The Spiritual Adjunct

With her spiritual life an adjunct to her adjunct life, Maria Shine Stewart offers her top ten (whimsical) tips of survival as a part-time professor.

June 24, 2011

I will admit to having a questing spirit. Some people travel abroad; I take journeys within, around, under, between, and through spiritual organizations. The process started in my teens, and I am perhaps also genetically ecumenical, coming from a multi-faith family. At risk of appearing entirely irreverent (or to the secular reader, irrelevant), I feel -- as do most with far more authority than I have in such matters -- that it is important to integrate one’s spirituality into one’s everyday life. I may not have found a place to permanently settle down, but I will use what adheres best to the collage of my life.

And who is so unimaginative as to have missed the close resemblance of the words collage and college, or university and unversity, for that matter? “Unversity” found its way to the cover of a course schedule at a college I worked at once. Take away the “i” and the whole venture crumbles; plus, lots of religions support the idea of self-effacement. All 50,000 copies of that school’s offerings… missing a “profreader.” And in 50-point type…

Here, revealed for the first time, are the top 10 spiritual concepts I have found most helpful to navigating adjunct life. And like all life, they are subject to abrupt and sudden change if necessary, like a well-qualified syllabus. Please note: These 10 tips are not to be construed as medical advice or as official doctrine of any spiritual organization.

I. The Cleansing Breath. I have never understood fully how it is possible to rid oneself of wastes through breathing, but I am all for a cleaner world. If there is something dirty, dusty or otherwise unpleasant in your classroom, smile and breathe. Smile and breathe.Your students will see this remarkable demonstration of self-control and decide that -- yes -- you are the right teacher for them. And maybe you are the one who will fall for the vaporous excuse of why the third late paper should be accepted, syllabus notwithstanding. You are the teacher who understands life’s imperfections, maybe even your own. You are also the one who may hyperventilate, if you are not careful.

II. Koan. As in the Zen tradition, adjuncts must often try to figure out puzzles or riddles of scheduling that defy logic. Want to teach at school A, but need two classes there, unavailable back-to-back? Easy, teach there five days a week or 10 hours apart. Want to stay in good graces during that same term at school B? Zigzag back and forth from school A. Need more income? Be available at school C during atypical times, and be sure not to ask yourself to figure out when you will exercise, rest or pursue any avocation. Layer on any more work you need and vigorously ignore blog comments that say things like, “I don’t know how adjuncts teach so many classes.” Such admissions of exasperation show that the reader is only partway through the puzzle. Stay the course, and keep reflecting on the koan of your schedule. In a moment of sudden insight after trying to solve the puzzle from every possible angle, you will either suddenly get it -- or collapse from exhaustion in the parking lot.

III. Labyrinth. I live in an area blessed with many schools with church affiliations, and the first labyrinth I attempted to walk was plastered on a shiny floor in a gymnasium. It was a dizzying experience, much like being in the slow lane of the freeway during a blizzard. I looked around and others were focused and deliberate, even a few with small smiles; instead, I was fighting vertigo and a headache and wanting to walk through this confusing mat at a much snappier pace. Neither elbowing fellow travelers or muttering “this makes me dizzy” is particularly spiritual. I decided to pull over to the side; perhaps my sneakers lacked the requisite tread. Months later, I eyed another labyrinth at a different school, this time outdoors on a sunny plaza. No go. My students won’t watch me turn my ankle. I decided from that point forward to just keep admiring labyrinths and those who could keep their bearings on them from a distance. They are not for me, and I suppose they are much like the faculty governance tasks I am freed from as an adjunct. Everyone else seems to know what is happening and has patience and faith that they will get things done; as for me, the pace looks circuitous and endless.

IV. Lectio divina. A slow, deliberate reading of texts -- sacred or otherwise -- might become a staple of our rushed lives. Begin very small, and here is my practical suggestion: read the ingredients of something you get out of the vending machine, having skipped two meals in a row. Open up your deepest level of understanding before you tear open the package with your teeth. Ask if it is really in your best interest to ingest ingredients named like a futuristic chemical mantra and perhaps featuring enough sugar and salt to last the whole day. Next time: pack your lunch.

V. Mantra. We live in times when there are many ways to view adjunct work. Don’t let anyone put words in your mouth. Choose your own.

VI. A course of miracles. Getting through the stack of research essays just as a holiday approaches. Teaching the 8 a.m. class without a hitch on two hours’ sleep. A whole set of papers reveals, one after the other, that they are indeed getting it, followed by a set of oral presentations in which the students mutually hold one another spellbound. They have been absorbing it all along. Celebrate the transcendent in the ordinary. Ignore scoffers who claim there’s a logical reason for these incredible events.

VII. The ten thousand things, mentioned in Taoism, has a deep meaning difficult to convey in words, but busy adjuncts know this best as the stuff in the back of the car.

VIII. Rosetta stone. Remembering your password after break is as likely as a rare archaeological find, so spot your limitations after two, three, six attempts. Stay cool. From your pocket, pull out a Rosetta-like stone. Any semi-precious stone will do, and the legendary power of rose quartz has been known to subdue a whole class of wired freshmen. Stop fiddling with the computer, and get your password re-set later. Pretend this malfunction was planned. Put your stone on the opaque projector and say, “Let’s do a little warm-up instead.” Triumph over the gods of technology, some of whom are quite temperamental.

IX. Adjunctananda. Happiness is the meaning of the Sanskrit suffix here, and I know: not all adjuncts are happy. That’s clearly a sign to work for either improved conditions or different jobs or both. But if you’re at least on even keel, that will help your students, who are often quite perceptive about their teachers’ moods as well as competence. They will mirror those qualities. On the other hand, if wrath is more to your liking, rage away. Holy indignation has a long, distinguished history across traditions and -- why not -- in universities.

X. The Prophecies of 2012. These have gotten quite a bit of play in some circles. For adjuncts, the big questions are the same no matter what the year. Will I get an interview? Will I be renewed? If I write a humor piece, will anyone read it?


Maria Shine Stewart teaches and writes in South Euclid, Ohio.


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