What we (don’t) talk about when we talk about adjuncting

I came across this wonderful post from The New Yorker about the adjunct problem and thought it could spark a good conversation.

Have you come out to your students as an adjunct?

Coming out as an adjunct is necessary. Your students may not pay any attention to whether your job title is instructor, assistant professor or distinguished professor. Like the author of the New Yorker piece, I did not realize that most of my undergraduate education was done under adjuncts. And they were wonderful teachers!


Adjunct labor is the open secret in the glass closet of the US university system that everyone knows but few are willing to acknowledge, including students (who may know but not know that they know). How have you addressed this in your classes?

Our situation as adjuncts or graduate teaching fellows can feel perilous and make us not want to make waves or raise these issues for fear of reprisals or getting shut out of the system all together, which in turn only perpetuates the adjunctification of higher education. We need students, parents, and full-time faculty to work with adjuncts to change the system from within. Step one of this process is initiating a conversation with your students where you come out as an adjunct.




  1. Thank you for linking this article – I enjoyed the read. I tell my students on the first day that I am in fact a student as well (in a graduate program) and that I am not a professor (no PhD, not hired into that specific position). [Note – I don’t think I ever use the word adjunct though…] This is framed by a discussion about what they can call me (Irene is fine). I then find it interesting that they NEVER call me Irene and end up writing Prof. Morrison-Moncure on all their homework, etc. I think part of it is that if anyone is at the front of the classroom, occupying that authoritative “professor” space in front of the blackboard, that is what they are…’professor’ ‘adjunct’ these distinctions which are important to us for a variety of reasons – including pay brackets – don’t mean anything to the students. To them, a professor is simply someone who teachers an undergraduate course. That definition comes with a set of expectations…one apparently being to show respect by calling them “Prof. So-and-so” no matter what.

  2. Thank you for linking to this, Ryan. This, and your great comment, Irene, raise so many thoughts for me. We have spent the last 4 decades in a systematic assault on higher education and the adjunctification of the professoriate–the exploitation of teachers–seems to me in equilibrium with the transferral of cost (at public universities) from society (as in most other countries) to the individual student. Appallingly, there is now a bill in North Carolina that purports to ‘solve’ the adjunct problem by making a new law requiring every faculty member to have a 4-4 teaching load. That rips off everyone on every level.

    Irene, on the map of our course, we went back and forth so many times on what to call all of you and then decided there was a politics in “professor” and honoring you as that in your roles in the classrooms. We also asked some undergraduate and masters students and they confirmed exactly what you say: they would be appalled to call their professors anything but “professor”–it felt rude and disrespectful when we tried out other possibilities. That respect is owed. But it is also owed to be clear about what it means to be part time and with no security and benefits.

    Thanks again for posting.

  3. A lot of my friends and colleagues are discussing this piece, and I’m so glad it’s been written. I specifically don’t call myself an adjunct, though, because I’m technically not one. Part of the increasing problem with the adjunctification of higher ed, as I see it, is the contingent nature of adjunct employment. Since I’m teaching as part of my fellowship, I can count on having classes to teach in ways that folks who are “just” adjuncting cannot. I like to name this structural inequality through the way I name myself. (The “just” is in quotation marks as a way to do this, too.)

  4. Great points, all!

    Like Irene and Hilarie, I haven’t used the word adjunct because I’m technically not (this year–but I will be next year if I am lucky enough to get a course somewhere). But I have thought a lot about how the students should refer to me and ultimately I decided to leave it up to them. Last semester they mostly called me by my first name. This semester, many of them address me as professor.

    I didn’t have a clue about adjuncts when I was an undergrad, so I relate to our student’s ignorance of the matter. To them, often any person in authority might seem to be more deeply connected to the institution than they in fact are.

    Yet, as Cathy points out, we do owe the students clarity about our position as adjuncts (or, in some cases, graduate teaching fellow). I think it is possible to do this in ways that don’t attract unwanted negative attention from administration and that empower the students by giving them a different way of understanding their own place within the broader system of higher education (and why they could end up being waited on at a restaurant by their adjunct professor who is trying to make ends meet).

  5. The most powerful part in the piece for me was when the author described her professor’s engagement with her work: handing it back with notes running up the margins of the page, accompanied by a full page of commentary. In short, treating her writing with respect–as a piece of work worthy of serious consideration and critique. How incredibly empowering.

  6. Thanks, Ryan. This is fantastic — I love how she describes adjuncting as “a great responsibility, precariously held,” acknowledging that adjuncts still strive to have meaningful connections to students, despite their temporary status– something that I think is frequently left out of the debate. I am an adjunct for the first time this year and I frequently think about how to present that status, not only to my students, but to everyone that I interact with.

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