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.

Ok. I may or may not have an insight into this.

While the holder of the MFA sees his degree as a terminal degree, most higher ed types will see the M(FA) as just another masters degree a la MBA, MSA, etc. In a Ph.D. world, any M just isn't as cool.

So, while a MFA might have landed one good job in higher ed in the past, that's not been the case since the late 1980s (from what I've seen). Yours truly holds the double M (performance & music ed), which used to be enough to get faculty positions (in music) at non research 1 institutions. But that died in the late 1980s.

So, your writer has a few options. One is to go BACK to school to get the Ph.D. union card. The other is to focus on another field than higher ed. They may wish to pick up teacher ed certification if they really like teaching. Lord knows, we (collectively) desparetly need GOOD teachers.
I was going to ask why a Dean would give curricular development tasks to an "unknown quantity", but that might be the way this private college stays solvent. I'm curious what DD has to say about the economics of the less selective schools (an LSLAC?). And do its students know the curriculum was designed by an itinerant teacher?

What's not clear to me is how hard the writer has tried to find a full-time teaching job. Moving to a new (and expensive) city and looking for a job has it exactly backwards in my book, and you won't know where you fit in the market if you don't look more widely than where you are. If you need to pay the rent and still teach, teach a night class for the joy of it once your day job is done.

I do second what calugg says about HS teaching. Many states offer a quick route to HS cert for someone with an MFA, particularly one with teaching experience. It might be hard to get a great job in an IB program or private academy, but those are out there.
I would agree with Dean Dad's warning about the difficulty of parlaying an adjuncting gig into a tenured, or full time position. I had hoped to do that.

Recently there was an opening at the Community College where I teach, in the field that I teach. I submitted an application and was a little bothered that they did not even call me for an interview. Even if, for what ever reason, they knew they would not offer me the job, I felt they should at least bring me in for an interview and put on a good showing. After all, I am good enough for them to teach at their institution (as many as three classes in a semester which is the maximum an adjunct can teach). Ultimately I decided I teach for the love of it, because I enjoy it, and yes, because I think I am good at it and can and have made a difference to some students.

Listen to the Dean. Teach a course as an adjunct while making your money elsewhere. That is probably the best road you can take.

Good Luck
This is a little tangential, but as to the back-door-to-tenure thing as an adjunct ... how does this work when you are coming into academia from the professions? I have an academic masters, but my doctoral degree is a professional degree. I started adjuncting one class at a time while working at my professional job and the department has been very pleased with my work and is giving me nearly full-time schedules now. I would love to move up from adjuncting but it sounds like you don't think that's a good way to work it. But since I'm coming out of about four years as a professional rather than from academia, I don't really know how else it works for people like me.
In brief, I think Calugg's comments might be an important key to understanding this situation. Degrees such as MFA and JD, while terminal, seem to offer less room for people seeking any types of employment negotiations, salary or otherwise.

Off hand, my advice would be to go back and get your Ph.D. in a field that shows what many perceive as being a committment to composition (like a Rhet/Comp Ph.D.). In my personal experience, all the grad students in my RI in the Rhet/Comp Ph.D. program received job offers at CCs or 4 year schools within a year of completing their degree and/or being ABD.
I agree with Calugg's advice to work on a Ph.D. in order to get a TT position. At the school where I teach (where I did get a faculty postion after adjuncting--teaching comp, no less--so I guess I should be even more thrilled than I already am), more than half of the faculty members have a Ph.D. or are well on their way to getting one.

I also agree--to an extent--with the idea of getting certified to teach high school, although at least where I live, this is not without some expense (upwards of $3000), unless one has no issue about teaching for a year or two in a rough, undesireable school badly in need of teachers. The nicer school systems are very competitive. Also, while the master's degree should help in theory--one would think they'd love to hire someone with a deeper knowledge of his subject--often a public school system would prefer to hire a teacher with only a BA, whom it can pay much less than a one who has a master's.

A private high school, on the other hand, might be a great alternative. Often they require a master's degree (it looks good to the clientele) and such jobs are not as difficult to find as one might think. I have seen several openings over the years, many of them willing to work with a candidate on certification.

Just a thought.
Adjuncts are whores. The university has put our c-note on the dresser and already left before we woke up.

