A Radical Idea About Adjuncting: Written for Those with Tenure (or on the Tenure Track)

What we can do instead of gaslighting by telling adjuncts ‘it was ever thus.’

As those of you who’ve been reading along (all 5 of you) know, I received my Ph.D. from USC’s English department in spring 2011. This past fall 2017 I started a tenure track job in interdisciplinary studies at California State University Dominguez Hills, my dream job, teaching a student population I love in my home city of Los Angeles. Between 2011 and 2017 I was an adjunct at Los Angeles area colleges and universities.

Because I got a tenure track job, at a place where I’d been contingent faculty, a friend suggested I write a blog post or even CHE article on getting hired from part-time adjunct into a full-time tenure track position. I demurred, in part because I think contingent faculty who want to move to the tenure track are far too likely to blame themselves and feel like they’re failing. I don’t want to contribute to that by enumerating the things I did or tried to do to stay in the job market as if doing those things is a path to success. I have my job because I was lottery-level lucky.

Here’s a few of the ways I had a lot of luck. First, I finished my Ph.D. in English in Los Angeles. Los Angeles has a large number of colleges and universities that don’t have their own Ph.D. students. This means it’s not that hard to break into the adjunct pool and it’s possible to get enough work across universities to keep body and soul together. Many of the schools are unionized (or fear unionization) so pay on the higher end of national adjunct rates. Teaching a total of seven classes a semester at three to four different schools, I earned ~$40,000 a year from teaching. I was also fortunate (seriously, this was not planning on my part, just a desire to get paid over the summer) that rather than teaching a lot as a grad student I’d worked as a campus and freelance APA style editor. So I also had a reasonably steady stream of freelance and consulting clients.

Second, although my degree is in English, my specialization is in Chicana feminist writings. This field has a long history of theoretical and historical work being done by people in contingent positions or outside the academy. What this meant was not being in a full-time tenured position was never (as far as I can tell) held against me or used to minimize the importance of my research. I know that is not the experience of a number of adjuncting academics doing research and that experiencing such dismissal is soul destroying.

Third, I don’t have children, I have a partner with a steady job and health benefits, and we live in an apartment we rented when I was in grad school that’s under rent control. This meant that I rarely / never had to seriously worry about meeting basic expenses and that the money I earned from my freelance work could go to paying for me to attend conferences, including the annual MLA interview site. We aren’t place-bound so I was able to apply for jobs across the country. My only limitation was that I wasn’t willing to uproot us for a temporary position — if my partner was going to give up their job, it needed to be for something with more than one or two years of security.

Fourth, USC’s English department allows its graduates to participate in semester-long department job workshops where I got to work closely with faculty graduate advisors on putting together job materials and preparing for interviews. I was able to do this every year I was on the market.

Even with all of that though, I absolutely believe I would not have been hired had it not been for the radical way the department chair in Chicana/o studies at the first university where I was hired treated adjunct faculty. She saw the use of adjunct faculty by her university as exploitation and felt deeply responsible for her part in it — even though it was required of her as a chair to hire adjunct faculty. As part of my interview, she asked me what my career goals were. I told her I wanted a tenure track job, preferably teaching somewhere with a significant student of color population. She said that was good, because her goal was to get her adjunct faculty hired into tenure track positions. That I should see adjuncting as something I was doing on my way to being hired into a full-time job. She also told me the number of people who had worked for her department and where they were now working as faculty. She said by hiring me she was making a commitment to help me get hired into a full-time position.

What did her commitment to this mean in practice?

Basically, she treated me like I had a post-doc at the university (except for what I was paid, she couldn’t control that). That meant she came and observed my classes, discussed my teaching with me and wrote up recommendations for improvement. She made sure I had office space with a working computer, access to printing, and work-study student support. She offered to read my research and give me comments on articles I was working on. And, perhaps the most important act of all, she told me she was doing this so she could write a strong and knowledgable letter of recommendation.

