We wish we could tell you that the eight months at home afforded us time to reflect. We wish that we could share with you our endless TikToks and vid shares of our wonderful adventures of family togetherness and rediscovery of our appreciation for the simple joys of life. But that ain’t what we got to share. What we must share is messy, demoralizing, dehumanizing, frustrating, and seemingly endless. What we started on a weekday on a morning in March 2020 does not end. Ever. Heroes don’t live here. We are shipwreck victims treading water, looking for a lifeboat, a life preserver, or a freaking door that we can both fit on. We are married lecturers, both teaching in the same department at the same U.S. public university in the midst of a pandemic.

Adjunct teaching is a boon from hell. You are underpaid, have no benefits, and no stability. An adjunct instructor has to piece life together from several universities and colleges. Thomas was the first of us to experience the trials of being an adjunct. In his best (most financially “lucrative”) semester, he taught six classes at three schools on four campuses in two states in one semester within a sixty-mile radius from home. In his worst, he would accept a verbal offer to teach multiple courses for a college, spend a few weeks prepping, then get a call from the head of the department the day before the semester started, telling him that one or more of his classes were canceled or “didn’t make.” And, as an adjunct, you can’t get angry or say anything, because you always hold out hope that a full-time position will open, and your flexibility will be rewarded with a job that never comes. Like any good multi-level marketing scheme, working as a basement-level academic requires one to operate on the unspoken promise that if you just want it enough and stay the course, eventually you’ll be transformed into a real faculty member. I AM A REAL BOY!

I have “I Can’t Drive 55” cranked as loud as the ’91 Ford factory AM/FM will go. My right foot is smashing the go pedal hard enough to pop through the undercarriage. The white Escort wagon shudders with the rush of four cylinders on an uphill grade. As Sammy sings about getting locked up for his inability to keep his muscle car at or under the speed limit on L.A.’s endless loops of interstates, the irony is not lost on me as I pray I can eventually get the piece of shit that I am gratefully driving up to 55 so I don’t get run over by the soccer moms and chemical company execs in their SUVs and Beemers.

“Shit. It’s raining.”

I’ve entered “fill your drawers” territory. It’s nine-thirty and its dark. I’m piloting a go-cart amidst semis and minivans on a dark, rain-soaked highway, and all I can think about is when I get obliterated on the side of the road how will Kallie cope with three kids, no insurance to even get me cremated, and three months of past-due bills. Usually on the trip home from teaching an evening class after a fourteen-hour day and driving over one hundred miles, I am able to reflect on the evening with the community college public-speaking students to whom I just gave three hours. Not tonight. Tonight, I am white-knuckling the hell out of my steering wheel, cursing loudly at the under-achieving windshield wipers that struggle with a few drops, let alone the deluge I am having to Tokyo drift through.

I’m exhausted. I’m dejected. I’m beyond frustrated. Today was my long day. I had two classes in the morning teaching public speaking and introduction to communication, two classes starting an hour later forty miles away at another school in another state teaching public speaking and stagecraft, then off to another campus in another city forty-five miles away to spend three hours teaching public speaking, and then thirty-seven miles home.

I comfort myself remembering that I am, for the first time in many years, going to bring in a respectable paycheck from the three schools and six classes. Then I remember the past-due bills, the current bills, and the fact that I am not able to get classes in the summer and usually cannot get seasonal work, so the money needs to last until the end of September, and this is March. At least I’m on track to break last year’s gross of $12,000. I might actually break $17,000 this year if we’re lucky.

“Dammit!” Some jackass in a dark-colored pickup truck nearly hit me.

I am so damned tired. I am tired from teaching five classes today. I’m tired of struggling to get off of government assistance. I’m tired of feeling like less than a person as we struggle to keep food on the table. I’m tired of fighting my own inner demons.

“Jesus, what I wouldn’t give for a pack of smokes and a bottle of Glenfiddich.”

A tractor trailer blows past me, and for a few seconds, the road disappears in a flood. I just want to be home.

