Adjuct or "Faculty"
March 26, 2006 8:27 AM   Subscribe

I need advice from the academic mefi community: Should I leave a faculty position at a community college to adjunct at local universities?

I'm ABD in lit and probably will remain so, thanks to habitual procrastination and two small children. I currently squeeze a full-time community college job (5/5 courseload) into part-time hours, teaching afternoons, evenings, weekends, and online, so I can stay at home with the kids as much as possible. My salary is pathetic; it works out to about 3K a class, not to mention committee work and other administrivia. Our state doesn't like to fund education, so no one makes much money, even folks who have been working here for years. Our literature department is slowly being decimated, so I mostly teach comp.

I like my students, enjoy the company of most of my co-workers, and believe in the community college's mission. But I'm getting burned out, I've noticed that many of my co-workers are miserable, and I'm sick of the micro-managing that the state imposes on our classroom.

I realize that adjuncts are considered the "bitches" of the academic world, having worked as one at 2 and 4-year colleges, and as one, my complaints of being powerless wouldn't exactly evaporate. But I have contacts at two local colleges and one university, places where I'd actually get to teach some interesting classes (interesting = not comp), my salary would not diminish too much, and my time wouldn't be streched so thin with meetings and the like. I don't need benefits, and my husband is the main breadwinner, although his salary is modest. But I'm nervous about giving up the safety of a faculty position and jumping back into the uncertainty of adjucting. Am I crazy for leaving a sure thing, or am I just exchanging one low-level job for another, more palatable one?

Sorry this explanation is so rambling - I'm failing miserably at balancing work and parenting, but despite all my bitching, I love teaching, and I can't imagine doing anything else.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (16 answers total)
Do you have tenure at the community college? I am guessing you don't. If you have tenure, I probably wouldn't give that up if I were you.

Also weighing against giving up the community college job, is that, from my observation, adjuncts are unmoored from any sense of solidarity with other instructors at the colleges where they teach. Adjuncts come in to teach their classes, then they leave. They're not available for appointments with students, except immediately before and after class, so it's harder to form relationships with students. They're not on-site enough to get to know other faculty well. I didn't like that. I taught adjunct at a college for several years and got to know only one other instructor during that time---and that was by happenstance; he had a class right after mine in the room where I taught a class, and we somehow hit it off. I didn't even learn the names of other instructors.

I also think that the educational experience offered by adjuncts is often inferior to that offered by full-time faculty. Not because the adjuncts are incompetent, but because they don't know the institution, are not available to their students every day, and don't have as much invested in that institution.

Adjuncts have to deal with various sorts of indignities. I remember having to argue with the library about things they wouldn't let me put on reserve, because I hadn't gotten the materials to the library by the deadline (which was never told to me). Or how furious I was, one semester, when I came into the administration office during one of the last days of the exam period, and finding ALL adjunct mail dumped into a big box, not separated in any way. If we wanted our mail, we had to get down on our knees and fish through it, examining every piece to see if it was for us. The reason? They couldn't allow us to keep our mailboxes past the exam period; they had to rearrange the boxes to make way for the new crop of adjuncts. I was waiting for notes and papers from students who needed extensions, and who knows if I got them. My students were not allowed to have supervised testing in the Testing Center (when they couldn't make my regular exam time) because I was never told there were special requirements for reserving that center in advance. Those were the kinds of indignities that were common for adjuncts.

As a full-time faculty member at the community college, you have the advantage of being a part of that academic community. Students can find you. Faculty members know you (even if they are an unsatisfied group). You are in a position where you can make a change, and positively influence the institution---rather than being a warm body filling a place on a roster (which adjuncts often are).

I realize my gloomy depiction of adjuncts may not be accurate for the positions you have been offered---but it is a fairly common situation for adjuncts to find themselves in. I would be careful about giving up the full-time job.
posted by jayder at 8:58 AM on March 26, 2006

Adjunct salaries vary widely across universities and even within a university. What also varies widely is the selection of courses that adjuncts teach. From what I have seen and what you describe, the move you are interested in is not likely to bring you more job satisfaction or more money. What has emerged at some research universities are adjunct positions that morph into a tenure track teaching position. The teaching load is larger than the other faculty (5-7 courses per year rather than 3 courses per year), there is no support for research and the pay is less all along the ranks. However, my sense is that this is more desirable than adjunct teaching or teaching at a 2 year college. I guess it depends on what you are looking for - being an adjunct would give you more flexibility about your schedule but would not have the security you now have.
posted by bluesky43 at 8:59 AM on March 26, 2006

Sorry to continue the gloom, but add to the indignities above that you will likely not have any office space of your own if you adjunct. And parking. Oh, the parking squabbles.

Perhaps when the kids are a bit older you can do both...keep your community college job but pick up a few college adjunct gigs?
posted by desuetude at 9:12 AM on March 26, 2006

You seem pretty clear-eyed about your options here. You understand that adjuncting at an institution almost never leads to a tenure track job there, especially for a terminal ABD, right? If you get off the tenure track, you are never getting back on.

