5 Freelancing Hacks That Will Improve Your Adjunct Life

Flickr image courtesy denise carbonell

Friends have complimented my work boundaries. That is, my no-bullshit approach to getting everything done and committing the appropriate amount of personal resources to each of my projects so as to avoid burning out. I’m telling you, this has been a hard-won way to live, there have been stretches of years during which I ran hot at full speed + did burn myself out.

I want to share with you five things I learned as a freelance Editor and Writer that translate DIRECTLY into the world of adjunct professorship.

1. Money F*cking Matters

It is certainly my impulse–and I think a lot of adjuncts have this problem–to totally live, eat, sleep, and breathe the teaching. But for what I’m getting paid, I just can’t. You can’t either.

That is, you have to allocate a number of hours that means you have time to do all the other things. Pick a dollar amount that you need to make per hour, figure out how your adjunct pay breaks down into that figure, then WORK THAT NUMBER OF HOURS. Do what you have to do: set a timer, set up a standing appointment with your hair dresser, best friend, acupuncturist, mom, or yogi to get you away from the teaching space at the end of that time.

If you have multiple teaching gigs, and if you’re adjuncting you probably do, spend the most amount of time on the school that pays the best, even if students at the other schools are needier.

Look, if you sweat blood in service of these really wonderful jobs, and do it in exchange for too little cash (which is kind of an unfortunate truism about them), you’re going to resent it. You’re going to ultimately take it out on the students. Don’t do that. It’s not their fault. And you have an obligation to provide some value. Which brings me to number 2.

2. No Is Not a Dirty Word

Protect your mental, emotional, and physical health by saying no. You will have more energy for teaching. Maybe that means saying no to a third section of a class on a day you’re not already teaching. Your dean/chair will understand. They know what you get paid. Maybe you resist the temptation to give them supplemental readings that are SO INTERESTING! Maybe that means sending a student who is way, way behind in her writing skills to the University Tutoring Center instead of helping them word by word, even if you totally love to do that sort of thing. It definitely means saying no to students who think they need you to meet with them on a day on which you are not at their school. Be firm, and kind, and remind them of your office hours.

I am reminded of this wonderful thing by Elizabeth Gilbert.

For me, saying no to myself has been the hardest thing to learn (and I’m still learning). No, April, you may NOT make that deeply involved handout that will require hours of research, or hours of finding the perfect image. No, April, you may NOT spend an hour grading every paper. No, April, you may not make shit harder on yourself by doing grades on paper, even though you completely romanticize the grade book. Spreadsheets are good. The time you spend figuring out how to tell them to do your math for you is well spent. Which is a good segue to number 3.

3. It’s not cheating to use the internet to save time

This is what I mean: unless you are some kind of genius on the cutting edge of your field (and if you are, you’re probably not adjuncting or reading my blog), there’s already a handout or resource available for free on the internet about whatever you want to teach. Google it. Copy, Paste, Edit, Go!  There are loads of study and discussion guides available about everything. If you’re out of mental energy at the end of a super long day but you still have to plan the following day’s lesson, or if you’re teaching something you’re not 200% familiar with, Get Ye To Yonder Interwebs! I teach writing and reading, so I rob stuff from Purdue’s Online Writing Lab all the time. I always give them credit, right on the handout.

It’s not that I don’t know the stuff I’m teaching, it’s that it would take me a LONG LONG time to write, revise, obsess, and create the perfect thing, which I WANT to do, but which is energy I need to use doing something else that pays better.

If you worry about losing credibility with your students, don’t. Your students won’t notice. And if they do, you are modeling information literacy. And that, friends, is an unbelievably useful skill.

4. But Sometimes, You Gotta Work for Free

I don’t mean in exchange for publicity or some other nonsense proposed to you by a person in a more advantageous situation than yourself. I mean, in adjuncting (and in freelancing), there’s a certain amount of stuff you have to just be willing to donate your time doing, but here’s my rule: don’t donate time unless it’s a new or more impressive line on your CV. That is, only work for free if the payoff is a direct, personal advantage that will allow you to advance your career.

Here are some possibilities in adjuncting:

1. Writing Syllabi. I am lucky to be in a school where I am barely supervised in the development of my courses, and developing syllabi from scratch is a rockin’ thing on the CV of a person whose University teaching experience could be described as “1-3 years.” I write them between semesters and do not calculate that time into my above-referenced hourly wage.

2. Advising Undergradutes. Some of my colleagues advise students. I would advise students for free, because a) it is fun, and b) it can be done during office hours in which one often hears the whistling of the wind against the prairie.

3. Advising a club–this is not exactly free labor because Adjuncts are often offered some extra cash or, if they’re lucky enough to be visiting or 3/4 time or full-time temporary (or whatever your school calls it), they may be offered an exchange of some sort: advising a club means you teach one fewer sections, but get the same money. But advising a club is heavy lifting (probably more hours than teaching, at least in the beginning). And while the joyous part of it is that you work with high-achieving, super-involved students, the disadvantage is it probably means some evening and weekend work, and going out of your comfort zone to write a grant or manage a budget or interact with school bureaucracy, all things that may come with a time-intensive learning curve.

5. If you hate the job, you don’t have to keep doing it.

All you need to be an adjunct is a master’s degree and a pulse. There are other gigs, and no university expects adjuncts to be long-term employees. That means many of the rules that apply to other jobs do not apply to adjuncting: you get no credit for showing up early and staying late. You get no benefits. You do not get a living wage. Therefore, do not feel strange loyalty to the institution that let you break into the field. Do not worry about personality conflicts (like, for example, if your dean or supervisor hates you cos you have breasts or just doesn’t get your communication style), do not worry about disappointing your boss, even if you adore her (or more likely him). Use a bad experience as a stepping stone to get into a better situation, and for chrissakes learn from it.

Maybe you don’t teach for a semester while you look, and maybe you fall into a better gig, or a full time job in another field, or the perfect school for you. But you do not, not, not stay teaching in an adjunct situation that diminishes you personally, professionally, or creatively. There is absolutely no advantage to that for anyone.


Do not misunderstand. I am not advocating being a shitty adjunct professor. I am advocating being a damn good adjunct professor while honoring your personal boundaries + the boundaries of your tiny paycheck. Do the best you can for your students, but be realistic. Do not do more than you can. Even if you want to. It’s not sustainable.

Take some of the excess (if you’ve got it) you’d like to devote to your delightful, eager, remarkable students whose energy is an eternal well of encouragement and joy, and funnel it toward this cause: make your experience public. Advocate for adjuncts, for labor, for aid to our broken, fucked up, awful, unfair economic system in this gorgeous land of opportunity.

That is all. Sending love.