An Adjunct’s Story

This week, for at least the third time in my fourteen years as an adjunct lecturer at SUNY Plattsburgh, I got the dreaded news that adjunct positions were going to be cut due to a budget crisis.  In order to make up some shortfall, someone who crunches numbers for the college told deans and chairs that $178,000 needed to be cut from the adjunct budget.  This means that about 16% (or higher) of adjuncts hired by the college will be terminated.

Let me start off by saying, I am not writing this to argue for my job, or argue for a reasonable wage, or argue for better benefits.  While I could and should argue for those factors, that is not my purpose today.  I have been an adjunct for two colleges over my twenty-plus year teaching career, and I know the drill.  I am contingent faculty; my job is contingent upon many factors at a college: enrollment, budget, tenure faculty teaching requests.   I sign a contract every semester knowing that my schedule could change, and many times has changed, drastically up until the first day of classes, with or without a contract.  This is the nature of the beast.

I am writing this essay because the one thing that I want those who crunch numbers and those who decide who does not get a contract next semester to know is that each and every adjunct has a story; each and every adjunct values their contingent profession.  While the details of my story are uniquely my own, every adjunct has a story similar to mine.  Our contingent careers deserve the recognition and respect that tenured professors receive; our stories are not contingent.  Our stories deserve to be heard; we deserve to be valued as professionals, not hobbyists.  

I first registered as a non-matriculated, non-traditional student at SUNY Plattsburgh in Spring of 1988.  I came here a failure.  I failed in my marriage, I had failed in a half-hearted attempt at  a private college (for which I had to pay thousands of dollars out of my own pocket with nothing to show), I was severely depressed and underweight, and I was, to put it mildly, a mess.  I lacked self-esteem, direction, and purpose for life.  I came to SUNY Plattsburgh to re-invent myself, to start over, and  to become who I was meant to be, whoever that may be.   Little did I know then that SUNY Plattsburgh would be an integral part of my life for over three decades, without ever having been hired here in any full-time, permanent capacity.  The only time I was ever here under the term “full-time” was when I paid the college for my education. 

My first adviser suggested I become an Elementary Education Pre-K- 6 major because I had told my advisor I like children, and I was female.  I had no idea what I wanted “to be”, so I went along with the program and took the required courses.  I knew I had somewhat of a brain, but I didn’t consider myself anything remarkable or worthwhile (major self-esteem issues before “self-esteem issues” were a thing).  Then, in the Spring of 1989, Dr. David Mowry, who had recently established the Honors Center, talked to me after an Introduction to Philosophy class.  He said I stood out to him and would I want to be part of the Honors Program.  Me!  Wow.  That moment changed my life.

I joined the Honors Program and changed my major.  I was suddenly recognized for my brain.   I had something of value, me and my ideas, that I could add to the world.  I changed my major from Elementary Education to English, and I ended up double majoring in English and Philosophy.  

My undergraduate journey was filled with some wonderful professors, some of whom are no longer with us.  I was one of those students who, to paraphrase Tom Morrissey’s eulogy to Bruce Butterfield, sat outside Dr. Butterfield’s office “counting rosary beads.”  I sat in a frustrated, disillusioned, ready-to-retire, Art Newgarten’s summer 200-level philosophy course filled with students from the hockey team, and listened to him tell us “everyone gets a ‘B’ whether you show up or not” speech (which by the way, I did show up every day to his class on Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel.   Dr. Newgarten was a genius with a wonderful sense of humor); I studied and analyzed  Shakespeare in classes taught by Alexis Levitin, accompanied by his dog, Shep; I studied Paradise Lost as  taught by Anna Battagelli; I attended courses taught by Paul Johnston, Peter Corodimas, and the late Dennis April; I sat in Honors courses where Daphne Kutzer shared her own lesbian poetry with the class; in Tom Morrissey’s classes where he brilliantly brought mythology and Lord of the Ringsto life with relevant lectures about current society; I listened to Janet Groth read from Jane Austin novels in her mellifluous voice; well, you get the picture.  I grew, I learned, and all these professors helped me find value in the world, and value in myself.  I valued the liberal arts program.

During these years, the academic environment was different.  There was a bar on campus where students, the Plattsburgh community, and professors could freely mingle.  Professors weren’t afraid to invite students to their homes or out to dinner.  Society was different.  The Point, the campus bar located in Angel Center, was one such place.   Many nights I discussed philosophers and authors , abstract ideas, the meaning of life, with professors who would come in and have a beer, shoot pool, or play darts with students. I even met the man I would eventually marry (and later divorce) at the Point. Professors from the English department held holiday and end of the year get-togethers and invited students.  The Honors Center held picnics and trips for students.  Some professors even invited small groups of students out to restaurants to discuss literature.  What a wonderful community SUNY Plattsburgh was, and I am thankful for those memories.  The college community shaped the course of my life.