And she did. Every year I was on the job market, she went over my job materials and my accomplishments from the previous year, and made suggestions for improvement. Every year, even when she was no longer chair and I was no longer working for that department, she got her letter updated and uploaded to Interfolio by the date she said she would. Every year. She did practice interviews with me and got someone she respected to do a mock online interview to test my set up. She sought me out at conferences and introduced me to her friends and told them about my work. Through it all, she talked with me about her research and asked for my advice, while also discussing my research and her thoughts on it. She never, by anything she said or did, made me feel like I was anything less than a colleague doing work that was significant for our shared field. She never acted like my not getting the (many) jobs I interviewed for, year after year, was in any way a personal failing.

She did all of these things without my having to ask — she consistently and repeatedly offered her help and guidance. When I welcomed it (who wouldn’t?), she offered more. She did likewise to the other people who adjuncted for her while she was chair. By the time I got hired, she knew me and my work better than any other senior scholar, including those who’d advised my dissertation.

I’m writing this because, reading on Twitter and elsewhere, I see how badly scholars with tenure feel about the job market and for the position of people adjuncting in their departments or at their colleges and universities. I offer this as something those of us with tenure or on the tenure track can do to help individuals trying to move into full-time employment, who may feel alone and ashamed they haven’t been hired into the sort of work they expected they’d do after graduate school. We don’t have to just wring our hands about how terrible the situation is, or (worse still) say the job market has always been terrible and those who are adjuncts should never have started a Ph.D. if they weren’t willing to be exploited. Reaching out and offering to help even one other person in concrete ways, taking responsibility to support and advise them, can make a huge difference. This remains true whether the person is hired into a full-time gig or ultimately decides to leave academia. This sort of mentoring values adjunct scholars and treats them with care and dignity.

This is work that matters.

Edit: To my surprise, this post has gone what Lee Skallerup Bessette termed “academic viral.” Several people have asked me who my mentor and former chair is – it’s Professor Karen Mary Davalos. She was my chair in Chicana/o Studies at Loyola Marymount University and is now at the University of Minnesota in their Chicano and Latino Studies department. Many thanks to everyone who has read and commented here and on Twitter.

Image credit: Gwen

25 thoughts on “A Radical Idea About Adjuncting: Written for Those with Tenure (or on the Tenure Track)

  1. “Basically, she treated me like I had a post-doc at the university (except for what I was paid, she couldn’t control that). That meant she came and observed my classes, discussed my teaching with me and wrote up recommendations for improvement. She made sure I had office space with a working computer, access to printing, and work-study student support. She offered to read my research and give me comments on articles I was working on. And, perhaps the most important act of all, she told me she was doing this so she could write a strong and knowledgable letter of recommendation.”
    –this is such a beautiful example of what it can look like to mentor any junior colleague and is SO important for adjuncts. Thank you for sharing it!!

  2. A wonderful (and all too rare) mentor like this deserves to be recognized and honored by name, and if this person’s University supported and rewarded such mentoring, that school also deserves to be identified.

  3. Thanks for the comments. I agree. It was a powerful thing watching someone’s feminist ethics in practice.

    John, you’re absolutely right. I have a message in to her to see if she wants to be identified.

  4. Thank you very much for sharing your experiences here. I have held visiting positions, have been adjunct faculty, and have also had a tenure-track position. Everything that you say about mentoring and how to do it rings true and I think outlining the concrete ways those who are tenured can help those who are not–particularly adjuncts faculty, but also those in one-year visiting positions, is incredibly important. I’ve now left academia, but I think often about my years there and am grateful to those who did mentor and wonder how I can do my part in the work I do now.