Ok, that's really cynical and VERY flippant, but that's pretty much the attitude I've encountered.

For many colleges and universities, adjuncts are a means to an end. They know we want the jobs and they know we're willing to put up with a lot of garbage just to be employed.

Some employers are better than others, but the trend is that in the US adjuncts are disposable.
Hello, writer here. Thanks to CC Dean for posting. An update-I am taking one single composition section at the “expensive private university” for $550 per credit hour while working full time elsewhere. This will severely diminish my ability to offer quality coursework and mentorship, but I have to assume that it does not matter to the university. (Said university’s faculty handbook forbids outside employment for part time employees, for the sake of “commitment,” but they are kindly waiving this provision.) The Comp Teacher is the campus pariah, next time you hear a student tell you “comp sucks,” you will know why. Being a dedicated comp teacher is for saps. For people without any genuine scholarly intentions.

calugg – I may be naïve, but I am nonetheless resistant to relegating a Ph.D. to a vocational necessity. That’s what MBAs are for. I write fiction, I publish fiction, I have an MFA. I’m smart enough, good enough, and doggone it, students like me! I can’t feign an interest in composition pedagogy in order to land a tenure-track composition (or lit/cw) post. Realistic pay for part time would be a happy compromise that would allow me to write in my free time—if it would only reflect my skill and knowledge of the material. (For the record, many programs are subverting the MFA by offering creative writing Ph.D.s, which are negligibly different, but do satisfy the union card requirement.)

ccphysicist – Yes, I looked very hard. I had the state university virtually assure me adjunct work in April. Despite this, I kept looking. They sent a cursory “Sorry, we’ll keep you on file” a couple weeks ago.

theadjunctprofessor – I’m content with the p/t gig until I have a more attractive publication portfolio. Then I can move into CW/Lit in a full-time capacity, or just get rich off of my books, wear dark sunglasses and talk about how much I always hated academia :) . I met my comp adjunct colleagues last week and they are all current masters students at the aforementioned state university, one of which is in Political Science. Save one girl who has a Comp/Rhet Ph.D. and a rich husband. She is trying to parlay the appointment into F/T at the university and has all the time in the world to do so. Well, she won’t have to worry about competing with me.

Though composition might be outside of my “core,” any given school with a desperate need to fill sections of comp should nonetheless be enthralled to have somebody with my experience offer to enthusiastically join their program. Doesn’t this make their lives easier when my students go on to take their “serious” classes and they actually learned to write? Answer: No. Student’s are not “shopping” schools based on their ability to convey skills. I think the decision comes down to a blend of landscaping, football, and openness to alcohol consumption. Paying “what the market will accept” does nothing to assure the quality of their instructors, but this is especially true when this payscale is so far below the poverty line. And I’ve never worked anywhere that wasn’t interested in recruiting and retaining top talent—until now.
adjuncting is not an extended interview. I tried it and it didn't work. Sure the full-timers appreciated my work, and that was nice, but I didn't get the full-time job when it came around. Why buy the cow when you're getting the milk for half price.

You're doing the right thing by working full-time and teaching just one class. It's not a foot in the door, but it will keep you in the loop.

I just hope you can still find time for your personal writing projects.
I was an adjunct and then from there got a tenure track position. I knew when it happened that I was in the minority but i think I was a little sheltered from the reality of it all.

As an adjunct fresh out of school I was naive. I took on projects that I was not paid for and even offered up things I could do when i saw a need. Like robots I saw and need and filled a need. I know now that doing all that and working full time elsewhere took its toll but it also worked.

it seems we are stuck in a damned if we do damned if we don't. I realize now that I could have done all that free stuff and never gotten the job???
I think the posters above hit on an important issue when they recommended that you consider a PhD (perhaps in Rhet/Comp) if you are serious about teaching comp. There are even some 12-unit certificates that you can take to show you're serious about this kind of teaching (postsecondary reading, online teaching and learning, etc.).

While an MFA is a wonderful thing, it does not necessarily provide one with the background to teach comp. To piggyback on what calugg said, in a comp world, an MFA just isn't as cool. I'm in comp, and at my college we don't even necessarily consider an MFA a plus (it may even be a minus if it is paired with little or no actual comp teaching experience).

