–Guest Blog post by Elise Dixon
Last November, I received an unexpected call from the head of the English department of a community college I had taught one class at (for $1500) over the summer. I had missed the call and it had gone straight to voicemail. In the message was an offer for a semester-long position in the spring to serve as a visiting professor and teach five classes. I would receive health insurance and a professor’s salary instead of per-class adjunct pay. Not adjunct professor pay; real professor pay. I repeated the message over and over again. Five classes? Health insurance? An OFFICE?! My elation was immediately replaced with guilt. I had just recently requested to continue adjuncting at my alma mater where I had received my master’s degree. I was currently teaching two sections of Intro to Women’s and Gender Studies and one section of first-year writing, while also working in the writing center. It was a good gig, and I loved the department heads in both the English department and Women’s and Gender Studies departments. But, I was an adjunct, getting paid like an adjunct.
Before I called the community college back, I weighed my options. My alma mater was a fifteen minute drive from home, while this community college gig was an hour away and winter was coming. Even as I calculated transportation costs, I knew that the community college position was far more profitable. Further, the opportunity to put the title “Visiting Professor” on my CV and teach the most classes I ever had was something I felt I could not pass up. After discussing the details with the department head at the community college, I knew I would have to back out of my job with my alma mater.
A few days later, I found myself sitting with the head of the Women’s and Gender Studies department, sputtering off some excuses as I guiltily explained my job opportunity. I felt I had to tell her I had not actively sought out the position, but rather that it had fallen into my lap. I told her everything—how much more I would make at the community college, what my title would be, and what a valuable experience it would be. First, to my surprise, instead of being angry, she tried to find ways to keep me. She left the meeting to discuss with the secretary the possibility of finding me more classes to teach in order for me to at least break even with the community college’s opportunity. When the two classes couldn’t be made available, I tried again to tell the department head what I had yet to make clear: I had to take the other position.
After a few more years of sputtering, my department head finally said, “Elise. Is this your way of saying you’re taking the other job, without actually saying it because you’ve been socialized as a woman to hedge your language?” She said it gently, kindly, with a mischievous smile on her face.
I hung my head. “Yes. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize,” she breathed, leaning in toward me. “Your job as a woman, and as a professional, is to put yourself and your career first. Don’t be sorry for taking care of yourself.”
Don’t be sorry for taking care of yourself.
I felt as though she had absolved me of all my sins—she had given me permission to take a job I knew I needed, despite my guilt over inconveniencing her, and furthermore, she recognized that much of guilt and fear was gendered. Would a man have felt the same guilt over taking a more lucrative position? Probably some, for certain—it of course depends on the man. But I would wager that more women reading this blog post understand my guilt than a lot of men might.
In telling me to take care of myself, this woman taught me a valuable lesson. Like many women in academia (and more specifically, many women adjuncts), I didn’t put myself—my mental health, personal life, and my time—first because I was more worried about making ends meet. It’s an unfortunate fact of adjunct work: often we have no choice but to work ourselves into the ground for very little pay. I finally had the opportunity to work hard and be compensated fairly, and I was scared to take it lest I inconvenience people I respected and liked. In that moment, the head of the women’s and gender studies department, a woman who had likely once been in a similar position as I was in, showed me what it will likely take for me to have success in the future.
I think about this incident a great deal, as I am now in the first year of my PhD program at Michigan State. I’m not currently adjuncting, though I likely will again in the near future. While there will likely be moments in my future in which spreading myself too thin is my only option—an inconvenient and harrowing truth of adjunct work—I know now that when I’m given an opportunity to be compensated fairly, I’m taking it, without apologizing.