The Constant Temporary Employee

Being a temp reminds Shari Wilson of any number of aspects of life as an adjunct.

July 31, 2006

After teaching summer school, I was left with five long, dull weeks before fall started. So I rewrote my CV into a
résumé, contacted two local temporary employment agencies, went through a barrage of tests, and came out the other side as a competent office worker. For my first position, I was asked to replace a receptionist at a local firm for three weeks.

One day, when I tried to log on to the company account online to send an overnight package, I realized that the
password I had been given wasn't working. A co-worker then told me that she had replaced all the computer passwords. Her reason, she said, was that an ex-employee had been suspected of fraud. As I sat with an overnight envelope in my hands, she leaned over and signed on, allowing me access to the online shipping program. Smiling, she said, "Just call me if you need to ship anything. I'll be glad to help." Surprised, I realized that I was not going to be trusted with the new password. After all, I was just a temp.

That afternoon, I started to reflect on another time that I found myself feeling like "the outsider." Before I landed a
full-time contract teaching position, I supported myself by working as an adjunct for six years at a total of eight
different college campuses. Although it was the best formative teaching experience I have ever had, there were
lessons to be learned:

People may judge you based on "snapshots." As an office temp, I often feel that not only am I being watched, but also that those watching judge me based on what they see in one moment. The co-worker who passes by my desk as I make the one personal call I will make that day may think I am a slacker. In the same way, I often felt I was being examined while adjuncting. The colleague who watched me accidentally jam an original with a paperclip in the copier's automatic feeder may have walked away thinking that I was "challenged" when it came to office equipment. And I was scared to ask my department chair for a particular schedule one semester. Why? I sensed that administrators would see me as a troublemaker for the remainder of the time I worked there. Ridiculous? Probably. But realizing that one moment could create an impression that might last a long time, I couldn't help but try to be on my best behavior at all times. Unfortunately, this left me feeling disconnected from my co-workers and exhausted at the end of a teaching day.

The person you replace may resent you. At my temporary position, the receptionist is training me as she prepares to be on special assignment upstairs. She is surprisingly cool toward me, sometimes criticizing me for spending too much time trying to assist callers rather than simply dumping calls into voicemail. I suspect that she resents me.

In the same way, adjuncts are often asked to replace instructors who are specialists in their discipline. Whether
it is an attempt to lessen costs, or "un-stick" a course that has gotten stale, those being rotated out or those new
Ph.D.'s who often can't score a position because jobs aren't being created for them often resent the new adjunct. At one community college, the department chair assured me that the past professor would be very helpful in getting me up to speed. He also told me that class materials and curriculum for this course were not proprietary, but developed with more than one instructor over the course of many semesters.

Oddly, the professor who had taught this course for years never returned my calls or e-mail messages begging for help. It was only when the department chair demanded action that the professor dropped a computer disk in my campus mail slot without comment. I had to remake the course according to vague departmental guidelines. Incoming students experienced a "drop out" in information flow because there was no communication between instructors and I felt frustrated. I have heard this is not always the situation. Often, instructors are happy to prepare the new worker to deliver information well. But as a hard-working adjunct, I realized it was smart to be prepared for the worst when taking over a course that another professor has taught.

You will subjugate your needs. Knowing that I am only there for a short time, I'm willing to put up with a lot of
nonsense on any job. At my current temporary position, I sit between a young woman who has a heater under her desk and a blanket on her legs and a woman who wears short sleeves and has a fan under her desk. The younger woman often plays post-Seattle angst rock on her radio, but complains if the other woman plays country music. If this were my permanent job, I'd feel as if I were in hell. As it is, I know this is a short-term problem. I just think about the long-term and try not to get anxious about my circumstances.

The same often applies for adjuncting. If I know I am simply padding my CV with a semester or two's worth of teaching experience, I don't make waves. I ask few questions and do all I can to keep the status quo. At one private university, the list of approved textbooks was two levels below what was appropriate for that level. If I followed my department chair's advice, I would be teaching 10th grade English composition to freshman university students. Although I was shocked, I realized the alternative was even worse. Making a stink with administration would do nothing but get me fired and leave me without an income for four months. So I went on to teach three very "soft" sections of composition, knowing that students there would not be prepared to do anything other than fill out a simple application after graduation. I prayed that the academic universe would forgive me.

Although adjuncts are often criticized for having "short-timer's attitude," the administration and senior faculty
often do not help these part-timers see the context that surrounds their work. Many colleges do provide orientations and training sessions for adjuncts -- but these are not always scheduled at a time when part-timers can attend. And a refusal to financially compensate adjuncts for attending often results in a poor turnout, which perpetuates a cycle of detachment and disinformation.

