College Teaching on the Periphery: The Perils and Promise of Working as an Adjunct

Throughout 27 years of teaching classes in Cross-cultural Psychology, Critical Thinking, Brainwashing, Propaganda and Rhetoric and Social Psychology at universities and community colleges, I’ve been only dimly aware of how the decline of capitalism and its increasing instability has affected my teaching experience. Contrary to the way college teaching is often presented in liberal la, la land – as being a special field in which teachers and students care about each other – these “gigs” are, in most ways, no different than other kinds of alienated work. I write this in the hopes of clarifying my own experience, as well as to find out how common these experiences are. I will begin with the perils and close with the promises.

The Perils


As a Vygotskian socialist psychologist, my ideal teaching setting involves a ratio of teacher-to-student ratios of about 12 to 1. This is the best setting for a dialectical process to take place: students “think-out-loud”, then engage in a critical dialogue between themselves and the teacher, which results in new information. This information is more than any single individual could have come up with on his or her own, including the teacher. When I first began teaching at community colleges, a class was not considered “full” until it had 35 people. In classes of 35, only the more theatrical students (maybe seven or eight) will have the nerve to dialogue in front 34 other people. In the last ten years this ratio has swelled to 45 to 1. If a class was less than 20 it was cancelled. This means that at a community college my ideal learning setting for students is impossible.

Spatial deterioration

As social historians like to point out, sometimes you can trace social trends in the history of a society by just taking an artifact and tracking the changes in that object over the years. It’s similar to the way cognitive archeologists try to trace the kind of thinking processes involved in early hominids by studying the complexity of the tools that were used. In my case, I’d like to examine the history of the lectern. When I first began teaching I remember having a gig at a fancy upper middle class university and being struck by the quality of the lectern. It must have been five feet tall, planted firmly on the ground, and sturdy as a tree. The wood must have been solid oak, or at least most of the wood. The lectern was wide, with plenty of room to put my material and a place for coffee or tea. It was inspiring enough to make me feel like I had better have something intelligent to say when I began speaking.

Today at my community college gigs, what passes for a lectern stands two feet high and is can be lifted onto one of those metal, fold-up tables. It is made of plywood, if you are lucky, and looks as if it was hurriedly cobbled together by some alienated students in the woodshop class because the school administration did not want to pay to have it done right. Some of these lecterns lack a “lip” so that when you put your notes on them, they slide off. Many of these lecterns are chipped, beaten up or the wood has faded. The presence of that ill-constructed, cheap and ill-cared for educational tool in the center of the classroom says more to me about the state of public college education in the United States than any treatise.

Many community colleges and some universities have “smart classrooms”, which means they contain the latest technology. But these classrooms aren’t so “smart” if you propose that education should partly be about “sharing” experience. Why? Because the seats are still lined up in rows behind each other, which discourages cross-talk between students. If this were an authoritarian learning environment, seating in rows would make sense. But education is supposed to be the showpiece of Lockean liberalism.

Unfortunately for me, I teach in the old “dumb” classrooms. The lowest level of classrooms is on the ground level, though there is so little light in might as well be underground. The classrooms seem to be made out of concrete cinder blocks and resemble a barracks or a prison more than a school. I have taught on ground floors so many years I have forgotten what it was like to teach in a classroom where sunlight poured into the room. The classrooms are right next to each other and the sound-proofing is such that now and then I have to ask the teacher to tone down the video because I can’t hear myself think.

The desks for students are perfect if you are a skinny twelve-year-old girl. If not, as a student you can count on materials falling off your desk. The desktops are so small a student cannot put their notebook and the textbook on their them at the same time. There is no space for students to put their drinks and there is no dignified way to gracefully squirm in or out of these seats. I guess you have to hope no one is watching you. Watching films can be fun if you ignore the rips at the bottom of some of the screens. The chalkboards are so dirty that I often leave a class with chalk dust on the back of my sports jacket. I treat this as a badge of honor and don’t even try to brush it off as I go to the next class. It’s kind of the same way I used to feel when I had dirt on my baseball uniform; it was a sign I played well.

Pinching of time

The day classes are run like a factory. There used to be fifteen minutes of time between classes but in the last year it was cut to 10 minutes. This causes tension between students and between faculty members. For incoming students, they like to get settled into a classroom and check their cell phones. Outgoing students sometimes want to talk to the teacher or just leave in a more leisurely way. Among the faculty, the alienation is over how little time there is to pack up to leave or set up for a new class. I have gotten into three or four arguments with teachers during the last year since this new policy was instituted because they are slow to leave and, in my opinion, don’t set limits with students. I need the full ten minutes to set up and resent being forced to rush through my preparation time. However, the most important point is that this is a manufactured tension. These decisions were made either by administrators who know nothing about teaching or full-time teachers who should have known better than to agree to this. Of course, adjuncts are mostly treated like intellectual migrant workers who are rarely consulted about anything.

