Melissa Bruninga-Matteau was recently featured in a Chronicle of Higher Education article on the financial squeeze facing adjuncts with PhD’s, most specifically the numbers of college-level teachers qualifying for, and needing, food-aid or other government assistance.
For her continued good spirit in the face of many challenges, Melissa Bruninga-Matteau is our first Adjunct Hero nominated by more than one person.
As always, if you have someone you would like to nominate as an adjunct hero, you can email me at email@example.com.
- John Warner
Melissa Bruninga-Matteau, 43. I have two B.A.s, one in English and one in History, and a Ph.D. in History. I went back to school at 34 because having a Ph.D. was on my bucket list.
Tell us where you teach, what you teach, and how long you’ve been teaching.
I'm hesitant to name the school because I don't want certain people to retaliate against my mother, who works there as well. Let's just leave it at Northern Arizona.
I'm currently teaching an online summer class in Comparative Religions. I've been adjuncting for about 8 years, and for the last two, here in Northern Arizona. If it isn't science, or math, I've taught it. But mostly I teach history (world, American, Western Civ), along with some religion and philosophy classes. I'm also starting as an adjunct for a for-profit. It's online, and I'll be teaching history classes.
Tell us the story how you wound up as an adjunct.
When I went looking for grad schools, I had a list of questions, one of which was 'how do you feel about having a student whose primary focus is on teaching?' I never wanted to be at an R-1. I wanted to teach at the college level. My first position came about because a former grad student in our department worked full-time at the local community college, and was looking for an adjunct to teach an evening pre-modern World history class. I sort of fell into it, I suppose, and loved it. Not the adjunct part (low pay and all that) but the teaching. I discovered I really liked teaching CC classes…I loved the diversity of the student body. And then the school I'm currently at needed someone to teach American history online…and fast. At the time, I needed a place to live, and Northern Arizona had the added benefit of having family -- my mother and grandfather -- living here, and my daughter wanted to go to high school here. So we moved here in 2010. The for-profit, well, that was an ad in the Chronicle.
What role do adjuncts play at your particular institution?
It used to be a lot more of a role, but we've had a few changes around here, and upwards of three-quarters of our state funding disappeared. So adjuncts play less of a role. We have an academic staff person who is our advocate, and she's done a great job (full disclosure, she's my mother…but she didn't know about my job offer here until it was done), but with money being as tight as it is, the school is offering fewer classes, and those are going to full-time faculty. So there are fewer adjuncts. I myself went from having a regular 3 classes a semester -- a full load, as it were -- to 2, to 1, to none for fall. Which explains the online for-profit gig.
Give us a typical day, or week, if you prefer?
This past semester, I taught an ethics class 'over the mountain' once a week. So on Mondays, I would leave home about 1:30 p.m., drive over a mountain (literally), and arrive on the other campus around 3:00 -- unless there were tourists on the road, which would add to the time. I then would hold an office hour for students (unpaid), have class for 3 hours, then drive home, getting home sometime between 9:30 and 10:00 p.m. A total of 8 hours, and 112 miles, every Monday for 15 weeks.
Now, I spend far too much of my day in front of my computer.
What’s the most rewarding part about teaching? Or, thinking of it another way, what keeps you coming back?
There's a couple of reasons, one cynically stubborn, and one idealistic. The cynical reason is that I am hanging on by my fingernails in academia, because I know just how hard it is to get back in if I was to leave, and I'm too stubborn to waste all those years and all that money. The idealistic side of me knows these things, but really, it's because I truly do feel a great sense of purpose, of accomplishment, when a student's eyes light up -- when someone 'gets' it, gets interested, gets excited about learning. In grad school, I worked in the campus pub, and earned the nickname 'Pub Mama'. Now, teaching and parenting aren't the same thing, but helping someone find that passion for learning…I feel like a proud mother anyway. That's why I went for the PhD, so I could do this. But I'll admit, the idealistic part of me is giving way to the cynical. I find that sad.
What are your greatest frustrations in your job?
My frustrations with the job of being an adjunct are all secondary, in a way. Not getting paid for time spent meeting with students, getting to campus, grading…that's frustrating. Not having access to any benefits, such as health care. But perhaps most frustrating is that given the state of the economy, and the increasing use of adjuncts, I may have to leave the profession I love because there's so little hope of getting off the adjunct tract. I've honestly considered applying to work full time at WalMart (it's a small town, with few options). But after spending all those years knowing what needs to be done and simply doing it, I don't think I'd last long! The percentage of adjuncts in higher ed just keeps growing…how many of us are in the exact same boat?
Tell us your dream job (within reason, of course), number of sections, what you’re teaching, and how much you’re paid.
My dream job? A full time, tenure-track gig at a school that values good pedagogy, and has minimal publishing requirements. Honestly, I can do research, and I believe it informs good teaching, but the pressure to publish a monograph every couple of years is not for me. I'd like to be at a community college, because I truly believe that I can make a difference working with nontraditional students. I'm not looking to get rich. I'd just like enough money to pay my bills (and student loans!), maybe put new tires on my 10 year old car, and go to movie now and again. And maybe even out to dinner.
What’s the plan to get to that destination? (Or elsewhere?)
Well, I managed to make it to an on-campus interview recently, and although I lost out in the end, I keep plugging away. Apply, apply, apply. And although I don't want to, largely because my family is nearby, I may have to move to a major metropolitan area in order to find enough adjunct gigs to make a living. Because the last thing I want to be is still on food stamps a year from now.
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