Reflections from an adjunct who never made the big time

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zippo
By Darren Johnson

Campus News

When I got my first adjunct teaching gig, I was 26 and my wife got me a Zippo lighter with “Professor Johnson” engraved into it.

I just found it the other day, under some old electrical tape and dead batteries in the junk drawer.

Fitting, in that the accompanying story delves into how adjuncts are being used, some say exploited, by universities, and not much has changed in those 14 years since then.

The lighter was a nice gesture, even though, perhaps, it enabled a cigar habit I had at the time. And I’m 40 and still an adjunct; though, careerwise, I’m really so much more than that, and so are most adjuncts. The Chronicle of Higher Education’s web site has a load of facts – most adjuncts have great day jobs, are relatively happy with their teaching assignments (sans the pay), and have nearly the same percentage of terminal graduate degrees as their full-time counterparts.

Adjuncts are all that – and more.

My wife had been with me in college, when I first had the dream to be a full-time professor, so she got that lighter for me as a reminder that I still was on that path, even though I’d lost my way a bit between the ages of 22, college graduation, and that moment.

It seemed logical to her that, after adjuncting awhile, my brilliance would be understood and I’d soon be teaching full-time. It never happened.

I did try for awhile to turn the part-time teaching gig (which has always been paired with a full-time writing job) into a full-time teaching job (meanwhile, I would then turn the writing into a freelance gig). Maybe I’d get tenure soon after. Then I could write whatever I wanted. The dream of every writer. Total freedom.

That was the allure. The idealism. But that freedom is all totally untrue, except, perhaps, at elite universities, and today I’m glad I’m not a full-timer. I get in. I get out. No politics. No 11 a.m. lunches with hot turkey and mashed potatoes, having to hear some borderline recluse who’s a friend of the department chair blather on and on. No salesmen trying to get me to use their $79 textbook for an English class when Project Gutenberg is free. No endless committee meetings that quickly unravel — from talking locally to acting globally, and go nowhere. As an adjunct, it’s just me and the students.

But going back in time, the idea of being a full-time English professor seemed too good to be true. Though, when I was 18, I thought going to school for Writing was too good to be true. Just write for four years? Wow! (OK, and maybe pull a “C” in a few non-writing courses – fine.) People from my blue-collar upstate town thought I was crazy to do something as impractical as that, but it paid off. I’ve never been out of work as a writer – I often have to turn down gigs. American English just can’t be outsourced. Even the British can’t quite get it right, no offense to one of our Campus News writers.

It was in my early 20s when I started seeing some positive growth as a writer and wanted to keep it going. I had a novel about to be published. I started a literary magazine that lasted a few years. It was writing that I really liked to do. So, how to keep the dream alive?

I looked at my professors – this was at a small, private college – what a job! Teach a few classes a week, talk about craft, spend a few seconds here and there signing student advising sheets. These were older guys. I watched them closely. They maybe put in 20 hours of actual university-related work a week. And this was only fall and spring. Summers and much of the winter off!

The spare time? I could write, I imagined, even though the publication records of these professors were relatively abysmal, considering their ages and my expectations. I had youthful energy. I would be different. And it would be better than all the blue-collar jobs I had to do to pay for college.

And it’s not like I’d be a hack in the classroom. I actually do have a talent for teaching. Fourteen years of student and peer reviews, even ratemyprofessors.com, are fine. Better than a large majority of full-timers. I relate to students because, despite my degrees, I am a student-of-the-earth at heart. The kind who would rather take a “C” to prove a point. The kind who, if I didn’t get to read all of my books during the semester, would read them during the winter break and summer, just for closure. I didn’t care about GPA, but real learning.

As a teacher, quality and truly knowing a subject are more important to me than knowing a few facts to sound smart on an essay test, and telling me what you think you want me to hear to get an “A.” I’ve ruined a few 4.0s in my day. I’ve also given some A’s to students who rarely get them. It’s the work that matters. The integrity given to understand the subject. I want dedication.

I started taking graduate courses after college at a local public college, a hodgepodge of mostly writing and literature, but the program was just Liberal Studies. The local community college allowed Liberal Studies master’s degrees for teaching purposes as long as one had a concentration in their subject. The dream was still alive – barely – but then I saw an ad for a job at a local newspaper. It was just for office management, but did offer some writing responsibilities.

Once in, I was like an uncontrollable writing weed, infiltrating every part of the paper. I did it all. Obituaries, calendar listings, community notes and a weekly feature story, along with the clerical work, which I was barely competent in. I worked with the editor to start an arts section – my bent at the time – and that section still exists to this day. A full-time position soon opened up. I was so there.

My graduate work suffered. The courses never coalesced into a degree. My GPA was shoddy from missing so many classes. It’s hard to make classes when journalism stories break. They are always breaking. The year I won the New York Press Association’s “Writer of the Year” was the year my wife got me the lighter. The year I got my first adjunct teaching job (I had been teaching non-credit courses before then, though; “for practice,” I used to tell myself).

The course was at a private college, the same one I’d attended as an undergraduate for writing, but was in the less academically challenging business division. The department chair was very pragmatic – he’d already made a decent nest egg for himself as a businessman and got into teaching midlife for more spiritual reasons – he didn’t care about degrees. He just wanted someone who could teach a Writing With Computers course one night a week. That I only had a BA and a hodgepodge of 30-something graduate credits was fine. I could write, I could talk, I was good with computers (and that new-fangled Windows 95). That’s all he needed. I answered the ad in a local paper and, moments after meeting him, the search was over. The pay was about $2000 for that class. Of course, I’d keep my day job at the newspaper.

