Adjuncts Struggle to Balance Dreams of Teaching with Low Wages

Seattle University instructor and others lead anxious lives at or below the poverty line

By Charles Fischer August 12, 2015


This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Seattle magazine.

In the waning hours of last December, David Heller had dinner with friends at a neighborhood Thai restaurant. Over shared plates of pad kee mao and panang curry, they drank red wine and talked of plans for the coming year. Spirits were good. Yet Heller’s friends were worried about him. He looked pale, walked with a limp, complained of sores on his legs and general fatigue. And his normally acute mind seemed distracted. When he missed their annual New Year’s Eve gathering, his friends urged him to check himself into a hospital. He hesitated, but agreed to be taken to Virginia Mason Medical Center the next day. He died early in the morning on January 2 of complications from an untreated thyroid condition. 

The following week, I met John Erdmann at Heller’s dilapidated boarding house in Ravenna. Erdmann, Heller and I had become close while working together at a used-book store 20 years before. Now a librarian at the College of Marin, Erdmann asked me to help sort through Heller’s belongings before his sister came to town.We climbed the steps—worn smooth by generations of graduate students—to Heller’s wood-paneled garret. The room was filled with more books than I had ever seen in such a small space, lining the walls, filling bookcases: well-thumbed paperbacks, hard covers with jackets torn and weathered. “All those little volumes neatly stacked,” says Erdmann, who estimated that there were between 3,000 and 4,000 books. 

There wasn’t much else to the room besides books—a worn-out mattress, a small, empty refrigerator and an old Brooks Brothers shirt hanging in the closet. It was messy in the way the room of someone who is very sick will get, especially when he doesn’t expect anyone to visit. Heller shared a bathroom, one floor down, with other tenants. Every trip up and down those stairs in his last days must have been a trial. 

On his desk were stacks of student papers and a syllabus for a course he taught at Seattle University, where he had been an adjunct instructor in philosophy. The description for the class read: “In this course, we will follow Socrates’ injunction to be perplexed about the most important matters.” I opened a well-worn copy of Being and Time, philosopher Martin Heidegger’s notoriously difficult text, and the margins were filled with circles, moons, stars, check marks and asterisks—like the script of some forgotten necromancer—evidence of numerous and careful readings. 

Gazing at the stacks on the floor and piles of books along the paneled walls, I remembered that Heller once told me that his ambition for his remaining years was to “realize” his library. He hoped to read (and reread) all of the books he owned, to understand them, live their ambiguities and embrace their truths. “Books provide us with tangible promise and possibility,” he said. “Each book opens up a new world. It is the promise of immortality.” 

I used to run into Heller—who, in the accurate appraisal of one of his students, looked like “a hipster Albert Einstein”—at the University Bookstore or one of The Ave’s innumerable coffee shops. Heller was never one for small talk, and our conversations inevitably turned to teaching. He taught a class called “Ethics, Persons and Values,” in which he asked one of the essential questions: “Can we be happy without leading a good life?” Heller’s idea of the good life was teaching and thinking—and conversing with fellow scholars over coffee, although on his budget, he considered a Starbucks latte an extravagance. 

We’d also swap stories about our respective careers as part-time faculty members. I would complain about my long commute to Everett Community College (EvCC) and lack of pay. Yet despite my dissatisfaction, I count myself lucky to teach at only one school. In the Puget Sound region, part-timers are sometimes referred to as “I-5 flyers,” because they teach at several different colleges up and down the interstate to cobble together a living wage. 

After years of working at a bookstore, Heller had landed an adjunct gig at a prestigious university, teaching a subject he loved. I had never known him to be happier. But it was not unusual to find him anxious about work; he was always worried that his appointment would not be renewed for the coming academic year. As a part-time faculty member, Heller, like all of us adjuncts, worked on a contractual basis from semester to semester. What I didn’t know was that at 61 years old, he lived on $18,000 a year, well below the poverty level, in an increasingly expensive city. Or that he had no plan for what to do if he was not reappointed, much less for retirement. His is not a singular case. 

According to a Senate Committee Services report on higher education in the state of Washington, between 48 and 76 percent of the faculty at two-year community colleges and between 22 and 37 percent at four-year universities are classified as part-time. (Nationally, more than 70 percent of college faculty is now contingent, according to a PBS NewsHour report.) Hiring adjuncts not only helps keep overall salary and benefit costs down, it also allows colleges and universities greater flexibility to expand and reduce staff as enrollment increases and decreases. All of which has consequences for that staff.

Many of these part-timers earn poverty wages. In Washington state, part-time faculty members are often not allowed to teach full-time. Instead, they average a half-time load, earning an average of $16,835 a year. This is true across all academic disciplines—not just philosophy, but English, math, science and so on. In some cases, adjuncts file for unemployment during the summer quarters, when there aren’t enough class appointments. Others rely on food stamps. Many adjuncts around the country do not have health benefits; in Washington state, things are better. Adjuncts become eligible for benefits at the beginning of the second consecutive quarter of half-time or more employment. To top it off, these financial challenges are often exacerbated by outstanding school loans in the tens of thousands of dollars racked up in master’s and Ph.D. programs. 

The situation drove my colleague Alyson Indrunas, director of eLearning and Instructional Design at EvCC, out of teaching. “Having racked up over $50K in [student loan] debt,” she says, “made it really hard to constantly manage not getting paid for close to four months of the year. It was for pure financial reasons that I went into administration. I can’t say that this was a path I saw for myself, but getting a consistent paycheck year-round has relaxed my shoulders a bit. I miss teaching, and I probably always will.”