To answer your original question, though, adjunct work doesn't have much bearing on your eventual future employment at that college. You do probably need a few years of teaching experience to be competitive on the full-time market, but from there it really depends on you and your skills. I've seen people get hired fulltime at my college after a few years of adjunct work, but we've also hired from outside, leaving some adjuncts with 10+ years experience at our college without an interview.
I'll contradict some of my own advice. Because teaching jobs usually (at a CC, always) require experience, you do need to do the adjunct thing. The bad assumption is that you can use adjuncting as a stepping stone to a tt job at the same school.

Transient Adjunct: You could turn the name factor of Expensive Private University into a good shot at a faculty job at a 3rd tier school or CC, assuming you want to teach (your followup says you do not).

My comment about the market was about looking for tt jobs at the 4-year and CC level, not adjunct openings. But you could start just by looking at the faculty at your EPU. Does that tenured (bad) comp teacher have a PhD or an MFA?

Your view that a PhD is the equivalent of an MBA is as hopelessly naive as your opinion of doing the one thing (teaching composition) that keeps English departments in universities. Books on literary criticism do not result in the construction of new buildings on campus or generate millions of dollars of income for the university.

If your real goal is to write, you can do it after your day job instead of teaching something you hate.
transient adjunct--

Just a few more observations. An MFA in writing is like having a MM in flute performance (my old field). We're a dime a dozen. Your MFA is going to get the big old yawn by an administrator who points to the same 100 MFA folks in your application line, and then points to the 30 Ph.D.s in the same line who have the same level of teaching experience you have (or more), the same glowing recommendations, but have the "union card." Guess who gets the job? Someone in the Ph.D. pool. There's a glut of Ph.D. in English and Composition, why would any administrator look at a MFA for a full-time faculty position?

You're ignoring institutional accreditation requirements as well. Most accrediting agencies and state DOEs set percentage levels of Ph.D.s on staff for faculty. You're simply not competitive with the MFA when it comes to full-time faculty positions.

There are 10s of thousands of people out "there" (maybe 100s of thousands), with our specialized masters degree. But academe is a very traditional and HIERARCHIAL organization. Those "sergent stripes" on the robe matter--bottom line. You don't have to like it (I sure as hell did not), but it is the reality of the situation.

If you want to write, then write. Stop adjuncting and pour ALL of your free time into producing the best art that you can.

But if you want to teach at the post-secondary level, you need the Ph.D. No one is going to look at a MFA.

If it's the TEACHING that you love, please also think about teaching in a public school (High School or Middle School). You can make a tremendous difference in the lives of young people.

I wish you all the best. Been there, lived that.
What calugg just said!

I can hardly add more. The original correspondent needs to find the archive of the old invisible adjunct blog and read read read.

Comp adjuncts are a dime a dozen. The private university where I adjunct wouldn't even give you the time of day with an MFA. And negotiating rates?!! After nearly choking on my coffee, all I can say is "good luck with that".

I don't teach comp but courses in the core curriculum, central to the school's mission, blah, blah, and I develop curriculum, etc. And its all done by adjuncts for pennies, no one cares, not the students or parents certainly. Meanwhile the fancy new buildings on campus keep going up.

The correspondent has no idea of how the numbers in the system are totally against him.

If you can write, go write! There's much more money in it and better odds too.
Writer here. Thanks everyone for your input, this is a good discussion please don’t view the following cynicism as frustration with anyone here. If I have learned one thing it is just how disrespected composition is in higher education. It’s not one or two levels below the core curriculum, but a thousand leagues below. If it weren’t for the steady stream of master students and saps, the college could do away with them and make composition a 150 student seminar class. Like anon said, students and parents don’t care—all comp is created equal. Just a weed-out course. Second, if I really wish to teach in my field, like I did for two years back home at the SLAC, I should work on publishing and/or landing a job in my field, lit/cw. I don’t suppose ccphysicist got started by teaching Algebra 101.

ccphysicist - Since last April there has been one and exactly one opening in FT lit/cw (1 year visiting writer-cw and I was not called in for an interview.) at the five colleges and universities in this city. How many FT comp teachers positions were posted? ZERO. How many PT Adjunct comp positions? Tons. (This begs the question of why I started looking so late in the spring, well, my wife didn’t know where she would be going to work until then. So maybe I’m merely a victim of transience.)