We could belabor the point and add incriminating and vindicating details, but here’s the skinny. We are two first-generation college graduates who wanted to work in theater and focused both our undergraduate educations and early careers in that direction. After losing a well-paying job that lasted just long enough for us to “temporarily” move to Tennessee for family reasons, we found ourselves stranded in a mini-metro area in which our industry does not exist, our skills and talents deemed worthy only if voluntarily utilized. Over a period of eight years or so, among failed business and theater endeavors and applying for jobs in four states, the sideline hustle of adjunct teaching became our main/only line of income. The kind of paid, reputable, childcare that would have allowed for both adults to work full time cost at least one parent’s entire salary for one child, let alone two, so we always had one parent at home. We were working with both hands tied and jumping on one leg. When we say we were broke during this time, we don’t mean can’t-get-the-newest-model-car broke, we mean driving-a-rusted-van-with-300,000-miles-on-it broke. Something had to change.

In August 2017, the clouds seemed to part. Thomas got the call to the big leagues—he was going to be an honest-to-God temporary full-time adjunct at the school. Kallie joined the department where Thomas was as an MA graduate student and teaching assistant. The following spring, Thomas was officially hired as a full-time lecturer. He was finally A REAL BOY. Two years later, at the midnight hour, Kallie got a call to the big leagues—she was going to be an honest-to-God temporary full-time adjunct at the school where she had just graduated. In spring of 2020, she was officially hired as a full-time lecturer. Kallie was finally going to be “real” too.

In the 2019–2020 academic year, two milestones passed for our family. First, with two meager but full-time incomes, we no longer needed to participate in government assistance programs that had helped to patch the holes in our family’s finances for years. Second, a worldwide pandemic hit.

In true “pandemic professor” form (disclaimer: as lecturers, we do not call ourselves professors and direct our students to refer to us as Mr. Townsend, Ms. Gay, or the ever popular “Hey you!” so this alliterative title merely suggests that we are instructors in a higher education setting during a worldwide illness outbreak), we have decided to Zoom each other from opposite sides of our living room in an attempt to create an easy-to-use transcript of our conversation. You know that this did not end well. The following is a section of our discussion, a creative retelling, if you will.

Thomas: I’m feeling particularly claustrophobic. When it comes to work, it’s been constant twenty-four hours. That’s not hyperbole. It’s parenting work, which is fine, but it’s also that the kids are in virtual school and they need us to be teachers and help them as much as our students are needing us.

* * *

Interruption, four-year-old: “How do I find my friend [on Animal Crossing]? Why can’t I change my clothes [on Animal Crossing]? I’m hungry. Play with meeeee.”

* * *

Thomas: Plus, our synchronous online classes. Plus, the grading. Plus, the other stuff that goes along with those class meetings and then setting up calls with your students outside of class and then dealing with our kids’ homework and then dealing with setting up the online class for the next week. It does not stop. Not ever. I just want to breathe.

Kallie: There’s just sort of this amorphous blob of “all time is available time,” you know, and whatever is due today gets worked on until it’s done.

Thomas: We haven't mowed the yard in three weeks.

Kallie: Well, I tried to mow it last week…or the week before.

* * *

Interruption, ten-year-old: “I finished one paragraph. I have to author a book for my class by Friday. I’m going to go write the second paragraph in a minute. Who do you think should have not died in Harry Potter? Lupin and Tonks or Sirius? I was watching a video online and I voted Sirius, because Sirius is my favorite character. But Lupin won because people thought that both of the baby’s parents shouldn’t have died.”

* * *

Thomas: Okay, so as the university was planning in the summer for the fall 2020 semester, they sent out a message.

Kallie: Yeah. That was an exciting email.

