Friday, July 17, 2009


Ask the Administrator: Tracking the Elusive Full-Time English Gig

A new correspondent writes:

I am considering a English Education master's degree with the intent of teaching at community colleges.  I have traveled extensively, started businesses, written grants, am passionate about teaching, and I have a diverse range of skills and specialties.  I want a career core that will act as the glue and incorporate my values and an aspect of service, while allowing me to pursue my frequent tangents (folklore collection, noir comic paintings, travel blogging, adult literacy, neuroplasticity...).
Since my personal experience says that adjunct professors are cheap and universities are hiring more and more of them to reduce costs, the job outlook should be relatively good.  But the horror stories!  The indignities!  I know where I stand on wealth.  If I can take basic care for myself, have health insurance and do low-cost travel when I want to, I'm good.  I have never been particularly drawn to becoming a four year university instructor because extreme specialization seemed to be a requisite, and I am a honey bee, admiring of experts, but fueled by exploration.
So--too much information, but--is it ridiculous to pursue community college level teaching?  Can you make a reasonable (knowing that my expenses are not high) living?  Anything is POSSIBLE, but I am not a big fan picking unnecessary obstacles.  I want a job that affords basic living expenses while I have other passions on the side--not another amateur (in the 'to love' sense) practice to fund.

Somehow, I'm picturing Susan Sarandon's character from Bull Durham.

A few thoughts, and then I'll ask my wise and worldly readers – especially those from English and Education programs – to put some meat on the bones.

My first thought is that English Education is a hybrid, so I'm not sure what your goal is. If you want to teach in an English department, it's usually best to get a Master's in Rhet/Comp or maybe English. (Rhet/Comp will greatly improve your chances at the cc level.) The “Education” part implies teaching in a program that trains K-12 teachers, which is not the same thing. (A Master's in Education puts you on a very different track.) Or maybe you're thinking of teaching ESL? In some states, certification in teaching Reading can set you up to be a remediation specialist. Without some clarity on that, it's hard to get specific about chances.

From this side of the desk, I can attest that we get far more applicants for full-time English positions than for full-time positions in the Education department.

Then there's the question of motive. You can be the polymath you want to be during the summers, especially if you don't need extra income from summer teaching. But teaching the writing-intensive lower division English courses full-time is a draining enterprise. During the semesters, I wouldn't expect to have much free time or energy. If you love the work so much that you draw energy from it, then great. If it feels like work, heaven help you.

Right now, of course, the market for full-time positions in English is ludicrous. That's a result of a combination of a long-term trend toward adjunctification and the Great Recession. It's fair to expect the Great Recession to pass eventually, but the long term structural trend underneath it will probably continue. Yes, universities rely on adjuncts, but cc's (generally) do even more. I'm heartened by the recent attention cc's have received from the Obama administration, but absent a truly historic (and permanent) infusion of funds, I wouldn't hold my breath for a full-time hiring boom.

Worse, you'd be up against huge numbers of people who literally can't imagine doing anything else. If a hiring committee sniffs a lack of dedication, it doesn't have to settle. You don't “fall back on” teaching anymore. If anything, disappointed would-be teachers fall back on regular jobs.

My general advice for anyone considering grad school in an evergreen discipline is, don't. This is especially true if it's possible to imagine yourself happy doing almost anything else. A self-described “honey bee” is likelier to find fulfillment in jobs with lower barriers to entry and to change. Full-time teaching gigs in English are rare birds these days, requiring a daunting combination of talent, single-mindedness, and luck. You don't sound like the single-minded sort. Honestly, I'd recommend looking at becoming a corporate trainer, or a freelancer, or something along those lines. You'll get to it faster, be free to move from flower to flower much more quickly, and stand a much better chance of finding both enough work and enough freedom to live the way you want.

One admin's opinion, anyway.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

I'd go for the M.A. in English. If you go the English Ed route, make sure you get at least 18 hours in the discipline. We routinely get applications from people with Education degrees, but we can't hire anyone without 18 graduate hours in the discipline and an M.A. (I've been on hiring committees for both community colleges and for-profit colleges--once havens for people with different credentials, but no longer).

But frankly, the market is flooded with unemployed people with Ph.D.s. I earned my Ph.D. in 1992 and started working at a community college. At the time, only a few of us had Ph.D.s, but now, it's hard to get a full-time job without one.

And frankly, it's hard to get a full-time job with one.

If you get the M.A., at least you won't have spent as much time and money. I can't really recommend getting the Ph.D. in hopes of getting full-time work.
Teach high school. You are more likely to be employed with benefits and will do much the same type of work an adjunct English prof does. High school teaching is a career - college teaching for most people is just a hobby.
I think you left out two things, DD.

Thing 1:
A minimum of 18 hours of graduate work in the content area (English, particularly rhet/comp) with a masters degree in anything.

