I know about unhealthy relationships. My parents married in their teens and fought a lot when I was little. After the divorce, my mother had a series of relationships with screaming and fighting, and sometimes physical abuse. The adults were decent enough to keep the physical violence out of sight from my little sister and me, but I knew it was happening. My poor, frustrated mother sometimes took out her anger on my sister and me, screaming at us, slapping our faces.
What does this have to do with adjuncting? I’ll tell you in a minute.
In my adult life, my patterns mimicked my mothers, and I chose unhealthy, and sometimes abusive, relationships. In some, it was easy to see the abuse, easy to know it was time to leave. In others, the abuse was emotional, and it was hard to recognize it, and even harder to leave. Your lives become entangled, and there’s love, and you feel an obligation. Maybe if you stick around, you can help this person. Because unhealthy people are vulnerable, damaged, and maybe you can fix them.
Still, you have to end the relationship. It’s damaging you, and you want more for yourself.
The relationship adjuncts have with their employers are not much different from unhealthy relationships with spouses or family members. The dynamics are still the same. To explore this further, I want to look at the website of a college for some information on unhealthy relationships.
- Our employers are deceptive and at the same time play the role of the victim: “We can’t pay you a living wage because we don’t have the money.” Meanwhile, money pours into new construction projects and the six-figure salaries of the upper administration.
- Inconsistency: Adjuncts receive emails about how much they are valued, but we receive paychecks that suggest that we mean very little to our employers. We’re constantly told how important “student success” is to the administration, yet we are denied the basic working conditions that are necessary for us to guide our students toward success.
- An unhealthy relationship brings more stress than happiness to your life. Being an adjunct brings so much financial stress, so much insecurity, that it’s a daily struggle to keep a smiling face for the students. It gets hard just to remember that once upon a time, you used to love learning.
- In an unhealthy relationship, you feel “pressure to change who you are for the other person,” giving up the dignity and integrity of the professional career you trained for. You “feel worried when you disagree” because adjuncts lack job security. HR doesn’t even have to fire us. The power is clearly in their hands.
- Arguments “are not settled fairly.” In most cases, the adjunct’s side of the argument isn’t even recognized. Unions help with that, but most colleges don’t recognize or bargain with unions.
- “Notice an unequal control of resources.” Professors with offices in car trunks; professors not being compensated for mileage driving from campus to campus, etc. While professors are hungry and rushing to class, administrators sit in a meeting, eating bagels and pastries provided by the college.
I’ve ogled trays of leftover food from a meeting more than once, tempted to steal them. I might have even grabbed a donut, or two, as I passed a post-meeting food cart.
- “Experience lack of fairness and equality.” I am paid 60% of what a full-time faculty is paid to teach the same class. A full-time professor has job security and his or her own office. I have neither of these things. And no matter how hard I work, how much I put into planning the curriculum, attending department meetings (with no compensation), and professional development seminars, my situation will not change or improve. It hardly seems fair.
- In an unhealthy relationship, you experience these feelings: fear, instability, deteriorating self-esteem, hopelessness, depression. I know this. I’ve been there – with men, with family members, and with my job. The symptoms are similar; the feelings are the same.
But what if your unhealthy relationship is with someone you don’t want to leave? Like a parent or child? Or an employer?
It’s wise to leave a boyfriend before you find a new one. It’s risky, and even unwise, to leave a job before finding a new one. So what do we do?
I’ve done a bit of research about how people deal with unhealthy relationships with parents and family members. If you love someone who you can’t be healthy with, because they have a mental disorder or a habit of abuse, and you still want a relationship, there’s this thing called a low-contact relationship. It allows you to keep the person in your life with minimal damage to yourself.
Yes, I’m making an argument that adjuncts should be slackers. This is a tough pill to swallow. We love what we do, and we believe in it. Slacking runs counter to everything that’s driven us in our lives to earn the higher degrees we needed to get here.
So maybe it’s better to think of it as being in a low-contact relationship with an unhealthy employer. It places the responsibility in the hands of the abuser. We’re not slackers. We’re professors, professionals, coping with a system that mistreats us.
How to do low-contact
The rules for low-contact are fairly simple:
- Do the minimum it takes to keep the relationship alive, and no more than that.