Kallie’s interior monologue: I couldn’t quite grasp that the administration was casually announcing that they planned to cut adjuncts and overloads as a first-line measure to protect the school’s budget. There were active construction zones across campus, the university was still touting its “we have $100,000 to give away to local groups” grant program, all while the food bank on campus advertised that it served students, faculty, and staff (which should have been a major red flag long before this particular situation), but the most reasonable course of action was to take the money from the people who teach at the university? The audacity of it was staggering. Did they really believe that we were all willing to work for free, no questions asked? And yet, why did there seem to be so little fuss about it among the faculty? It seemed fairly obvious to me that there was a massive disconnect between the actual day-to-day operations of the university and whoever in the administration was suggesting that they stop paying teachers—in the middle of a pandemic—so they could keep funding new buildings and maintain the sports teams’ travel budgets for the next year. Especially when the particular faculty members they decided should be sacrificed were those who were already struggling to piece together a living, many as full-time university faculty members who still needed to take on additional classes as adjuncts to creep close to a living wage. I had learned over the years that a career in academia could be capricious, but this “solution” was downright callous. Surely it was an embarrassing oversight.

Thomas: When you drafted the letter, I have never been prouder to be your partner.

Kallie: I can’t believe that out of the seven lecturers in the department, only you and I and one other lecturer would put their name on the letter. All the lecturers were going to lose close to 30 percent of their potential income for the year, while also being required to teach an additional course, but no one seemed interested in doing anything to change the situation. I was willing to talk to whomever about it. I didn’t want to seem like the obnoxiously ignorant newbie on campus who didn’t understand “how things are,” but I also couldn’t fathom how people could sit by and let their professional (and, inevitably, personal) lives be turned upside down without at least trying to do something about it.

Kallie interior monologue: I think I wrote about eight drafts of the letter before it was finally sent off. In it, we tried to explain to the administration (who, one would think, would already understand this arrangement) why cutting our overloads as adjuncts would directly also harm the full-time faculty the cuts were ostensibly meant to preserve. It also seemed highly probable that if these changes were passed with no pushback from the faculty, this would become the new operating standard for future semesters. Not only would that make it financially impossible to continue working for the university, it was damn insulting.

For each overload course, we are paid $2,100. Lecturers typically teach two overloads during both fall and spring semesters to meet student demand for the courses, bringing potential earnings up to an additional $8,400 per academic year per Lecturer. For people who earn a base salary of $25,000, overload/adjunct teaching provides a greater than 30% increase in potential yearly earnings. For the Lecturers in our department who earn 100% of their household income by having two partners teaching for the university, the proposed restrictions on adjunct hiring would mean a potential loss of nearly $17,000 for those households in the 2020–2021 academic year. As you can see, removing overload pay and increasing the unpaid course load doesn’t spread out the financial hit and workload among dozens of people who otherwise have lucrative, full-time incomes, it creates a life-altering dilemma for a handful of dedicated faculty members…

We do not take the loss of these financial opportunities lightly. The income that might be lost over the next four to nine months could have ongoing ramifications in our lives for years. Childcare is in high demand and short supply in our area, even more so during the ongoing pandemic. If a Lecturer cannot afford childcare in October of 2020 and has to relinquish their child’s enrollment, even if a lost portion of their income is restored two months later, they may not be able to find another safe, reliable, and affordable place for their child to go for months. Imagine having to tell your pre-teen that they have to quit the soccer team or dance lessons because you can’t afford to pay for new cleats or recital fees or the gas to get them there every week. Anticipate losing 25% of your income for the next year while simultaneously working as many or more hours than you regularly do for full pay, then start mentally cataloging what you might be able to sacrifice to make sure your health insurance premiums are paid so that your family doesn’t lose insurance in the midst of a pandemic. These scenarios are extremely stressful, and they are what Lecturers are currently facing as they plan for the upcoming academic year.

* * *

Kallie: It was frustrating to not be able to talk to someone and say, “What are you thinking?!” We weren’t threatening to quit or strike, just sending a message to the administration in the vein of, “Hey, do you realize that by cutting pay and forcing us to do unpaid labor, you are kneecapping your poverty-wage full-time faculty members?”

* * *

It’s 4:45 p.m. Both older kids are still working their way through their school assignments for the day. Dinner should be starting in fifteen minutes, but first we’ve got to get the computers to safe locations and figure out what to cook. Already called Domino’s yesterday and finished the leftovers during lunch, so we really can’t go out and pick up food again. The four-year-old is wedged next to me on the couch, pantsless as he has been most of the day, flipping through YouTube walkthroughs of Mario games.

