Notes on a Day Job, or, How to Be an Adjunct Professor

by Sayantani Dasgupta

1. When I was eighteen, the most boring professor in the world taught me American history. She was a scholar, yes, laden with more degrees than the earth has tectonic plates, but an inspiring teacher, that she was not. At the designated hour every day, she entered our classroom, sheathed in yet another handwoven sari, in colors as vibrant as fire and cinnamon. She glanced around the room giving us all the benefit of her gaze, and I suspect, the time to admire her exquisite taste in wardrobe and hand-forged silver jewelry. She set down her purse, seated herself and took attendance. And then she opened her notebook and began to read. For fifty minutes, thrice a week, our classroom saturated with the sing-song quality of her voice, interspersed with the furious scratching from pens that truly cared and those that only pretended. Our hands got a reprieve when one of the front benchers asked her a question. But the moment she delivered the answer, she returned to her notebook—drawn by some umbilical attachment that only she understood—and the space between our ears plugged up again with the droning static of her voice. I glanced at my watch, at the clock above her head, at the pages of my own notebook, where lived the newest doodle of her face with a foghorn for a mouth. The window next to my seat shimmered the pristine lawn outside and whispered enticing words such as “freedom” and “independence,” and I vowed, for the millionth time, to never become a college professor.

2. Ten years later, I stand before a college classroom, taking in the sight of the thirty-five American students I will teach during that fall semester. My students are mostly eighteen except for the one gentleman who is in his sixties. In his introduction, he informs us that thirty years ago, he and his backpack spent three months in India. I can tell from his tone that his three-month fueled expertise on everything Indian will guide us throughout the semester and be repeated often for the benefit of us all. My students, including him, have come from all corners of the west: Idaho, Utah, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and California. None of them has ever had a professor from India. An image flashes before my eyes, a stick-figure me against a backdrop of a billion stick figures—all of them brown, and fiercely opinionated. I wipe my sweaty, clammy hands on my red shirt. I look at my white audience. I think to myself, “Shit.”

3. I land my adjuncting gig soon after I earn my graduate degree in creative writing. Several people tell me I am lucky. I think I am lucky. After all, how many people are able to use their actual degrees so soon after their graduation? I am still so naïve in both America and academia that I don’t really know what an adjunct is. You too, might be like me, so here are the details: an adjunct is hired on semester-long contracts. An adjunct typically teaches a full course load, which depending on the institution can range from 3-5 courses. The renewal of an adjunct’s contract depends on how desperately the university needs to teach the bodies enrolled every semester and the quality of one’s teaching evaluations. Sometimes, by hiring an adjunct, the university does not have to bother with “minor” annoyances such as paying for their health insurance. Often, no matter how successful the adjunct might be as a teacher and a writer, they are never eligible for teaching awards or professional development.
Still, I consider myself lucky. I don’t have to commute between several sister institutions to make ends meet. My supervisors are friendly and approachable. They reply to my emails promptly. Most of my colleagues know my name.

4. Sixteen semesters in, I remain the only professor from India for most of my students. In some cases, I am their only international professor for their entire four years of college. Sometimes, we compare the sizes of our hometowns, and the populations within their boundaries. Their answers, typically, range from 600 people to four million. One year, someone says, “fifty,” right after I say, “fifteen million.” We each look at the other with something close to pity.

5. On the first day of class, we read the syllabus, check out the library’s website. I point them the direction to my office. I tell them that my classroom is a no-phone zone. If I catch you with your head down, smiling or frowning at your crotch, I will know you have your phone out. They laugh. They think I am joking. When I throw out the first offending student, their laughs disappear. On the days when students have their presentations, I sit in the back row, eyes on their PowerPoint and Prezi slides, my index finger itching to touch Instagram, to scroll through Facebook, to check what’s trending on Twitter. The stick figures in my head hold up signs that say, “Hypocrite.”

6. My students teach me about Ugg boots and man buns. They train me so I may tell a hipster from a hippie, an emo from a goth, a nerd from a dork. The six girls with identical white shorts and beachy-wave hair talk to me about freedom. As do the boys whose oversized pajamas say, “Beer University.”

