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

It’s My Party

I’m planning a party for myself to celebrate finishing my Ph.D.  I decided to do it because my family and friends have been so important to me the past few years and I want to celebrate with them rather than, for example, having a really nice dinner with Paul and my parents.

A friend generously offered her house as a hosting location and I was off on a party-planning To Do list.  Invitations, announcements had to be sent, inventory taken, shopping lists made, table and linen rental plans. Because of my years in residential life, I’ve planned a lot of parties (though usually with the university’s money).  Everything is getting done.  Except , as of a week ago, I stopped being as able to plan and get things done.  Why?

As I sat in therapy yesterday, rattling off the things I had yet to do, I realized why.  I feel self-conscious and selfish about planning a party for myself. Given that I don’t have a job after August, it feels self-indulgent to spend money on a party rather than saving it for the rainy days that might be around the corner. My friends didn’t have parties when they finished, and they finished long before me. Part of me feels I don’t deserve this.

But having said all that, I’m going back to some comments made by a more senior scholar about marking milestones.  He didn’t walk in his graduation, didn’t mark his milestones until his wife planned a party for him to celebrate his tenure decision.  He talked about how healing it was to celebrate.

I may never get an academic job or tenure but this is a milestone.  For the first time in 15 years, I’m not going to be a student.  I have all the degrees I’m ever going to have.

Besides, I’ve already sent out the invitations.  People I love are coming.

Party on.



Tortilla Dreams

I should be working on my philosophy of teaching (yes, I’m applying for jobs), but I had to take a moment and write about tortillas. Corn tortillas especially, though flour ones have their place.

One reason I feel so strongly about them is that I’m allergic to yeast.  Extremely allergic.  Even a slice of bread (or a glass of wine — wine is full of yeast) and I’m breaking out in painful eczema rashes on my arms, face and neck.  Wheat flour produces a similar though less severe reaction.  You’d think this would cause me to avoid bread altogether but what can I say?  I crave carbs.

But what makes my allergy bearable are tortillas. I know I need to learn to make fresh corn ones myself. If I can get my hands on fresh tortillas, my desire for any other bread is almost nil. Fresh tortillas are hard to come by in Santa Monica though.  I don’t get to East Los Angeles often enough.

But the reason I’m writing this is that I woke up thinking about the best corn tortillas I ever had in my life.  About ten years ago I was in Barrio Logan researching Chicano Park.  The murals were amazing — if you have a chance to see them you should — but what I remember most about that day was stopping at an old fashioned tortillaria because walking past, my dad and I could smell corn.

We each got one tortilla from the owner, to taste.  One bite and I was digging through my purse getting ready to buy as many dozen as I could afford.  These were amazing.  In my memory they were cooked over a gas fire so there were little charcoaled bits of black.  They were chewy and sweet and I loved them.  If you’ve never had fresh (not wrapped in plastic from the supermarket) corn tortillas, you haven’t had tortillas.  It’s like the difference between supermarket and fresh baked bread, only more so.  My hefty package came wrapped in old-fashioned paper and tape, looking like a sweet-smelling present.

At the time I lived in a dorm at USC.  My dad, who has always thought the best of me, thought I was buying such a big package so I could share my discovery with my floor. I  couldn’t bring myself to disappoint him by explaining how greedy his daughter was, but I confess, I shared these with only one other person.  I didn’t wrap them around beans or make tacos.  Honestly that would have been great, but all I did was, one by one, zap them in the microwave for 15 seconds, spread them with butter or avocado, roll them up and eat.  First to last they were amazing.  Sometimes I wonder if they were really as good as I remember them.

I can’t remember the name of the place we went. And, when I went on Yelp today to try and find it, I couldn’t.  Maybe they’re gone.

Thank God my dad was with me. Otherwise I’d worry my perfect tortillas were just a dream.

Mixed Daughter

Being my parents’ first child has always been a large part of my identity. I am their mixed daughter; the result of a 1960s high school romance between an eastside Chicano boy and westside Anglo-Catholic girl. I attended Catholic school from first grade until college — Catholicism formed the bulk of my my cultural identity through out my childhood.

