“Before class on the first day of my first adjuncting job, I put my name on the whiteboard, and on a lark wrote “Prof.” before it. I even took a photo. Then I lost my nerve, erasing the letters with the heel of my hand, leaving behind a gray smear. Now, when students address me as “professor” in e-mails—even though I’ve told them to call me by my first name—it strikes an odd note, a plunk of mislaid fingers on a piano. I’m not a professor. If I disappeared at the end of the semester, the school would replace me without much trouble, having invested nothing at all in my career. This sensation—a great responsibility, precariously held—is also like nothing else I’ve experienced.
I don’t want to give away my expertise for so little. But I don’t want to stop teaching, and I don’t want my students to be afraid to reach out to me after we part, either—I don’t want them to do what I would have done. I thrive on their news: they’re heading to graduate school, or they’re submitting work to be published, or are publishing, or have a new project. I don’t only want to teach; I want teaching to be a career, something that I can afford to keep doing.
The irony of this setup has not escaped me: the adjuncts who teach well despite the low pay and the lack of professional support may inspire in their students a similar passion—prompting them to be financially taken advantage of in turn. It strikes me as a grim perversion of the power of teaching. A key lesson in higher education is that few things matter more than good questions—and, if we don’t speak up, students will never know what to ask.” O Adjunct! My Adjunct! (The New Yorker)