Maybe that is OK. Before leaving your current position you should take a long hard look at what you are giving up, not so much now but in the future. Can you move up the ranks at you CC without the PhD? What would your job there be like in 5 years? Ten? What would the salary be at the associate professor level? Are your kids in school? If not, how will your schedule change once they are?

I take it that most of your time is spent grading comp papers, is there any chance of developing a system to make this go more quickly? I teach a lot of freshman history sections and grade papers using a rubric with a grid of check boxes. (Email me and I will send it to you.) I also take a few of the better student papers, black out the names, and hand these out in class and lead a discussion about why they are good. This is not only way more efficient than my old method of marking every error with a red pen (since few students ever really look at the marks), and it seems to improve their writing.

Also, just how dead is your dissertation really? Have you written anything? Do you even want to finish? Would adjuncting help you finish? If you are close, it seems a to walk away from it. A PhD is not only a job ticket, it is also a credential for getting grants, other positions in academia, etc.

No answer here, just some things to think about. On the other hand, if it has reached the point where you hate getting up in the morning, then your choice is pretty clear.
posted by LarryC at 9:33 AM on March 26, 2006

Also, what others have said about the indignities of adjuncting. An adjunct is not a member of the department. But if you are not trying to earn a living, it might be pleasant.
posted by LarryC at 9:37 AM on March 26, 2006

I've known one adjunct who did eventually get on the tenure track at the university he taught at, and now he's full-time and tenured. It took many years, though (at least ten), and he's the only example I can think of. So it's unusual, but at least not 100% unheard of to get back on the track. But yeah, everyone else I know who's adjuncted for more than a few years has found it pretty nightmarish. However, it's possible you might find that the pleaure in teaching other subjects offsets the downsides for at least a couple of years. I don't know that I'd see it as a long-term solution, though.
posted by scody at 10:00 AM on March 26, 2006

Keep in mind that "adjunct" is a lot being being a "contractor." You probably won't be eligible for benefits (you say you don't need them, but what if he loses his job? what if he is hit by a truck?). You can be fired -- excuse me, they can "choose not to renew your contract" -- at the end of any semester. If you do this, you need to do it with an eye towards being continually searching for a tenure-track position.

You might also consider posing this question to the nice fellow at Confessions of a Community College Dean. I mean, unless he's your boss, or course.
posted by ilsa at 10:38 AM on March 26, 2006

Yeah, the big question to me seems to be, why is the PhD dead? Finishing that is really the only way your options will expand. Personally, I'd take the adjunct work and use the extra time to get your dissertation on track again. Maybe teaching interesting courses will get you motivated, or having more intellectually acute students will challenge you a bit. Basically, the stable/secure answer is staying at the cc, but it doesn't sound like you're really satisfied there, and it is not going to change/get better. So my vote is, go for it.

so you know where I'm coming from: I teach adjunct at a community college at the moment (while in grad school) so I don't know if the downsides of my teaching experience are more due to being adjunct or being at a cc or just the particulars of where I'm teaching. However, I had a friend who had a full time position at the same cc until she defended last spring, and now she is tenure-track at a state U - from her account, the atmosphere of teaching at the 4-yr is just completely different; she felt stressed and overrun at the cc, whereas now she is still very busy but "in a good way." She's doing a lot of her own work, getting involved; the students are all really engaged, and apologetic if they ever miss class (where I teach, it is a miracle if every student shows up on a given day), etc. Your experience may be totally different, but I still think the school itself can be more important than your status there.
posted by mdn at 10:47 AM on March 26, 2006

I'd just like to say I have nothing but sympathy for your situation. Whenever us scientists think we're being screwed by the academy, we only have to look to the arts to realise how much deeper the gutter gets and that the fuckers are plumbing new depths as we speak. 3k per course? 5/5 load? jeesus.

Have you thought about private tution (e.g. kaplan/gre prep)? At least the students are motivated. Keep your eye posted on CHE as well - there may be jobs in your area that aren't quite as brutal as the ones you describe.

Good luck - Nil Illegitimo Carborundum
posted by lalochezia at 10:49 AM on March 26, 2006

I've been an adjunct teaching comp for the last few years and I make a pitiful salary but have lots of time for doing my own work and I enjoy the teaching and the students a lot.

One thing I do to make comp classes more interesting -- I know this isn't your question -- is selectively ignore the department issued instructions for teaching the courses. One adjunct I know was primarily interested in African American literature so she turned her comp class into an A-A literature class. As long as the students are writing a lot and getting a lot of feedback, what difference does it make what the content is? Me? I can't deal with those freshman composition "readers."

