How to Get Adjunct Work: Pay Attention

May 15, 2009

Surveillance usually has negative implications; it implies that the person being closely watched is under suspicion. Ironically, in the era of social networking and the Web, people are offering up all sorts of information about themselves, their work, their achievements — and almost all of this information is available sans surveillance. As adjuncts seeking work, we can use all of this information to our advantage. All this requires is the application of one skill -- attention -- in a variety of ways.

Pay attention to the job application: Actually read what the application and job description say. Often, I find myself cruising over details like my students cruise over due dates. If a document mentions teaching diverse students, then your cover letter or introductory e-mail had best address that issue. Equally important is paying rapt attention to the materials you send out: Proof them, edit them, revise them. Meet the deadline. Sure, this is nothing new. However, it is amazing how many people still do not attend to details.

Before submitting a job application, attend to the institution. If it is nearby, visit it. Physically wander around and pay attention. Web sites offer PR’ed versions of reality, and they are not accurate. Dress up as if you were a student and discover how the faculty, staff, and other students treat you. This can be quite an experience. Not only can being on campus give you a sense of how students are treated, it allows you to see parts of the student body yourself instead of relying upon the college’s information. With active listening, it is easy to determine a lot about a college or university, the general mood of the campus, and, with visits to offices and the library, just how satisfied campus staff and students are with their jobs.

Being on campus empowers you in several other ways. First, you can see what parking is really like and actually costs. Second, you can locate where your department is, scope it out, and thereby avoid getting lost when you come to campus for your interview or to drop off your application. Third, if you use public transport, this gives you a reliable means for determining what a trip to that site entails — and how tight your time is in getting to the next class. If you are used to living close to and teaching on the same campus, commuting to work adds new levels of stress, expenses, and confusion to the process. Complicating matters even more is having limited time between different jobs at different sites. Graduate students or adjuncts who have taught only on one campus can easily underestimate how commuting impacts pay and job satisfaction. In recent history, gasoline cost over four dollars per gallon throughout much of California. Adjuncts who were living on paper thin margins were nearly pushed over the edge. There is no way to predict global politics, oil shortages, and international crises. The best way to prepare for any such event is to have situated yourself as optimally as possible — and that means paying attention.

Before attending to the college, focus on the department. Most departments have faculty profiles, Web page links, definitions of student learning outcomes, departmental policies, and class descriptions online. Most faculty know this. Few faculty, contingent or otherwise, appear to review this material. Every year on the Writing Program Administrators’ list, there are numerous comments — echoed by others — that applicants for tenure are often unfamiliar with the department’s interests, pedagogy, policies, or focus. Avoid this amateur’s mistake. Reviewing these documents does several things. First, it exposes you to some, if not all, of the personalities in the department and what they have, or have not, achieved. Second, you can deduce pedagogy and departmental priorities based upon their policies and the various grading emphases. Third, it is possible to see how well you might fit in this environment. If you are turned off by the documentation, chances are high that you will not last there.

Attending to all these details does several things. Given social networking, Google, and solid researching skills, it is easy to research various members of the department, their online presence, and what, if anything, they are up to. Unlike stalking, this is a matter of seeking information that others have placed in the public forum. When you read Web pages, Facebook pages, and Tweets, the authors are performing for themselves and their colleagues. You are one of those people. As such, to seek out that information is not stalking; instead, it is reviewing another person’s public presence. This provides a chance to get a sense of people and their interests before meeting them. It also provides the reader with an opportunity to develop intelligent questions to ask as well as potential conversational commonplaces should an interview get stuck.

With a couple hours of work and concentrated attention to online research, it should be easy to maintain an intelligent, informed and consistent interview — especially since you may know something about the administrator who is interviewing you. In case you do not, you can always ask more questions about the program. Since you invested several hours investigating and reading online and about the same on the campus, make sure that those interviewing you are aware of your understanding and attention to details. This means demonstrating understanding by specific examples and attention to detail; it does not mean showing off your knowledge in an attempt to impress. Impress by being informed and asking questions that demonstrate that understanding. Doing this will help you avoid threatening an insecure potential boss. It also presents you as modest, engaged, and interested in doing your job.

We are in a difficult economy. People are cutting back on luxuries, and lots of institutions are seeking ways to cut costs. They are paying closer attention to their faculties, to their budgets, and to their options. If you are an adjunct and you appear to be inattentive, not know what you are doing, or just not as sharp as the next adjunct, they may replace you. Similarly, there are many families and people who have lost or are close to losing their homes; many people have lost their jobs — and lots of these folks have graduate degrees and are qualified to teach part-time. Consider that when you are looking for work there are other equally motivated people trying to salvage their homes, their futures, or their retirement. It is a marketplace, and you are competing against them. Rather than worrying about them, center on developing one of your most important assets: attention.

Attention. Attention is very simple, and people brush off the advice to pay attention dismissively. However, it is often a failure of attention that lets a typo, an errant comment, or an opportunity to impress slip by. Attention helps you recognize kairos, and for adjuncts, being there at the right time and place can often result in a fulfilling and successful placement.


Gregory Zobel works as an adjunct at College of the Redwoods and is enrolled in Texas Tech University's distance doctoral program in technical communication and rhetoric.

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