7. In the first week of classes, some of the girls disguise their nervousness under thick layers of makeup. Their bling-bling jeans are their shields, their beachy waves tousled just so to distract attention from homesickness, loneliness, insomnia. In the margins of their journals, I see doodles of hearts and stars. Later in the semester, they tell me about bad roommates, unfair bosses, alcoholic parents, and cheating partners. They mourn for the relationships they have left behind, the ways in which their childhood rooms no longer feel theirs. Sometimes, their stories keep me awake at night, such as those of suicide pacts among friends and professors too willing to help. A few years later, some of them find me on LinkedIn. They send me, “I would like to connect with you,” messages from Seoul and Shanghai and a hundred other cities I have never seen. Others I see around town. A few pretend not to recognize me when they ask with industrial politeness, “Paper or plastic?”

8. Most mornings, I have to assure myself that I have not inherited the mantle of the most boring professor in the world from my own former professor. I count the ways in which I am different. I teach standing. I don’t dictate notes. I pace the entire length of the classroom. I make eye contact with all my students. I don’t wear handmade saris. I have only a few pieces of hand-forged silver jewelry. I typically break up the fifty minutes’ session with three activities. Please form yourselves into groups and discuss these three questions. Let us now move on to a writing exercise. Who wants to share what they wrote? Let me show you this essay I read last night. What’s the best thing you watched in the last twenty-four hours? How did it inspire you? Take your notebooks, no, not your phones, and go outside. Observe. Eavesdrop. Write.

9. But other mornings when I wake up with only four hours of sleep, I stay upright with uncountable cups of coffee. I take the bus instead of walking to campus. Inside the classroom, I am greeted by eyes glassier than mine. They fidget. They crane their necks to check the clock in the corner. I know I am droning on. I rifle through notes and past lessons in my head. Help! How do I bring them back to life? How do I feign my own interest?

10. Some students write with such grace and intelligence they rattle my insides like a maraca, their words the seeds that shake my soul. Others make me worry why they care so little about the stories they carry, who they have been, who they are now, what are their sentences that make them them.

11. Most days I love most of my students. It makes me happy when they send me emails with deep thoughts on what we have read for homework or discussed in class. I won’t lie that it disappoints me when they cannot point to Canada or Mexico on the map or are flabbergasted to learn that Europe and Africa are a jump away from each other. I won’t lie that there are those who inspire fear when they say, “Let’s nuke the hell out of it all—the Middle East, Asia, India.” On those days, I walk back home with a friend on the phone; I watch over my shoulders when I cross a poorly lit street.

12. On the night before the start of every new semester, I prep furiously. I barely sleep for three hours, wracked by versions of the same nightmare. What if I open my mouth and no words of English come out? What if my syllabus is dismissed as “busy work?” Is there a more terrifying phrase in American academia than “busy work”? What if there isn’t enough infotainment? I imagine that in most of my fears I am unified with all the capable professors I had when I was a student. But the last fear is mine alone. I am sure none of my stern-faced professors ever spared a thought about the entertainment value of their class. But I live and teach in a different time. My fortunes rise and fall on

13. I join a university-wide committee where no one pays me, the only untenured adjunct professor, any attention. Still, I show up to every meeting. I write recommendation letters for every student who asks for one or two or five; I collaborate with librarians and faculty members from my department and others; I show up to deliver guest lectures; I serve as unofficial advisor and mentor for international students; I give away so much of my time and energy for free, and yet, I, a brown woman on a predominantly white campus, I remain unseen. I take to doodling Ganesha in the margins of my notebook. I make his elephantine nose rest on his enormous belly, its girth feels the same size as my invisibility. I change strategies. I quit the grownup committees and turn for inspiration to the two student-run clubs I join as faculty advisor. The students have no time to talk, their energy radiates from their fingertips like fireworks. It takes the shape of the words and plans they cast out into the universe.

14. Sixteen semesters in, I still don’t know the blocks that go into making a perfect professor. How can I? As an adjunct, I am not eligible for any awards or grants or travel money. But once, as a grad student, I won a teaching award for which my students nominated me, and that was amazing. I don’t go drinking in my small town because I don’t want to run into the same students. I read my evaluations at the end of every semester. I promise to do better. More smiles. More patience. More encouraging notes. The bizarre students don’t go away. One tells me he can only concentrate in class when he blasts music through the headphone plugged into his left ear. A Catholic signs off all her emails with, “Blessings.” When she learns I don’t go to Church nor have I found Jesus, she gives me glorious updates of how she has been regularly praying for my soul. A third insists his absence should be excused because his grandmother is dead. When I do, he emails again right before the next assignment, “My roommate shot himself.” I scan the local newspaper, find nothing. Two days later I learn he has been hauled away from his job for failing a drug test. I return to the classroom. I try to not be the most boring professor on earth.