I am about to turn thirty years old, and I have finally found an answer to the age-old-question, “Why do you write?” Do I write for fun, or for fame and glory? No, no. Do I write because my literary family encouraged me to pursue this career? Well, sort of, but I’m sure that my engineer father would have preferred if I had chosen a more stable and lucrative career. I write to cope; I write in the face of natural disaster, racial disparity, social collapse, financial ruin, rampant homophobia, ignorance of politicians. I write when I don’t know what else to do, how else to make myself useful, what else to do with the maelstrom that is my internal landscape of anxieties and thoughts. I write when I’m on the verge of a panic attack—and this is the current state of my mind as I set out to write this essay.
This essay is about the relationship between adjuncts, higher education, and the coronavirus. I am an adjunct professor, and for those who don’t know the ins and outs of this job, it is neither noble, nor fulfilling, at least not in the way the teaching profession is romanticized in movies and books. The relationships that I form with a handful of students each semester saves me from the doldrums of these jobs. I teach at three different schools: one high school and two colleges, which is more than a full-time teaching load with a fraction of the pay of a full-time professor. I have no health care benefits from either of the colleges, no office, no overtime pay, no paid time-off or any other salary benefits, no job security; my courses are often cancelled last-minute due to low enrollment or other inexplicable changes in the department. I am paid per course, and even when I am at full adjunct capacity at these colleges, I still make less money than I would if I were to work as a full-time barista. I used to work primarily in the food industry, so I know how grueling those jobs are, but at least they are transparent and straightforward: you get paid per hour plus tips. As an adjunct, I found myself halfway through the summer designing and implementing a handful of new syllabi for a mysterious “flex-hybrid” model for the fall. This is the new face of education in the times of the coronavirus. And no, I was not paid for this extra work. Adjuncts are not paid for course design or preparation, or to attend meetings.
I recently attended a Zoom meeting with a representative of the “Center for Learning and Teaching” at Champlain College, which made me question my career even more than I do on a daily basis. What am I doing with my life? I considered texting my partner something urgent and vague like, “I can’t do it anymore, I want to quit!” but I could see in my mind’s eye that this would only cause me to feel more shame than comfort. I want my partner to see me as strong and intelligent; he is a research professor at the University of Vermont—a school with better reputation, higher budget, and more resources for part-time teachers. In many ways his position is the ideal that I’m striving towards, even though his job is technically part-time and equally precarious. I considered writing a list of grievances to the director of the Writing and Publishing Department. In other words, I nearly sent my boss an angry email. I stopped just before hitting send—what good would it do? My boss often remarks in faculty meetings that his “hands are tied” or that certain decisions are out of his “ballpark”—meaning, he’s not the one who makes decisions regarding salaries, hiring and firing, or benefits. Champlain College does have an adjunct union, and while we are lucky for the tireless work the union organizers do to argue on our behalf, I still feel that we are at a standstill—last fall, we convincingly bargained for higher wages, more benefits, and extra protections, but the concessions from the college were disappointing. Our new contract includes a 17% increase in wages. To put things into perspective, adjuncts at Champlain College, no matter which department, make about $4,000 per course. So, the new contract offers a whopping increase to: $4,120. Meanwhile, full professors with the same credentials as adjuncts, who teach the same number of courses, same subject material, to the same students, “make an average of $60,000 plus benefits” (VT Digger). Adjuncts at the University of Vermont, which sits half a mile away from our campus, make about $7,000 per course. Students pay full tuition of $42,662. Where is all of that money going, if not to pay the teachers who provide the content and guidance for students? Into the salaries of the higher administration. According to the Burlington Free Press, “Former Champlain College President David Finney was paid over $1.1 million in his last year at the college. Much of the money came from a one-time $700,000 payout, on top of his salary and benefits, federal-tax filings show.” The president of Champlain College who stepped down in 2017, Donald J. Laackman, earned a salary and benefits package worth $551,511, (Seven Days). I am also paid about the same amount per course at the MFA program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I teach in the Writing and Publishing department. My combined annual “salary” from both schools amounts to about $24,000, if I am lucky to be given at least one or two courses per school. This is before taxes. At each school, adjuncts are only permitted to teach three courses, so even if I wanted to take on a heavier load, I would not be allowed to. I am stuck in my lane, in a rut. These reasons prompted me to seek additional employment, which is why I accepted a new job teaching visual art and English at the Vermont Commons School—a private middle school and high school, 6th grade through 12th. This position is also part-time, but so far this small school has made steps to take care of my well-being, including offering partial health care coverage. Hallelujah, finally!
