The Plight of the Adjunct: When Will Colleges Truly Value the Working Artists Who Teach Their Students?

September 27, 2021

Before March 2020, my relationship to teaching within higher education was as a part-time freelancer. Mostly, I held master classes, creative exchanges, intensive workshops or the very occasional “technique” class. I never thought of myself as a teacher as much as someone who was excited to share information and experience, and then witness its transformation in the participants. Then the world, and my livelihood, shut down due to COVID-19. Teaching became my sole income source. I was grateful to land a last-minute invitation last fall to take on a heavy load of in-person technique classes as a part-time lecturer at a well-respected conservatory where I had loved teaching on and off for years.

In many ways, it was a profound lifeline. It got me out of the house; exposed me to a young, hungry generation of pre-professionals who taught me how to teach; reconnected me to my body as a moving entity; and helped me remember the value of our art form, which I had begun to seriously question. I also knew I was a lifeline for the students, who deeply craved the in-person contact and level of professional knowledge I held.

By mid-spring, however, I realized the price of teaching as a “part-timer” with a full-time load of classes was something I literally couldn’t afford. My pay was less than one third of the tenured faculty and covered, at most, half my life expenses. Despite teaching seven in-person classes a week, I was ineligible for health-care benefits. I had no job security and no time to look for other work. The admin upkeep, commuting, Zooms and prep time were uncompensated; and the emotional journey of attaching to students, many of whom were grappling with crisis, was something I could not detach myself from. And why would I want to? The students deserved every ounce of energy and attention I gave them.

Even though I loved the teaching and was grateful for the work, in my eyes, the institution failed me and every other faculty member it called “part-time.” Our bodies were on the frontlines, making it possible for the department to offer in-person training, and they didn’t even protect us with, if nothing else, health care.

An artist who teaches is different from an “arts educator.” In lieu of an MFA or a PhD, many of us have years, or even decades, of real-life, professional experience. We are called “adjuncts,” “visiting artists,” “guest artists,” “lecturers”—each title, for the most part, interchangeable, and sharing the same temporary and nonsalaried status. None reflects the impact we have in the classroom and beyond. Exchanges with students often morph into long-term relationships through mentoring and employment. Teaching helps me peer deeper into my own practice while making me feel like I am contributing to something bigger than myself and my own work.

Pal Singh sits on a floor with his mouth open in talking to a group of students seated behind him.
Paul Singh has been adjuncting for seven years.

Sören Wacker, Courtesy Singh

But when it became something from which I needed to make an actual living, I was propelled to take a deeper look into the dysfunctional systems that have, for decades, refused to honor the irreplaceable value that working artists bring to higher education.

In The Atlantic‘s heartbreaking 2019 article “The Death of an Adjunct,” on the early death of Dr. Thea Hunter due to a lack of health care and adjunct burnout, it’s reported that “Nearly 80 percent of faculty members were tenured or tenure-track in 1969. Now roughly three-quarters of faculty are nontenured. The jobs that are available—as an adjunct, or a visiting professor—rest on shaky foundations, as those who occupy them try to balance work and life, often without benefits.”

While institutions love to say that it’s all about money, the story is more complex. Four years earlier, a different story in The Atlantic provided a piercing look into a glaring disparity: “As administrators make more and more faculty positions part-time, allegedly for cost savings, they don’t apply that same logic to themselves. Although the part-time professor is now the norm, the percentage of part-time administrators has actually gone down. Their salaries, too, unlike those of professors, continue to go up.”

Much of the critical writing on nontenured faculty focuses on those working in scholarly forums, but the precariousness of a performing artist’s journey through academia is parallel and, in some cases, even more fragile. If we lose our bodies to injury, exhaustion or mental-health crises, we lose both our ability to make money as well as our artistic work.

“If I were to get injured…Well, that’s just not a possibility that’s allowed to happen. Do you know how much stress that puts on the body that leads to injury anyway?” says dancer and choreographer Paul Singh, who’s been adjuncting for seven years.

