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.