As dreams go, Larissa Tracy's is simple. She'd get up and head to work at Georgetown University. She'd stroll to her wood-paneled office lined with her medieval literature books. Light would stream in through the windows as she'd wait to teach one of her classes later in the day. But before that she'd have time to chat with colleagues about work and teaching and life. Maybe she'd get lunch with one of them. Or maybe she'd work on an article about the lives of female saints in the Middle Ages, her specialty. In the summers, she'd travel and attend conferences. Life would be good.
She often thinks about that dream on days like this. On this chilly October morning she's merging onto Interstate 395, near her Shirlington apartment, and heading south on her daily 50-mile trek to Fredericksburg. It's 7 o'clock as her black Mazda Protege slides into the fast lane at 80 mph. She pushes hard on the accelerator and begins eating her toast. She needs to pass her first marker, the Quantico Marine Base, by 7:30—otherwise, she'll be late for her first English composition class at Mary Washington College. The clock doesn't stop ticking after that: She'll teach four classes at three different colleges today. And those are just some of the six classes she's teaching this fall term, double the normal load of a college professor. Or what used to be normal.
Tracy's itinerary today has the precision of a train schedule: English 101 at Mary Washington from 8 a.m. till 8:50 a.m. Office hours from 9 till 10 a.m. Another English class from 10 until 10:50 a.m. Back in the car by 11 a.m. Up I-95 to George Mason University. Another class from 12:30 p.m. till 1:20 p.m. Talk to students for a few minutes. Back in the car by 1:45 p.m. and race to Georgetown University. Grade papers and prepare for class while eating lunch. Class on Shakespeare and film from 3:15 p.m. to 4:05 p.m. Back in the car before the meter expires and head home. Then she grades more papers until midnight. Six hours later it all begins again.
It's not what she hoped her life would be like, but it's what she's gotten used to since finishing her PhD in medieval literature two years ago at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Since then she's become an academic nomad. Unable to find a full-time job in one place, she needs to do this if she wants to teach and pay her bills. She tells herself that it's temporary. But in the new academic job world, she's running out of time. If she doesn't find that increasingly elusive full-time job soon, she could live this transient life for the rest of her academic career.
There once was an unwritten deal. If you were smart and willing to devote up to 10 of your most productive years studying for a doctorate, certain things would likely happen. A college or university somewhere would hire you. And if you did well there, there was a full-time tenured job in your future. The money wouldn't be great, but you'd be part of an academic community. You'd do research in your field. You'd live a life of the mind.
Then the deal changed.
States started to cut their higher education budgets. Costs at all universities began to rise. And as a growing percentage of the population began attending college over the past few decades, universities changed the way they operated. Critics call it the corporatization of higher ed. Colleges prefer to call it a shift toward greater efficiency. Either way, colleges started looking for places to make budget cuts. With personnel costs consuming a huge chunk of a university's budget, administrators across the country found their money problems solved by a type of teacher few people have heard of: the adjunct professor.
Adjuncts originally were local professionals who would teach an occasional college class on a part-time basis. The journalist would teach a course on news writing, a retired judge would speak about jurisprudence. Then colleges saw them as something else: cheap labor. Many had doctorates and were willing to teach a class for as little as $1,500. Often they'd accept less. They got no health benefits, and they were hired by the term. Colleges could let them go at any time. And they taught the general education courses the full-time faculty largely dreaded. Colleges across the country, primarily in urban areas, hired them in droves. Outsourcing and higher education teaching had finally met.
At the same time, universities have been cutting back on the percentage of full-time tenure-track professors on their faculties. With each one often costing more than $1.5 million over a career, colleges began to balk. Why pay a full professor $80,000 a year with retirement and health benefits when you could hire a part-timer at a fraction of that? Many universities concluded there was no reason. In 1970, part-timers made up 22 percent of higher education teaching staffs in the United States. By 1999, they were 43 percent, as their numbers swelled to 437,000. And one recent national survey of humanities departments found that about one-third made less than $2,000 a class. Meanwhile, in the 1990s, the number of new humanities, language and literature PhD graduates flooding an already saturated market grew by more than 50 percent. The result: Too many PhDs and not enough real jobs.