When Jodi Melnick, one of the most sought-after dancers and choreographers in the New York City performance community, had to take a semester off after a severe car accident, the college where she’d been an adjunct for years offered no financial support. “Not even a Starbucks card,” she says.

Still, Melnick says she felt very supported by the dance department itself during her recovery, and she speaks passionately about having an impact on her students. “Teaching,” she says, “goes hand in hand with my artistic practice.” And being an adjunct has offered her a home base at times when many parts of her life were ungrounded. Yet she acknowledges a vulnerable truth: “If I hadn’t gotten married to someone with health insurance, I wouldn’t be adjuncting.”

Because adjuncts are hired on a contractual, part-time basis, job security is also nonexistent. Although Melnick has been teaching at the same college for 13 years, with excellent student evaluations, she’s never been offered an increase in rank or considered for available full-time positions.

At the Glorya Kaufman School of Dance at University of Southern California, RUBBERBAND artistic director Victor Quijada was invited to become a resident artist in 2014. “It was an interesting time to be part of something from the very beginning,” Quijada recalls. He, alongside William Forsythe and Desmond Richardson, was offered three to four weeks of teaching/creating per year, which founding director Jodie Gates set up with enough flexibility to accommodate Quijada’s busy schedule with his dance company. He has returned to teach nearly every year since then, though he was not invited back for the 2021–22 school year, following Gates stepping down as vice dean last year. A decision about 2022–23 has yet to be made.

Not all dance artists who work part-time in higher ed hold such precarious positions. Choreographer Tere O’Connor speaks graciously about his role as one of two Center for Advanced Studies Professors of Dance at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2007 he was recruited as an “Excellence Hire” as a tenured professor of dance—the tier-one research university considered his choreographic works as equivalent to publishing. O’Connor teaches one semester per year, and the rest of the time focuses on his artistic work with his New York City–based company. He sometimes receives university research grants. When asked if the job takes the edge off the anxiety of industry challenges, he doesn’t miss a beat: “Absolutely! I don’t have to worry about paying myself from grant money. I have insurance. It’s amazing. It’s very stabilizing for the person I am.”

Tere O'Connor stands in front of a grand piano in a dance studio, overlooking two male dancers, one in an arabesque, the other holding him by the neck
Tere O’Connor working with Silas Riener and Ryan Kelly

Chris Cameron, Courtesy O’Connor

Choreographer Molissa Fenley had a similar dream job at Mills College, her alma mater, from 1999 through May 2020. She had benefits, her salary and rank increased with time, and she embraced the artistic freedom that the single-semester commitment allowed. At Mills—which is closing its doors as a higher education institution in 2023—Fenley discovered a “really nice symbiotic relationship between teaching choreography and making choreography.” She benefited from the time and studio access on campus to choreograph, making work on students, some of whom joined her company.

For Singh, a silver lining is that, in 2019, without his prompting, both institutions where he teaches recognized not only his dedication but his lack of security. In response they raised his class rate, for which he was truly grateful, as he believed, like most part-time faculty, that if he had asked for more pay, they would have found someone else. “I don’t think they were able to offer a full contract at the moment, but were still able to say ‘Hey, we see you and value you,’ ” he says.

When I ask him what artists should ask for to acknowledge our value, he suggests: “A letter of agreement or standard that keeps everyone safe no matter what. There’s gotta be some catch-all to take care of you. Temporary health care, financial assistance…but that’s just some dreaming space.”

Do we really need to just dream?

While higher education institutions actively work to dismantle other unjust systems, they need to reflect on their practices around artists as faculty. Many of us don’t want tenure. We want to keep our freedom to make our work so that we remain relevant in the field and classroom. But we cannot live semester to semester on poverty-level wages, without guarantee of job security, benefits or protections. As working artists, students are hungry to learn from us. We need to be taken care of while we take care of the next generation.

Update: It’s important to note that the issues I faced last year are deeply systemic. While, like Melnick, I had the support of the dance department, the issues stem from the institution at large. Since writing this article for
Dance Magazine‘s October 2021 issue, some promising conversations with the dance department, towards a healthier, more sustainable situation for part-time faculty, have been seeded. Let’s hope the institution listens!