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I remarked to my wife the other morning that one of these days, I was going to forget to go to school and teach my class.

I mean, it won’t happen because I’ve now articulated the fear, which means I can guard against it, but it illustrated to me how strange it has been to transition from full-time to adjunct.

Previously, teaching full-time, and particularly teaching first year writing exclusively dominated my life during the semester. All things resolved around that responsibility. Writing happened in the interstitial periods. Six weekends a semester were locked down for the purposes of grading.

It’s as though the semester was a mountain, waiting for me to climb it. I knew where the roughest stretches loomed weeks in advance. We would try to plan, maybe a concert a month away, but the schedule said I’d be taking in an assignment, so no concert. Travelling during fall or spring breaks was near impossible, or if made possible, burdened by having to carry part of the mountain with me.

Suddenly, no mountain. The thing that gave my life shape is gone.

On the one hand, it’s deeply liberating. I will not have to grade a single student assignment over a weekend all semester. If a tropical storm doesn’t hit I will be travelling over Labor Day, something previously unthinkable.

On the other, what am I supposed to be doing with my life without my mountain? Imagine it as a literal mountain out your backdoor, omnipresent, sometimes beautiful, sometimes threatening, but for all its complications, always mine, suddenly razed to the ground.

I wonder if this feeling is akin to what folks feel after achieving tenure. Based on testimony, the climb up tenure mountain is a constant battle in a low-oxygen atmosphere. Achieving the summit is worthy of celebration.

But what is left, once the climb is over?

For me, it’s a little different. I “failed” at academia, rather than reaching the summit.

It’s a bit of a struggle to find the right shape for this new life. Obviously, I’m writing more for this space, which has been a blast, but there is a limit to how much anyone wants to hear from me on the issues of higher education, and the first person to get tired of hearing from me is likely to be myself.

It makes me realize that it’s important to give students something other than the summit of “graduation” to look at as they make their way through the four (or often more) years. Because I’ve had no destination in mind other than “survival,”[1] now the climb is over, I’m left not knowing what’s next. I bet lots of students feel the same thing.

Figuring out my next mountain will likely be a big part of the coming months. Giving students the tools and experiences that will help them figure out what’s next should probably be one of the major focuses of education.

A related struggle is as adjunct, I no longer feel like part of a “team.” For many people, this might not be a problem, but I’ve always gravitated towards team sports or groups organized around a common mission.

While the life of full-time contingent faculty often leads one to question the extent to which one belongs to the team, since I’ve been at College of Charleston, I’ve always felt valued and respected, recognized as someone who is leaning into his oar, trying to row the institution in the right direction.

Even though my transition to adjuncting was my choice and is friendly and I’m maintaining valuable relationships with friends and colleagues, it’s different. I’m less present, less knowledgeable, less involved and invested. I’ve stripped my office of personal effects. My office mailbox is now a plastic bin in the corner that my nametag doesn’t seem to stick to.

When news about the college comes across my radar, I no longer feel it’s something that pertains to “us.” I’m curious, and I wish for good things, but it’s like wishing for good things for an ex you’re still friendly with.

My short period as a very fortunate, voluntary adjunct has made me even more aware of the challenges that face the non-voluntary adjuncts. I’ve always considered myself sympathetic to the cause of adjunct faculty, and have done my best to advocate for them in this space.

But as I consider what this unmoored life would be if it were not voluntary, the difficulties that so much of our teaching faculty face become even more unacceptable, unconscionable. It’s not just the low pay, the sub-optimal teaching conditions, the lack of consideration that matters.

There is a particular psychological burden to being and feeling unaffiliated that I could not appreciate until now.

What is the damage being done to the instructional faculty, to their students, to the institutions themselves?

Perhaps trying to answer these questions will point the way towards my new team.




[1] This word makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy my work. I did and do, but I’m trying to work a metaphor here, so cut me some slack.

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