A new underclass of college teachers emerged. The "freeway flyers," like Tracy, turned their cars into mobile offices. Since each college offers them only a few classes, they cobble together four, five or even nine courses a term at two, three or even five campuses. They might be classified as part-timers, but their teaching loads are very full time.
The new deal is a crapshoot. You might make it to academic nirvana, but you could end up trapped as a permanent adjunct forever fighting traffic before the next class. Still, each year new graduates like Tracy come onto the market, thinking they're the ones who'll get lucky. "I ultimately believe that I will get a job when I'm meant to," says Tracy. "If I felt that this was what I was going to be doing for the rest of my life, I'd probably go crazy."
She once imagined she'd land a full-time job as soon as she graduated. Along the way, she did everything she could to improve her chances. She focused on the more marketable Anglo-Saxon rather than Irish medieval literature. She made women saints her specialty, an added bonus in a field that currently prizes all things female. She applied to 20 colleges for teaching jobs as graduation neared. They all rejected her. The next year she applied to seven more places. Seven more rejections. After a while, all the letters started to sound the same. They wrote about having to make difficult decisions. They wrote about how it wasn't a reflection on her qualifications. But, in the end, they all said no.
"I have a degree from Trinity College Dublin, and my supervisor is one of the most well-known people in my field," she says. "I'm 28. I have an article published already, and my first book is coming out this year. What more do they want from me?"
Two years ago she showed up in person at Mary Washington and started knocking on doors like a cold-call saleswoman. The approach paid off—sort of. The college hired her as an adjunct professor. Georgetown and George Mason did the same. So she hit the road.
The wheels haven't stopped spinning since. Each day she drives at least three hours. In fact, she frequently spends more time in the car than in the classroom. This past academic year she taught 11 courses, memorized 250 students' names and graded a thousand papers.
At Mary Washington, she's grateful to have her own desk in a small, shared office with no window. But after teaching there for a year and a half, she still doesn't have a clue where the campus library is. There's no time. When she's done teaching, she's off to George Mason, where more than 20 adjuncts share a communal room with a few desks. Or to Georgetown, where she squats in other people's offices, often working on the edge of a desk because she's afraid she'll disturb a faculty member's papers.
As Tracy finishes her classes and office hours at Mary Washington today, she's running behind schedule. She tears out of the parking lot at 11:20 a.m. and soon merges onto I-95. But at Quantico she sees her nightmare unfolding before her: cars at a dead stop and a backup for miles. Slowly the traffic starts inching along. It's 13 agonizing miles before she finally veers onto Route 123. She checks her watch. It's already 12:15 p.m., 15 minutes before class at George Mason. She weaves along the two-lane road as fast as she can but still arrives 15 minutes late. She parks, then runs across campus. When she arrives at her classroom door, panting, she sees half her students at the board scribbling their names before they leave. The others have already gone.
"I'm here! Sit down," she says as she tries to compose herself. Somehow she gets the remnants of her class to take their seats as she begins her lesson.
A few students linger afterward to talk about an upcoming paper. One student seeks her advice about transferring to another college. When she finally gets back on the road it's 2:30 p.m. In 45 minutes, she needs to start her next lecture at Georgetown. But the bad dream won't stop. In front of her on I-66 she sees more cars backed up bumper to bumper.
When she finally gets to Georgetown, she circles frantically for a parking spot. Maybe they waited, she thinks as she dashes to her building. Maybe they waited. She pushes out of the elevator and into the classroom. This time, the chairs are empty. On the chalkboard she sees the only message her students left her: WE WERE HERE. WHERE WERE YOU?
She picks up the eraser and clears the board, then heads out the door to get ready for another day.
The growing reliance on adjuncts, critics say, cheats the most vulnerable of students: freshmen. They're the most likely to wash out of college from a bad experience, the detractors argue. They're also the ones most likely to have a harried part-timer teaching them History 10 or English 101.
