Teaching for Your Students (And Not Your Employer) When You are Precarious Labor

By Dr. Raechel Tiffe

My last year of full-time teaching was the first time I went into planning the semester thinking about my labor verses only thinking about the student experience. Prior to that, I had never considered what it might mean to assign particular projects in particular classes, in relation to other papers in other classes, and what that would mean for my workload. I will figure it out, I always thought, because the students come first! That was my thinking when I was on a year-to-year contract that my colleagues and school insisted would turn into a tenure-track gig. So, in addition to wanting to give my students the best experience, I also wanted to show my department that I was going above and beyond.

Raechel Tiffe, Ph.D., is a writer, educator, and podcaster. Her research is largely focused on resistance to social injustice, specifically as it relates to coalition-building across intersectionally marginalized identity categories. Her work has been published in academic journals (Rhizomes, Feminist Media Studies, QED: A Journal of GLBTQ Worldmaking, among others) and popular press outlets (Bitch Magazine, Teen Vogue, Inside Higher Ed, and more). She currently resides in Massachusetts. You can find her on Twitter @reblgrrlraechel.

But that tenure-track gig? Yeah, it never panned out, and in its place, I was cut from my salaried position and asked to begin adjuncting. As most people in higher ed understand, this meant I would be doing the same work for about a quarter of the pay. When I found out that this was my fate, my relationship to my labor changed dramatically.

No longer was I the passionate teacher willing to do whatever it took for my students–I was the disgruntled worker being exploited by their boss. And so began a process of trying to find balance between showing up for my classes while also setting hard limits on what I would do for such little pay.

In academia we are trained to believe that we are living a life of the mind. As grad students making poverty wages we are meant to remember, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life!” But of course, this uniquely American mantra is much handier for those with independent wealth streams than for those of us with working-class backgrounds who have no safety net. And so, when I was faced once again with poverty-level wages, I had to do some serious re-considering about my life in academia. And I would be lying if I said it didn’t impact my teaching.

That last year of teaching, and this year working as an adjunct with 2-3 additional part-time jobs, I have to approach teaching as a job rather than a passion. And that’s hard for someone who views, as bell hooks wrote, “education…as a practice of freedom.” Higher education, for me, was one of the most important tools in my social justice work. I understood teaching as an extension of activism–a practice of changing hearts and minds through theory, and engaging discussions, and life-changing service-learning projects.

But when faced with the constraints of juggling working multiple jobs, my passion turned to stress. So I had to find ways to both provide my students an engaging experience while also protecting my time and my labor.

Here are some ways I made this work:

1.Turn some of your assignments into in-class work.

In addition to papers and reading responses, I would often include another ‘assessment assignment’ in my classes to gauge where the students were at with the material. These would usually be ‘fun’ (to me!) assignments that weren’t worth a ton of points, but helped me understand if they got particular concepts. For example, I had them search newspapers for articles that perpetuated heteronormativity, whiteness as invisible, and so on. But then I had to grade all their responses in Week 4 of the semester, right before beginning to prepare their mid-term paper assignment. When thinking about my labor this round, I turned that assignment into an in-class project. They responded orally, so I got a sense of their command of the material during class time rather than having to take time outside of it.

2. Think about timing and stagger

I had to sit down with all my syllabi and consider what was due at what time. It may be the case that you ask one class to turn something in a week before official midterms and one week after. Honestly, this is often better for students too, since in many cases they have simultaneous due dates in other classes. Don’t be afraid to stagger for your own scheduling purposes.

3. Use your precarious labor as a teaching tool and practice in vulnerable pedagogy.

I went back and forth about whether or not I’d mention my change from full-time professor to adjunct to my students. Like many other times throughout my decade of teaching when I was going through something personal, I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate to be vulnerable in the classroom. As a feminist pedagogue, through, vulnerability becomes a method of non-hierarchical meaning-making. We expect feminist researchers to be vulnerable in written work, we expect our students to make connections to their personal lives in relation to reading material, so why should I withhold my own vulnerability as a co-teacher and co-learner in the room?

Ultimately, I was able to share with my students what I was going through in a way that helped us all learn more about higher education as a neoliberal institution and academic work as actual labor. I was able to contextualize new boundaries (e.g., no longer able to answer email as quickly because I’m not at my computer while working my second job), which allowed me to have my needs respected as a worker, and also my desire to provide social-justice-centered education to my students.

If you are in the situation of exploited adjunct labor, I urge you to not fall into the trap of dichotomous thinking: either I will be a good teacher by working hard for very little money and maybe never sleeping; or I will be a bad teacher who insists on putting in the amount of work that I am paid for (very little). Instead, know that you can find a middle ground. You can practice setting boundaries as a worker AND continue to be an excellent educator. It may look a little different than tenure-track teachers, but you will be providing your students an invaluable lesson on capitalism and a reminder that professors are people too.