Two adjuncts discuss career paths that are open and closed to them
Moving Up from the Inside?
“The salient lesson here is that even business practices have human elements that are deeply personal to those who experience them,” Robert Oprisko recently observed in “Just Visiting: How to Give an Internal Candidate the Bad News.” Oprisko primarily addresses the search committees with advice about how to deal with rejected candidates (some of whom may not be renewed), ultimately reminding them that “this isn’t about you.” Here, I’d like to look at the other side of this dynamic. Many adjuncts have been in a similar position: a full-time position opens — sometimes with ample notice, sometimes not — and they apply, while hoping their experience, networking, and other duties help make them viable candidates. In many cases, it doesn’t work out.
Many universities are averse to promoting their own adjunct faculty into tenure-track positions. Perhaps the external candidates were better in terms of research potential and teaching experience. Perhaps the internal candidates didn’t write a good cover letter or just aren’t as good; or perhaps moving an adjunct onto the tenure track simply isn’t sexy or flashy enough. For many adjunct faculty members, there’s the hope — even a chance in some cases — for internal promotion. A few years ago, I was told about some pending requirements and the department’s expectation of several tenure-track lines to fill the openings — especially for “someone with your experience,” I heard. I know I’m not the only one who’s heard some version of this. In my case, I was hopeful, so I added some (modestly paid) service work to boost my C.V. by mentoring a few senior and MA thesis projects. At some level, the internal promotion potential can improve morale, increase loyalty, and benefit an internal candidate. Yet, this also makes some of us feel like Tantalus reaching for the fruit of a tenure-track position. Maybe one of these times our experience, hard work, and dedication will pay off, we think. Maybe the Search Committee chair will remember that service work and extra teaching I did.
We have stories we need to tell, and symbolically speaking (for now, anyway) we’re adding to what an adjunct colleague called a resistance archive. Down the road, I’d love for this kind of archive to get beyond the symbolic—perhaps in the form of a database or website. Here, Rich and Melissa are adding to the ever-expanding narrative that Brianne Bolin & Mary Grace Gainer, Lee Skallerup & I, and many others are sharing about the realities of full-time adjuncting. Adjunct faculty have voices and experiences that need to be heard.
Melissa Richard currently teaches first-year writing courses as an adjunct in the English department at High Point University in the Piedmont Triad region of North Carolina. She’s also worked as an adjunct at several local community colleges in the area. She received her Ph.D. in English from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, specializing in 19th and early 20th century British literature. Her research interests include working-class studies, gender, and labor politics; performance theory; digital pedagogy; and pedagogy in the literature classroom.
Rich Hancuff currently teaches American literature and composition as an adjunct in English at Misericordia University in northeastern Pennsylvania, where he is also employed as an instructional designer in the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. He received his Ph.D. in English in 2007 from George Washington University, where he also adjuncted for several years. His research interests include American identity, particularly as it relates to immigrant and Black texts, and the theory and practice of proletarian literature.
RH: What’s your job situation in academia — by which I mean, in what ways are you related to your institution or institutions? For example, does the university understand you “only” as an adjunct or are you also staff or some other role(s)?
MR: I am currently an adjunct in the English department at a private university; I just moved into a full-time instructor position in January. This position has a yearly contract and benefits, although I only teach one more class compared to when I was an adjunct.
[Email follow-up with editor] After being promoted to a one-year contract, I haven’t been treated differently, per se, because adjuncts are generally treated pretty well in my department. However, I’d honestly say that the biggest difference is the feeling that I can breathe — I don’t worry so much about whether or not I won’t have classes the following semester. This summer is huge for me, as it’s the first summer I can recall where I won’t have to cobble together five jobs to make ends meet until that first paycheck in the fall. The other difference is that I suddenly have opportunities to teach classes that speak more to my areas of specialization — literature courses, courses in women’s writing and literature. As adjuncts cover the first-year composition course, with the occasional literature course, there wasn’t much opportunity for this (and I was definitely feeling burned out). I still teach composition, but having other classes to balance that out has definitely helped with that “burned out” feeling.
