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.