About this time last year, I sent a panicked email to the chair of English at the College of Charleston begging for a job, any job.
My intention right before this time last year was to not teach at all, to use my family’s move as an impetus to escape the cycle of self-abuse that is teaching off the tenure line. By my sixth year at my previous employer, Clemson University, I was teaching a mix of 300 and 400-level courses (with occasional forays into the 600-level), the kinds of courses that are expected to be staffed by tenure-line faculty. For this I was getting paid right around $26,000. My spouse and my writing work were supporting my teaching habit.
It made sense to try to walk away.
But after selling our house in Greenville and preparing for the move to Charleston, I began feeling antsy and weird. This was right around the third week of July. I finally realized it was syllabus season, that time where one’s thoughts turn to the coming semester and all its glorious possibilities. I would see an interesting essay online and think how it might work well for class and suddenly realize that for the first time in eleven years, there was no class.
Hence, the email.
The reply from the chair was blessedly swift. A couple of sections of Academic Writing (freshman composition) were unstaffed. Did I want them?
Yes, very very much. But at the same time, I didn’t want to want them. I didn’t want to admit that I was indeed captive to teaching, that the time for me to forge a different path had passed, probably many years ago without me even noticing.
There is no future in teaching college, but at the same time, I couldn’t imagine my future without teaching college.
I didn’t even bother asking what they paid because I knew it wasn’t much, that the opportunity cost alone made it a stupid economic decision.
I told the chair to sign me up.
Speaking of potentially stupid economic decisions, after renting for most of a year, we bought a house. It is in the neighborhood we identified as most suitable to us, and while the house itself is modest, it more than meets our needs.
We couldn’t be happier with it.
We have also fallen hard for the charms of Charleston. Everything they say about the food is true. The beaches are very nice. Yes, it’s hot and humid, but show me somewhere that isn’t this summer. My northern friends wonder about what it’s like to be politically out of step with most of your surroundings and I tell them they wouldn’t believe how little that matters on a day to day basis.
On vacation, we used to play a game where my wife and I would imagine what it might be like to move the place we were visiting: Tuscany, Kenya, San Juan Islands, Victoria, British Columbia. Usually it seemed awesome, to live in the sort of place that other people (like us) pay money to visit. Awesome, but out of reach.
We live in one of those places now.
Our mortgage extends close to my expected lifespan. We also assembled a storage shed in our backyard, a process that threatened to destroy my marriage before it brought us closer than we'd ever been before. I don’t know how much more permanent things can get.
We’re settling here.
This year, I have a new title, “Visiting Instructor,” as part of a full-time position with a salary and benefits.
I am grateful for the bump in status. I also believe I deserved it.
Though, there are at least several other people who applied for the same position who, by any reasonable standard, also deserved it. It’s hard to get too cocky under these circumstances. I very very easily could have found myself on the outside, not even visiting, maybe not even adjunct. There are always more deserving people than there are slots to contain them. At one of my other employers, we are holding our yearly contest looking for new columnists (deadline Monday). We’ll receive something like 1200 entries. Out of those at least 100 or more are excellent, well-worthy of being chosen. Even more are very good, deserving of publication, of attention, of audience.
There will be five winners.
The deal here is superior to my previous stop in many ways, more money, a little lighter class load, fewer preps, though it still comes with the usual dangers of contingent teaching, the ever present “if funding allows” that hangs over additional years of employment.
But I worry that even as my wife and I are settling in, that I’m settling another way, that I may fall prey to the same “Why buy the cow when you get the milk for a reduced rate?” issue that previously befell me.
Except that even though I am only visiting it feels different this time. The Dean’s Office wanted my picture so I can be acknowledged as a new face on campus at a future faculty meeting. I have been invited to breakfasts and picnics and orientations.
Adjunct is attached, but still definitely outside, like Mitt Romney’s dog on a family vacation. For visitors, the door is opened fully, we are invited inside if not to live, at least to stay.
I’m extra hopeful because even last year, as an adjunct I was welcomed in large and small ways. I never felt like I was strapped to the roof inside my car carrier. In the Spring, though I was only teaching one class, I was invited to read on campus, and sign books with other local authors in the campus store on parents’ weekend. I’ve written previously about being included as part of an on-campus writer’s retreat.
I thought that I’d enjoy the extra time provided by the reduced teaching load, but I often found myself antsy, underprogrammed. I’d previously been too busy to realize this, but as it turns out, I’m one of those people that’s more productive the busier I get.
School starts in less than a week and I’m excited. I’ll continue to tweak the syllabi to the final moments, imagining how each change might impact the course of the semester. It’s hard to worry about next year when this one is right in front of me.
Employment can dry up for anyone, which just puts me in the same boat as the rest of the world. It’s hard to feel sorry for myself over that.
If this is just a visit, I hope it’s a long one.
John Warner will probably not tweet about his syllabus, but you never know @biblioracle.