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Are You Getting Your Adjunct On? A Few Do’s And Don’ts For New Members Of The Adjunct Army

April 18, 2011, 11:30 am

Course by course, we build the nation!

Nick Parker’s article about “The Adjunct Economy” in Boston.com is a must-read for anyone in a tenured or a tenure-track job, mainly because our lives are structured so as to obscure the way the majority of our fellow scholars live and work.  As Parker, who teaches at Babson College, notes, adjuncts dominate the academic labor force and have become the new normal.  In Massachusetts, there are over 19,000 adjuncts at work, “nearly 60 percent of the 32,000 or so faculty members in the state,” Parker writes.  “When you factor in graduate-student teachers, who often lead the discussion sections in math and science courses, the figure tops 70 percent.”

This isn’t just a community college, or public university, issue.  For example, did you send your kid to Harvard to be taught by Nobel Prize winners? Think again. “At Harvard, adjuncts accounted for 57 percent of the faculty in 2005,” Parker writes; “At Boston University that year, they made up 70 percent. And over the last three decades, the number of adjuncts employed across the country skyrocketed by 210 percent while tenure-track faculty hirings rose merely 7 percent.”  Yes, things have gotten worse.  But even before the financial crisis, at Zenith we were approving faculty privileges for two and half pages of adjuncts (single spaced) at the beginning of every academic year.

If you are a newly minted (or not-quite hatched) PH.D. in the social sciences or humanities, you are most likely to be teaching as an adjunct in the fall (guess what?  post-doc is now frequently just a fancy name for “full-time adjunct.”) You are also hoping to leverage this into what used to be known in the profession as “a real job.”

Here are a few hints for you:

Do finish your dissertation/get your book proposal out/get an article circulating.  I know that you love, love, love teaching.  But guess what?  Everyone does, or claims they do, and it’s still the people who finish things and publish them in prestigious locations who have a shot at a career in teaching, not the people who love teaching more than anyone else does, hold a quazillion office hours and over-enroll their courses.  Those of you who immerse yourselves in teaching during that first year out as an adjunct as if you were in a tenure-track job are doing something wonderful for your students, but are cheating yourselves.  The quickest way to remain an adjunct is to devote yourself to what adjuncts do:  teaching core courses competently and creatively to full, or over-full, houses.

Don’t listen to senior colleagues who tell you that there will soon be a line in your field and that you are ideally positioned for it.  Gah! Every time I hear this — and I have been hearing it for my entire career — I wish I had a photograph of the Road to Hell, which is, I am convinced, paved with adjunct faculty who were fed this line.    The idea that you actually have some control over your fate is attractive, I know, but the fact is, in a two decade career I know exactly three people who were hired by a school they were teaching for as adjuncts.  I have, however, known dozens of people who have felt angry and betrayed because they were assured that this adjunct job was a stepping-stone to a bright future at that very same institution. Then, either no job was established in the field, or worse, someone shiny and new waltzed into the search and made them seem so Last Year in the eyes of the department. Strangely, this seems to happen to people in women’s studies, ethnic studies, queer studies….there’s a theme here, but I can’t quite grasp what it is……

Never mind.  An adjunct job is an adjunct job.  It is temporary.  Don’t forget that.  And if you have been hired as an adjunct at a very prestigious school it has the highest likelihood of being temporary, although it may be a nice wedge into a good job elsewhere.

Do move, or at least rent a room, if you must commute to a full-time adjunct position.  There is nothing more annoying than hiring someone to do full-time visiting work and then have them work essentially part-time because it isn’t a tenure-track job.  Full time means 3-4 days a week, depending on the teaching schedule you are assigned; it means meeting with your students in office hours; and it means meeting with your students outside of office hours if they can’t make it in the two hours you have decided you are willing to contribute outside of class.  It means not pestering people you barely know for rides to and from the train station because you got a visiting slot in Bumpuddle, RI, but you don’t want to give up your apartment in Cambridge because you heard there will be a great job at MIT next year.

However, the other reason to establish a presence is that this is an opportunity for you to actually do your work in a community of scholars, and to wean yourself from your primary identification with your graduate school.  While it is foolish to commit yourself to them in ways that detract from your scholarship, a year in a department is potentially a year of new readers, new discussions, and new people to support your career.  How can they do that if you aren’t there?

Don’t get involved in student politics.  Particularly at small liberal arts colleges, particularly if you are faculty of color, or queer, or working class, students will be enraptured by you.  They will bring little projects to you like cats dropping off mouse carcasses at the foot of the bed at 3 A.M.  Don’t get involved in their “fight” for ethnic/queer/disability studies, most especially if that was what you were hired to teach.  Why?  Because lurking behind your efforts is always the fantasy that you are creating a job for yourself and it’s not true.  Also, you will make yourself noxious to your colleagues, many of whom may support the agenda at hand, but will have a better sense than you do of what the institution will and will not support.  Yes, there should be a permanent line in Martian Studies rather than a revolving door of adjuncts, and yes, it does say something about how Martians are marginalized in the university that there is not.  But it ain’t your problem.

Do expand your view of what you are willing to do to work in higher education, keep your scholarship going and build a rewarding career.  Most institutions are subtracting full-time faculty and adding administrators:  it’s the cold, hard truth.  Many administrators also teach, and it is not beyond reason that a person with a high scholarly profile who has stepped off the tenure-track might end up with a terrific and interesting job.  Instead of obsessing about all that time you “wasted” in graduate school preparing for the tenure track job that doesn’t exist, have lunch with archivists, people from the grants office, university press editors, deans, media and oral history project directors, and the people who do co-curricular planning.  You don’t need tenure to have a secure or rewarding life in academia.  What ten
ure does is make a lot of decisions for you, and leave you free-ish to do your writing.  But although the tenure-track job holds out the potential for security,  it also places constraints and burdens on you that other jobs do not.  It is worth thinking about whether the advantages of such work are really worth what you are putting into the project of finding a job as a scholar-teacher.

Don’t get angry about being an adjunct.  The real problem right now is that education is in chaos.  It seems pretty clear that there is no commitment among private or public institutions to return to full-time labor, and this situation is unlikely to get better in the time frame you need to establish a life and a pension plan.  Be clear about why you have decided to teach adjunct and what it has to do with moving forward in your life project. Rethink this continually, and be entirely selfish in the decisions you make. Anger at others — your undergraduate mentors for “lying” to you about graduate school (they may well have, but what did you want from it?); your graduate mentors for not having enough influence; your current employer for exploiting you (because people aren’t exploited in other professional occupations, I guess) — is unproductive and pointless.  Anger, IMHO, is often a symptom of a deep-seated shame about not having succeeded in a tangible way, and a strategy for deflecting that shame onto others because it is too darn painful.  You need to address this if it is so, because you have nothing to be ashamed of.

Anger in itself is not a terrible thing, and appropriately directed, it can lead to constructive action.  But inappropriately directed, it can cause you to start acting like a crazy person over time, which diminishes the possibility that you will acquire allies to help you move your career forward in any way at all.

Do join the union if there is one.  You think you aren’t “like” those other people?  Oh yes.  You are.

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