Friday, July 20, 2007


Ask the Administrator: How to Break In

An adjunct, and returning correspondent, writes:

If I was an English adjunct at your CC, where would you advise me to focus me efforts in order to--
hope hope hope--effectively compete for an eventual tenure track opening? As I only have an MA,
should I give up, go earn a Ph.D., go to local conferences, attempt to write for national journals, push
my own blog, or what? I only have so much time, so I want to put it to wise use.

When replying, please consider I have extremely limited funds, live in a rural area, and do not want to
upset my full-time colleagues. Mucho thanks.

In thinking about this, I have to admit that my knee-jerk answer conflicts with what I've actually seen. Since the voices in my head (or knee) are of no import, I'll just tell you what I've seen.

The people I've seen make the jump at the same campus – and that's how I got my start, too – did it by offering the college or department something it didn't already have. Most English departments already have people with Ph.D.'s, and people who go to local conferences. It would be a very progressive department indeed that saw a blog as a hiring credential.

Instead, you have to show that you can solve a persistent problem of theirs. What that problem is will vary from locale to locale. It might be techno-phobia, so developing online expertise for the evergreen courses (i.e. Composition) could make you attractive. It could be the lack of coverage of a given subfield, in which case making yourself (or presenting yourself convincingly as) conversant in that field – while also being perfectly capable of covering the courses you're covering now – would make you attractive. (That's how I got my first f-t faculty gig. Although hired as an adjunct in one area, I showed that I could also cover another area that had been a persistent problem for them.) It could even be an unusual preference. At Proprietary U, the most commonly-taught math courses were the algebra-to-precalc sequence, but the faculty regarded anything below calculus as slow torture. One adjunct crossed over by making it abundantly clear that his first love was the remedial math and first-level algebra – he actually loved teaching the courses everyone else loathed teaching. Hiring him solved a major staffing problem, since it allowed the 'purists' to spend more time on the courses they actually cared about, and his palpable love of the first-tier classes resulted in more successful students there. I wouldn't advise faking this, but to the extent that you can highlight an honest and unusual and useful preference, you make yourself more appealing.

This is a particularly good strategy in a rural area, since 'utility infielders' – people who can play several different positions passably well – are at a premium when the hiring pool is thin.

The trick, really, is to try to imagine what would make you appealingly different from all the other adjuncts who can also cover the basics. You're good at teaching composition and literature? Great. So are most of your colleagues. What useful thing do you do that they don't, or won't, or can't? Do you have a background in industry that you can bring to bear on courses in technical or professional writing? I'm not talking about scholarly specializations, since cc's typically don't teach courses above the sophomore level. I'm talking about breadth, rather than depth.

There are other ways, but I haven't seen them succeed very often. Some people believe in the “affix your lips to the chair's ass” method. It's risky, though, in that you're relying entirely on the whims of a single person, and that person may or may not still be in that role by the time it matters. (You may also find the chair's ass crowded with the faces of other supplicants, some with greater suction than you.) And even if it works, now you're the chair's plaything until tenure, and your life will be hell. Some take a different approach and threaten to leave if they aren't hired full-time – I call it “play me or trade me” -- but usually an adjunct who threatens to leave is allowed to leave. You need more leverage than most people have, if you hope to pull this off. (Hint: never make a threat you aren't prepared to fulfill.)

You can also try indignant moral suasion. Good luck with that.

Wise and worldly readers – what have you seen work?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

This may seem to be an odd approach but after adjuncting for 5 years and not getting hired in 3 searches, I sort of let go of my fierce attachment to the department. I looked up on the horizon and found a course in a different dept (WS) that they were thrilled I was interested in. Then I got some "release time" for working with a faculty development program (it wasn't really release time since I wasn't a full-time person, but it did come clearly as a replacement for a comp class that I had been scheduled for). Then I didn't apply during the next round of hiring because I sincerely was not emotionally prepared to be turned down and it was glorious to not be a candidate for a whole year when everyone else was doing the required bows and bends. Finally, and I think most crucially, the year I did apply and got hired there was a hiring committee that was not a replicate of all of the previous ones and so I felt I had a much better chance of succeeding.

I think it was a better candidacy since I was asked other folks from across the college to write recommendations (and not my usually phd advisor letter writers).

That said, it still seems a lot like a lottery.
Making the jump

My experience is extremely limited as to “type” of schools. I went from teaching as an adjunct at a liberal arts college with open enrollment, to doctoral school, to working as a TT prof at a research extensive university. I’m now, much to my amazement, one of the “old guys.”

My question for you is “where do you want to be in ten years?” How you answer this will determine your response.

1. If you want to be a faculty member, basically, you’re going to need the “union card”—a doctorate. Pick a field/sub-field that is hard to staff and also is something that you can obsess about (I’m serious—something that is in short supply and gives you serious joy. This might mean a change of fields). If you can stand the poverty and the crazoid hours, doctoral education can be the most rewarding period of your life. Yours truly cashed-in her meager retirement (didn’t take a tax hit because my income fell to almost zero), switched professional fields (there was some relation, but it was pretty removed), and starved for four years. The first year was the toughest since I didn’t have an assistantship. My basic diet was various combinations of rice & peppers. But I spent my free time going through all of the professional journals in my area from 1857 until 1990. Consequently, the following year I had a command of the field and was a no-brainer for an assistantship.