Don't feel surprised if you isolate. Although co-workers at my temporary assignment offered me a beer at closing time last Friday, I turned it down. I really felt like an outsider, so socializing with people I was going to know for three weeks didn't sound very relaxing. In the same way, I may have sometimes been a bit standoffish as an adjunct. First, I was only on campus for hours rather than days. I physically did not have time to cultivate contacts and network. Next, I had no way to know where to place my trust. Should I soft-soap the departmental secretary with whom I had very limited contact? How about the tenured colleague who was always pulling out of the parking lot as I pulled in? Should I throw in my lot with the other adjunct who eats lunch alone in the cafeteria? I had no background on other instructors; without knowing their capabilities and history, I often couldn't tell who might make a good "adjunct buddy." And as a part-timer, I had very little insight into my department. I had no way to know where the political splits were, if there were any, and if my alignment with any one individual would "taint" my association with the campus administration. With all these roadblocks, I often felt it was safer to stay to myself.

Unfortunately many adjuncts feel the same way. To combat this, my current university not only invites adjuncts to
departmental meetings, but also holds faculty events where adjuncts are encouraged to participate. Free food may be the call that fills the room, but lounging with other instructors (full- or part-time) becomes an important way for adjuncts to collect information and navigate departments. Other campuses I have worked at have a formal instructor-mentorship program to give adjuncts direction and help them form academic partnerships.

Every workplace is different. Not surprisingly, co-workers at my current temporary job are not interested in how we did business at my last office. They don't care about the sizes of envelopes that we used in the mailroom, or what kind of copy paper we purchased. What they care about is that I am working for them now. They are not interested in any suggestions I may have to "improve" workflow at their company. I am simply a pair of eyes and hands to them.

Being an adjunct is different in that I am being hired for my specialty -- teaching. I have some autonomy in how I
achieve a department's course goals. But it is the same in that I need to follow their procedures while working and use their curriculum in drawing up a course. One campus will suggest certain textbooks; another will approve a completely different list. As an adjunct, I feel compelled to follow protocol established at that campus. And although my past teaching experience has always made me a better instructor, I sense that each campus I work at does not want to hear in detail about my experiences on my last campus. It's a bit like dating someone who describes their last dating experience in detail -- you can't help but wonder where your new date has been -- and why he or she has chosen to go out with you.

You will find what you are made of. The good news about temping is that it can be a defining experience. I sense that working as a receptionist in this small industrial office will give me a better inside view of the people in
this town. I am stepping outside of my "academic mind" to remember what it's like to work a 40-hour a week job that may demand less intellectually, but is tiring all the same. I hope it will help me visualize my students' struggles as they balance their load. After all, many are working part- or full-time. Here, more than 80 percent are first generation college students with working parents.

The good news about adjuncting is that these years really helped me to find out what I could endure -- and focused my teaching. I started to see how different student populations responded and what I could do to engage them. My idealized view of what a classroom "should" be like started to fade. And my teaching improved a great deal. I started to find what worked -- and what didn't. It wasn't as if I couldn't push my students. I could and did. But I also got to experience a range of responses and came to be more prepared, and less sensitive, when faced with my own internal constructive criticism.

For me, working at two or three campuses was demanding. During that time, though, I learned to focus on teaching three different student populations. Not only did I gear my lessons to fit those three groups, but I also learned to switch methods to teach more effectively. In a short six years, I would like to have said that I had seen everything -- though I'm sure I hadn't. At one large urban campus, two mental patients got into a fistfight in the hallway just outside of my class. I called campus security and waited patiently by the classroom door. At the time, I did not feel nervous. I felt confident, though irritated at the loss of class time. That was when I started to realize that all this experience -- all these crazy individual experiences, really, were shaping me to become more tolerant. And, I might add, better at troubleshooting.

For two semesters, I taught at an urban community college three days a week, a suburban community college one day a week, and a suburban university three counties away for another two days a week. I was constantly exhausted. Every mile I put on my tired 11-year-old subcompact was etched into my tailbone. I knew every mile of asphalt, every gas station that took ATM cards, and every drive-through restaurant within a hundred-mile radius. I can't say that I did a stellar job teaching five courses that year -- but I prepped for four different courses, read three new textbooks, and put together some fresh assignments for every one of these classes. Tired as I was, I felt proud. I was not going to give in and go back to private industry to escape the pressures and demands of the academic life. I would survive and take all I could from it to become a better instructor.

After a grueling summer, I was able to cobble together enough work to move closer to the highest paying part-time positions and drop the most troublesome assignments. But having to go to such lengths to stay in the business and support myself as a college instructor showed me how much I loved the craft. Feeling insecure about one's abilities, dealing with politics and personalities, and putting one's career above all things -- these can be draining. Yet they can also be the experiences that show us what we are really capable of doing. By the time I gave notice to my three part-time teaching jobs and planned my move across the United States, two-thirds of my adjunct colleagues had gone on to full-time teaching careers. One has told me that he finally feels as if he's "landed." Two have gone on to do research they had dreamed about for years. One has married her high school sweetheart and bought a small home. Another has started to publish. It's a rewarding future. For all of us -- adjuncts and full-timers alike.


Shari Wilson, who writes Nomad Scholar under a pseudonym, explores life off the tenure track.


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