Even though there are some excellent adjuncts, people worry that the overall quality of teaching suffers. Can someone like Tracy, they ask, teach five, six or more classes a day consistently, spending hours a day in a car, and not cut corners eventually? Tracy says she hasn't, but those who've seen overworked teachers like her before say youthful diligence lasts only so long. Eventually adjuncts with such loads might start replacing essays with multiple-choice tests. Or start assigning books they haven't had time to read themselves. And then there's the dislocation and disorganization that comes from lecturing minutes after fighting traffic.
"The system is created to exploit people just like this," Richard Moser says about Tracy's situation. As a representative with the American Association of University Professors, he's focused on the plight of adjuncts. "You get some young PhD that's all eager and up to date and strong. You get to use them for a few years, and then sooner or later they'll get frustrated and angry. Then they get another fresh piece of meat to fill the slot and then use them for a few years and then they get burned out. You get rid of them, then you get another one. Is this the way to run a university?"
Many in teaching circles worry this is just the beginning. At some point, they fear, entire departments will be made up of part-timers hired by the term or by the year. The result, they say, would be the end of the traditional college faculty. Many of those same educators think that outcome ultimately may be decided by parents, who could revolt against paying $30,000 a year to have their kids taught by someone who's also toiling at the local community college. Students, meanwhile, seem largely oblivious to the difference between full- and part-timers.
"Someone had to explain what an adjunct was," says Valerie Sprague, a freshman who had Tracy for two classes at Mary Washington this year. "It's not even an issue . . . Do they get paid less?"
She wouldn't need to ask that if she'd seen a documentary called "Degrees of Shame." The film, by Barbara Wolf, came out five years ago, comparing adjuncts to migrant farm workers. There's also a book, Ghosts in the Classroom, that compiled essays from adjuncts with titles like "Adjunct Apartheid," "Adjuncts Are Not People" and "Adjunct Misery."
Despite all their angst, adjuncts are notoriously fearful about speaking out. They're afraid that one wrong word, in or out of the classroom, will mean that they won't be hired back. And they know they're particularly vulnerable when it comes to student evaluations. If they receive too many low marks, they'll be gone. It's a frequent adjunct dilemma: Be an easier grader and likely get better reviews, or stick to your standards and risk not teaching at that college again.
It's not all bad news for adjuncts, however. John Hammang of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, which represents 435 institutions and systems, points out that many are happy with their part-time status. They have families and can't work full time. Or they're retired or have full-time jobs elsewhere and are uninterested in tenure. Adjuncts, he says, can improve the educational experience for students if used in the right way. They can bring real-world expertise into the classroom that's hard to replicate. Colleges can also react to student curriculum demands quickly with adjunct teachers even when they aren't sure if future students will be interested.
The harsh truth, says Hammang, is that not all adjuncts are good enough to be full-time faculty. At least being an adjunct allows them to teach. A number of college administrators also argue that this is the trade-off in the era of mass higher education. If you want to keep tuition down so more people can afford it and not increase public spending, you need adjuncts.
Take the University of Maryland Baltimore County, where 34 percent of the staff is adjuncts. The enrollment in computer technology-related courses has mushroomed by 60 percent in the past few years. The university can't find enough new full-time teachers to keep pace with the growth. Even if it could, it couldn't afford to hire them all. Adjuncts fill the gaps. Part-timers also allow the school to react on short notice to changing enrollment. This fall UMBC needs teachers for 40 additional classes. The administrators don't have time to do a nationwide search, so they'll turn to adjuncts. The alternatives, according to Provost Arthur Johnson: Raise tuition or cap enrollment. He likes neither choice. He points out that UMBC produces a large portion of the information technology graduates that Maryland's high-tech industry needs. "We're fulfilling an important economic role here," he says. Adjuncts make that happen.
The quality of education, Johnson argues, doesn't suffer. If anything, he says, students benefit from adjuncts who bring cutting-edge experience into the classroom in fields like computer science. And the salary, ranging from $2,000 to $5,000 a course, is fair, he says. Remember, he says, adjuncts don't have to advise students or do research. They make less, but they also do less. Their pay is determined by the open market, he says, as with most other jobs. "No one is forcing anyone to be an adjunct."
