Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Adjuncting Your Way In?: An E-pistolary Exchange

This originated as a private email exchange, but after it developed, my correspondent asked me to post it to the blog for a wider range of feedback, so here goes.

A newly-relocated correspondent writes:

Do I have any leverage negotiating salary as an incoming adjunct instructor of composition at a private University? I am coming in with 37 hours of teaching experience over two years and a terminal (MFA) degree. I have good references, a lot of professional development, and publications. The school has offered (pathetically low) per credit hour for eight credit hours. Unfortunately, I was earning precisely twice that amount in a sleepy Midwestern city where my rent was half of what I pay (here).

Essentially, I am at a crossroads where I am being virtually forced out of my profession due to this adjunct compensation. I didn't bother complaining to the writing department chair during what amounted to a vigorous interview. I am being asked to hold adjunct meetings, develop new curriculum, etc. It looks like it will be a big commitment.

I meet with (the dean) shortly to sign the contract. Is there any way I can speak the language of a budget-strapped dean when it comes to asking for better pay? I am ready, willing, and able to perform more tasks, to take on a greater responsibility in the department, if even in a non-faculty capacity.

What flexibility does a dean have in balancing compensation with keeping a quality candidate and getting the most out of them? At this pay rate, I don't just need another part-time job, I need another full-time.

My response:

Private universities are different, so it's at least conceivable that there could be some wiggle room for the dean. Having said that, composition is a crowded field, and you're an unknown quantity to them.

Put differently: if I were in that dean's shoes, and you asked for double the usual adjunct rate, I'd laugh you out of my office. That's no reflection on you, since I don't know you; it's just the reality of the market.

Your best shot would be to ask for some sort of per diem or stipend for the non-teaching work (adjunct meetings, curriculum development, etc.) you mentioned. Even there, though, I'd be surprised if you got very much.

Adjunct gigs were never designed to be lived on. Some people try it, but it's incredibly hard, and it was never meant to be done in the first place. If you can find some other way to support yourself, I'd strongly recommend it.

His answer:

Part of the problem is that I very much enjoy teaching, and I'm willing to work hard/excessively in order to build a career as a teacher. The problem is that I CAN find other means of income, at what I have been calling an 'adult' salary. Calling off a year of further developing my teaching expertise and CV over a few thousand dollars feels like it would be a mistake. So I guess what I'm saying is that this was not the answer I wanted to hear!

Let me try to put this in a question: Will a year of adjunct work help bolster my CV for future opportunities? Is this sacrifice worth making, even if just for a year?

My response:

I guess whether it's worth it or not depends on how much you enjoy the work intrinsically. If teaching is so much fun that the thought of not doing it fills you with gloom, then by all means, go ahead...If by 'worth it' you mean 'likely to lead to a tenure-track position,' then no. It happens, but it's so rare that to count on it would be foolish.

Once you've established some teaching experience beyond grad school, diminishing returns (at least as far as the CV goes) set in pretty fast. I've gone on record many, many times advising people not to romanticize adjuncting. The adjunct role makes sense in some contexts, but it was never meant to be – and isn't – a reliable backdoor entrance to the tenure track. Asking it to be that is courting heartbreak. If adjunct conditions are going to improve meaningfully, it will take a dramatic reduction of the ranks to bring supply and demand in closer balance. If you need to make a living, make a living. If you need (emotionally) to adjunct, do that. But don't mistake the second for the first.

His reply (shortened):

(He turned down the job.)

I do find teaching intrinsically satisfying. I'm not ashamed to admit this, despite the constant academic derision I receive for doing so...But I must be honest with myself. Why do I REALLY like teaching? Well, it is satisfying, but that's a small part of it. I like teaching because it is related to my professional field and it pays me money while allowing me and encouraging me to pursue my scholarly and professional goals...I get paid to talk literature, read literature, develop course material related to literature, and perhaps even receive compensation for editing and, further, composing my own literature.

However...filling out all my free time with section after section of composition will ill-afford me the luxury of those aforementioned pursuits.

I've had my say and he's had his. (In hindsight, I should have added the possibility of taking a full-time job for the salary and picking up a single adjunct course, just to stay in the game.) Fair readers, what are your thoughts?

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