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.