Contingent faculty are treated as mere cannon fodder

The Bourne films had it right. ‘Look at us. Look at what they make you give,’ says Donald Earl Collins

February 16, 2022
The Bourne Identity
Source: Shutterstock

“In American studies, we’re a little different,” my department chair told me in a virtual meeting about a year ago. “We’re not like history. We go out into the field with our students. We work in the community.” 

I was stunned. A full-time faculty member expected me, an adjunct faculty member of colour, to play the role of Washington DC tour guide to a bunch of affluent white students. They also expected me to use my contacts in the non-profit world to help those students liaise and work with social justice organisations on their research projects. None of these expectations came with additional pay, of course. And all this at a time when 200,000 Americans were contracting Covid-19 every day – and 5,000 were dying from it.

The amount of privilege this department chair displayed still disgusts me. If I hadn’t needed the income, I would have quit there and then.

That fall semester in 2020 nearly killed me. My blood pressure was sky high and my sleep was filled with Covid nightmares. In October, I spent 25 hours a week placing my students with relevant organisations. Since most had shut down or gone virtual, I also stepped in to help half my students formulate a project they could do without meeting the community service requirement.

In another class, students complained that I couldn’t somehow make the pandemic go away and safely take them to the National Mall. They became weary of our weekly class discussions on Zoom. This pettiness while my 89-year-old mother-in-law lay dying from isolation in her nursing home. The 2020 election cycle and the threats of insurrection added to my depression and it became hard to just get out of bed: forget about teaching, grading or responding to email. 

I did all this for a university that had raised my per-course salary by just $125, to $4,425 the previous year, while also raising the student number cap from 19 to 28 per course. Those students were paying more than $5,000 each to take a three-credit-hour course with me. That meant one student could cover my entire per-course salary, and four my average salary for a year.

I also teach at another university, at $4,200 per course, but it long ago stripped all autonomy from faculty – including the use of our own lecture notes, books and assignments. That at least meant no expectations beyond running online classes and discussions and grading online-generated assignments. At my primary job, though, I make about $15 per student per week per course, in exchange for preparation, teaching and grading my own material, sans retirement and health benefits. If this isn’t an example of rank exploitation, then I don’t know what is.

So when my department chair asked me to be more like her, I thought of the mantra of the Jason Bourne movies: “Look at us. Look at what they make you give.” An agent known as The Professor says it first during The Bourne Identity, after Bourne blasts him in a random French field. Bourne himself then says it to an assassin trying to kill him on a Manhattan rooftop at the end of The Bourne Ultimatum, closing the figurative circle.

Apart from a brief shift online at the height of the Omicron surge, my primary institution has insisted on in-person instruction this academic year. This shift occurred because of student complaints about the efficacy of learning through Zoom. But I barely made it through this past semester. The only way to ventilate my classroom was to open the windows, and I had to constantly remind students to keep wearing their masks. Their racial and socioeconomic privilege allowed them not to take a killer pandemic seriously, but even with two jabs of the Pfizer vaccine, this middle-aged Black man still felt unsafe. So I wore a cloth mask, a medical mask underneath, goggles and gloves to class.

This was not an ideal teaching circumstance. Some students complained they couldn’t hear me, even when I was yelling. Others complained about my reluctance to stay and talk with them after class or during in-person office hours. At one point, in the midst of technical and wifi glitches, I said under my breath, “What am I doing here? It would be so easy for me to walk out of this classroom right now, never to return. No job’s worth all this.” I was that close again to quitting. 

It is no exaggeration to say the contingent faculty are treated as mere cannon fodder, always in grave peril of being terminated. I know contingent faculty who have burned out, had nervous breakdowns, or even died from the stress of the work we all do, even before the pandemic. 

Recently, my primary university offered us a salary increase of just 0.6 per cent, citing enrolment declines and financial hardship during the pandemic. But the university could not have run at all if we hadn’t done our jobs for nearly two years in frantically improvised online forms and in dangerous classrooms.

The Bourne Identity’s Professor chose a career that could only end with his death. The physical and mental health of adjunct faculty is only marginally less imperilled, particularly given the added pressure of low pay or no pay for our work. All of this to enhance our employers’ profit margins. To my fellow contingent faculty I say again: Look at us. Look at what they make you give.

Donald Earl Collins is an adjunct professor at two US universities.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

As the season of goodwill comes around again, warm words about collegiality and fellowship have been dutifully corralled into all-staff missives from university leaders. But in an era of management, metrics and industrial unrest, does the image of the academy as a commonwealth of scholars still bear scrutiny? Seven academics have their say 

23 December