My fellow adjuncts, those who've been doing it for longer than me, seem very tired and maybe a little resentful, which sort of makes me want to get out. (Want to trade positions?)
posted by eighth_excerpt at 11:22 AM on March 26, 2006

Could you adjunct, teach some online programs, work for continuing education, and maybe do some freelance writing/editing? You might be able to make $35-$50 an hour teaching in continuing education and you wouldn't need to mark papers. You might be able to make up to $75/hr with freelance writing (if you can write for non-academic audiences). You could teach for some of the prep courses or even executive education.

If you don't mind some instability, can live without benefits/pension, and can handle not being on the tenure track, I say go for it.

Note: I am an English major (with a masters in another subject) turned consultant, freelance writer and night class instructor who also serves as primary caregiver for our child. I see the world a little differently to start with. :)
posted by acoutu at 11:24 AM on March 26, 2006

If you are not too constrained in how you teach them, it is possible to make comp classes really enjoyable and worthwhile. has some great resources. It took me seven years to finish my dissertation, but ultimately was worth it.
posted by mecran01 at 11:38 AM on March 26, 2006

If you're going to exist in an academic environment, it's best to get the dissertation done pronto.

I'm a grad student at the University of Calgary doing a masters in urban planning at EVDS. The adjuncts in our faculty get shit all over, but are by far the most illuminating and practical of teachers. The lack of respect from the faculty might be returned twofold by that of your students.

Mine is a professional program, so those qualified to teach are also in a good position to do contract work outside of the teaching. Still, it's largely thankless and there's a good bit of open resentment towards the faculty with regards to issues raised in other posts - no office, parking, benefits etc.

The tenured faculty here are bitter, divided, overworked and jaded, and some are neglectful of students' interests. I considered doing my PhD with the idea of getting into teaching, but after seeing the environment I wouldn't touch it with a ten foot pole. Undergrad teaching would probably be way less stressful, given the added responsibilities of thesis supervision etc. in a graduate faculty. Still, the political environment in the faculty is a huge quality of life issue, and it may make or break the deal - for me it would.

What are the demographics at your university? Are most of the professors older boomer types? A mass retirement (such as is happening at my university) would work well for you in the long run, but you'd have to deal with dinosaurs in teh meantime. Things at a uni can change drastically in the blink of an eye. Ultimately, if tenure track at a university is what you want, you'll have to make that leap. Get the dissertation done, becone an adjunct and contract on the side, and be ruthless in securing a spot if/when it comes up. Adjunct status helps a lot.

Good luck.
posted by jimmythefish at 12:49 PM on March 26, 2006

Do community colleges allow their professors to go on sabbatical? Seems like taking a year off at the community college while you try adjuncting is a low-risk way of finding out which you prefer.

A friend of mine just finished her Ph.D. in comparative lit after 11 years, most of that time spent ABD. If you don't want to finish it, that's fine... but that doesn't mean you can't.
posted by Eamon at 1:33 PM on March 26, 2006

The job-seeking forums at the Chronicle of Higher Education have a good deal of anonymous advice on similar situations.
posted by nonane at 1:49 PM on March 26, 2006

I am a Rhet/Comp Ph.D. student at a R1 Ph.D. "factory" for that sort of thing. Bruised feelings about comp not being fun aside (though I enjoy teaching lit too), I will mention a few of my observations about the status of adjunct English faculty at the universities I have been at.

1) Your pay is never guaranteed. Though the director of composition will always fight to get you that raise, it will usually be negligible if anything at all. Yours will also be the first salary that goes down in the department.

2) Your are never guaranteed classes, neither in subject nor amount -- no matter what they tell you. You will teach the classes they need taught, and in the amount they need taught, which varies from year to year, chair to chair, budget to budget.

3) As an adjunct faculty member, your grievance issues, scheduling, etc. is probably going to be handled by 2nd and 3rd year Ph.D. students. Your access to faculty is going to be minimal.

4) English adjuncts can act in a very disaffected manner, and sometimes have the "with us" or "without us" attitude (i.e. the politics is just as heavy as anything else you are used to).

5) Adjuncts have little, if any, space to call their own.

6) Everyone will want to know why you didn't finish your Ph.D., and, unforunately, some will judge you accordingly.

7) It will seem like the graduate students have it real nice, and compared to most of the the adjuncts, they do.

8) Even if the institution allows adjuncts to teach lit classes (mine does not), they might demand that you teach from a common approved syllabus.

Your situation might prove to be different, and I sincerely hope it does. But, at least keep these issues in mind as you check out the new place. I hope I'm giving you ideas about practical questions to ask like who sets your schedule, determines your syllabus, grievance procedures, etc. I do have to second the growing consensus of the crowd, however, about the dissertation. Not knowing your situation or its sensitivities, I can't encourage you enough to finish the diss. Particularly since the pay and status of adjunct faculty is slipping with each year, and soon likely, not even a Ph.D. is going to mean *tenure*. Best of luck.
posted by mrmojoflying at 7:51 PM on March 26, 2006

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