Yet this begs the question—why am I putting myself through this maelstrom? Why must I juggle three jobs and seven classes in one semester? This fall, I am teaching a total of 108 students. As you can imagine, I barely manage to stay on top of my to-do list. I have four email accounts, one for each school and my personal email. I am part of four separate academic departments, and have to attend all of the requisite faculty meetings. Why am I stuck in this particular rut? How did I get here? I have an MFA in creative nonfiction from Iowa, which is considered a “terminal degree” for creative writing instructors. In other words, in our field, a PhD is no guarantee for getting hired, and many hiring committees for teaching positions in creative writing would consider an MFA a more appropriate degree. I have four books published; the most recent of the titles was published by MIT Press. Is this not reputable enough for me to get hired as a full professor, or an associate professor, or even an assistant professor? To clarify this confusing ladder of job titles for those unaware: adjuncts are on the very bottom rung of the ladder of higher education: in order of salary and benefits, the scale is adjunct, lecturer, assistant, associate, full. In any case, one would think that an MFA from one of the nation’s top creative writing programs and four books under my belt, not to mention a CV packed with jobs, internships, conferences, writer’s retreats, residencies, and awards would qualify me for a step up the ladder. Before I got the job teaching art and writing at the Vermont Commons School, I applied to every full-time teaching job that came across my desk, no matter the location or teaching load. I have applied for teaching jobs in the subjects of nonfiction, poetry, rhetoric, composition, from California to Florida. I made it through the first to the second round of interviews on a handful of occasions, and yes, my hopes were high, but the rejections streamed in. I have been teaching for six years, and I consistently receive positive, often glowing evaluations from my students and colleagues. I wouldn’t normally write about my accolades in such an unapologetically frank manner, but I do so out of rage and frustration, not pride or vanity. I am qualified, and I deserve better. Adjuncts everywhere deserve to be adequately compensated and rewarded for our hard work.
I have been teaching as an adjunct for over half a decade, so why am I only now crumpling under the weight? Covid-19! All teachers had to dramatically alter their approach to education in the spring, and now schools everywhere are trying to solidify a safe plan for reopening in the fall. I am not alone in thinking that this is a terrible idea. If we have not yet “flattened the curve” of this deadly virus, why invite thousands of students to travel across state lines from all manner of cities to stay on campus and sit in a classroom together? Why not continue to teach online? The answer, as usual, is money. Colleges are businesses, students are the customers, and if the customer is not satisfied, they will not buy the product. If students and their families do not see the appeal in getting a degree online instead of partying in the dorms as a rite of passage, why would they proceed? So, to avoid a massive drop in enrollment, many colleges in Vermont and beyond have devised a monster of a plan; a cyborg version of higher education. Champlain College chose a “flex-hybrid” model for this academic year, which basically means that whoever is brave or stupid enough to come to class in person will have to wear a mask, sanitize every inch of their body multiple times a day, and get tested weekly. This includes the faculty. We are expected to put ourselves at risk, daily, and I will say that teaching with a mask on is frustrating, to say the least. I can barely speak without fogging up my glasses, and my words are muffled through any style of mask. Not only are we expected to teach in person in this compromised state, we are also expected to create simultaneous digital content for those students who do not wish to come to campus. In other words, I have had to design a dual-mode, a two-for-the-price-of-one, double-headed beast of a class. Twice the work, for the same pay. Soon, after Thanksgiving break, all classes will shift online—so, in a way, the class is a three-headed hydra. I elected to teach many of my classes entirely online, to save myself the complexity of these two modes.
I’m operating on low morale here, and it’s hard for me to attend all of these Zoom meetings and put on a “good sport” smile. To add to this confusion, my program director offhandedly announced during one of our online faculty meetings that “we” (the department) have hired a new full professor of creative writing. What does this mean? It means that unbeknownst to me or the other adjuncts in our tiny writing department, a secret teaching position for a full-salary-with-full-benefits was filled by a candidate with nearly identical credentials to my own, from several states away. Why? How? At this point, I was almost too tired to ask, but the answer came back just as unsatisfying or illuminating as always, with phrases from my superiors like “I wish it had been handled differently” and “I was kept out of the loop.” Who is responsible? Who is accountable?
I am at my wit’s end, but I can’t quit, not yet. I don’t have a back-up plan. Many of my friends who lost their jobs when the state of Vermont closed businesses to slow the spread of covid-19—artists, waiters, cooks, hairdressers—filed for unemployment, and struggled throughout the summer to find new jobs. Yes–it is tempting to quit, but what then? All of my skills, passion, experience, training, and education have shaped me to be a teacher. I love teaching. I love my students. I love the subjects. I practically live inside of a stack of books. I can’t even begin to imagine what else I would or could do for work.
So, dear reader, what would you do? Should I quit, file for unemployment, and start my career over from scratch? Or should I keep limping along, perpetuating the broken system that is higher education—the business that sucks money out of the pockets of students, creating future debt and lifelong worry—The business that rewards only the upper crust of its administration—adding dollars to the six-figure salaries of its presidents while the staff and faculty scrape by—the business that runs on the underpaid labor of adjuncts? If you’re shaking your head, know that I am too. This is where my writing finally comes in handy for me—as a coping mechanism. If I can’t write myself into a stable job, at least I can temporarily quell my fury by typing this piece.
FRANCES CANNON is a writer, professor, and artist currently living in Vermont, where she teaches at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, Champlain College, and the Vermont Commons School. She is the author and illustrator of several books: Walter Benjamin: Reimagined, MIT Press, The Highs and Lows of Shapeshift Ma and Big-Little Frank, Gold Wake Press, Tropicalia, Vagabond Press, Predator/Play, Ethel Press, and Uranian Fruit, Honeybee Press. She has an MFA in creative writing from Iowa and a BA from the University of Vermont.
Instagram: @frankyfrancescannonTwitter: @francesartist