Proletarianization of professional life

Part of the agreement any professional enters into in working with an organization is that the organization defines the product and the professional has control over the process of how that product is delivered. In the case of teaching, a curriculum committee sets the description of the course, but how you teach the course is up to the teacher’s discretion. This includes the choices of books. In the last ten years there were two attempts made (one university and one community college) to try to get the teachers to all use the same textbook book. Why? Because accrediting organizations don’t look favorably on courses that don’t seem to be taught in a uniform way. The administration can present accrediting organizations with smooth, simple curriculum if there is one book used by 15 – 20 teachers. This is an attempt to proletarianize professional life. What will be the effect on teachers and students of using one book for everyone?

In the field of psychology there are about six theoretical schools. While a good textbook will cover all theories, the textbook writers themselves have a preference for a theoretical school and that preference will inform the choices of chapters, where they are placed in the text, what they include and what they leave out. If a teacher is committed to, for example, evolutionary psychology, and that text is chosen by the department for an Introduction to Psychology course, then that means that hundreds of students who are taught by 15 teachers over the years think evolutionary psychology explains psychology best. When teachers are allowed to teach using different books, that means that hundreds of students will be exposed to many more theoretical schools. Fortunately, this attempt to homogenize book choices has not been successful. But if this administrative strategy does win, teachers like me, who like to change books because we still want to learn, will lose. The students who will lose are critically thinking students who are naturally skeptical that one or maybe two theories can explain psychological phenomenon.

In terms of community college, some of you might suspect that I am teaching in a poor community college districts. Maybe you think that in districts with more money, the conditions I describe might not be this bad. I have taught in five community colleges over eleven years, and the school where most of the things I’ve described has happened is in a good suburban neighborhood. I’ve also been told by many teachers who are also adjuncts that this school is the best community college in the area and a “feeder school” for local prestigious universities!

All the problems I describe are attributable to community colleges being run by capitalists on the boards of directors. Overcrowded classrooms are caused by the desire to make a profit by cramming as many students into a class as possible. The spatial deterioration is due to capitalists not wanting to pay for infrastructural repairs and upgrades that occur throughout other industries today in the U.S. Time-pinching simply intensifies the rate of teacher exploitation, making us work harder with less time for breaks. Of course Marx was wrong about many things, but one of the things he got right was that eventually the middle classes would sink to proletarian levels. This proletarianization of professions also occurs among counselors in education and even doctors in hospitals who must rush from patient to patient, as if on a service industry conveyor belt.

The Promise

Exploiting the loopholes

I have spent most of my years teaching undergraduates at universities. In one of the alternative universities where I taught, they allowed the faculty to title the courses whatever they wanted. I was in the liberal arts department and though formally trained only as a psychologist, I was encouraged to bring in other fields – history, political economy, anthropology, mythology and comparative religion. About eleven years ago I began to teach at community colleges and was flabbergasted when I read the syllabus for a course I was asked to teach but couldn’t figure out what the course was really about! It took me a number of years to understand that these course descriptions were vague for a reason. The vagueness in course description allowed teachers some creative license in what they wanted to bring into the class without being called on it. Since the curriculum committee is overwhelmingly composed of teachers, I think it is safe to say, teachers actively created the vagueness. Once I saw what was really up, I began to smuggle in material from my “exotic” classes that I developed from my liberal arts teaching gigs. There is room to be creative in the course interpretation if you play your cards right.

Who cares about capitalism, and social class? Students do!

Fortunately for me, in 27 years of teaching I have never been red-baited. In part, I think it’s because I do not present Marxism in a heavy-handed way. But until Occupy, whenever I would talk about capitalism, my students’ eyes would glaze over or they looked petrified, as if an alien body was invading them. With rare exceptions there was no follow-up interest. I would spend most of my time trying to convince them that how capitalism worked was affecting their lives and they ought to know about it.

No more. I do a lecture on how capitalism has affected the psychology of workers since World War II, much like Richard Wolff, a Marxist economist with Democracy at Work does. When I explain the difference between industrial capitalism and finance capitalism, people seem riveted. When I ask them how capitalism has treated them personally, I receive reams of heart-felt material about home forecloses, working too much, working too little, debt, divorces, drug use and everything Wolff talks about. Just recently I did a lecture on race, which explained racial tensions using Marx’s surplus theory of labor. The silence was thick, not one of those thin silences which meant “let’s get on with it”. It’s a wonderful time to teach about capitalism because the dots are so easy to connect. Capitalism is in the biggest trouble it has ever been in and I have about 100 students every semester with whom I have 18 weeks to “harangue them with my communist propaganda”, as my old working class friends used to tease me. In spite of everything, there is no other place I’d rather be.


Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to the three books he’s written, found on Amazon. Read more of his articles and get involved at Planning Beyond Capitalism He can be reached at

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About Bruce Lerro

Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his five books: "From Earth-Spirits to Sky-Gods: the Socio-ecological Origins of Monotheism, Individualism and Hyper-Abstract Reasoning", "Power in Eden: The Emergence of Gender Hierarchies in the Ancient World" (co-authored with Christopher Chase-Dunn), "Social Change: Globalization from the Stone Age to the Present", "Lucifer's Labyrinth: Individualism, Hyper-Abstract Thinking and the Process of Becoming Civilized", and "The Magickal Enchantment of Materialism: Why Marxists Need Neopaganism". He is also a representational artist specializing in pen-and-ink drawings. Bruce is a libertarian communist and lives in Olympia, WA.

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