Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Notes from a former adjunct

There have been two blog threads I've watched going the rounds recently, threads I've watched from afar. One is the "burnout after tenure" thread (seen at Historiann's and elsewhere), and the other is the controversy over Tenured Radical's advice to adjuncts. I spent a lot of years as an adjunct, so I have a few thoughts:
  • When TR tells you "Don't listen to senior colleagues who tell you that there will soon be a line in your field and that you are ideally positioned for it," believe it. Repeat it. Cross-stitch it on a sampler. Tattoo it on your forehead. Anyone who would tell you that is probably trying to be (1) kind or (2) hopeful about your prospects, but it's just cruel.
  • Let me put it this way: If they're not willing to put a ring on it, so to speak, when they're telling you that they can't live without you because of all your fancy extra service work and great teaching, they're not going to be more likely to do so when a shiny new parade of faculty candidates comes to campus. If you decide to stay when your department is courting the shiny ones, that's your decision, but do so with your eyes open.
  • Let me put it another way: do you remember the movie An Officer and a Gentleman? For those who didn't see it, Richard Gere is a Navy officer-in-training and Louis Gossett, Junior, is the grizzled old sergeant. Gossett knocks the snotty attitude out of Gere and teaches him life lessons. At the end, Gere is a shiny new officer, ready to have an exciting career, and Gossett is . . . the grizzled old sergeant, waiting to knock some sense into the next batch of snotty recruits and show them the ropes. I did not want to become that grizzled old sergeant (adjunct) showing the new officers (t-t faculty) the ropes of the place, even if it meant getting out of teaching altogether.
  • On the other hand, New Kid says that "there is a whole cohort of people out there for whom contingent employment is their career." Absolutely true. A lot of people who were adjuncting in my old department are still adjuncting there many years later, either because they had family ties or because they didn't want to leave grad school city.
  • I have known people who have retired from their positions as adjuncts, and they were happy about their careers.
  • I've also known people who became administrators of programs, or advisers, or otherwise were employed in academia without tenure-track positions, and they were happy, too.
This isn't to say that there shouldn't be more tenure-track jobs, or that the job market is bad, or that those who want t-t jobs shouldn't be angry, or any of that. I don't have any advice.

14 comments:

Historiann said...

Thanks Undine--this is a very sensible post. This I think is key: "A lot of people who were adjuncting in my old department are still adjuncting there many years later, either because they had family ties or because they didn't want to leave grad school city."

I don't entirely understand New Kid's point, though. The anger and the hostility over at TR's place doesn't come from the lecturers or adjuncts who have agreed to live their lives off of the tenure track for the reasons you suggest (location, family ties, etc.). The anger was clearly channeled by people who are (rightfully) resentful about their chances for TT employment without making a lot of compromises--i.e. relocation, strained love/family relationships, the *kind* of institution one would prefer to work at, etc.

But, the *reality* is that everyone I know who has a TT job 1) finished their dissertations, 2) took whatever TT job they were offered, and/or 3) if married/partnered, they commuted for a numer of years until they were able to find jobs closer together (including some families who were raising children.) In the end, things worked out for the people I know--we each found better second jobs, and/or all of the married commuters found appointments in the same location. But it took *years* of uncertainty, big phone and airplane bills, and perpetually being on the job market.

So, I thought that TR had very good advice for people who want to find TT employment, and that seemed to be everyone on that thread who didn't already have a TT position. (At least, no one that I can recall expressed frustration that TR assumed that most lecturers or adjuncts wanted to find a TT job.)

It all just seemed to me to be a case of shooting the messenger (TR), rather than either processing her advice w/r/t their own situations, or considering that senior faculty who make hiring decisions have some insights to share. (And, seriously--WTF? It's a blog post. If you don't like it, so what? Do you want a refund or something?)

undine said...

Thanks, Historiann. You're right about TR's point and the commenters there. I guess my point (if I had one) was that you can have a happy life in any number of ways, but you can't necessarily have it by trying to bend circumstances beyond your control (like the job market) to your will. I have never understood the people who say "This is my goal, and anything else is unacceptable," as people are so often taught to do these days. This attitude is supposed to make you a "winner," a la the Tiger Mom or Charlie Sheen, but what does that attitude do to you if you don't "win" on these terms? My take is that you have to make your own terms within the life you have and figure out what you're willing to do to live that life. As you point out, everything is a tradeoff, even if it's only in the short term: t-t appointment and live apart, or adjunct and live together?

New Kid on the Hallway said...