I don’t think anyone here would disagree that there is much greater need for composition instructors than lit/cw, especially in an adjunct capacity. Look no further than the EPU’s lack of a literature requirement. I’m happy to concede to this disregard of literature and take on this other need. So no, I don’t WANT to teach comp as much as cw/lit but I WILL teach comp if that’s where the college has the greatest need. That’s because I understand that schools are not built out of literary criticism. It shouldn’t make me a serf simply because I lack a wholesale commitment to composition pedagogy. Yes, Comp is a cash cow for the university, so why is my share of that pie mere crumbs? Ten times less than the masterminds with Ph.D.’s in comp/rhet? Didn’t this change with the signing of the Magna Carta? I mean really, I’m expected to live off of $16k per year teaching six courses? I would concede that the bricklayer doesn’t deserve the same salary as the architect, if that’s really how mindless comp teaching is, but you still don’t see bricklayers earning such a low wage. There should be laws against this or academia should make a severe commitment to curtailing the number of MFAs, MAs, and Ph.D.s they are loosing upon society. My wife is a veterinarian and there is a very careful regulation in place by the AVMA between matriculation and job demand. Maybe I’m exposing a dirty little secret of academic institutions, and I’ve known it all along, but let’s get real about abusing the system if the pay is getting THIS bad.

I don’t feel sorry for myself, I can always teach lit/cw when the opportunity rolls around. Sadly, there is no academic “middle ground” for people like me. Their loss. I feel sorry for comp/rhet Ph.d. who picked the “in demand” professional degree and now lays bricks for peanuts because of this avaricious system.
"Said university’s faculty handbook forbids outside employment for part time employees, for the sake of “commitment,” but they are kindly waiving this provision."

WTF? My (non-academic) take: these people are insane.
The reality is that CCPhysicist did get started teaching Algebra 101, first as an undergrad TA but also as a part-time adjunct. And I will have you know that our full-time and part-time faculty take that course very seriously, and I am glad that they do. I can name a number of kids who are engineers today because they finally got an algebra teacher when they got to a CC. My colleagues who teach those classes are not saps for wanting to help a kid reach the level of education you seem to take for granted.

Sorry, but I feel sorry for your students, Transient Adjunct. They really deserve better than someone who holds teaching of any subject in contempt just because it is a freshman-level skill. I sure hope you are actually a troll.

As for your job "search", I thought my second comment made it pretty clear that looking at the five colleges in your current city is not what I was talking about. That is a really small market. (There are at least five in this town, which barely rates being a mid-sized city. However, there were several f-t t-t english positions available last year in our very small market.)

A national search is necessary if you seek a university position. Those will not be handed to you on a silver platter just for earning your MFA. A national search may even be needed for one of those CC jobs you hold in such contempt. One of our new hires for fall came from 1000 miles away.
This is for Dean Dad:

Could you address the economics of an Expensive Private University, particularly as regards "service" courses and adjuncts?
CCPhysicist - If by "troll" you mean "tongue-in-cheek," then yes, but my sarcasm may be lost on you. I couldn't offer a half-assed effort if I tried. THAT is why I'm not teaching 9 sections of comp and shame on the institution that looks the other way while their adjuncts do exactly this. The question is whether I will have a choice regarding the quality of my instruction. This is from the CCCC statement regarding adjunct appointments, dated 1989, but relevant nonetheless. I hope this makes my point clear:

As the American Association of University Professors has affirmed, when institutions depend increasingly on faculty whose positions are tenuous and whose rights and privileges are unclear or nonexistent, those freedoms established as the right of full-time tenurable and tenured faculty are endangered. Moreover, the excessive reliance on marginalized faculty damages the quality of education. Even when, as is often the case, these faculty bring to their academic appointments the appropriate credentials and commitments to good teaching, their low salaries, poor working conditions, and uncertain futures mar their effectiveness and reduce the possibilities for loyalty to the institution's educational goals."

If, and only if, your "colleagues" are accepting 1/10th the salary as equally qualified f-t t-t professors, that is the only thing that makes them "saps." No offense, in all your posts you seem to have an antagonistic attitude towards me and I can't quite understand why. Oh, and yes, I do need to cast a wider net in my job search.
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