Still, Hammang's organization, which includes UMBC, thinks many of its members are overly reliant on adjuncts as states continue to tighten budgets. The late 1990s was a "missed opportunity," says Hammang. That's when colleges could have afforded to cut back on their adjunct dependency. He thinks there'll be another chance in a few years. The question is how much desire there will be to change.
Many adjuncts have decided they don't want to wait to find out. In the last few years, adjunct unionization movements have sprouted up around the country, and they're getting results. California has been one of the leaders, setting aside $57 million last year to increase part-time salaries at community colleges and an additional $7.1 million to pay adjuncts for office hours. Similarly, the state of Washington allocated an extra $17.5 million recently to raise adjunct pay at two-year colleges. More battles are raging from Pennsylvania and New York to Illinois and Wisconsin in both public and private colleges. This momentum hasn't hit the Washington area, but that could change soon. Look inside this fifth-floor conference room at UMBC, where six professors have gathered on this Monday afternoon. Some are adjuncts. Others have one-year renewable contracts. All are unhappy.
"The very fact that we are here means that we mean business," labor union organizer Scot Hamilton says to the group. "It's ironic. Universities are supposed to be the bastions of freedom, but when you look behind the scenes, they're very exploitative."
His colleague Cathleen McCann tells those assembled they can't rely on the university to treat them fairly. Only collective bargaining will do that. She's told faculty on six other Maryland campuses the same thing. As the lead organizer for the American Federation of Teachers in Maryland, McCann is scrambling to organize faculty members at the state's public four-year college campuses, where 38 percent of the faculty, systemwide, is part time.
By next year, she hopes, legislation will pass to force the system to bargain. If that happens, McCann could be sitting down with administrators by next summer to demand higher pay, longer contracts and benefits for all adjuncts.
Some places are changing on their own. The president of American University, where a quarter of the faculty is part time, last fall declared that the university will significantly cut back its reliance on adjuncts. The remaining part-timers will teach more, make more and have more responsibilities.
But some in academia, like Jonathan Loesberg, until recently chair of AU's literature department, think the use of adjuncts needs to stop altogether.
"I'm authorized to pay an adjunct here to teach a course something like around $2,000," says Loesberg. "That seems to me on the face of it exploitative. If such a person taught the standard full load at AU, which would be five courses, they would be making $10,000 a year without health benefits, without any type of retirement benefit, with no benefits at all—I feel terrible about it. But these are crocodile tears. I feel terrible about it, then I offer them the money. And yet the people are always happy to get the jobs because their alternative is not getting anything."
Tracy wants one of those adjunct jobs this fall. She sent an application letter to his department and received a terse e-mail reply saying someone would contact her later. She hasn't heard anything back. She's thought about showing up at his office and lobbying for the course in person—looming bills have made her bold. First, there's the $46,000 in student loans from graduate school. Then, there's the $10,000 in credit card debt. The only way she can make ends meet is by teaching four to six courses a term, with pay ranging from $2,385 a class at George Mason to the relatively lavish $4,695 a course at Georgetown. But the biggest financial crunch comes during the summer, when the teaching dries up.
Last summer Tracy didn't have any classes to teach, so she applied to 15 temporary agencies. After a month of waiting, only one found her regular work at $12 to $15 an hour doing proofreading. But at least that was better than the endless word-processing tests that the secretarial agencies had her do. "I have a PhD. I can't believe I'm doing this!" she would think. Then she'd put her head down and start typing.
She also tries not to think about her car breaking down, even though it has more than 100,000 miles on it. But one day in January she couldn't ignore the orange "check engine" light on her dashboard any longer. After a morning class, she pulled into a small repair shop in a desolate part of Fredericksburg. Half an hour later, a chatty mechanic explained that her catalytic converter was dead. That—plus a new battery and an oil change—well, that'll cost her $768. She grimaced, leaned an elbow on the counter and cradled her face in her hands as she tried to figure out how to pay for it. Her credit card was maxed out.