I can’t say that moving to full-time has really changed my career aspirations at all. I’m still contingent, albeit on a longer contract with benefits. Right now, I’m just trying to adjust to not thinking of myself as an adjunct, to not worrying so viscerally about finances or burnout.
RH: To what extent does your department make you part of the academic process? Do you have any influence over the courses you’re offered? Are you invited to meetings?
MR: As an adjunct, I have been invited to help with assessment (usually with a stipend) and to give input on curriculum changes related to our first-year writing courses (which are primarily the classes taught by adjuncts). Given that the need is greater for coverage of first-year writing courses, we don’t have much say in the courses we’re offered — it’s typically first-year composition, with the occasional second-year literature course. We are invited to both the first-year writing meetings as well as faculty meetings, although attendance at the latter is not required or mandatory.
RH: Why are you in your current academic position? (I don’t mean about the job market and even legitimate complaining about systemic failures of graduate education, professional trade organizations, and university structure, but actually why, specifically, you took and keep this job.) This question has a good bit of leeway: did you move for a spouse (as I did), do you have family in the area, you could also include simply why it is that you adjunct.
MR: Like many Ph.D. students, I found myself without funding at my degree-granting institution after a year of working on my dissertation — my time as a TA was literally up. I began adjuncting the following academic year because, while it didn’t seem like the only alternative I had to make ends meet, it was, surprisingly, the best one. (Ever try to make it on retail wages or temp work? I have. Adjuncting, in comparison, has been oddly more predictable.)
Although I taught at multiple institutions that first year of adjunct work, I decided to forgo the multiple appointments and stick with teaching at the private university where I currently teach because the pay was significantly higher than in public institutions. Finances were still tight, but I was better able to supplement my income as an adjunct with other jobs that did not involve copious amounts of grading to get by.
RH: Given your areas of expertise, what areas of the institution could you see yourself occupying? Does the university’s hiring process make it likely or unlikely that you’d get considered for any of those areas? In this case, I’m not only talking about a tenure-track position in your department of expertise, but other alt-ac or administrative opportunities.
MR: I have only recently been hired as a full-time instructor (one-year renewable contract), which began in January. I had applied to positions in student advising both at my current institution and others in the area, but didn’t even receive acknowledgement of my application. I briefly considered taking up bartending. I guess you could consider that an “alt-ac” position, right?
The full-time instructor position became available very suddenly and unexpectedly, and I thought it quite fair that the department offered adjuncts the first chance to apply and interview for the position. I can honestly say that I’d already decided, one way or another, that I would not be adjuncting the following year — even if it meant following that instinct to go into bartending. I kept my adjunct position for three years while I both finished my dissertation and did a bit of soul-searching on whether or not I would stay in academia. I did not expect it to ever turn into a full-time position. That is, I did not adjunct in the same department for that long expecting some kind of return on my dedication or loyalty. I don’t think I’d recommend anyone stick around waiting to be “promoted” — I just needed to pay the bills as well as I could while finishing my degree.
My current “rise in status” can only be attributed to luck and favorable circumstances. Well, that and a pretty strong application packet.
MR: How long have you held an adjunct position (or positions)? Have you remained tied to one place in hopes of moving into a full-time/lecturer type position or administrative work? If you’ve held one adjunct position for a while (same school, significant period of time), what circumstances have kept you there?
RH: I’m in my 16th year of adjuncting, first at George Washington University (10 years), where I was working on my Ph.D., and then at Misericordia University, in Pennsylvania. For nearly all of those years at GW, I also held down a full-time staff position at the university and I had no hopes of moving into a full-time faculty position there. In 2008, my wife was hired on the tenure track at King’s College, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, which is why I left GW and landed at Misericordia University, which is around 10 miles away from King’s. I moved to Pennsylvania with no job, but the chair of Misericordia’s English department called me that fall and asked me to teach a class; by mid-fall I was hired as a full-time staff member in the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the university.
