Essay introducing new column about adjuncts

Adjuncts Interviewing Adjuncts
Inside and Outside the Classroom
December 9, 2013

Our revels now are ... started.

Welcome to “Adjuncts Interviewing Adjuncts,” a monthly column I’ve designed to help contingent university faculty take more control over our public narrative. When we ask and answer questions on our own terms, we improve solidarity and strengthen our individual and collective voices.

For this column only, I’m pairing with a fellow adjunct: first asking her questions I generated and then answering her questions to me. For the rest, I’ll be editor. I’ve paired off some colleagues from graduate school, teaching, social media, elsewhere. Almost none have a previous professional relationship, which should help all of us — adjunct and full-time — connect more broadly. (You can suggest names for future interviews by contacting me.) For this inaugural column, I invited Lee Skallerup Bessette to pair with me because of how well-known she is in the academic blogosphere, as well as because she has such a strong presence and story.

A word about process: In pairing off adjunct faculty from across the country, I considered their complementary, and in some cases nearly identical, situations. I’ve asked them to generate two or three questions for each other based on a particular theme or problem — e.g., balancing single parenthood and teaching, or longtime adjuncts seeing full-time positions go to significantly less experienced candidates, and so on. The pairs write and answer the questions on their own, and I only do light edits for tone, length, and grammar.

A short biographical note about us:

Lee Skallerup Bessette has a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Alberta. She has taught in two countries, three states, and two languages over the past 15 years. Her research is on comparative Canadian literature and comparative Caribbean diasporic literature. You may know her best as @readywriting on Twitter or as a blogger here at IHE (College Ready Writing).

As for me: I’ve taught American literature, first-year writing, and adaptation studies at the university level for 14 years. I have a Ph.D. in English from George Washington University and, since 1999, have taught in the English departments of Georgetown University, GW, and University of Maryland Baltimore County. Currently, I’m adjunct assistant professor of writing in GW’s University Writing Program. I’ve written Faulkner and Hemingway: Biography of a Literary Rivalry (Ohio State University Press, 2012), as well as several articles and essays on Hemingway, Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, and other figures. I’m currently editing a collection, Teaching Hemingway and Modernism (Kent State University Press, forthcoming in 2015). Lately, I’ve written on contingency for Inside Higher Ed, Hybrid Pedagogy and Chronicle Vitae, among other venues.

Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @ProfessorF74 and @AdjunctYoda.

JF: Clearly, you're very active and engaged as an academic blogger -- attracting fans and naysayers. What initially motivated you , and what else would you like to add to your academic blogging repertoire?

LSB: I started blogging because I was unemployed, having just moved for my husband’s job to a new, smaller, isolated area. I was frustrated by what I was seeing in higher education. I was trying to start a business, but the blog turned into a space where I explored the reasons why I was so frustrated with academia. I also started it because I wanted to write again; between finishing the dissertation, having a baby, moving to start a new job, having another baby, then moving again (all in about two years) really didn’t leave me with much free time to write.

Right now, I’ve started blogging about my transition into an alt-ac or post-ac position. This seems like the logical next step for me. Ultimately, I’d like to make enough money from my writing to just ... write (in all its forms, and I include Twitter in that). I want my blog to be relevant, but I also want to use it to show my flexibility and versatility.

JF: What kinds of positive and negative feedback have you received (from readers, colleagues, etc.) about your blogging? Whether online, in the classroom, or in your department, what are some ways you've made to feel “‘other’” or different as a contingent faculty member who writes very publicly about her status?

LSB: It’s actually pretty funny; very few people in my department or university know that I blog here at IHE. When I first started my job here, I kept it as an open secret of sorts; I still blog as myself on a high-profile site, but I didn’t bother telling anyone. Clearly, some of my colleagues knew; at one point, a professor emailed me to tell me he had passed my name along as someone who was interested in digital humanities, something that he would have only known from reading my blog. I’ve become more and more public about it, and it hasn’t seemed to make any difference.

Any “othering” that I experience in my day-to-day life as a contingent instructor is all a result of my adjunct status. The indifference to my situation is particularly galling; I often hear that I should be thankful I even have a job at all, especially one at the same institution as my husband. I’m seen as 18-graduate-credit hours, nothing more, nothing less, instead of someone with a unique set of talents and experience that could be used to benefit the department and the university.

In the comments, well, that’s a whole different story. A lot of people don’t think that I should even be allowed to have a blog on IHE. Who am I, after all? And, to me, that’s exactly the point of my blog — I am no one, and we are the ones who make up the majority of the teaching (and research) workforce in higher education. We work at non-elite institution teaching underprepared students for little money, on or off the tenure track. I am fortunate to have the forum that I do to discuss these issues; if you look at the bloggers on IHE, how many are actually in the classroom? There is myself, a few of the Mama PhD contributors, a few of the UVenus contributors, Just Visiting, University Diaries, and a handful of others.

I think that will be my biggest regret if and when I transition out of the classroom; one fewer voice from the trenches, so to speak. But it will be a different story.