  5. Teaching seven classes a semester (or comparable amounts of work…) wipes me out – I lack whatever it takes to teach seven classes a semester and still teach well, and still lecture well, and still succeed at fostering decent discussions in class, and still keep up my research programs/writing, and still remain moderately sane. Teaching seven classes a semester contributes to my quality of student evaluations going way down, my research quality and publication record going way down, my mental and physical health going way down – the last of which contributes, in my case, to most other things going further down. Especially when they know I teach seven classes as an adjunct, many faculty treat me as a second or third class staff member (they do not talk with me, they do not invite me to department meetings, they do not ask for my input on department matters, etc.). Pretty soon, many students know who real faculty (full-time, not third class) are (supposedly supposed to be) and treat me (as an adjunct teaching seven classes a semester instead of two or three or four) with less respect. As the years go on I keep postponing meetings with former colleagues as I grow tired of not being able to answer the questions – so what have you published lately, so where have you published lately, so where are you working now. My letters of recommendation on file grow older and soon unusable. I become much more bald, overweight, unhealthy, and more of a loser as time goes on and the above continues. I can barely remember the days when I could afford to go to academic conferences. I have no partner. I have lost all of my old friends and colleagues. The departments at which I teach hire younger (and less burned out) people to fulfill tenure-track positions when they become available – and at this point I do not blame them. After adjuncting like this for many years I no longer even get interviews for attempts at jobs outside of adjuncting. At some point I lose the stamina required to teach seven classes each semester (or comparable work…). I start paying for bills with credit cards. Now, credit card debt is another strike against me as a job applicant (in the states in which using such data is required and allowed). Not knowing how I am going to survive, I wish I had not obtained a PhD – so many jobs I now would love to do are reserved for recent college grads or for applicants who obtained crucial job experience instead of going to grad school. One of the only things I have more than bills and debt is regret and apologies. I wish I could go back and make better decisions and try to make better things happen.

    • John Doe Too,

      Reading your reply was disheartening! I am not certain what I am about to get into as I plan to start PhD studies in May of 2018. I wish there were some way to cheer you up or perhaps suggest a valid and fulfilling use of your immense experience. Don’t discount your experience and don’t despair. There are paths that you can take that will lift you out of regret and apologies. You have much to give. Your writing paints such a vibrant picture of your situation. I hope you continue to share your knowledge and experience across applicable platforms

  6. I’m so sorry John.

    MN – it was 5 – 7 courses a semester that each met anywhere from one to three times a week. A couple of semesters I had a course release for serving on one of the campus’s academic senate.

  7. I admire how supportive and caring your mentor was, but I don’t understand how better mentorship helps solve the contingent faculty problem. Regardless of how amazing adjuncts’ chairs may be, the problem is the trend in academe of replacing permanent lines with contingent positions. In fact, if chairs treat their adjuncts better, there will be more academics who stay in the race, so the job market will be even worse than it is now!

    Senior faculty need to refuse to hire adjuncts, and demand permanent lines for their departments. Get students involved to pressure the administration for more teaching funding so that they can be sure their major requirements will be taught and that the university will fairly compensate their instructors.

    • Agreed. This is a systemic problem requiring collective action. Although more support and recognition from tenured colleagues is welcome.

    • You’ve had a great experience and found gold at the end of the 14 courses per year rainbow. Like TT or bust, I believe that the entire culture has to change to a more equitable system for people who just teach (vs scholar teachers). I’m a long time adjunct and advocate who has witnessed adjuncts struggle for better pay, access to group healthcare, yearly contracts, a say in governance, unionization, etc. I’m fortunate to work for one university where I’m paid exceptionally well and have a few benefits, as well as another school where I’m paid considerably less with no other benefits. Regional Unionization is one way to go. In the humanities, there are way more adjuncts than will ever be full time lines. These people, many who teach for years, need something better.

  8. Thank you for this post. Sharing through my dance networks now. Karen’s sister was my thesis chair – Cathy Davalos! Another generous soul as well….

    Jill Randall
    Blogger, Life as a Modern Dancer

    • Thanks so much. I’m glad to be able to share this. I met Cathy last year at the MALCS conference where she and Karen Mary did a session on Cathy’s performance work. It was, of course, great.

