 million college faculty members employed off the tenure-track, I work on a contingent basis: I only have a job when the university needs me.

Some semesters, I teach a full four-course load, which means I can cover my monthly bills. Other semesters, I’m asked to teach just three courses and my guaranteed income for five months of the year consistently falls $200 short of meeting my family’s needs. With the future of college education unsettled by the coronavirus, my family’s normally insecure finances have become even more precarious. Yet, in recent weeks, students have asked me to do more work for them than ever, with no consideration for the fact that I’m not paid for the services they expect me to provide.

Of course, this is not their fault. Most college students (and most parents of college students) have no idea that a full 75% of college instructors nowadays are non-tenured or adjunct faculty. Rarely do our contracts last for more than an academic year and, as I know from personal experience, we often earn as much to teach a course as just one of our students pays to attend. But because most of us can legitimately request to be addressed by the title “Doctor”, students assume we earn generous salaries, have cushy benefit plans, and get every summer off. 

Nothing could be further from the truth. On average, adjuncts are paid just under $3,000 per course, and they teach 14 courses per year. Like the seamstresses who once worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, contingent faculty are pieceworkers: we’re paid a fixed rate for each course we teach, no matter how much time or work we put into it. The hours we might spend designing course curricula, grading student assignments, or recording video lectures are not figured into our compensation. Nor is the time many of us give to writing letters of recommendation and advising students on potential graduate programs or internships. 

While almost everyone forced to shift from in-person to virtual college instruction this spring has spent at least one groggy morning recording video lectures before sunrise, and most of us have also devoted several hours to devising alternative assignments and schedules to meet the Covid-19-related needs of vulnerable students, some in the tenure stream are likely to have been compensated for this extra work. The rest of us have not. 

You may be asking yourself: if being contingent faculty is so awful, why are more than a million people willing to accept the job? Most of us didn’t expect to become stuck on the tenure-less track. I know I didn’t. I have an Ivy League PhD and publish regularly in the top journals in my field (cultural anthropology). But when my degree was new and I was most hirable, the Great Recession was at its peak and the tenure track job market almost nonexistent. My chances of securing one of the very few positions available practically vanished when I showed up to campus interviews either pregnant or with a breast pump in hand. So, I accepted a series of temporary postdoctoral fellowships and “visiting” teaching positions before landing one at a university in a city I love. 

Now that my children are older and my PhD no longer shiny and new, I’m unwilling to accept the slightly better paid and more stable “term” teaching positions I’d previously used to get by. My kids refuse to relocate to a place where my contract won’t give us time to plant roots. And after being in the same location for a few years, we’ve built a secure enough system of aid and social support, it would be scary to trade a bit more money for what could actually amount to less security. 

Each year, I resolve will be my last in higher education. But then I come close enough to landing a coveted tenure track position, I decide to stay on just one more year to give the academic job market a final go. 

With college enrollments down for the 2020 school year and many universities debating whether or not to open in the fall, there may not be an academic job market next year. The pandemic has made me fully aware of how precarious academic gig work is, and how little it is valued.

Contingent faculty cannot afford to keep giving students more than our universities pay us for. 

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