I graduated college, and the plans I had to go away to graduate school didn’t materialize for a variety of reasons.  I didn’t get the score I wanted on the subject GRE, and I didn’t retake it.  Instead, I enrolled in a graduate program at SUNY Plattsburgh.  I was working towards a Master’s in Education so I could teach high school English. I got married. Right before I was to start  the Student Teaching block, I was offered an adjunct position at Clinton Community College.  I was pregnant with my first born, and I needed to make money.  In 1994, my life as an adjunct had begun.  I changed my concentration, and earned a Master’s of Liberal Studies degree, with a concentration in English Literature and Reading in 1995.  The English department stopped offering that graduate program shortly after.  Apparently, I’ve been told, my degree is not that valued in the academic community.  

For me, however, I am a product of SUNY Plattsburgh’s educational system, and I did the work, wrote a thesis, and as a bonus, I learned how to teach.  I took courses in Education on how to create tests, how to evaluate students, studied different methodologies and pedagogies that work for students, how to manage classroom behavior and create a positive learning environment.  Many tenured professors, while experts in their specific disciplines, have not taken many, if any, education courses and have not learned how to impart their knowledge effectively to students.  I learned how to write, I analyzed literature, and I learned how to teach.  I value the education I got from SUNY Plattsburgh. 

When my children were young, I chose to stay home with them, and I postponed my teaching career.  I opened my own daycare because I didn’t want to miss the first tooth, the first broken arm, the first time my child said “Mama”.  When I was diagnosed with cancer, I stayed home and recovered, while still running a daycare.  When my children started school, I decided to teach again, as an adjunct as no fulltime positions were open.  After my divorce, I needed health benefits, so I applied to teach at SUNY Plattsburgh.  I worked three jobs: I taught at two colleges and I became an accountant.  I taught English, prepared taxes, did payroll for companies, and parented.  Over the next fourteen years, I have worked one, two, and three jobs at a time in order to support myself and my three children.  My passions lay in parenting and teaching.  Two careers with lousy pay.

Being an adjunct over the years has had certain benefits: I never missed any plays or concerts my children were in; I was able to drop off and pick up every day; I was able to spend time with my children.  I made my choice: my children came before my career.  And now my children are grown, and my career has not grown.  I am still contingent faculty.  I would not change my life decisions.

I made decisions that have had  life-long consequences.  I chose to stay in a profession that offered me no stability, no livable wage, for over twenty years because it is what happened.  I may lose my only profession I am passionate about, in an institution that has been a part of most of my adult life (it’s been in my life longer than some marriages…), because of choices I have made, and because, in part, of the lack of respect, recognition, and the complete exploitation of people who may not have any other choice.

If you know me, you know I’ve said, “I’m good at two things in my life: parenting and teaching.”  That is who I am.  I am a professor and a mom.  I’m damn good at both. I am proud to tell my students that I am a product of the college that they chose to attend.  

 You know, when I was a kid, teachers and high school counselors would often say, “What job would you do for free?  Whatever your answer, that’s the job for you.  That’s your passion.”  Teaching is my passion, although I would rather not do it for free.  Navient is still expecting my student loan payment from my years at SUNY Plattsburgh.  Yes, another topic for another day.

Where in the World is Burghy?

WHERE IN THE WORLD IS BURGHY?

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These are the covers of the current Sports Illustrated that are in my house.  What do you notice about these covers?  Yep, that woman is grabbing her boobs and looks naked, but no, that’s not what I wanted you to notice. Well, not exactly.  What I wanted you to notice is that only two of those eight covers are of women, and out of those two women, only one is dressed. What I extrapolate from this is that women are not as valued as men in the sports industry, in society, and in Plattsburgh, our local microcosm of society.  Never has this been more apparent to me than after going to the poorly attended (and poorly advertised) Women’s Ice Hockey National Championship Celebration at SUNY Plattsburgh.

Oh, and can you find Burghy, SUNY Plattsburgh’s mascot, in the picture?

First of all, let me tell you that I know very little about sports in general.  Growing up, I was the next-to-last kid picked to be on a team. In college (SUNY Plattsburgh), I never went to any sporting events, but I would see Burghy around campus..  My favorite baseball team is Boston (because my dad is a Red Sox fan), but I can’t name more than 5 or 6 players after 1976.  I guess I didn’t really start paying attention to sports or attend any sporting events until I became a college English teacher.

My first year teaching, some of my students were on the Women’s Soccer team at Clinton Community College.  They asked me if I’d go to a game.  I thought it would be a fun outing for my three young children, and I could support my student athletes, so to the game we went.  What better idea than take my kids outside, let them run off their energy, and cheer on my students? I think the CCC Women’s team did very well that season. Years later, I ran into one of the soccer athletes at a social gathering, and she expressed how happy she was to see me at her games.  She mentioned that having her professors go to the games and support the team made her years at CCC that much more meaningful.