  9. This is an inspiration. I am a midcareer woman, but not a chair, and in a fairly marginal field, so I don’t have a lot of influence or opportunities for direct mentorship. But I have been trying to put this into practice for my lecturer colleagues, both male and female: identifying opportunities within the university for support, suggesting ways that these faculty could be put in courses that broaden their teaching portfolios, inviting folks to writing groups.

    Here, however, is where L.A. area (I’m there, too!) works against you: a lot of mentorship involves F2F contact, which is impractical if you’re spending most of your time in traffic on the 405, moving from one job to the next.

    But honestly, for those of us who aren’t in positions of real influence like your mentor, I think one of the simplest things that TT faculty forget is to TREAT YOUR LECTURER COLLEAGUES LIKE COLLEAGUES. Learn their names, invite them to go on a coffee run with you, ask them how their classes are going, and (if it doesn’t feel like a touchy subject) what they’re working on right now. I know that seems like basic stuff, and won’t make a material difference in the lives of our lecturers, but not doing it seems like it would make a bad situation a hell of a lot worse.

    Dammit, you’ve got to be kind.

  10. Wonderful article. I spent most of my career as an adjunct faculty dedicated to teaching students and pursuing my art throughout the U.S. I also felt like the lucky lottery winner when I was offered a tenure-track job at CSUDH. I had years of teaching, professional experience, and creative research that made me super qualified, but the academic market was saturated with TT in my field of dance. Being flexible to move anywhere was certainly an important factor along with the drive to apply for any position. Now that I’m tenured and a chair of a department I am tirelessly supportive of all faculty, especially the lecturers. We all have the same credentials and work with dedication in our field of education and professional theatre and dance. Lecturers deserve to win the lottery to enjoy full-time work security while continuing their creative passions.

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  13. Many of receive no career guidance regarding what sort of doctorate to pursue unless we have a strong bond with someone in administration. I went back and earned a doctorate in education, but my previous degrees were in the humanities. So, the time and energy spent on the doctorate went for naught. I’m STILL not tenure-track after nearly 20 years at the same institution and regular, very high reviews.

  14. Thank you for sharing! I am a late bloomer in the academic world. I’ve recently decided to pursue my PhD after retiring from a full-time career and several years of adjunct teaching assignments. I’ve followed the posts on the subject of adjuncts and its been a really sad journey. Although it would be nice, I don’t have my hopes on securing a tenure track position. I’m concentrating on securing a position within the professional field I worked in prior to retirement. I enjoy teaching and would love to partner with a university on a full time basis, however, from what I’ve read so far, that may not be forthcoming for quite some time; if at all.

  15. Thanks Dr. Perez!

    Your article is so inspiring, and much needed by folk like me, adjuncting forever it seems, and I finished my doctorate in 2008. I did however have one full-time teaching post from 2010-2011.

    I am also not place-bound, and it sounds like I need to consider LA or near that area (or others) where the jobs for adjuncts and decent pay exists.

    The type of mentoring that you received from your Chair is extraordinary, and really what our graduate/dissertation advisors should have done for us, as well.

    Thanks so much for writing this piece!

  16. While your story is lovely, I do have to agree that a mentor won’t change the system.

    I have been an adjunct for 12 years. Last year I taught ten 3-unit classes per semester and summer school (7 face-to-face and 3 on-line)… I made $80k and was more burnt out than I have ever been. I wish more people knew the adjunct to tenure/tenure track ratio. I wish students knew how many adjuncts there are and why they exist. I often fantasize about the impact some sort of 2 day walk out could make. Imagine if every adjunct in America called off work on a Monday and a Tuesday (it needs to be both as many classes meet M/W or T/Th). Until something like this happens, no one will pay attention.

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  18. Thank you for sharing this beautiful story! I too have benefitted from extraordinary mentorship and know how lucky I’ve been because of the people who have supported my research and my needs as a whole person along the way… I’ll be starting a tenure track position in the fall at FSU and will be sure to share these notes with my colleagues on how we can provide support for adjuncts and other contingent workers, that is, how to pass the luck we’ve received on to our graduate students and colleagues. Thanks again for these words!

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