The college kept me on. Sometimes I had two courses. Eventually I did get a very good graduate degree – a Master of Fine Arts from that college; it’s a well-regarded program (they hired all new professors for it, many with national names). Considered a terminal degree, I started getting paid at the Ph.D. level, $3000/course at a local community college where I also found work. Some semesters, between the two schools, I would teach three courses – about the same as a full-time professor at a four-year school – while also having a serious day job. And my wife and I had a baby.

Adding all the incomes together, it got to the point where it would be hard for me to become a full-time, entry-level professor. I’d have to quit the day job, and the adjuncting – for less overall income. Would that be fair for my family? Sometimes the dream has to be adapted.

Besides, my writing career was going fine – 1400 or so bylines in local, regional, even international papers, lots of pressroom war stories few journalism professors have, and, once my daughter was born, I also started writing press releases and other mass communications for universities. Thousands of those pieces of writing, too.

But it’s not like I didn’t try to be a full-time professor. There were problems. Many.

Upstate, the pays were abysmally low for full-time teaching jobs. And what would I do for side income? Freelance for newspapers up there that pay, at best, half as much? Say I took a job but soon after had a disagreement with an administrator at SUNY Middle-of-Nowhere and felt like I had to go? Where would I go? The nearest college that was hiring could be hours away. At least downstate, there’s a college seemingly every few blocks.

I did go for a couple of interviews up there. Used to a faster pace, I don’t think I fit in when it came to the meet-and-greets. I talk fast but also choose words carefully. It’s a combination that doesn’t convey warmth. Nothing I can do about that.

Also, my idealism was waning. My test lectures I gave at SUNY Middle-of-Nowhere did talk about the struggles of print journalism, and how, sometimes, in newsrooms, compromises need to be made in various regards – how advertising affects editorial coverage, for example, or how stories may be downplayed by a beat reporter as not to harm the longterm health of his relationship with government; a necessary evil.

Of course that’s antithetical to what’s taught by many journalism instructors, who either never worked in a real newsroom or their experiences go back to the linotype days. At my local community college, I found that these type professors were being hired over me when it came to full-time positions, even though they had lesser degrees and the equivalent of a handful of articles published in local shopper papers.

But they teach the ideal of writing, while I’ve gotten lost in the big compromise of being practical. I’ve lost something.

Downstate, I only applied for full-time teaching positions at the community college where I adjuncted. The starting pay, about $60,000, was more than for the four-year schools. It was doable financially, perhaps. But not attainable.

At first, I thought I’d be a shoo-in for a full-time job. I knew the college, knew the students, had a fine record in the field, nice faculty evaluations, didn’t really rock the boat. But I’d never get an interview, even though it was in the union contract that I was supposed to; and I applied correctly, made followup emails to department chairs, and so on. I talked to other adjuncts, and eventually became a union rep – my story was common.

Adjuncts simply weren’t hired for full-time jobs. A union grievance officer (who happened to be a full-time professor) said there was no use complaining; it’s hard to prove if one is being discriminated against when applying for a full-time position. Most people who do complain end up getting courtesy interviews – a façade and a waste of time for everyone. And it’s impossible to prove an interview is a courtesy interview.

The main reason adjuncts don’t get promoted to full-time: Well, we are adjuncts, search committees reason – if they were really good, if they were like us, they wouldn’t need to adjunct. Their genius would have been recognized already. That, and why hire a person for $60,000 when you can keep him at $2000-3500/course and no benefits? That adjunct will still be there when someone from Middle-of-Nowhere comes to town to interview.

That adjunct will still take the courses that full-time faculty won’t – nights, weekends, 6 a.m. (I find it funny that it’s the full-timers who get first dibs on the online courses and swipe them all up – I mean, they have an office on campus; how much more aloof can they be to have to teach an online course?)

The argument ultimately is, why promote an adjunct to full-time when you can get the milk for (practically) free?

We’re typecasted. The adjunct is perceived as a scab or, worse, a hack. If I do apply for a full-time faculty position again some day, I may take the adjuncting off the resume or downplay it to just a line or two. I mean, 14 years of it – 60 three-credit courses – probably makes a search committee guffaw uncontrollably. “What a loser!”

That said, a community college campus I adjunct for has about 1300 adjuncts and 500 full-time faculty. Perhaps we all should just meet in a dark alley and see who’s left standing. Or we adjuncts should separate and form our own union. But none of us have time to do that. We’re all working! (And, The Chronicle affirms, we’re happy as adjuncts.)

But I find the people who matter – the students – don’t really care if a professor is full-time or not. At the commuter schools in my area, it’s not like the students stick around, let alone hang with the professors to any large degree other than in class. So not having a personal office on campus is no big deal.

(As an aside, I think the faculty members who matter most – full- or part-time – are the ones who also advise an academic club. They do work hands-on, outside the classroom with students, in a more direct and personal way. That’s God’s work, to use an expression.)

I have real stories, from the field, that are useful for budding writers. How my day went at my day job is often of interest to my night journalism students. I have real-world, personal examples.

And my child doesn’t care that I teach as a scab. The teaching is something she’s proud of and can easily explain to her friends. All of her friends have teachers. They relate. Children who love you don’t care about what the pay stub says.

My non-faculty colleagues all think it’s cool, too, to have a side gig like adjuncting. I often get asked by people who don’t need the extra money how they can get a similar part-time job. They have the desire to pass on what they have learned – in the real world. They know the real world is different than what their textbook once said.

Then there’s my wife. And, while the inscription of “Professor Johnson” ended up being a fairy tale, in reality, she actually is proud that I do work in education, helping students looking to better themselves.

But she rolls her eyes whenever I mention going into teaching full-time and giving up my current full-time writing job.

“How much of a pay cut would that mean?” she says; rhetorically, really.

She has lately become my voice of reason.

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