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Thursday, May 1, 2014 12:01 am

Will teach for food

Adjunct instructors are making it work in central Illinois

Adjunct instructor Megan Rigoni-McCormic works with art students at UIS.


The use of adjunct instructors – part-time, non-staff teachers in higher education, sometimes referred to as “contingent faculty” – has become increasingly common in colleges and universities dealing with financial hardships imposed by slashed budgets. It is not hard to understand why. Adjuncts are higher education’s hired guns. They have advanced degrees and work on a contractual, semester-by-semester basis. Compensation is not uniform between institutions or even departments but they are invariably paid a fraction of the salaries of full-time faculty, are often not given offices and receive no benefits. From the point of view of administration, there is very little downside to an arrangement like this. But what do these instructors themselves think about their jobs?

Academia’s growing reliance on adjuncts has become a contentious topic recently, complete with charges of exploitation. Author and former Oberlin College president Robert Fuller wrote of adjuncts, in an opinion piece for the Huffington Post earlier this year, that “what began as part-time teaching to meet a temporary need or plug a gap in the curriculum has evolved into systemic institutional injustice.” Illinois Times contributor Jim Hightower pointedly described adjuncts in a recent blog post as “part-time, low-paid, no-benefit, no-tenure, temporary teachers.”

The recently unionized faculty at University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) went on strike this spring, in part seeking improved conditions for adjunct instructors. The most dramatic national focus on the “adjunct problem” came late last year with reports of the tragic case of Mary Margaret Vojtko, who had been employed for 25 years as an adjunct French instructor at Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University. Vojtko was diagnosed with cancer and died penniless after her teaching contract was not renewed. 

In the fall of 2013, Rigoni-McCormic taught five classes at three different schools.

The American Association of University Professors released a report this month stating that more than three-quarters of faculty in the United States are now adjuncts (The ratio of adjunct to full time faculty at UIS this spring was 20 percent, or one in five.) Meanwhile the U.S. House of Representatives has reported that more than half of adjuncts live below the poverty line.

Area native Megan Rigoni-McCormic, 32, earned her master’s degree in fine arts from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 2008 and makes artwork that is three-dimensional, tactile and conceptually evocative. She is employed as an adjunct instructor at University of Illinois Springfield, Lincoln Land Community College and MacMurray University. “I’m in a slightly different situation than a lot of people that I’ve met in that this is my primary job,” she says cheerily. “I’m all over the place teaching a million classes all the time, trying to piece together a reasonable income.” She stops to consider. “I don’t know about ‘reasonable.’ Somewhat livable?”

After graduating, Rigoni-McCormic spent some time looking for teaching work on the East Coast. Although she had taught classes as a graduate assistant, this experience combined with her degree turned out to be nowhere near enough to land a full-time job teaching at the university level. She found that even the adjunct market was saturated in that part of the country. “I came up completely empty-handed. It’s really hard to get into teaching when your only classroom experience is as a grad assistant,” she says. She and her husband moved back to the Springfield area two years ago when she was offered an adjunct position at MacMurray University in Jacksonville. “They have a small faculty pool and I was going to be teaching a substantial enough amount of classes that it would make it sort of worthwhile.”

Nicole Overcash of the UIS Capital Scholars Program is a rare adjunct to have been promoted to a full-time faculty position.

Once back in the Springfield area, Rigoni-McCormic reestablished contact with friends and teachers from her undergraduate days who encouraged her to also apply for adjunct work at UIS. “So my first semester into teaching, I’m teaching four classes at two schools,” she says. She was soon added to the Lincoln Land adjunct pool as well, bringing her workload up to an almost absurd five classes on three campuses by this past fall semester. “I knew I had to get experience if I eventually want a full-time teaching job,” she shrugs. “That was the number one reason to be open to this chaos.”

One difficulty she has encountered is that instructors in academic fields are expected to maintain their own practice – for art programs this is the instructor’s own studio work, in other fields it would be research – and this can suffer greatly when teaching multiple classes in diverse locations. Paradoxically, Rigoni-McCormic now finds herself in the opposite predicament: two of the classes she had been contracted to teach this semester were canceled due to low enrollment, leaving her with time to work in the studio but a drastically reduced income.

Overcash lectures at UIS.

The precarious nature of contract work is one of the many downsides of trying to piece together a living as an adjunct. “You’re really psyched when you land the jobs and sign the contracts and then halfway through the semester its time to start hustling to make sure you have a job for the next semester,” she sighs. “It’s just this constant effort. If I didn’t have a partner, I feel like my lifestyle would be really different and I feel like I would be a little bit more panicked every single semester.”

