I’ve been teaching college writing courses for two and a half years—first as a graduate assistant, now as an adjunct—and in that time my belief that I’m qualified for the job hasn’t improved nearly as quickly as my ability to ignore the suspicion that I’m not qualified for it at all. Every so often, though, I’ll have a Wile E. Coyote moment: I realize I’m younger or less experienced than nearly all of my students, look down and see I’m standing on nothing but Pantone-blue desert air.
Some might argue that I’ve simply fallen into the “confidence gap.” Certainly, the female teachers I know seem more likely than men to second-guess their own authority in the classroom, and to have it second-guessed by students. Yet the lack of confidence women experience as teachers, and particularly as adjuncts, has a more complex provenance. Like all adjuncts, they are entrusted with responsibilities that outreach their qualifications. But female adjuncts, in my experience, often find themselves in a particularly precarious position: part-teacher, part-guidance counselor, part-confessor—they are filling roles related to mental health and general wellbeing that they are in no way qualified to fill.
Adjunct teaching is a job that is only really sustainable if you don’t need one. As contingent faculty—there are over a million of us in the United States—we may, and often do, wait until days before a new academic term until we know how many classes we’ll be teaching, and where. Universities can afford to press us into service because they almost always hire us on a part-time basis, which means they don’t have to provide us with benefits. Typically, making a living as an adjunct means cobbling together a full-time workload by taking on a class or two at a cluster of nearby (or perhaps not-so-nearby) universities and community colleges. Salaries vary based on school, but the Chronicle of Higher Education reported last year that, nationwide, adjuncts’ average pay for a three-credit course is $2,987, with some teachers reporting pay as low as $1,200. Even a humanities instructor can tell you how bleak this figure is in comparison to the average student loan debt for a student graduating from a four-year-institution: $29,400.
Increasingly, we find the institutions we work for expect us to be consummate professionals in the classroom, even if they don’t treat us as such anywhere else. We must, in short, give our students everything our institutions do not give to us. And we must do our best if only because the quality of higher education in this country rests on our shoulders: According to the American Association of University Professors, adjunct instructors made up 76 percent of universities’ workforces last year—an increase from 30 percent in 1975.
When I started teaching, I was 23 years old and had no weightier obligation than a masters thesis on Jane Eyre. I wasn’t married. I had no children. I had no pets. I didn’t even own a plant. I had worked as a camp counselor, a literary magazine intern, and at a strange neither-fish-nor-flesh job in which I allegedly curated a hotel’s rare books collection but mostly just poured wine for guests during a library-viewing-cum-happy-hour. It was during this last job that I learned I felt much more confident when I wore a blazer, and when I first started teaching, I attempted to convince myself that I had earned the right to tell my students what to do simply by outdressing them. I didn’t really have anything else going for me. I taught, and continue to teach, in a huge university that serves great numbers of “returning students”—that is, students who re-enroll in college after an absence ranging between a year and half a century—and I have never taught a class that did not contain several students who were older than me. All of them had and have more life experience in one way or another; it’s the kind of think you accrue fairly easily, it turns out, when you aren’t sitting in a carrel reading Jane Eyre.
I taught my first class with nothing to go on but the vague goal of teaching my students to become better writers. Almost as soon as I started teaching, however, I learned one of the paradoxical truths I’ve been working around since: No one wants to learn writing. The more you talk about it, the harder it becomes; the more students are aware that each word matters, the less likely they are to produce any. Writing terrifies everyone, to a frankly amazing degree. At the time I was too frightened to admit that I was terrified of writing and of my students, that we were all in fact terrified, and could at least learn to be less scared together. Instead I soldiered on and solemnly assigned craft essays.
It was probably one of the most boring classes the university had ever offered, and when I rewrote my syllabus, I rerouted my approach to one that has made me a better and even more terrified teacher: We would talk about the news, about culture, and about our lives. To an extent, I think any successful introductory writing class must deal with something outside the mere act of putting words on a page, since the only thing that can allow a student to forget the terror of writing is finding something they need to say. This, at least, is the best tactic I’ve come up with so far. It means my students write. And it means they put their faith in me in ways I cannot begin to deserve.
