Monday, April 8, 2013

Guest Post: You’ll Have to Accept Being Half-Ass and Other Tales from the Crib

Today's guest post is from Rhiannon and it takes a look at the intersections between motherhood and adjunct teaching.

Recently, I shared my perspective as a professor and mother at a CSCA conference (Central States Communication Association). Here’s what I had to say on the intersections of motherhood, feminism and adjunct teaching.

For months while I was planning my topic for this panel I thought I would talk about the joys and struggles of motherhood, and teaching at a university with particular attention to breastfeeding. When I imagined writing out my experiences, however, I was invariably drawn to the week of my daughter’s birth.

One year ago this April, I was 9 months pregnant with my second child by birth, third by marriage. That spring I taught a total of seven classes at two universities.. I taught an overload for the same reasons many adjuncts do: to pay the bills and stave off summer poverty. Though I taught seven classes, I earned less than $15,000 that semester. Like most adjuncts, I received no benefits, and no maternity leave. Unlike many adjuncts, I was fortunate to have my husband’s health insurance to help pay for our medical expenses.

Unfortunately, my situation as an adjunct is not unique. According to The Adjunct Project complied by The Chronicle of Higher Education and initiated by fellow adjunct Joshua Boldt, 70% of college faculty are adjunct. Let’s just sit with that data for a moment: 70%, the overwhelming majority of all professors, are adjuncts. These are people like you and me: passionate, educated people who are fortunate to teach subjects to which they dedicate their professions. When I looked up the remuneration for adjuncts in Missouri, the pay ranged from $1500 for a three-credit hour class to $4000. More than likely, you are as unsurprised by these figures as I am. The problem is not related to the bureaucracy of a particular university, or what paths we chose as professionals; the problem is systemic. As Stacy Pattons reports again for The Chronicle of Higher Ed, many adjuncts subsist on their low wages combined with government support. If I had not been privileged to get health insurance from my husband, I, too would have resorted to Medicaid to pay for my child’s birth and my prenatal care. The numbers have skyrocketed in recent years with close to 300,000 folks with Master’s degrees and over 30,000 with PhD’s seeking government aid.

grading wikipedia papers in UCSC's science library

If you’ll indulge me for a minute, we’ll delve back into my personal experiences to investigate the problems from a parent’s lens. Emerson Lucia was born on Saturday, April 14th 2012 at 2 a.m. My oldest son’s birthday was the following day, April 15th. While I was recovering from labor and delivery, I was planning my son’s birthday party.

In my postpartum haze, I convinced the midwife I was ready to leave the hospital a mere thirty hours after giving birth. I remember the vivid sense of guilt and responsibility I felt in those morning hours after Emerson’s birth. I felt conflicted as a mother. I wanted my son to feel special and loved on his birthday, and it was my job as his mother to make sure he didn’t feel neglected as the baby entered our lives. (This is a challenge I continue to confront almost a year later).

In the midst of the party chaos—too many people, too much noise, balloons, half-eaten cake, melted ice cream, wrapping paper, presents, and a sleeping newborn—I soon realized the enormity of my mistake. I was exhausted. Emerson barely stirred for the party. My son, however, had the birthday of his dreams.

To be clear, let’s go over the timeline again: I gave birth at 2 a.m. Saturday morning, left the hospital before noon on Sunday, threw a party, and by Monday morning, two days after giving birth, I was interacting with my two online classes. I graded 40+ composition papers, interacted in the discussion threads, posted links, etc. I typed with one hand and rocked my baby with the other. I posted my two older children in front of the TV. I cried more than once.

I was overwhelmed. I reached out to a colleague at one point, to ask for advice on how to navigate this tricky terrain. As an adjunct, however, there was no way to ask for another professor to step in and kindly take over for me for a few weeks while I got my head above water. There was no safety net, no community, no help for me. I’m not ashamed to admit my pedagogical strategy changed out of necessity that term: I wrote less feedback on student papers. I wrote less, but tried to make it mean more. Many students don’t take the time to read over my comments anyway, I reasoned. Somehow I survived those brutal weeks grading, parenting and being.

My sense of guilt as a mother is not unique. As a feminist, I know the intellectual and emotional dangers of giving into maternal guilt, but as a mother, I often succumb to that guilt. Balancing familial obligations, professional obligations and retaining a sense of self is my main focus these days.

When Emerson was about six months, I shared my pressures with a friend. She is a mother of three children herself, and an elementary school teacher. I told her I felt like when I focused on my work, my children didn’t get the attention they needed. When I focused on my children, my teaching suffered. I was drowning. She listened. She nodded. She understood. Finally, she interrupted me. She said, “Listen, you’re going to have to accept being half-ass. You need to adjust your expectations and stop judging yourself so harshly.” I listened. I was stunned. Was I really judging myself TOO harshly? Did I really have to accept being half-ass? What does it even mean to be half-ass?

As my daughter turns one, and my son turns ten, almost a year later, I’m certainly on more stable ground, but I don’t have any solid answers to these questions. I take solace in the depressing numbers: at least I am not alone. I am in good company. Many mothers struggle with the same pressures I do and the complexities of our experiences are endless. I look back over the last year and am incredibly thankful for the support I have had. Where the University failed me, my family stepped up. Where I was offered no benefits, support or maternity leave, my husband, mother, and in-laws come to my aid.

In recent years, the decline of the university professor has come into sharp relief. While I do not offer a hard solution, I think that conversations like these are an important first step. As I often tell my students, in order to persuade people that we must seek a solution, we must first establish the problem with the current system. That is my goal here today: to recognize the problem from a personal and social perspective. Someday soon my children will be grown; someday sooner, with any luck, I’ll have a tenure-track position and the system will change. In the meantime, I find myself returning to my friend’s advice: I am trying to reconcile being half-assed.

Rhiannon Dickerson is a feminist, mother and adjunct professor. She teaches in the Kansas City area where she lives with her children, husband and chickens. 

Photo: davidsilver 


  1. I'm still baffled that what should be considered one of our most noble professions isn't even treated as a profession at all. Beautifully explicated and direct. Nice work, Ms. Dickerson.

  2. Yeah, after graduating with my Master's degree I was teaching at one point at 4(!) different universities, teaching between 7-9 classes per semester. I graduated with zero debt because I was a graduate assistant. Within a year, I was $10,000 in debt because I couldn't make ends meet. So my husband and I fled to China where we would have no living costs and make more money so we could get out of debt and save for our future. Three years later we are out of debt, but still have no savings.

    The adjunct title is a joke and totally unfair. Let me reiterate that I was teaching twice+ as many classes as a full-time professor for a fraction of the pay. Financially, I couldn't wait for one of those full-time positions to magically open up.