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I am very pleased to introduce a brand new feature to this space, a feature I’m calling “Adjunct Heroes of America.” In writing about education you often hear that adjuncts are like this, or adjuncts are like that. In my eleven year teaching career, during which I’ve taught at four different universities, one thing I know is that it’s almost impossible to generalize about adjunct instructors.
So I’d like to showcase these people as the individuals they are. The first several heroes will be people I’ve managed to come across in my own travels, but I'm very eager to profile adjunct heroes with whom I’m not already acquainted. If you have someone you’d like to see recognized in this space, please send your nomination to [email protected]. (No self-nominations please.)
First up is Russell Hehn, who I first met when he was a graduate student at Clemson University. He's also a very fine writer whose work has been published in Pindeldyboz and McSweeney's Internet Tendency.
- John Warner
Russell Hehn / 27 / B.A. (Southern Miss) and M.A. (Clemson U.) in English Lit.
Tell us where you teach, what you teach, and how long you’ve been teaching.
August 2009-Now—University of Southern Mississippi: English 101, 102 and Technical Communication (two sections: one online, one face-to-face).
August 2011-Now—Jones County Junior College: Intermediate English and English 101
Tell us the story how you wound up as an adjunct.
Like a lot of folks, I was fortunate enough to graduate right about the time the economy tanked. Remember that? The summer after, I spent three dumb months half-heartedly applying for jobs in the Carolinas and having my willpower systematically broken down. It was a strange process of self-deprecation in that I applied for jobs lower and lower on my list and kept getting rejected, which made me not want to apply for things I actually wanted to do for fear of rejection. Bleak stuff. Eventually a florist’s shop rejected me and I took the cue to come back home to Mississippi where I have a support net (i.e., Mom and Pop to feed me).
Since I’ve been here, I’ve been fortunate enough to get in touch with the right people at the right time. At USM, I happened to walk into the English Department office, CV in hand, right after some grad student had a meltdown, thus leaving two classes open. At Jones, I randomly emailed an English instructor who told me about the as-yet unadvertised Intermediate English opening. No one really wantsto be an adjunct, I don’t suppose, but I look at it as an earning of stripes before one gets to move on to the real deal. I hope that’s how it is, anyway.
What role do adjuncts play at your particular institution?
At USM, it’s more or less what you would expect. We fill in spots at the lower levels (101, 102, the remedial courses) and the spots no one’s thrilled to pick up but that every student has to take. Case in point, there’s a small army of adjuncts and grad students teaching Technical Communication this semester. Whatever the course, we’re given fairly specific syllabi we’re allowed-though-not-encouraged-to deviate from.
Things are a little different at Jones. While we pick up the lower-level/remedial courses, we have some say-so in how things operate. The huge difference is that we’re invited to attend departmental meetings and give our two cents as to how things are going and how they could be done differently. I have no problem being at the fringes at USM, but it’s nice to sit in the same room with your colleagues every couple weeks and wax pedagogic.
What’s the most rewarding part about teaching? Or, thinking of it another way, what keeps you coming back?
I did the math recently and found that I’ve taught about 400 students in my time as an adjunct. Certainly they don’t all have fond memories of me, and only a small percentage was maybe inspired by something I had to say. I remember most of them, and some of them (enough to keep me going, anyway) have expressed their thanks to me either for being understanding or helpful or for being a good teacher. Two or three have even decided to take up teaching because they liked my class so much. It’s nice to know that you’ve done something even remotely meaningful. It helps in those dark moments when you’re asking yourself what in the world you’re doing and if it’s worth the effort. In my experience with Intermediate English, though, it’s been hugely rewarding to see these students (they take this class because they had a 16 or below on the ACT) who come from crappy backgrounds and crappy schools make jumps in their writing and thinking. They come in overwhelmed at the idea of writing a college essay and walk out confident that they can write something worth reading.
What are your greatest frustrations in your job?
This semester I’m teaching five classes at two schools and working eight hours a week at USM’s Writing Center. I had basically the same load last semester. The full-time gigs I’m applying for now have 4/4 course loads and pay a good deal more than what I’m making right now. They also include benefits, which I ain’t got. A change in status would allow me to work less, be healthier, have a stronger voice in departmental affairs, devote more of my time to my students and my work (I like to write, too), make more money, and continue to do what I love to do. This goes for all hopeful adjuncts who want to be full-time faculty. This isn’t so much a personal complaint as it is systemic. Nothing about working with students frustrates me beyond what a cold beer and a good night’s sleep can fix.
Tell us your dream job (within reason, of course), number of sections, what you’re teaching, and how much you’re paid.
I’m pretty easy to please. I’ll take a 4/4 (I’d even do more than that) load teaching some lower-level compositions. Maybe throw in a creative writing or a non-fiction writing course in there. Heck, let’s go crazy! I’ll even do a Contemporary Lit course if I want to! I’ll take, I dunno, $50,000? If I’m making that much, you might as well tell me I’m a millionaire.
What’s the plan to get to that destination? (Or elsewhere?)
Keep doing what I’m doing? She’s an elusive beast, this full-time position.
Like just about everyone else these days, John Warner is on Twitter @biblioracle.