The anger and the hostility over at TR's place doesn't come from the lecturers or adjuncts who have agreed to live their lives off of the tenure track for the reasons you suggest (location, family ties, etc.). The anger was clearly channeled by people who are (rightfully) resentful about their chances for TT employment without making a lot of compromises--i.e. relocation, strained love/family relationships, the *kind* of institution one would prefer to work at, etc.

Yeah, see, I don't agree with this. I think the anger that's coming from those commenters could come from a wide range of positions within the academy. People who have "agreed" to life off the tenure track can be just as angry, but just not about not getting a TT job - instead, about the conditions of the job they actually have.

profacero said...

I think TR must have been speaking to the kind of person I complain about - instructors who resent professorial faculty, but would not themselves be willing to get PhDs or move, and also those who believe despite what I tell them that if they finished their dissertations they would automatically be turned into tenure track, or that if they get PhDs we will automatically create tenure track lines in the field of their dissertations.

profacero said...

The post irked me because I have been hearing lectures about how to be very very good so you might maybe get a slim chance of staying around since birth. I know perfectly well that one must sacrifice and pay respects and everything and I think some counter advice is in order, like: value yourself, respect your work, consider your quality of life and personal goals, and most importantly, don't follow standard advice in the slavish, frightened way my academic family has done to its detriment.

profacero said...

So I think there are two groups:

- the entitled and unrealistic, who bore me, too

- those who like me still, are legitimately and correctly searching for ways to have some sort of autonomy in life, who already know the score and the standard advice, and who would like to deviate from it a bit for the sake of a better life and better work ... and resent being or feeling scolded for having this totally modest and also age appropriate desire.

profacero said...

...hours later, I may have figured out what I think.

People have been told they should just accept any working conditions because if not, they are "not serious."

At the same time, they've been warned about exploitation and exhorted to stand up it if happens.

This is a nice vise and no wonder these people are conflicted -- almost as conflicted as I, in fact.

profacero said...

Finally, I think that how much research and personal ground to give up for poorly paid teaching jobs is a valid question. I think that just acting right isn't the solution to current market conditions. I know people get confused because they give up ground incrementally, not at once, and try not to resent this, but cannot help it.

undine said...

New Kid--yes, it's possible that they were angry about the conditions of the job that they have. The people I've known who were long-term adjuncts (as in decades-long teaching careers) tended to get angry primarily about the uncertainty of their employment. They were good teachers, and they cared about their students, but while they saw teaching as their life's calling, they didn't see a t-t job as necessary to that. What angered them was having their chains yanked by administrators who insisted on the fiction that "this is temporary, no more than 3 years" and fired them all from time to time--until the administrators noticed all those unstaffed English 101 sections at the beginning of August. Those are abusive terms of employment, and some institutions have tried to stop it with multi-year contracts. Apart from this, though, they did not define their life as being the university, and they were happier for it.

undine said...

Profacero--that vise you're talking about is real. Do more than you're required to do and have a bunch of noisy commentators (like me) warn you against exploitation; refuse to do anything more than your exact job description, and you're an ex-adjunct.

profacero said...

Still thinking about this.

"but it's just cruel"

...I think this also applies to the standard advice given all faculty: act right and you'll eventually get a good situation.

Not true. You may get a better one, or a better one by some measures. But not necessarily.

profacero said...

"This is my goal, and anything else is unacceptable"

... I don't know that it's a bad thing to teach people. If I'd learned it, I'd have said my goal was a research job in a city, whether it were an academic job or not, and I'd have stuck to this. I don't know that it's that bad to keep what you really want in mind and try for it or whatever you can get that resembles it the most closely ... but then I speak as one who buckled to more tradeoffs than were necessary, precisely due to all the exhortations there were about how at least one wasn't a "starving Belgian" or something.

undine said...

profacero, I think my objection to the "unacceptable" idea is that (1) it lends itself to abusive behavior, like that of the Tiger Mom, and (2) it bespeaks a wildly unrealistic idea of how the world works. If someone says "I will be a star on Broadway. That is my goal, and anything else is unacceptable," some would say that is admirable. "Unacceptable" says "I will be displeased, and my displeasure will change a reality that is not in my control," which, unless you're God, is a delusional statement. It's just a personal idiosyncrasy: "unacceptable" to me always suggests some person of high privilege stamping her foot about something she doesn't like, to which my knee-jerk response is "who gives a --" (let me stop there).

Z said...

It does lead to abusive behavior and it can lead to a lot of bitterness.

I just notice, sardonically, that this does actually work for some people. I think I also chafe at the way professionalization works -- you're supposed to want a specific thing, and be willing to make a series of sacrifices, and it is fine if this is true, but if not or not quite, the push to Be Good is misplaced sometimes -- that's all.