- Set boundaries and stick to them.
Enforcing those boundaries is your job. Your employers will reach over those boundaries every chance they get. They have to. They are understaffed, relying on adjuncts to act as full-time employees. They get away with it because we enable them. We have to stop enabling.
Set boundaries and keep them. You decide what those boundaries are.
For me, it’s limiting myself to the work I’m compensated for— and only putting in the hours the college reports for health insurance and benefits purposes— and no more than that.
My employer insists that it only takes 6 hours a week to teach a class. So that’s the time I give myself to do the work. This might mean that I have to let a class out early to finish grading, and I have to give fewer assignments each semester. I use auto-grading assignments when I can, and I grade minor assignments based on completion. I would like to spend more time creating lessons, giving thorough and formative feedback, and creating engaging and challenging assignments, but I can’t do all of that with only 3 hours a week (because the other 3 are spent in the classroom).
It’s not easy to enforce boundaries. Even as I type this, I’m thinking of the presentation I’m going to put together tonight for a seminar my department is offering after hours. I will not be paid for this work. I will not receive a raise or promotion for doing this extra, unpaid work.
We may allow our boundaries to be crossed from time to time. Old patterns are hard to break. Be kind to yourself. Acknowledge that you allowed the boundary to be crossed, and then reinforce it. With time, your boundaries will be stronger.
Another strategy for dealing with unhealthy relationships is to get busy with other things.
Engage in hobbies or other projects that have nothing to do with teaching college classes. Start a new business, freelance, work on your resume, start looking for a healthier employment situation. Create things in your life that demand your time, so that you can’t freely offer that extra time to your employers anymore.
Any time you’re asked to do extra work for free, refuse to do it.
The exchange is this: we do the work; the college pays us and reports those work hours to the government for purposes of benefits. When we do work and the college doesn’t pay us, when we do work beyond the hours the college acknowledges, then the exchange becomes unbalanced, unfair, and unhealthy.
Personally, I’m comfortable saying that I’d rather sit at home than work for free. But if that’s not you, then say you’re busy with your project, hobby, or other task. And then spend that time engaged in that project, hobby, or task.
Make yourself scarce.
Soon, it won’t be difficult to enforce your boundaries, because you’ll actually be busy with your own business, freelance projects, or actual volunteer work.
Some adjunct professors may be reading this and totally disagreeing. Several of my colleagues think it’s important to show up at meetings, make themselves visible. And this attitude is not entirely unfounded.
One of the deans I used to work for would send an email to this effect:
“I want to see you all at this training. It isn’t mandatory, and there’s no pay, but I’ll remember who was there when it’s time to assign courses in the spring.”
But I never showed up, and I still got classes – for a while. And in my earlier years, when I showed up to all the meetings and unpaid training sessions, my classes were still taken from me by full-time faculty, or cancelled due to low enrollment. No matter how much extra work I did, how much of my free time I spent making myself visible and valuable to my employer, there were no promotions, no paths to job security, no merit-based raises.
It doesn’t matter to the administrations whether we adjuncts give it our all or give it our minimum. But giving it our all ends up harming us, because it’s not healthy.
If you’re at the point where all of what I’m saying here rings true to you, then remember this – a sentence I read in one of the forums about unhealthy relationships and low contact – the important thing is your healing.
Take care of yourself. Make yourself scarce. Do what you’re paid to do and do it well, but draw a line in the sand where the compensation and credit for work hours ends. Use the time your employers would take from you for free to focus on things that are healthier for you: projects, other job options, hobbies, or life paths.
Giving it your minimum may harm the students, but more likely they won’t notice it. More likely, you’ll feel less burn-out and actually give them a better learning experience. But if it happens that all of the adjuncts of the world pull back and do only the work they’re paid for, and students notice the quality of their education plunging, then maybe system-wide change will finally happen, and really, that’s what’s best for the students.
P.S.: As I ready myself to post this, I worry a bit about getting in trouble with my employers. If they figure out it’s me writing this, they won’t love that I’m advocating slacking on the job.
The thing is, as adjuncts, we’re only given credit for working – and only paid to work – slacker hours.
If you have any comments or other suggestions, post below.