Those who stick with it, like Heller, are part of what Jack Longmate calls the “invisible faculty.” An adjunct professor of English at Olympic College in Bremerton, Longmate is also a longtime advocate on behalf of adjuncts. “Just as no one is surprised when water runs downhill,” he says, “no one is surprised that tenured faculty receive much higher pay than nontenured adjuncts, job security, or that they might receive sabbaticals and early retirement options, or incremental pay step increases reflective of their teaching longevity and professional development, while nontenured adjuncts receive none of those preferential provisions.”

Some of that insecurity comes with an upside—fewer administrative responsibilities outside the classrooms. For example, adjuncts usually aren’t required to serve on committees as their tenure-track and tenured peers are, but that also means they don’t have a voice in the operations of the institution. Also, in many cases, they are required to hold no or limited office hours for students, though many choose to offer more, for which they aren’t compensated. The students miss out when adjuncts don’t or can’t meet with them because the instructors are racing off to another classroom an hour away. 

Inequitable working conditions for most of the state’s teachers are part of a larger and more troubling paradox, for the poor pay and lack of job security clashes with the message we are sending to students. “I found myself in the position,” Indrunas says, “where I had promising students who reminded me of my younger self, and I could not in good faith give them advice on how to follow in my footsteps. I have talked students out of becoming teachers, and that pains me. How could I look a first-generation [college] student in the face and say that it was a good career path when I was paying my rent with a credit card? Every day I was an adjunct was better than when I was a waitress, but sadly, I made more hourly by asking what type of tequila people wanted in their margaritas than I did helping people read, write and think.”

Heller came to the profession after a long and varied apprenticeship. “When I think of David’s passing,” says his older sister, Sheri Sherman of St. Louis, “I think of an intense, bright comet. Intense is the key word to David’s life, his spirit.” Whether it was pitching for the Khoury League in St. Louis or playing in a jazz/blues band as “the only white Jewish teenage boy,” he mastered every task he undertook. 

This intensity found an intellectual outlet in his late 20s while he was working in a bookstore near UCLA. “A philosophy professor would come to the bookstore just to have conversations with David,” Sherman says. “[David] realized these were the questions he wanted to explore and he enrolled at Berkeley.” There, he studied with big-name philosophers such as Bernard Williams and Hubert Dreyfus, who took notice of his unusual and insightful intellect and often met with him outside the classroom. 

Though he came to teaching late, Heller made up for the lost time. “David worked ceaselessly to make himself a better teacher,” says Gary Handwerk, former chairperson of the University of Washington’s English Department and a friend of Heller’s, “reading constantly, adjusting his syllabi and assignments, reflecting back on previous classes, and planning the ones to come.” Handwerk says the conversations he had with Heller about teaching were “fantastic experiences, digging as deeply into the methods and purposes of teaching as any discussions I’ve ever had with anyone—and I’ve been privileged to know a lot of truly talented and dedicated teachers over the course of my career.” 

When I compared Heller to Diogenes the Cynic, who was famous for his poverty, Handwerk agreed, saying, “He would have lived in a barrel, if necessary, to devote himself to teaching.”

At Seattle University, Heller was the secret king of philosophy. Part of what made him extraordinary was that he lacked official credentials. Heller’s master’s degree (one reason he was never a candidate for a tenure-track position, even if it were available) was in English and American literature. “After sitting down with David and talking about his background, I soon realized that he was educated in philosophy well beyond what his credentials would suggest,” says Paul Kidder, professor and head of Seattle University’s philosophy program. There were some who felt that Heller was the most Socratic member of the department. Heller “lived for conversation,” Kidder explains. “I often found myself rethinking, with David, readings that I had been teaching for years.” 

Despite all the respect, Heller never forgot the precariousness of his adjunct position. “I never thought we would be able to offer work for David in the department as long as we did,” Kidder says. “There was a swell in the demand for core courses that I always thought would wane at some point. I repeatedly reminded David that his teaching situation was temporary. But like a good philosopher, at one point, he responded, ‘Yes, well, Paul, we’re all temporary.’”

On February 15 of this year, hundreds of adjuncts, as well as nontenured and tenured faculty, walked out of their classes to protest on National Adjunct Walkout Day. The action was a particular success in the West—with large-scale actions at the University of Arizona, San Francisco Art Institute and Seattle University. At SU, adjuncts demanded the right to unionize, a decision that is still pending court approval. 

While Heller worried about the contingent nature of his appointment, he was more concerned about the quality of his teaching and its impact on his students. He had an almost mystical attachment to the classroom. The great thing about teaching, Heller once told me, is that “you get to express and work out your values.” And yet Heller worried, perhaps more than the average instructor, about his students’ lack of preparation and fretted over their unwillingness to read difficult texts. “Learning was his ideal,” Erdmann says, “this gateway, this key to open their horizons, and he feared that some of his students were squandering this gift.” 

David Heller’s last hours were spent thinking about his students. He was admitted to Virginia Mason Medical Center on New Year’s Day with an irregular heartbeat. The doctors treated him with electrical cardioversion, a procedure that involves shocking the heart to reset its rhythms. The nurse on duty was one of his former students, and this fact brought him tremendous comfort. “You could tell he was nervous,” says Erdmann, who with his wife, Christy Stocker, had taken Heller to the hospital. “It wasn’t just the procedure. He had to prepare for Monday’s class and was concerned that he wouldn’t be ready. We promised him that we would bring him his computer, because he wanted to keep working on his syllabus.”

The procedure was a temporary success. Heller’s heart was restored to its regular rhythm. When he awoke from the sedation, he was relieved and in a good mood. It was 2 a.m., and Heller urged his friends to get a good night’s sleep. “I told you I wasn’t ready to go,” he joked with the nurse. “I still have too many books to read.”


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