"That's it. Prostitution. Adjunct turned prostitute to pay for car repairs," she moaned to no one in particular.
Patrick O'Malley finished his PhD at Harvard a year before Tracy. Both started teaching in Georgetown's English department two years ago. The difference: O'Malley is a tenure-track assistant professor.
On this day when Tracy hustles between Fredericksburg and Fairfax, he sits in his office. Light is streaming in through a window. He looks relaxed with no classes to teach this term. He's on a full-paid leave from the university to work on his first book, which should help him gain tenure when the time comes. Whereas Tracy worked on her own book between jaunts on the freeway, Patrick spends his days in Massachusetts studying at Harvard's libraries. Even when he is teaching, his load is much lighter. When Tracy had six classes, he had three. Last year, he taught a reduced load of two classes a term so he could adjust to Washington and to his new university.
He walks from the Dupont Circle apartment he owns and takes a shuttle to campus, where he stays all day. While Tracy is scurrying between campuses, he's rapidly becoming an integral part of Georgetown's. He has time to go out to lunch with professors who can help him with his career later. He goes to faculty parties that Tracy rarely attends. The English department is filled mostly with strangers to Tracy; to O'Malley, they're friends and colleagues.
O'Malley knows about adjuncts like Tracy. He knows about the lives they lead and knows he couldn't do it. "It would be too exhausting."
Talk to veteran adjuncts about Tracy and they tell you they were once like her. They, too, thought being an adjunct was just a way station en route to their real lives. But then the years passed and at some point they began to realize they were stuck. They'd been tainted by the adjunct label and were never going to get full-time jobs.
"You're used goods now and you are going to have to face it," a colleague told one adjunct after he'd been teaching for five years.
Those who hire full-time faculty say that's not far from the truth. When they get 375 applicants for a single job, they need some way to weed people out. If someone's been an adjunct for a while, a search committee starts wondering what's wrong with them. It may not be fair, but it's how things work.
After a while, longtime adjuncts begin to resign themselves to their fate. Year after year, they teach out of cardboard boxes. They often give up on doing original research. Mostly they have time only to drive and teach. And they don't cross the invisible line separating adjuncts from full-time members. It's a line that makes one adjunct of 15 years, a winner of several teaching awards, wait till everyone else has eaten when there's food laid out for a department event. He sneaks in later to eat what's left.
On an early January morning, the sun is rising as Tracy tailgates a silver pickup in the fast lane. It's the first day of the spring semester, and she'll lead two classes today at Mary Washington. Then this afternoon she'll go to Georgetown, where she'll tell her class she's an adjunct professor, "which means I'm pond scum."
But at this very moment as she cruises down I-95, she's thinking about the lletter she got just yesterday from the University of California at San Diego. It's the sixth rejection she's gotten in this round. She still hopes one of five more applications, to Bucknell, Duke, Fordham, Spelman or Toronto, will come through. But she has more immediate worries. She doesn't know if she'll have any classes to teach this summer. That's still weighing on her mind that afternoon as she sits at the Tombs, a bar in Georgetown. "Maybe I could work here this summer?" she says to the bartender. He nods, not sure if she's joking.
She makes another push. "So if I need a job for this summer, can I hit you up?"
As she eats, she thinks about what it would be like being a professor and serving burgers and beer to students. She decides she could handle that. At least it's a job.
"I've waited tables before in Dublin," she says. "I'm not above working in a bar."
The last application responses eventually trickle in. By March they've all told her no. She tries to stay positive, but she can't help but wonder sometimes if maybe, just maybe, she's not good enough to make the cut. It's been nearly two years since she graduated, and 38 places have said they don't want her.
"It's frustrating because I would have thought at this point in my career, I would have at least gotten an interview."
Over the next month, a new hope arises. George Mason has a one-year position open in the English department. The money would be better and the course load lighter. It would be a good launching pad for a full-time job somewhere else. Once more she puts her name in, and once more she lets herself hope.