Over the course of a ten-week class, I play the role of therapist, priest, mentor, and friend. In their writings, in our class time, and in their meetings with me, students tell me about their pasts, their aspirations, their medical and mental health emergencies; about family tragedies and abuses they have survived; about their sexualities, their identities, their relationships, and their fears. I do not ask them to tell me any of this, but they offer it freely, as if they have simply been waiting for someone to tell. I’ve had students write about fleeing from abusive husbands, about their children’s births, their children’s disabilities, and their children’s deaths. They have written about reaching moments of clarity while spending a night in jail or awaiting a prison sentence—and I can relate these stories without betraying their confidences, because I have heard them numerous times, from numerous students, and I’ve been teaching for less than three years. Some of them have dealt with pain I find unimaginable, and have survived in ways that give me hope for humanity. Telling them how to do an MLA citation seems beside the point.
This happens because I am in a position of authority, but I am also deeply non-threatening for being a young, blonde woman who smiles a lot. I can’t strike fear into anyone’s heart, and certainly this has a great deal to do with my age and gender, but it also means that I benefit from a very specific kind of privilege. White male privilege means the gift of easy authority and confidence, among other dubious rewards. White female privilege means being viewed as harmless, innocuous, and safe to confide in. For a teacher, this is both a blessing and a curse. But mostly, I’ve found, it is a blessing. My students write about who they really are and what they really care about, without fearing I will censor or question them or reprimand them for their candor. I like to think this makes them better writers. I know it makes me a more generous and more thoughtful human being.
But it doesn’t make me any more qualified. I don’t know how to be a confessor, a crisis counselor, a social worker, or any of the other parts my students have required me to play. For the most part, I learned everything I know about teaching while actually doing it, and I know I could be much, much better: I could be better educated about subjects like racial profiling and police brutality and international policy and domestic violence. I could know how to talk to my students about their problems in a way that will give them more than a shoulder to cry on.
I know I’m not alone. When I asked my coworkers if they’d had the same problem—the confidences of a student whose behavior or whose problems they couldn’t handle—to a one, they said yes. We are all newly minted adjuncts, but in one or two or three years of teaching, this is the once experience that crops up again and again. Every female teacher and many of the male teachers described students who visit their office hours to discuss their personal problems. One fellow writing teacher describes an ongoing relationship with a student who repeatedly signed up for her classes, didn’t turn in any assignments, and didn’t seem to mind failing so long as she could stop by her office hours every week and talk about her arrests and mental health issues. Another described a student who repeatedly went on racist and homophobic rants in class, which she repeated in the handwritten papers she turned in, salient points highlighted in orange crayon. She also brought him gifts including a soiled shirt in a paper bag. “Truthfully,” the instructor says, the “problem was me, for being a bleeding-heart empathy-bag. I thought she was homeless or crazy or most likely both, and I was concerned about having her cut off from perhaps her only access to resources.”
Yet the students who seem a threat aren’t the hardest ones to forget. A Spanish teacher at a community college told me a story about a bright, dedicated, talkative student who came to her midway through the term to tell her she had reunited with her old boyfriend, started using drugs again, and now feared for her safety. My friend set up a counseling appointment for her and gave her what advice she could. She never saw her student again. These are the stories that haunt you: The ones where you’re sure you could have done something, but lack the training or the resources that would tell you what.
Adjuncts shouldn’t play this role. But simply by dint of being there, we often must. I suspect it happens more often to women, but it will happen to all teachers who make themselves available to their students, or who even turn up for their jobs.We may be hired as conduits for the most basic kind of knowledge—semicolon versus comma; MLA versus APA—but our jobs have become something vastly greater, and our students are the ones who suffer. We are the authority figures students are most likely to encounter, and those they are often most likely to go to when they don’t want to admit to having serious problems. We won’t be counseling or mental health professionals so long as we’re still working toward our literature Ph.D.’s, but as the most common first-responders to students’ problems, we should have more to offer than a box of tissues. The last time a student came to my office and started crying, however, I didn’t even have a box of tissues on hand, because I had forgotten to buy any. Like so much else, they just aren’t in most schools’ budget.
Sarah Marshall is currently at work on a book about women's roles in media spectacle. She lives in Portland, Oregon.