This coming fall she will be taking some time off from adjunct work, having been hired to substitute full-time for a MacMurray instructor on sabbatical, a position which will include the sort of administrative work which is not usually part of the adjunct’s lot. (While the lack of administrative duties might be considered one of the advantages of adjuncting, the experience promises to be a great addition to Rigoni-McCormic’s CV.) However, this brings its own concerns. She worries that removing herself from the adjunct roster for a semester could take her out of the running for future jobs. “As of right now, the forecast looks OK, that I will be back and everything will be fine,” she says. “When I let everyone know that this was happening, they were all incredibly gracious and congratulatory.”

The frantic, often unstable working situations faced by Rigoni-McCormic and others like her, attempting to eke out livings teaching as adjuncts, were most likely far from what was envisioned when the practice of hiring contingent faculty began. “Our need [for adjuncts] is sometimes in areas of specialization because we value working professionals and the experiential knowledge they bring to the classroom,” explains Lynn Pardie, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at UIS. “Sometimes there will be interesting courses by working professionals that we like to have as part of our curriculum and frankly we’re fortunate to be in a region of central Illinois where we do have access to a lot of professionals in fields that are relevant to what we teach and who like to teach.”

Rigoni-McCormic circulates among her students.

When told of the plight of young teachers with advanced degrees currently trying to make a living through adjunct work, Pardie seemed surprised and perhaps a little alarmed. “It’s such a losing battle when people are adjuncting at multiple institutions, if you think about it,” she says. “If you have a working professional and they just love teaching and they don’t mind taking their evening hours or weekend hours to do it, that is one thing, but this is very different. It’s not a labor of love when people are really just trying to get by.” Regarding allegations that some universities have begun replacing retiring full-time instructors with multiple low-paid adjuncts, Pardie says, “If we have a need for someone to be teaching full time, we would look for someone to teach full time. Even if it weren’t in a tenure-track position, this would allow that individual to interact with colleagues and with students through advising, which is a different sort of situation, I think, than this case-by-case contracting for courses.”

Nicole Overcash, 29, is a UIS master’s degree graduate in English whose adjunct journey took an unexpected trajectory. She is the rare example of an adjunct having made the transition to full-time faculty.

After serving in the Peace Corps in China, Overcash briefly considered returning to the English department at UIS in 2009 to pursue her Ph.D., then decided to give adjuncting a try. This lasted one semester, but before long she was back for more. Overcash then worked as an adjunct at UIS for several semesters, and, like Rigoni-McCormic, at one point found herself teaching five classes, although in Overcash’s case all were at UIS. “I think I was fortunate in that I had a skill set where I could teach in multiple departments,” she says. At that time she was teaching courses in English, English as a Second Language, the Capital Scholars Honors Program and the Speaker Series. “That was difficult too, because your ability to focus on your work and have a base is nonexistent and you have four different supervisors you’re trying to please. I was also doing some freelance editing at the time but I didn’t have to hold down a different part-time job. It still wasn’t good money.”

While she was teaching those five classes, Overcash also agreed to help revive and coach the long-moribund UIS forensics team. This turned out to be a huge time commitment, as she had to recruit the team from scratch, recreate the program from the bottom up and travel with the team to competitions.

In 2012, UIS’s Capital Scholars four-year honors program created its first full-time position and offered it to Overcash, who had apparently attained a sort of MVP status while an adjunct. “I feel like if I hadn’t gone above and beyond and said I’d take on the forensics team and do all these other things it might not have happened,” she says.  “I think part of it, too, is I was fortunate in that I happened to be working for a department that was growing.” In fact, Capital Scholars had just moved and increased its number of students and therefore needed more instructors. “The administration of the program had been pushing for it for years. My timing was good.”

“Most people I know who want to get into teaching from grad school are working a day job and then teaching a class here or there and that’s it,” says Rigoni-McCormic. “I just feel like, you know, in it to win it, right? Your butt is constantly on the line, but I would not take a job where I had to sit in one place for eight or nine or ten hours a day and do what people tell me to do. No!” she pauses. “I really like teaching. It’s great. I’m using that degree. You really do have to invest yourself to get what you want.”

Scott Faingold is a staff writer for Illinois Times and an adjunct instructor in the communication department at UIS. He can be reached via sfaingold@illinoistimes.com

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