On a bright May morning, Tracy heads to her car in hurry. She weaves through the back roads toward Alexandria. Her classes are over for the summer break. Today is her first day of work in a different capacity: as a temp. She managed to get two classes to teach during this break, but she still needs clerical work like this.
She heard back about the one-year George Mason job. She didn't get it. So, when next term comes, she'll have four adjunct classes between Georgetown and George Mason. She told Mary Washington that she isn't going to work there anymore. The drive was killing her. Instead, she's going to see if she can drum up one more class in this area. And in a few months, she'll send out more resumes for more full-time jobs. Meanwhile, she's coming out with a book and another paper. Her chances of landing a real job this year, she tells herself, are better than ever. She isn't about to give up her quest anytime soon, she says. She's put too much of herself into academia to do that. "I'll keep applying. There's not much more I can do."
She pulls into a parking lot, grabs her lunch and hurries toward a marble-and-chrome office building, where she'll spend the next eight hours looking for typos and spelling mistakes. She steps inside and waits for the elevator. Sometimes there is nothing she can do but wait.
I originally included this article for three reasons. First, one of the things that I have learned since I started this blog is that the surplus of Ph.D.s is not limited to the field of history. Tracy has a Ph.D. in literature and had problems getting a job. Her situation is pretty typical. The second reason I decided to post this article is that it was published nine years ago. It shows us that this massive glut of Ph.D.s is nothing new, and since programs are overproducing every year, the glut just keeps getting bigger and bigger. The third reason is I feel it captures the desperation and frustration of being on the adjunct circuit.
Then, I got curious. What happened to Larissa Tracy in the last nine years? How much longer did she continue to adjunct? What did she do instead? A quick search on google found her and a quick exchange of e-mails resulted in a phone interview.
Turns out this story ends on a happy note. She is now teaching in a tenure track position at Longwood University in central Virginia. She published a book Women of the Gilte Legende: A Selection of Middle English Saints’ Lives (2003), and recently received tenure.
It was not easy getting to this place in her career, though. She continued to adjunct for another year. She made ends meet in the summer by working as a proofreader and copyeditor. Then, she received a visiting appointment at American University where she worked full-time for two years. This position was salaried, which means her income increased significantly and she had health benefits. She obtained the position at Longwood two years later.
She is not, though, a fan of “Professor of Desperation.” She feels Wee exaggerated the story. The only time she missed a class in the three years she was adjuncting was the one time mentioned in the story. She noted that it happened in September of 2001 when she encountered a rolling roadblock. It was one of those security things that happened in the D.C. area after September 11, 2001. She also added that the article made Patrick O'Malley look entitled. What Wee failed to mention was that O'Malley spent three years looking for work himself before landing his position at Georgetown, which he still holds.
When asked if the article helped or hurt her, she replied, “A little bit of both.” The people at American University recognized her name from the article when she applied for a position. In that sense, “it was very helpful.” No one on the search committee at Longwood, though, had never read it. She also adds that sometimes people think she is a troublemaker because of the feature.
That reading seems a bit unfair. She struck me in the article and more so in talking with her as someone who was dealt a bad hand and handled it well. Other readers had very different takes. Wee took part in an on-line discussion the day after it appeared in print. Go to http://discuss.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/zforum/02/magazine_wee072202.htm to see an archive of the discussion and some of those reactions.
When asked if she would do it again, Tracy quickly replied: “Absolutely.” She feels she got a world class education. She was taking part in academic conferences and presenting papers as a grad student long before she would have if she were going to school in the United States. “I had an extraordinary experience in Ireland.”
She also feels she gained from her three years doing part-time work. “I felt having been an adjunct prepared me a lot better than being a TA.” She feels it made her a “better teacher and a more humble scholar” than otherwise would have been the case.
In retrospect, she feels that graduate school did not prepare her enough for the work of job hunting. You might be applying for a job in your subject of expertise, but the people on the search committee might have very little idea about the major issues in that area even if they are in the same discipline. “Be prepared to explain your field to people who don’t understand it.”
Larissa Tracy had to wait and wait and wait for full time professional employment. It is a tough thing to do, but it is something a lot more people in academia have to do these days.