JF: What are some dos and don’ts you'd give to an adjunct interested in blogging and using social media to discuss labor and contingency issues?

LSB: This is a tricky question. I am in a position of relative security, all things considered; I have an annual contract at a geographically isolated location that all but guarantees my renewal (it also helps that I get stellar teaching evaluations every semester). Knock wood. With that small bit of security, I’ve decided to be as open and honest as I can be about my situation and the larger issues facing higher education regarding contingency, accreditation and “student success,” and working with nontraditional students. I am always careful to speak about my situation in general terms and relate it to larger issues; it’s not just me and my institution, it’s the whole system. Are there very specific instances that I would like to talk about but don’t because it could be bad for me? Yes. But I’ll often keep it in my back pocket, waiting for something similar to happen elsewhere, then comment on that, informed by my own experience.

Having said that, for others, even doing that might be too bold. I want to tell people to write, to add their voices and stories and perspectives. We are a silent majority getting louder and louder. I want to say, "Don’t be afraid; you’re not alone." But of course, the problem is that there are lots of good reasons to be afraid: losing what few classes they have, what few resources they have access to, etc. I’m probably not the best person to give this advice; according to “experts” I’ve done everything wrong in my academic career.

I don’t regret a moment of it, however.

(And now the roles reverse….)

LSB: Describe a time or times that you were excluded or made to feel “less than” because of your adjunct status?

JF: A student once asked me to mentor her for her honors thesis. She was expanding an essay on Melville, race, and travel that she’d done for my American lit. course. I told her to ask the then-director of honors for me to be the thesis mentor -- since she’d done the original work and assignment for me in in the first place. At the time, I was an active and accessible Melville scholar, so it seemed a natural fit. The honors director — typically collegial and supportive, if a little patronizing — said the policy was not to allow adjuncts to direct honors thesis projects, because we “might leave at any time.” ("Have you seen the job market lately?" I wanted to ask.) Even after I stressed that I already had a working relationship with the student from my course, he wouldn’t let me work with her. I don’t know how it turned out -- she may have wound up working with a professor who was somewhat regularly off-campus and busy.

Granted, this is far from the worst thing that could’ve happened — or that has happened to others — but this was a signal that I wasn’t valued or appreciated in the department as much as my experience and knowledge allowed. Since then, I’ve faced some “Well, if you were full-time you’d understand…” or “You’re just an adjunct…” situations -- we all have, of course.

LSB: What did you want to be when you grew up? How did that image evolve over time to where you are now?

JF: Interestingly — and a little ironically, given my likely new career — I didn’t finish college with the goal of being a professor. I graduated from Delaware in 1996 with a dual English–women’s studies B.A., and I wanted to go into publishing as a production editor. After a summer internship, I realized that, although I was good at copy editing and proofreading, I wanted the kinds of regular engagement and dialogue being a professor entails.

For the first six to seven years of adjuncting after I defended, I was very hopeful and idealistic — sort of, “This is the cover letter that will work. I can feel it. I’ll just keep researching and attending conferences.” In the last year or so, I’ve become much more realistic about how much higher education has changed, and how (as a longtime adjunct) I won’t move up to a tenure-track position. I’m seeing my upcoming career change as a strategic retreat. I’ve realized that simply adding lines and accomplishments to my C.V. won’t get me onto the tenure track; I’m apparently “missing” something, or I’m just competing with too many similar candidates.

At this point, I’m sort of returning to my original career goal, though on a freelance basis with some local agencies. I’m smarter and much more experienced now with the writing-editing-revision dynamic. I’ve always been a great copy editor and consultant for students and colleagues, and I’m hoping to remake myself as an editor and consultant, while (when the time comes) also being a stay-at-home parent when my wife and I complete the adoption process.

LSB: How are some of the ways you’ve managed to keep your head above water during your time as an adjunct?

JF: Before this year, my "therapy" had been primarily hallway conversations and venting with colleagues, friends, and my amazingly supportive wife. Since December 2012 or so, I’ve been using social media and news outlets a lot more eagerly — Twitter, different Facebook groups (especially Con Job), IHE and the Chronicle, and (back in March) PBS NewHour. I’m hoping NewsHour follows up on a promise to do a story exclusively on contingent faculty. Recently, they’ve expressed interest in this story.

I’ve been trying to put my voice and, in some cases, face out there to talk about these issues for a broader audience — in part, to combat the misconception that being a professor is "easy" and/or that we’re all lazy, entitled, and underworked. The communities I’ve engaged with on Facebook and Twitter have helped tremendously. I’ve always known that over-adjunctification wasn’t just my experience, but seeing it regularly on social media has helped me feel both more emboldened and more frustrated. Solidarity, collaborating, and bonding are wonderfully productive, but that adjuncts have to do such things to stay afloat professionally is frustrating to say the least. Universities know what they’re doing to us.

Adjunct or not by the end of this school year, I’ll keep on writing, editing, and connecting. I’ve never felt more connected to my adjunct colleagues than I have this year.



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