When I started adjunct college teaching in 2010, I vowed to quickly land a full-time faculty job, even though anecdotal stories from colleagues suggested that it took, on average, about seven years. Fresh out of grad school with $80,000 in loans -- and sans the luxury of the spousal support system that had buoyed many former part-timers I knew -- I didn’t have a decade to waste. So I networked with colleagues, immersed myself in department service, picked up extra classes at the last minute and relentlessly pursued professional development opportunities to make myself a stronger candidate.
In spring 2014, at the end of a temporary lecturer contract, I applied for a position at a university in Pennsylvania. The job description excited me, but the location -- 75 minutes west of Philadelphia -- horrified this former New York City resident. (You know the old story about always getting offered the job that you don’t want but have to accept because you really need a job? Yeah.)
As I packed, I told myself it was the right decision. Two years later, I’m still unsure, but I do know that if I’d done the following things before I’d signed my first faculty contract, I might be more confident in my choice and all of its outcomes.
Get the offer in writing before you accept. When the dean offered me the job, I excitedly scribbled the salary on a Post-it. But when I got the offer letter, the salary was $10,000 less, so I called about the misprint.
“We offer higher than average salaries for lecturers, but we don’t pay that high,” he said, blaming the miscommunication on a poor cell phone connection or, jokingly, his accent. “Do you still want the job?”
The accidental cut in pay meant that I’d still be in the red every month, unable to both pay down the debt I’d incurred self-subsidizing my adjunct career and comfortably buy groceries. But I’d spent the weekend convincing myself the move would have great long-term benefits.
“Yes,” I responded, trying to ignore what now looked like perhaps a bad omen.
Make sure you love the location. In the early 2000s, I moved to New York, ultimately settling in the South Bronx. At that time, getting home meant a bustling train ride on the uptown 6. Now, it’s a solitary drive to Reading, Penn., through miles of fields and past billboards beckoning Bible or gun enthusiasts. Despite being the home of a historic railroad, the city’s only transportation to Manhattan is a three-hour bus ride. The even longer distance to Connecticut nixes day trips to see my aging parents. The closest vibrant improv scene, a pastime I enjoyed weekly in NYC, is an hour away north or south.
I do, however, love the area’s economic benefits. The lower cost of living is not lost on one who lives in a central-air/garage/pool/washer-dryer/concierge building that would rent for three times as much in the 212 area code.
I also enrolled in the state pension plan (probably one of the last standing in the country), but on some days, the remaining eight years till I become vested can feel more like a prison sentence than a privilege.
Know which classes you will be expected to teach. After I signed my contract for my English position, I became nervous when I saw an advertising class on my projected schedule. In college teaching, I didn’t realize that faculty would sometimes be asked to teach courses outside their discipline or expertise.
When I worked in the corporate world, I sometimes landed employment with minimal experience in one area listed in the job description, yet I was able to pick it up along the way and no one got hurt. In the classroom, even when I knew my writing curriculum, I’d discovered that 80 percent of teaching is feeling like one can’t teach a fish to swim. Now, as I muddled through the advertising class, I felt like I was trying to teach a fish to swim when I couldn’t even float.
Decide whether you need a tenure or non-tenure line. When I applied for my job, I didn’t care that it was a non-tenure-track position, since I didn’t want to be on anyone’s hamster wheel but my own. But as I watch colleagues get promoted, I start to second-guess disregarding the tangible and intangible benefits of a tenure-track position.
Besides the perceived psychological benefits of job security (noticed most often when a tenured professor voices their highly unpopular and unsolicited opinion in a meeting), tenure-line folks teach fewer classes, receive more money for travel and hold higher ranks. While some colleges and universities will promote a non-tenure-track faculty member to the title of professor, others, like mine, dangle the senior-lecturer carrot as the ultimate accomplishment.
Even research and creative accomplishments are treated differently. My growing list of bylines is worthless, in a sense, since my performance is only evaluated on teaching and service. Given the benefits of tenure, if I did want a gig at my current institution, I’d have to reapply for an open job -- a dog and pony show that I want no part of.
Although I’m somewhat dissatisfied with certain outcomes of my career move, I do love the 20 percent of teaching that feels like I can, in fact, teach a fish to fly. The bustle of a semester filled with campus events and meetings, the challenge of dealing with dozens of new and strange personalities every 15 weeks, the excited students whom I advise on the campus magazine, the reward of helping a remedial English student to write a complex sentence, the nonstop grading and prepping -- they all actually make me feel purposeful in an unexpected way and often leave me too tired to worry if trading my old life filled with family and friends for a career will be worth it.
Too exhausted, that is, until the breaks, the blocks of free time I pined for as an adjunct, that now stretch out empty and flat before me like the fields that separate me from the world I love.
I guess I wish I’d known before I signed my first full-time faculty contract how much getting a college faculty position is really like getting married, for better or for worse. Now that I’ve merged my life with this institution and started over in a new location, it’s not easy to just walk away. (I sure don’t feel like moving my stuff out and answering everyone’s questions about what happened.)
So each time I hit “delete” on a job application, like a long-suffering spouse, I tell myself I’m staying because of the kids.
Keysha Whitaker is a lecturer of English at Penn State Berks. She is working on a manuscript titled The Complete Guide to College Teaching: A Memoir.
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