Since that first experience, I have attended Men’s and Women’s soccer, basketball, and hockey games at CCC and SUNY Plattsburgh. I remember watching the SUNY Plattsburgh Men’s soccer team play a few years ago,  while my kids chased our dog around the outskirts of the field at the Field House.  The fans at most of the games we attended were pretty much the same, with the blaring exception of hockey. The Men’s Cardinal Hockey team has many more fans and more collegiate support (my personal opinion, obviously) than the Women’s, and, for the life of me, I can’t figure out why.

My son, Jonathan’s, favorite part of going to the Men’s hockey game was to see Burghy and eat the huge chocolate chip cookies.  After waiting on line for tickets (we learned to get there early), we’d get our cookies and drinks, sit on the hard wooden benches, and wait for the show to start.  Rock and roll blasted from the speakers, the lights went out, the strobe light and colored lights flashed and spun on the ice, and Burghy would emerge on the ice, skating and waving.  Then the game would start.  Players would get smashed into the plexiglass barriers, whistles would sound, and the fans would chant and stomp their feet in support of the male Cardinals.  Very few seats were empty in the arena.  What a fun Saturday night!

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I haven’t gone to a Men’s game in a few years, but I know that tickets are now six dollars, that Burghy still skates and waves, that the line is out the door to get into a game, and the cookies are still good.  The arena has been updated, and many fans religiously attend games to support the athletes.  For many families, watching the Men’s Hockey team play has become a tradition and a great way to spend a Saturday night.

For the past few years, I’ve had more hockey players in my classes than from other sports, although the basketball team players are starting to become a presence, (next semester I’ll have to start going to both sports).  I had never attended a Women’s Hockey game, so Tim suggested we go.  He thought it would be a fun date, and he said the women were talented players.

The first Saturday we go, it’s an afternoon game.  Okay, well the Men’s team gets the ice that Saturday night.  Tim and I go right up to the ticket booth where there is a woman just finishing up buying two tickets.  She turns to her companion and says, “They’re charging two dollars to get in now.  Maybe more people will want to see them now that they’re charging admission; after all,  they’re winning every game!”  Hmmm…..

Tim and I get some drinks and snacks and easily find an empty, plastic seat.  To our left is a small student cheering section, dressed in black, red, and white.  They seem quite pumped up!  Good!  I wait for the lights to dim.  Hey, where’s Burghy?  In the regular arena lights, the umpires skate out and check the goal nets.  Then the announcer introduces both teams.  No light show; no Burghy.  Hmmm.  Then the game begins.

Just like the men’s team, these women are hungry for a win.  They fiercely go after the puck, slam into each other, and do all those cool hockey things.  There’s penalties on both sides for checking.  The ladies are ruthless, and they don’t let the opposing team score.  Between plays, I look around the half-empty arena.  As much fun as I’m having, I can’t help wonder why there aren’t more fans.  After the victorious ladies leave the ice, Tim and I leave the arena.  There is a long line of fans waiting to enter to see the Men play.  Suddenly a T-shirt and memorabilia kiosk has appeared in front of the entrance.  There’s excitement in the air.  I leave thinking “Why aren’t these people watching the women play?”  (BTW- the men lost the game that night.)  For the next few weeks, we attended the rest of the regular season, and then the ECAC and NCAA championships.  I’m not sure where Burghy was. Maybe he was writing an essay  for classes all those days, and couldn’t watch the Lady Cards dominate the ice.

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Last Tuesday, Tim and I attended the celebration of the Ladies winning the NCAA Championship, the third time in a row. There were maybe a couple hundred fans there, if that.  Know how I knew about the celebration?  My student hockey athletes told me in class.  The day of the celebration, WPTZ announced it on the evening news, stating that the event would take place in an hour.  I also got a faculty digest email informing the campus community of the event.  No wonder not many people went. I wonder how much publicity the Men’s Hockey team would’ve gotten, had they won, which they haven’t done since 2001, but hey, at least they have Burghy!

But you know who did go?  The hard-working athletes who deserved the recognition.  The president of the college went.  The mayor of Plattsburgh went.  The loyal fans of the players went, and we went.  Oh, and Burghy was there, finally!  I hope the Lady Cardinals know that they have fans out there who support them and value all the hard work and dedication they put into this season.  Congrats to you!

The new Sports Illustrated came in the mail today.  Know who was on the cover?  The men’s Villanova basketball team was on the cover, not the UConn women’s team.  In the future, I hope media outlets like Sports Illustrated and WPTZ will give women’s teams more exposure.  I also hope that Burghy will find time out of his busy schedule to support the Lady Cardinals.

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