As far as what circumstances have kept me adjuncting, I’d have to say that it’s having a full-time staff position at the institution. Being full-time staff often confers several “benefits” that other adjuncts don’t have, two major ones being dedicated office space, and, in some cases, a pool of professional development funds that aren’t available to those whose relationship to the university is only through adjuncting.
It’s an “alt-academic” track that I think many Ph.D.s find themselves in. On the one hand, there’s more integration with the institution along with full-time pay and benefits, but on the other hand you are not “faculty” in the sense of the department and institution meetings and decision-making processes, and you still have that uncertainty of how many and what sort of courses you might have next semester.
MR: Have you ever applied/been considered for full-time positions at the university/college(s) where you currently work? If so, what was that process like for you — did you feel it fair (or feel like you had a fair shot at the position) as a current adjunct in the department? Or did you feel your adjunct status hindered/would hurt your chances? (Maybe this question would be a “How would you feel if...”-type question if you haven't experienced this.)
RH: Since I already hold a full-time staff position at the university, I have a different perspective on this question. At GW, my full-time position was purely information technology and had no relation to my adjunct work in English. At Misericordia, I work primarily with our course management system and provide guidance related to incorporating technology into the assessment of writing. So I’m already full-time on the staff side, but there’s no direct route for promotion from my position. I have applied for other full-time positions, both staff and faculty, at the university, and while I haven’t met with much success, I’d say my adjunct status hasn’t played a role in those decisions. The department has been very supportive in fact.
MR: Would you accept a different position at a university/college where you currently adjunct? If not given the opportunity to advance, would you consider leaving higher education for something else?
RH: Up to now, I’ve always been focused on a full-time faculty job, but that wouldn’t keep me from pursuing other opportunities. As I mentioned earlier, I think one thing that keeps me in higher education is that I’ve managed to secure a moderately acceptable alt-ac position and have a very good relationship with my department. At the same time, I’ve not had much success moving to other positions with more leadership responsibility, and that has been frustrating given where I feel I am in my career. I’ve been working in one capacity or another in higher ed for twenty years.
However, for a few years while I adjuncted at GW, I did work full-time outside academia at a trade association a few Metro stops from campus, so I’m not averse to leaving higher ed. Additionally, my full-time jobs have all been IT-related, which gives me options entirely unrelated to my PhD. Those jobs would certainly pay better, and to be honest I’ve applied to a few, though not recently. That being said, another fall job season has come and gone unsuccessfully for me, which leads to a good deal of disappointment. The fall begins with so much hope when the MLA Job Information List comes out, but usually by mid-December that hope dissipates and in January you’re left with only the cold. It’s a familiar story for many, I’m sure.
Rich and Melissa are continuing the fine work my previous interview pairings have done. Surely, Melissa’s memories of having to supplement her income with non-academic jobs resound with other adjuncts who perhaps have to tutor, work a night job, take on freelance editing, and do other tasks just to make money. As well, Rich’s line about “fall begin[ning] with so much hope when the MLA Job Information List comes out” seems especially resonant, because of the annual rite so many adjuncts, recent postdocs, and A.B.D.s undergo around the middle of September. Is their school hiring? Is there something in their field and geographical area? Will an adjunct—perhaps one with the years of experience someone like Rich has — seem “fresh” or “in touch” enough compared to more recent Ph.D.s?
As I did in a previous column, I want to close with some questions:
- What, if any, measures should be in place for adjunct faculty to move up internally? What, if any, preference should an adjunct internal candidate be given for an interview in the event of such a search?
- If you’ve been a candidate for an internal position — either via job search or promotion measures—how have you framed yourself and your experience? How did you deal with the rejection? Was it difficult to meet the new person once he/she arrived?
- On the flip side, who’s had success similar to Melissa’s? How did the internal promotion process work? How (if at all) are things different now?