Tuesday, September 07, 2010


Ask the Administrator: Hybrid Positions

A new correspondent writes:

After completing my MA in Rhetoric and Writing in 2008, I started adjuncting at a community college, teaching multiple sections of academic writing. After one quarter of teaching, the economy tanked, the state slashed funding to higher ed, my college felt the squeeze, and sections were cut. As a new adjunct with no seniority, I was among the first to be told the college wouldn’t be able to offer me any teaching work in the foreseeable future.

There was, however, a silver lining in the layoff. The day after I was let go as an adjunct, a different department on campus specializing in grant programs announced an opening for a temporary exempt staff job. I promptly applied for it as a matter of survival, even though I had absolutely no experience managing grants. I ended up getting hired. Furthermore, what began as a temporary position has since morphed into a somewhat permanent full-time position (I'm contracted year to year) with a good salary, paid vacation, a predictable schedule, medical benefits, and a retirement plan. Sometimes life picks you up after it knocks you down.

While I miss teaching, I enjoy working the financial side of higher ed. My office administers a spread of grants that help low-income students pay for school, which means I get to work with a wide spectrum of disadvantaged populations. Overall, my job has instilled within me a sense of professionalism and confidence; opened my heart to the plight of high-need, non-traditional college students; given me opportunities to network with directors and administrators; helped me get a handle on how the two-year college system works as a whole; and equipped me with a variety of skill sets that will be useful to me in whatever employment opportunities come my way in the future.

This, finally, brings me to my question. I’m not out to shake things up at the moment but if, down the road, I get the bug to get back into the teaching gig and if the opportunity presents itself, do you think someone like me – who has about 3 years of college-level teaching experience, a good amount of grant management experience, and a big-picture understanding of the community college system – would ever have a shot at landing a tenure-track job in my field of study? I realize I'd have less teaching experience than other applicants in this hypothetical scenario, but my time away from the classroom has sharpened me, and continues to sharpen me, in ways that strictly teaching never could have.

I think the key phrase here is “in my field of study.”

Although nearly every thoughtful academic I know concedes that reality is not divided neatly into academic disciplines, most faculty hiring is. If, say, an English department gets the opportunity to hire, it will usually hire according to what it considers important. Someone who brings an ancillary skill set won’t be disqualified, necessarily, but won’t get extra points, either. A line that “belongs” to a department will get defined by the incumbent members of that department. As remarkable as it is, I’ve actually run into English departments at community colleges that won’t even hire comp/rhet graduates, on the theory that they’re somehow ‘less than.’ They want literature people and only literature people. How that meshes with the course offerings at most community colleges is utterly beyond me, but I’m not in an English department.

In other words, I wouldn’t expect your grant administration experience to help you very much, if your goal is a tenure-track job in English.

However, that isn’t the only worthwhile goal in the world.

As community colleges increasingly adjust to a new normal of even lower state subsidies than before -- and that’s saying something -- they’re starting to move much more purposefully towards grant-funded opportunities. In the meantime, several large foundations -- Gates being the most conspicuous example -- are offering substantial sums to community colleges that are willing to experiment. For example, the Gateway grants typically require paying for “resource specialists” who are hybrids of ‘faculty’ and ‘counselors.’ (This causes no end of issues with the union, but that’s another post.) The idea is that the students in the program will have a single ‘go-to’ person to help them adjust to college.

Many grant funded programs have ‘directors’ who occupy what would normally be considered hybrid positions. In the beginning, these were seen as exotic, but as the funding streams have moved, they’ve moved the ground right with them. College teaching experience can be a valuable asset in a program director. (It’s also fairly common for program directors to teach on the side as adjuncts.) If you understand faculty culture and the reality of the classroom, you will be much more effective in your administrative role.

In the case of English, specifically, you may also find Writing Center directorships appealing. Those have always been administrative positions, but with a strong teaching component. A rhetoric/composition background makes a lot of sense in that role. I know some of my wise and worldly readers have done writing center directorships, so I’ll ask them to fill in some gaps explaining that world.

In some smaller or more adventurous colleges, a utility infielder may hold more appeal. In those settings, there are typically fewer people than there are functions, so people have to hold more than one. Larger colleges usually have the luxury of allowing people to specialize. If you really want to find your way into full-time faculty, I’d focus on smaller and/or rural colleges, where they care more about flexibility.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what would you suggest? Is there a better way to play this hand?

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

Don't forget the possibility of teaching the occasional course while you're working your current job (that's what the "adjunct" status originally meant, right?). You're qualified for writing courses, but you might check if a local 4-year has grant-related courses in its public administration program that need moonlighting professionals. Given your current position, you might also be able to offer something creative with service learning. That would satisfy your teaching bug AND make the teaching side of your CV more convincing.
What Rubashov said about keeping teaching experience *current* and about branching out to teach what you're doing professionally. When we hire in my English department (and this is whether it's for a writing position or a lit position) we are looking for consistent and recent teaching experience. three years of full-time teaching experience means absolutely nothing to us if it was 10 years ago. (And there are good reasons for this: recent teaching experience generally means at least passing familiarity with updates in technology for the classroom.)

One thing position that your admin work might actually enhance your qualifications for are writing program director positions.
One other thought: although this probably won't get you closer to the classroom, have you thought about moving towards doing grant writing for the college in general? Not to post link bait, but My family's consulting firm, Seliger + Associates Grant Writing, gets hired by community colleges on a regular basis to write all kinds of stuff (TRIO, some drug/alcohol programs, etc.).

Sometimes the community colleges just don't have in-house grant writers; sometimes their in-house grant writers are incompetent; sometimes those grant writers go on vacation.

If you do some of this, you might be able to teach grant writing itself, and although that might be less satisfying than, say, Shakespeare, it might also get you in the classroom in a role that relatively few people are competent to / capable of teaching.
This comment is not directly related to the OP's question about getting a tenured track position; But, here's my two-cents worth.

Looking back over my career as a student I can say that the best college professors that I had were part-timers. Most were in your current situation - doing full-time admin work and teaching one course a semester to satisfy their teaching bug.

I believe that the reason for them not being burnt out was more than just that they enjoyed teaching. They didn't see teaching a class as their core job - it was an extra thing that they enjoyed doing. They didn't have to worry about coursework overload.

They also had the advantaged that if they ever did get burnt-out they could take a semester or two off from teaching and still keep their fulltime job with the school; with the hope that they could be back to teaching after a break.

This is something that tenured professors do not have - when they get burnt out that's it they are done - and their students suffer for it.

There was the added bonus in that I found them to be more "real." That is they knew what work was and weren't locked away in the Ivory Tower. Most students could relate to them better. Was this perhaps because as administrators they needed better people skills than most of the tenured, Ivory-Tower professors who are just used to pontificating their opinion?

Just something to consider if you really enjoy teaching. I say stay a fulltime admin and teach on the side.
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