Adjunct Work-Life Balance

December 12, 2013

I’ve been invisible on this blog for the last two weeks because I have the same problem that many adjuncts share: during certain times of the semester, the work becomes nearly impossible to wrangle into a normal-human schedule. Add to this a wedding in the family and some freelance stuff, and my planned blog posts are all saved as incomplete fragments to be finished at a later time.

But it’s made me realize that I do want to talk about work-life balance, because, like a lot of academic folk, it’s the latter of these that I’ve often sacrificed. Despite every study in the world saying that taking breaks is good for the mind and body, the tendency in academia is to ignore everything telling you to rest: ignore the clock, ignore your body, ignore the fact that you’ve gotten one sentence written in the past hour. You must keep working at all costs. The reality is, this leads to terrible work and missed deadlines. And I’ve written before about how pervasive and pernicious the idea of work is in academia.

However, even that strung-out dystopia is an idealized vision of academic “work.” That “work” is code for research, and as an adjunct, you will long for those days when you could procrastinate while still calling it work, when you stayed up late staring at the cursor on the computer screen, waiting for greatness to come out. 

No, adjunct work is not like that. It’s a grind, and it’s far from the pampered grad-student life I once led.* Nor is it the “Oh, but I’m on so many committees” privileged life of the assistant professor. (I will take all of your committee work if you give me a reasonable salary, how’s about that?)

Here are three realities about my adjunct work life:

1) I often hold longer office hours than many tenure-track and tenured faculty. Why do I do this, when I don’t get paid? Well, you know, despite everything, I believe in being a good teacher. As an adjunct, I teach high-enrollment introductory classes. This means that I a) have more students in general, b) have more freshmen, and c) have more students who’ve been dropped into a music course with no knowledge of the subject. All of these factors together mean that I have more students with questions, fears, and panic attacks than someone who only sees self-assured upperclass students in advanced courses. This semester, all but four of my students are first-semester freshmen. I’ve never been on campus this much, not even the year that I was full time.

2) My grading is on a tight deadline at more than one institution, and juggling these deadlines takes skill and planning. I know, I know: everyone has to grade papers. But as an adjunct, it’s both about how much grading as well as how you time that grading. I’m giving exams on Friday, Monday, and Tuesday. The university where I’m giving the exam on Friday afternoon requires that I turn in grades within 48 hours of giving the exam; weekends are not exempted from this time. Ergo, I will have no weekend. I then have to somehow grade the exam I’m giving on Monday night from 7-10 p.m. before I give another one on Tuesday at 1:30. I’m not sure I can do this, honestly. 

3) In order to pay bills, I also do freelance editing. It’s another thing on the schedule. This makes for even more difficult juggling of work and life, but I have to get paid somehow. My freelance work is not in academia and often comes up last minute. I got offered a freelance editing job this week that was on a tight deadline and would give me about $800 for two days of work. Considering $800 is a little less than what I earn for a month’s worth of work for one course, I took the job. 

This week, I faced a perfect storm of time-management disasters: After grading essays all day Sunday, I spent Monday in six hours of meetings with students, plus teaching a final class session, Tuesday and Wednesday I did my editing, and today I’m finally catching up on student emails and writing this blog. Oh, and I also caught a cold. 

However, I did do two things this week to fight for a scrap of my personal life amid the relentless march toward the end of the semester. First, on Sunday, I delayed our return to the city from Long Island so that Ryan and I could have brunch with his family. He knew I had a lot of grading to do, but I knew that we don’t get to see his cousins often enough. Family is important to both of us, and I’ll be damned if I sacrifice any more of it to academia.

Second, on Tuesday, Ryan had passes to see CHVRCHES at the world’s tiniest venue as guests of the band. I had my deadlines, and I thought hard about trekking downtown to Chelsea from our very-far-uptown Inwood apartment, where I was cozy in flannel and doing my work. But then I realized that the experience of going to see the band was worth whatever repercussions might ripple through my schedule. And I got to meet the band, who were lovely, and I had some free beers.

Whether I end up leaving academia permanently or getting a job within it in some miraculous turn of events, claiming this space is important to me. I’ve already given up enough for, and I don’t want to become a statistic of another woman who’s given up everything to dedicate her life to academia. 

*By pampered, I mean: “Teaching one class and taking three classes per semester and getting paid only a few thousand less than I do now for teaching three classes per semester.”


One Response to “Adjunct Work-Life Balance”

  1. ahh – reading this brought back vivid memories. I actually feel a little ill thinking of the days when I juggled part-time teaching, job searching and toddler raising. it is so hard to set boundaries and find time for yourself – but glad you’re doing it!

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