Reaching Through the Screen: The Reality for Adjunct Professors During COVID-19 

Rachelle Cruz

It is the first day back from spring break, and the students in my Freshman Composition course at my local community college are bleary-eyed, stressed. I can see them on the Brady Bunch grid on my laptop. Of course, there was no such thing as a spring break this year. A majority of my students have lost their jobs or have had to pick up additional responsibilities at home. This class began with thirty-two students; there are currently ten on the Zoom teleconferencing call on the first day back since the campus community, like countless others, scrambled to move classes online. 

The community college in Southern California where I teach is a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI), and 40 percent of the student population is considered low-income. At the university where I teach creative writing, many of the students who attend my office hours ask me specific questions like, “How do you tell your immigrant parents that you want to become a creative writer for a living?” and “What should I do when my professor and classmates expect me to translate [insert culturally specific yet easily Googled detail here] and I just don’t have it in me to represent my entire community?” My students ask about how to navigate toxic writing workshops, or racist and/or trans-exclusionary texts that are required on the syllabus. Or how to balance working full-time while taking a full load of classes. As an adjunct, the daughter of Filipino immigrants, and a first-generation college student, I receive these kinds of questions all the time—questions laden with uncompensated, emotional labor. I care about my students, especially those who are from historically marginalized communities, so we share experiences. I give them resources and links. There’s a dead-on New York Times article that satirizes an adjunct’s syllabus with the subheading: “You can talk to me for five minutes while I’m walking to my car.”

In my first Zoom class, one student says she’s now taking care of her baby niece during the day because her brother and sister-in-law are essential workers. Another student apologizes for not returning e-mails since the grocery store where he works nearly doubled his forty-hour schedule to seventy-six hours for the past two weeks. He writes that he wasn’t allowed a lunch break after working for ten hours. (All of these students have given me permission to share their anecdotes.) Another chimes in and says he’s lucky that he works for a pizzeria because he’s done nonstop deliveries for the past few weeks. He’s grateful he hasn’t lost his job, yet.

Yet. As my students check into class, I think about “yet” and the familiar fear of losing your job as an adjunct professor. The gross inequities in income, job security, and teaching load between adjunct and tenure-track professors have been well-established and well-reported for at least the past fifteen years in major publications, from the Chronicle of Higher Education to the New York Times

I’m sitting in front of my laptop. I’m moving my head from side to side to ease the tension built from sitting in front of a screen for hours. Crack. Crack. I actually miss the way my students look at me in either disgust, horror, or identification as one student never fails to roll their own shoulders and smile back in solidarity. Crack. 

COVID-19 has exacerbated the vulnerability of all workers, especially gig-economy and essential workers, such as grocery store workers, domestic workers, and healthcare staff, on the front lines of the pandemic. 

I wrestle with adding “adjunct professor” to this list because of its proximity to institutional power and the privilege many instructors have to work from home. However, preexisting inequitable working conditions place adjunct professors—many of whom are transferring their classes online with little to no training for distance learning or access to technology to facilitate these classes with little to no additional compensation—in an even more precarious position. 

Marina Carreira, who teaches Introduction to Womxn and Gender Studies at Kean University in Union, New Jersey, as well as composition courses at Essex County College in West Caldwell, New Jersey, shares her experiences with transitioning to online instruction as an adjunct: “Teaching from my living room is just not the same. The energy isn’t there,” she says. “Fortunately for me I continue to be employed and haven’t suffered any financial burden (yet). I am very grateful for this, knowing millions of my fellow humans are unemployed right now under a fascist capitalist oligarchy.”

Rashaan Alexis Meneses, an adjunct at Saint Mary’s College of California who teaches in the Collegiate Seminar program, struggles with the transition to online learning and expresses that her classes cannot translate easily to an asynchronous model. “The program is based on Socratic Dialogue and is part of the Great Books Program,” she writes. “Students read then discuss texts, and 50 percent of their grade is mandatory participation.” 

Meneses also states her concerns regarding accessibility for adjuncts: “Many adjuncts don’t have the necessary tech to transition successfully and reliably to continue their classes. The digital divide is not just about students but adjuncts who don’t get the same kind of financial and technical support as tenure-track faculty.”

Over Zoom I ask my students if they can find the “raise hand” button on their screens while I fumble around on the platform’s toolbar to locate it myself. After receiving permission from my students about recording that day’s lesson and discussion, I receive three e-mails within that same hour from both institutions. From these e-mails I learn about the precarity of Zoom’s security measures and of Zoom-bombing, a hacking phenomenon in which uninvited attendees disrupt a Zoom meeting, sometimes with racist and pornographic material.

The e-mails say, in short: Beef up your security.