Thing 2:
You don't get health insurance with a part-time adjunct gig. It is either full time or none.

That said, I think you find the Ed masters in our (large and growing) pre-college prep classes where we need really good HS teachers who can work with adults.
I agree with "anonymous." Teach high school. Your self-professed dilettantism will be charming and inspiring to young people (E.g., Miss Jean Brodie) rather than an impediment to your employment.
"Since my personal experience says that adjunct professors are cheap and universities are hiring more and more of them to reduce costs, the job outlook should be relatively good. "

Do you understand that adjuncts make anywhere from $1,200 to $3,000 PER COURSE in most markets? With no benefits?

Also, I'd chime in with the advice of others that if you want to teach English that you should get an English degree. My sense is that if a department has an English Ed. person, typically they pick a person with an English degree who has experience in high school teaching. This is the case in no small part because, rightly or wrongly, people in the disciplines tend to see education degrees as less rigorous than degrees in the disciplines.
I just wanted to add my voice to the chorus of those telling you to Do Something Else. Perhaps the 11th comment to that effect will make it through.

Do something else.

Do something else.

Do something else.
After many years (and I do mean MANY)as an adjunct and after my 2nd time applying, I was hired. The force was with me that 2nd time, as I certainly did not expect a position to open up again. I was satisfied as an adjunct, although a little less satisfied after that first interview. Academic positions are few and far between. Would I do it all again?? As much as I love teaching,HELL NO! Save yourself while you still can!
I have to agree with the people who suggested teaching HS. The pay is better, the benefits are better, and the job is much more stable. And the summers will leave you with time to be a dilettante...or with the opportunity to make a little more money teaching summer school, depending.
Everyone before me has made good comments for this person seeking advice.

I adjunct full-time as a young retiree from an administrative job in higher ed, and I make $45K or so but teach a lot of courses (and
I am lucky enough to be at one place where I have full, and excellent benefits, thanks to a very strong union).

I was a f/t community college teacher in the late 70s and early 80s when we had huge comp sections (up to 30) and had to teach a dozen courses a year. (I burned out and left after four years but later adjuncted there and took one-semester f/t sabbatical replacement positions, but I traveled frequently and made a lot of money from investments.)

So now I do that about number, but I have no office hours, committee work, and all the other stuff that comes with a f/t teaching gig. I am experienced enough and have decent time management skills, so I have a very active life and many other interests.

But due to unique circumstances, I have very low expenses in a very expensive city (I live essentially rent-free in a family house that was paid off decades ago and rent out apartments in the house). In addition, I have lots of money (I always - stupidly, according to everyone, kept all my money in low-interest CDs - so I never lost anything.) I can't imagine doing this if I had normal expenses or even would settle for poverty.

Teaching is fun for a lot of us. It's a joy for me. I don't even mind marking papers. But I can basically stop when I want to, and that makes it a lot better.

I don't recommend adjunct work for the vast majority of people. The writer's considering an English Ed degree and the remark about a good job market tell me s/he is a bit clueless and that adjunct work for this person would make her/him unhappy.
Sometime in the last few months, I saw a column in a women's magazine (at the gym; can't remember what. Glamour? Marie Claire?) suggesting that college teaching was a fun job with good prospects, and all you needed was a master's degree in education. When I stopped laughing, I thought oh dear, think of the glut of disappointed M.S.Ed. candidates there's going to be. And all the re-advising of undergrads who can't believe that Glamour (or whatever) got it wrong.
Just the view from here, only one piece of advice.

I'm a math adjunct at a west coast cc, and as long as I DON'T want to be full time, I'll have this job until I die. Looking at my parents' longevity, that could be in about 70 more years.

In this state, you need a Master's in the subject you're going to teach, not a Master's in education. I have the latter, was hired a dozen years ago when that was enough, and as long as my service is continuous, I should remain grandfathered in. One piece of advice: get that Master's in a subject area, NOT education, unless you like and want to teach K-12. Been there, done that, was good at it, will never go back.

As adjunct, I like not having to do many of the ft required committees, but I can if I want. Sometimes there's additional pay for that.

My healthcare is proportional to my level of employment, but I've discovered that my best option here is a flexible spending account. If I could carry that over from one year to the next, that would be my health care plan of choice.

I LOVE the cc system here - it is the institution of second chances for many folks, and I love watching adults come back and transforming from deer caught in the headlights because of bad prior experience in high school to discovering they are good students because they are older, focused, experienced, and their brains are better. It's the 18 year olds we have trouble with.

My years of service have accumulated so that I get paid about $3500 for a 5 (quarter) credit course. That's 1/3rd employed. I'm allowed to teach up to 40 credits in a year outside of summer term, when I can teach full time. My classes have 30 - 35 students in them.
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