Waiting 20 Years for the Tenure Track

Phil Ray Jack shares the realities of long-term adjunct status -- and what it means to finally gain a permanent position.

June 17, 2008

This summer, many of those fresh out of graduate school are preparing to begin their teaching careers. A fortunate few have already been hired to fill tenure-track positions, but many will find themselves on the unexpected and convoluted pathway of “contingent faculty.” With 70 percent or more of college classes taught by part-time faculty, the opportunities for full-time careers are rare. Many will accept part-time teaching assignments with the hope that it will build their résumés and be a step closer to the tenure track. At least that was what I thought when I accepted my first part-time teaching assignment. For me, when I was recently offered a full-time, tenure-track position as an English composition instructor at Green River Community College, it was the end of a 20-year journey.

That journey started was when I accepted my first part-time teaching assignment. I was already working as a graduate assistant for Eastern New Mexico University, but the class I was offered was on another campus, and I felt that “my foot was in the door.” Even though accepting the class meant a 90-mile commute (each way) from Portales to Roswell, I knew it would be worth it because it would look good on my vitae.

In the last 20 years, I’ve taught on 12 different campuses for 8 colleges in 2 states. Never on the tenure track. At first, I held on to the hope that each part-time assignment meant that “my foot was in the door,” and each time I found myself being turned down for full-time positions but continuously offered classes as a part-timer.

I kept applying, but my attitude went from thinking, “this is the year that it will happen” to feeling that my chances were slightly better than the odds of my winning the lottery. Eventually, I quit trying to figure out why I wasn’t getting a full-time position. It was simply not healthy for me to be worrying about it all the time.

To be honest, I couldn’t help but feel a little resentment toward those who did get the full-time positions, and I felt frustrated with the members of the hiring committees who made the decision.

I would remind myself that I shouldn’t resent someone just because they got what I wanted. In their shoes, I wouldn’t want them resenting me. And, as far as the people making the decisions -- I eventually developed an appreciation for the position they are in. After all, there are a lot of applicants like me who have years of experience and training, and we all worked with the faculty who were making the decisions. I realized how difficult it would be to have to choose from among a group of people you knew and respected -- at least I’ve always hoped that I had the respect of my colleagues.

I became convinced that the real problem was there simply weren’t enough opportunities.

Gradually, I began to see myself as a “professional part-time instructor.” At one time, I had business cards printed that showed a pawn in one corner and said, “Freelance Faculty – Have Degree, Will Travel.” I know it sounds a little corny, but calling myself a part-timer when I actually taught almost twice as many classes as most full-time professors didn’t seem accurate. Calling myself “a contingent faculty member” was more accurate, but I didn’t like admitting that I could lose my job at the whim of an administrator. Adjunct sounds a little better, and that’s the term I currently use, but at the time I was still trying to hold on to a romantic view of what I was doing.

During my 20-year stint as a part-timer, I built a repertoire of horror stories like thousands of other part-timers. One college announced that I would no longer be needed there because my students complained about my forcing them to read pornography in the class. The books they referred to were Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Louise Erdrich’s Tracks, and John Irving’s The World According to Garp. When I pointed out that these books were on reading lists for classes taught by others, I was told, “Yes, but they have tenure so I can’t do anything about it.”

The dean pointed out that I wasn’t being fired, I would simply not be offered classes.

At another college, I was called in by my supervisor to discuss my “poor student evaluations.” Out of 60 students in 2 classes, 3 had given me low ratings and 2 had added comments. When I asked about the other 57 students, I was told, “Students usually say positive things because they don’t want to mess with the evaluations. We just ignore those, but we do pay attention to the ones who complain. Obviously, there must be a problem or they wouldn’t have complained.”

I pointed out that student evaluations are notoriously unreliable when assessing a teacher’s effectiveness and offered to provide her with research that would help her use the evaluations to identify trends rather than basing her judgment on anecdotes. She informed me that my services would no longer be required.

And then there are the classes we lose every year because of cancellations. Sometimes they are canceled because they have low enrollment. Other times, my class would be fine but a full-timer’s class would be canceled and I would be bumped so he or she could have a full load.

The insecurity is the worst thing about being a part-timer, but there are other things that make life difficult. Typically, I teach a double load in the fall (six classes) because I know I won’t have classes for the summer. During the spring I have to hustle to get four classes, and during the summer I apply for unemployment. Some years, things go smoothly, other years I have to fight to get it.

After 20 years of experience, my income fluctuated between $33,000 and $40,000 a year, depending on whether I had classes canceled for low-enrollment (which would cost me about $3,000) or if I were able to get summer classes. Most of the time, my income was on the lower end.