And I’ve just barely figured out the “raise hand” button.

Too much time in front of the screen, so I’ve been taking daily walks around my neighborhood every day since both campuses have shut down. My husband and I live in a duplex next to the intersection of the 91 and 55 freeways on the border between Anaheim and Orange, California. We both have asthma, but I miss the feeling of my feet in motion. Last week I started to wear the used N95 mask left over from the wildfires in Northern California where my family lives. 

“I hope I don’t get hate-crimed today,” I jokingly/not-jokingly tell my husband, as I struggle to put the mask’s double yellow straps over my head. I thought I was being original but after my walk I see a few other Asian American writers and friends express this same joke over Twitter with retweets and comments circling in the hundreds. 

For the past seven years, I’ve taught as an adjunct at two institutions: a local community college and a public university in Southern California. For the past two years, student enrollment has been low at the community college. Last spring one of my classes was canceled a week prior to the first day of the semester. This happened after I spent the three-week winter break preparing the syllabus, course schedule, readings, and assignments, in addition to the materials for the other two classes I teach. 

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, I received an e-mail from my department during the middle of the week to transition all classes online for the following week. I spent nearly twenty hours the rest of that week—Thursday and Friday—in addition to my classroom hours, revising schedules and syllabi, uploading readings, creating discussion boards, and corresponding with students. On Sunday I received an e-mail from the college that all classes, including those most recently transitioned to an online platform, were canceled for the following week due to a suspected case of coronavirus on campus. I spent the rest of Sunday evening revising my course schedule to exclude the now-canceled week. 

“The Covid-19 pandemic poses a unique set of challenges for adjunct faculty members,” writes Megan Zahneis in “The COVID-19 Is Widening the Gap Between Secure and Insecure Instructors,” published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. “They point to the hours of extra labor involved in adapting their classes for virtual instruction, a contingency they say is better accounted for in their tenured and full-time counterparts’ salaries and contracts than in their own.... As part-time workers, many don’t have health insurance.”

Sara Borjas, an adjunct lecturer in the creative writing department at the University of California, Riverside, who was recently laid off from her second job as a bartender, details the inequities in workload that adjuncts face in general, and especially during the COVID-19 crisis.  “At the least, I would like to be paid fairly for the extra work I am doing,” she writes. “Because the University of California refuses to offer lecturers (who teach 70 percent of courses) a contract that guarantees fair Instructional Workload Credits (IWCs), there is no limit or standard for the number of hours we work per course we teach. We are paid the same for each course, no matter how much we work, meaning I am paid the same amount for a three-hundred-student lecture course where I also teach and manage six graduate teaching assistants as I am for a workshop with an enrollment of fifteen students and no teaching assistants to teach or manage.”

Borjas adds: “We have always been exploited this way; however, the duress of transitioning to online, the loss or lack of assurances in forms of earning a living wage, fair pay, etc., have been made painfully clear. For those of us who need teaching assistants, I would like the UC to reinstate the eighty-two TAs they recently fired from UC Santa Cruz, who are now being stripped of their health insurance just as a deadly virus is coursing through the population. I understand we are all working through, but after it all, will part-timers like myself be valued for their work? I doubt it.”

I can’t find any of my winter hats, just this silly, leopard print beret that reminds me of my mother. I’ve started to unconsciously wear it to cover up my black hair. I’m grateful I made the very nerdy decision to “upgrade” my glasses with transition lenses so no one can see my eyes. I’ve waved at my neighbors and given toothy grins because I don’t want to seem inscrutable. I am just your friendly neighbor, my wave suggests. I am pissed at myself for doing this.

As an adjunct at two different institutions, I’ve had to navigate two different academic calendars—the quarter and the semester—in addition to two different online learning management systems, Canvas and Blackboard. 

In terms of resources during COVID-19, the community college offered synchronous online workshops for the transition to online learning, but they occurred during times when my classes were in session. When these workshops were archived, I clicked on the recordings. They weren’t available, and even after requesting access, I’m still waiting for a response.

The e-mails I’ve received from colleagues at the university have been a flurry of suggestions regarding online classroom tools we can implement—intuitive discussion boards meant to make writing workshops more personable, various kinds of engagement apps, and more. 

Though I’m grateful to see this desperately needed exchange among faculty, it’s...a lot. I wonder, again, how everyone else in my department has the time to learn these new technological tools. So I decide to stick to Blackboard, our campus’s learning management system. My students make fun of its clunky, early 2000s aesthetic, but at least it’s a system we all know.