My parents, whose racial divide had brought them social discomfort in the 1960s and 1970s, including difficulties renting and buying homes in parts of Los Angeles, did their best to shelter my sister, brother and me from the worst of their experiences. I knew I was Chicana and identified as such, but my identification didn’t mean anything more to me than my mother’s distant identity of “Irish.” When my teachers commented on my speaking and writing in perfect English, I didn’t recognize the loaded compliment in their words. Later, when I struggled in high school Spanish (as did both my siblings and most of my cousins), I never considered why the Spanish language was so hard for me, why when my bilingual father helped me, my accent was somehow considered “wrong” and “too Mexican.” It would be years before I realized my struggle with Spanish was, in part, due to an ingrained distrust of the Mexican side of myself.

Then, coming onto UCLA’s campus as an undergraduate in the late 1980s, my Chicana identity became much more of an issue. Attracted to Left student politics, I first joined, or tried to join, the campus MEChA organization. It made sense to me. I was a lonely Chicana student, lost on a huge campus. Leaving Catholic education and its sense of belonging to a common religion suddenly made me feel much more of a racial outsider on the campus. Among white students it was clear, despite my middle class West Los Angeles upbringing, that I wasn’t quite white enough. But the other students in MEChA saw me as not really Chicana either, not like them. As one said “maybe you’re not quite white, but you’re too close for me.” My skin color wasn’t the issue, or at least not the main issue. The leadership of MEChA looked like me or my cousins. The division came on issues of language and culture. I didn’t speak Spanish, had grown up in the white part of the city, had a white mother, had attended a West Los Angeles private girls school. In short I was weighed and found wanting in nearly every way (while my abuelita’s house in East Los Angeles counted in my favor it was deemed not nearly enough). In their eyes I wasn’t truly a Chicana.

It would be poetic to say I railed against this redefinition of my identity, that I told them my father wasn’t a sell-out for loving my mother or for having me. I wish I could claim that I argued and convinced all of them or any of them of my Chicana-ness. But the truth was, at their words, I was mostly silent and felt exposed as a fraud. There was part of me that could see their point. What did I, with my West Los Angeles upbringing, know of their Eastside experiences? East Los Angeles, apart from trips to Liliana’s for tamales, was my father’s and abuelita’s home place, not mine. Maybe they were right that I only identified as Chicana because of affirmative action, had only experienced it as a positive without experiencing either the poverty or racism which they had collectively suffered. Worst of all though, I felt like they had been able to look inside me and see the traitorous part of myself, that secret place that wished I were whiter. The part that envied my blond-haired cousins, knew their fairness was in mine and my family’s eyes, more beautiful. The same part that wished I had inherited my mother’s blue eyes and willowy frame instead of my own stocky darkness. I felt like the other Chicano/a students could see there was something inside of me that found my darkness as ugly and even worse, as unclean and wished it away. Feeling stung and exposed, I slunk away from MEChA. I instead became the comfortably not-too exotic other in the white / Anglo students’ anti-apartheid movement on campus. Academically I moved away from any part of Chicano/a studies and into British and Celtic history and literature.

I came back to my Chicananess through reading This Bridge Called My Back and Borderlands when I was taking English literature classes at The Ohio State University. At the time I was homesick for California, for my family, constantly feeling exotic and other socially. I saw myself in the definitions of mestiza, in the notion of being torn between ways.  When I read Cherríe Moraga’s Loving In the War Years, it sort of all came together for me and I realized I could and should claim Chicana as my identity, however uncomfortable it might be.

All of this anxiety came back to me at NACCS — not in a bad way, but I realize I associate hearing Spanish (which I generally understand if it’s spoken slowly enough, but can’t speak) with being found out to be not Chicana. This is ridiculous and I recognize it as such, but still get caught up in this sense of belonging / not belonging. It makes me wonder how much I’ve changed, whether for all my study and research I’ve really embraced this part of myself.