When I began, health care simply wasn’t made available to part-time faculty. By the time I started teaching in Washington State, health care was available for part-time faculty as long as we taught 50 percent of a full-time load in the state-supported college system. That meant that I could count on having health care for two quarters, and possibly a third if things worked out for the spring. Seldom did I have coverage in the summer. Eventually, after a class-action lawsuit, coverage was made available year around as long as we average a 50 percent load.

Everything becomes complicated when you are trying to survive as a part-time instructor. You develop a tendency to answer yes to every question that begins, “Can you teach...“ After awhile, though, you begin to realize that you may be hurting yourself by doing so – accepting one class at one school may mean not being available to teach two classes at another. Accepting a class at a private college won’t count toward your benefits.

A typical day begins when I leave my house at 7:00 a.m., and ends at about 10:30 p.m. when I get home after teaching an evening course.

In the beginning, when I believed that getting a part-time position was the first step to getting a full-time position, I made the mistake of getting a couple of credit cards and financing a car. I soon discovered payments that seem reasonable in the fall are impossible during the summer.

Even dealing with my debts has become routine – I set up payment plans in September, fall behind in May, and find myself in default by July, which adds interest and penalties. I still owe more than I borrowed on debts that are more than 10 years old. It’s humiliating, and I keep getting lectures about how I should budget myself better, but how do you create a budget on a deficient income that changes every quarter?

In the beginning, I saw myself as a teacher, but eventually, I saw myself as a part-timer. Instead of being the conditions that I worked under, it became part of my identity.

Some have asked why I continued to teach as a part-timer if things were so tough, and to be honest, every spring I begin asking myself that same question. In fact, I have left teaching twice. The first time I was offered a position as a business manager for a corporation that owns travel stops throughout the Southwest. The money was good, the hours were close to what I would put in as a part-time instructor (counting prep time and time grading papers), and I had benefits.

I hated it.

There is something about teaching that keeps pulling me in. I love writing, and I love sharing my passion for it with my students. I love feeling that I might be making a positive difference in people’s lives. I love feeling like I’m contributing something to my community.

The first time I left teaching, I stayed away for one year. The second time, I resisted the call for two years. Twelve years ago I moved to the Seattle area, landed teaching jobs at three different schools, and have been performing the juggling act of a freeway flyer ever since.

So, when I was finally offered a full-time, tenure track position last Thursday, I spent two days walking around in a daze. People ask me how it feels, and I don’t know how to respond. Fantastic! Great! Stupendous!

And there’s a little bit of guilt.

I can’t help but think of the thousands of colleagues who didn’t get a full-time position this year. I’m sure there are several who will resent me because I did, and I can understand how they feel. After all, I’ve felt the same way every year for 20 years.

I also feel that I will be carrying a great responsibility on my shoulders. I have been actively working on the Faculty And College Excellence (FACE) Campaign of the American Federation of Teachers, and I am one of 20 in the State of Washington who will receive a full-time position as a result of the campaign this fall. People will be watching, and I’m going to have to show that converting part-time positions to full-time will make a positive difference not only in my life, but for my college as well.

On a more personal note, as soon as I accepted the position, my division chair started talking to me about the classes I will be teaching next year, and I realized that I will no longer have to worry about having enough classes to survive. I also realized that I will probably be home by 5:00 p.m. every day, and I’ll no longer have to make that daily rush to get from one college to the next.

I was also asked about which committees I might be interested in serving on and was told that I would be given a list of students that I will be advising next year. I could almost feel my connection to the college become stronger, and I realized that my relationships with my students will extend beyond the classroom.

The division chair also explained that I would be involved in curriculum development and told me to start thinking about a class that I would like to teach. Later that day, a couple of my colleagues told me how rewarding it was to teach coordinated study classes, and I realized another door is now open to me.

As I was riding the bus home, I realized that it might be time for me to get a car. My income will be dependable enough for me to develop a budget, take care of my old bills, and pull myself out of debt.

One of my friends received a full-time position, and when I asked him what it was like, he answered by telling me how many poems he’s written. He said that it’s not only a matter of having time to do it, but it’s more a matter of feeling better about himself and his life.

I’m just beginning to understand what he meant.


Phil Ray Jack was a part-time English composition instructor at Green River Community College, in Auburn Washington, for 10 years before being offered a full-time position. He also serves there as the president of the faculty union, the first part-timer elected to such a position for a faculty local in the State of Washington.


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