Karla Cordero, who is an adjunct at San Diego City College and MiraCosta College, summarizes her experience with transitioning classes in a single word, “overwhelming.” She goes on: “Now, reaching out to students through e-mail or a video lecture feels so distant. I know when I’m in the classroom I can see my students’ faces and know they need that support. I know there’s successful ways to teach online, but with the time I had to make the transition, I can’t help but feel as though I’m failing. I also know that I’m doing the best I can. I’m learning how to navigate online learning from the advice and overwhelming e-mails from two different departments, and it’s truly been a matter of finding a balance that works with my pedagogy and compliments the kinds of learners I have in my classroom.”

I outline this labor not to downplay the devastating worldwide impact. Of course higher education is hardly an exception to the chaos this pandemic has unleashed. I outline this labor to document the unpaid hours and exploitation of adjuncts and teaching assistants that cushion the higher education system. While tenure-track and tenured faculty receive funding and resources for professional development, these opportunities for adjuncts are slim to none. The presence of an emergency like COVID-19 puts these inequalities in stark, startling relief. 

The culture of adjuncting is already set up to fail students and faculty; and COVID-19 will expedite this failure, especially for students and faculty who are from historically marginalized communities.

Cordero created a Venmo account, which she has named “The Student Relief Fund,” in order to serve her students who are mostly from underserved communities—those who are undocumented, refugees, LGBTQ+, first-generation, DSPS learners, and those who have been previously incarcerated. She sends her students links to resources, words of encouragement, and money from Venmo to help supplement her students’ basic needs, from groceries to utility bills.

“To shut down a safe space for learning that we’ve nurtured for weeks as a class has been a physical and emotional rollercoaster for my students,” Cordero writes. “I know their priority is survival. This is my biggest concern. My students come from families who are survivors of history. They are determined and I know we’ll get through this together.”

Borjas describes the challenges of continuing classes as usual during this baffling time: “To be honest, many of my students cannot wrap their heads around that we are going to be writing poems and studying ‘craft’ right now. Neither can I. Those of us from marginalized backgrounds have struggled historically against racist institutions that make it difficult for us to live, to rent homes fairly, to feel safe with our faces covered, to attain healthy food, and [cope with] all the mental and physical stress and illness that these daily, incessant struggles have earned us. Right now my students and I are working together to get through, and we are using poetry as a meeting place, rather than a measure of education or productivity.”

I’ve taken a photograph of some kind of unexpected beauty from each of my walks. A terra cotta rabbit with a missing ear sits on my neighbor’s porch. California poppies enclosed in their green calyxes. A loquat tree. Several bushes of blooming, magenta hibiscus. And the photographs I wish I could take: a plucked hibiscus tucked beneath the ear of a postal worker delivering mail. Two girls hugging each other’s waists wearing matching black-and-white striped shirts. 

By early March I typically receive my fall appointment and schedule, but there have been delays, and understandably so. I worry I’ll lose my job by fall, and I’m not alone.

Ariel Francisco, who teaches at City College CUNY and Pace University, where he teaches writing workshops and a course on Latinx Literature, echoes this sentiment: “I had been promised a few classes but nothing is official yet and no one is getting back to me when I try to follow up. That’s pretty worrying. The semester is still a ways away, and certainly there are other things being addressed. But I am starting to get nervous. I’m not sure when I’ll know if I have classes or not.”

Meneses shares this concern: “I don’t know about job security and am terrified. Our college already suffered a loss of enrollment, so some of my colleagues who have been teaching at our campus for years were not able to get a class this academic year, which spells only more cuts and more loss of teaching gigs from myself and for my fellow adjuncts for this coming academic year.”

As parents post their “I don’t know how you do it!” memes about their children’s teachers, and folks in New York City clap every day at 7:00 PM when essential health staff leave their shifts, I wonder how we can use this moment not just to express gratitude for essential or underappreciated workers. How can we organize and create systems that fairly compensate, support, and recognize their value and worth? And believe it or not, adjunct faculty are innovating and holding up higher education, one class at a time, and have been for quite some time.

And then there’s the question of our own writing lives as both educators and creative writers. “Like a lot of other writers, I had a book coming and had to cancel all readings and engagements,” says Francisco. “And being stuck at home isn’t like some kind of writing retreat, you know? It’s hard to focus on anything except the news.”

As for me, this is the first thing I’ve written in weeks.

Over Zoom, I tell my students to find an object in their own living space. To smell, feel, and truly see it, and to translate that experience to a partner in class. My students show one another their objects, peering closer into their web cameras, hands waving, as if they were trying to reach through their screens.


Rachelle Cruz is the author of the poetry collection God’s Will for Monsters, winner of an American Book Award and the 2016 Hillary Gravendyk Regional Poetry Prize. She also wrote and edited Experiencing Comics: An Introduction to Reading, Discussing, and Creating Comics. She lives in Southern California.