* * *

Kallie: The university seemed to be putting out this “We’re all in this together, everybody is making sacrifices” message—

Thomas: Meanwhile, the university is putting out press releases about hiring a six-figure coach.

Kallie: Exactly. “We’re all in this together…but food’s looking a little scarce so we’re going to throw you overboard to make sure the important folks don’t have to skip a course of their meal.”

Our letter went to the Faculty Senate, along with letters from other departments who had been having similar conversations among the faculty. The United Campus Workers union also published their own open letter to the school administration and sent a press release to the local newspaper. I got quite a few emails from other faculty members around campus who read our letter and wanted to share their support. We never got a direct response from the administration, but they did eventually scrap the no adjuncts and forced overload plan.

* * *

Kallie: I don’t know how to feel. Much of our own department was warily silent, as though by refusing to acknowledge our concerns or offer an opinion, they could insulate themselves from any repercussions if the message was poorly received. It was a disconcerting surprise. Maybe they were afraid. Or overwhelmed with their own concerns. Or knew something I didn’t. I can’t help but wonder sometimes if maybe, just maybe, some of our fellow lecturers were weighing how much more secure their own jobs would be if one or two “troublemakers” suddenly didn’t have their contract renewed for the upcoming year. I can certainly understand the instinct for self-preservation.

* * *

Interruption: twelve-year-old walks into the kitchen, starts absentmindedly rummaging through the cabinets and refrigerator.

Thomas: Did you finish your test?

Twelve-year-old: Looks around and shrugs noncommittedly: Hmfruh…

Kallie: That’s a no.

Thomas: Go finish your test. Dinner will be ready soon.

Twelve-year-old: But I’m taking a break for a second.

Kallie: Just go finish it before something happens and the test gets reset.

Twelve-year-old: But when you TELL me to go finish it, then it’s NEVER going to get FINISHED!

* * *

Thomas: Dual incomes be damned.

Kallie: And together, we make what one person should be bringing home for an income, at least according to the salary statistics given by my students during their “why I chose my major” speeches. Apparently, going to college is supposed to significantly boost one’s yearly earnings. It seems like, at least in our case, we might have more education than sense (or cents).

* * *

The internet bottoms out, as it is wont to do throughout the day, and Zoom suddenly decides to enforce its 45-minute time limit. The conversation is over for now, whether we mean for it to be or not. Considering we have yet to actually start dinner, this is probably a blessing in disguise.

Kallie’s statement of clarity: Thomas and I have had many discussions over the years that I seem to be hostile to academia. It’s not that I don’t see the benefit in education. However, the way the education system—specifically the higher education system—is structured, it feels misguided and poorly prioritized. I don’t like academia for many of the same reasons I didn’t like the entertainment world: there’s too much insincerity, bluster, and bullshit. I can tolerate it when its affecting something I’ve decided to do as a hobby, like participating in a community theater production. But when my livelihood depends on having reliable, realistic income, I have no patience for maybes and wishes and “if funding allows.” There’s something particularly cruel about being flippant with people who are one broken promise away from a desperate situation.

The good news at the end of the day (because we always want to know about the silver lining, right?): we get to work from home and teach online classes, which is something we’ve always wanted. And we feel very fortunate that we have managed to maintain our income so far. But this is not how we pictured that scenario. We were just getting used to the “kids go to school/daycare, we get our work done, then we all meet back at home in the afternoon to have time together” routine. This “all together, all the time, doing all things” situation is a little much for us. We are exhausted, frustrated, overtaxed, and perpetually annoyed—but not afraid. We’re used to being turned upside down every so often. We’re adaptable. We’ve lived on the edge of barely getting by for so long that when the shit hits the fan, we may get covered with it, but at least we’ve learned to hold our breath long enough to clean it up. We see the possibilities. Maybe we’re just dumb enough to stay willfully oblivious to how horribly wrong this could all still go. Whatever happens, we’ll still be here—laughing, crying, complaining, and writing about it, hoping that something we say will make a difference.