2. If pursuing a doctorate has as much appeal as unending and un-medicated dental surgery, but you like working in a collegiate environment, you have a couple of options. The MA will open doors for low-level administrative positions (typically in student services—caution! This area does have a high burnout rate). But you’ll eventually hit a ceiling (assistant/associate dean of student services or something similar) and the hours spent at work will always stink.

3. It sounds like you’re location bound. Ideally, you should try to “get out of Dodge,” if possible. From what I’ve seen from the career paths of adjuncts, they tend to follow those as substitute teachers. Once an institution (or school district) has a reliable and dedicated adjunct, it’s typically loathe to put them on TT. The logic is as follows: If you’re willing to work for peanuts and endure crappy, irregular hours, why should we lose your wonderful and oh-so flexible skills by moving you to a full-time position? (Wiser administrators might reconsider this stance—but generally they don’t have the time).

Regardless of discipline, the Ph.D. or Ed.D. is the union card for faculty. Without it, your status within academe will always be tenuous at best. While holding a doctorate doesn’t guarantee a job in higher ed (far from it); not holding one shuts the majority of possible doors.

Good luck!
There are quite a few on-line Ph.D programs that you might explore if moving is not an option. An Ed.D is the easiest thing to get and I think there are more options in the sciences. But an MA with a Ph.D in something like educational leadership might be a good fit for an admin position, especially at a school that has a hard time recruiting in that area.
I disagree. Half-way.

The adjunct correspondent needs to look at the his English department. It's certainly possible that a Ph.D. is a "union card" at his school, but at many cc's, this is not the case, and at some, a Ph.D. is actually a disadvantage.

The best way to land a full-time cc job is to become an excellent teacher. Teaching IS what we do, after all. A degree in English means that you know all about the history of British and American literature, but most cc English teaching is in composition classes, and the plum lit classes will almost always be assigned to full-timers. My advice is to take some courses in rhetoric and composition, or if you're stuck out in the sticks, to read the literature. Become an expert in composition.

Next, try to get daytime assignments so you can get to know your full-time colleagues. They're the folks who will be on hiring committees. Go to department meetings. Propose, and do the work of developing, a few new courses. Get involved in the wider campus community. The union or the Academic Senate are good places to start.

Above all, be yourself. Making friends and allies is important, but that doesn't mean you have to kiss everyone's ass.

I posted part of the following over on IHE, but repeat it here for this audience.

Although I am far removed from English, DD's advice fits what I have seen. However, if you want to do a compare-and-contrast, take a look at the article in the Chronicle by Rob Jenkins
on this very topic.

Other relevant materials on CC jobs can be found by looking through
The series of articles Jenkins wrote circa 2004 on job hunting at a CC are excellent, by the way. I am working on integrating them and other info from the blogosphere into the CC-part (part 4) of a series I am composing on the physics job market. [Who would have guessed that there are almost as many t-t PhD jobs in CCs as there are in MS departments? Yep: According to the AIP it is 640 vs 730. Remarkable.]
I would second a couple of things Dean Dad said. First, make yourself useful in a capacity that will be appreciated, even if it's not noticeable right away. (Make yourself valuable and necessary, in other words.) Second, if you threaten to leave, be ready to leave. But if you've mastered both of those things, you do have some power, and you'd be wise to notice it yourself and use it, I think. I've been adjuncting for years and when I just gave notice to take a full-time job elsewhere, my immediate supervisor let the powers-that-be know what it would mean for me to leave (since I'd made myself valuable as one who readily took on and enjoyed/did well at the basic courses no-one else wanted to teach), and their response was "what could we do to make you stay?"
If only I'd known earlier that that'd be their response, eh?
I just found out that I landed a full-time faculty position at the college where I had taught as an adjunct and one bit of advice I have (other than being a great teacher, obviously) is to make yourself well-known and very useful while you are an adjunct. When I was an adjunct, I joined faculty academic groups, came to "extra" events that many adjuncts didn't feel compelled to visit because they weren't faculty, brought my classes in to support literary events sponsored by the college, etc. In other words, I sort of acted like faculty even when I wasn't--I "walked the walk," I guess. I also helped out whenever anyone needed me--I substituted for other professors and generally helped out. Which gave them the (correct) idea that I was willing and able to help out where I was needed. And every college needs that.

The college where I teach does seem to want its teachers to have more than a master's degree and the committee even asked what plans I had to continue my studies, so I do plan on continuing with my Ph.D. (or at least taking more classes to bolster my MA). So I think that is a very individual thing and depends upon the school. I am lucky to have a couple of good universities in my area where I CAN work on a Ph.D., which I plan to do while I am teaching (most of the professors in the department do this).

That's my advice, newbie that I am.
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Have to agree with Philip's advice. That's really the best way for adjunct faculty to stand out at my institution. We have a couple openings coming up, and I find myself hoping that some of the folks who apply are the ones who always show up at faculty development workshops, always take an interest in how the pieces of the whole curriculum fit together, always seem to be reading things related to comp and rhetoric, always have a good, helpful idea that they're willing to share. I think a genuine and conspicuous desire to continue one's professional development (in formal and informal ways) can outweigh a PhD at many CCs.
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