Email about my Teaching

I replied to a family friend about some issues that has been making me struggle off and on for several years now: the lack of full-time teaching jobs at the community college and university levels, and the reality that a PhD won’t help you get an edge on the competition.

I wanted to preserve some of my thoughts to him, so here they are:

I’m an adjunct community college instructor. (I wanted to say “professor,” but technically I’m not a professor, at least according to academic rank. Yes, I am one of the slaves, with dreams of an office space and adequate pay that haunt me in the night. One of the only perks is being considered a “temporary worker” by the state of California, allowing me to live off unemployment when necessary.) I teach English, primarily to students who either didn’t learn proper writing skills in high school or forgot everything they learned in high school about writing. I’ve been a freeway flyer since 2008, but that’s going to change with the arrival of our son. We will have to make ends meet with me teaching at one college.

I was very idealistic, and very young, when I got my Masters in English (with an emphasis on Creative Writing; my thesis was a collection of poetry). I had this very vague notion of “I am going to school because I want to write.” Well, after about two years of no job prospects (I did work for a poetry press for a little and quickly learned I don’t want to be a secretary for a poetry editor), I fell into teaching. And it worked for me, and in many ways still works for our family, but I quickly became disillusioned at the reality that is full-time work in this business. I’m not even tip-toeing into university work due to my lack of a PhD (which, according to Ms. Schuman, is a waste of time and makes people turn into horrible beings). I’ve had several interviews for tenure-track CC work, but to no avail. And when about 400 applicants apply for each opening, and people with PhDs apply to jobs that only require a Masters, it throws off the balance quite a bit. Also, like you say, since professors never retire, those job openings are few and far between. And hey, if a college can hire four adjuncts to do the work of one full-timer, why not?

I’m not sure if this applies to universities, but in community colleges (at least in California), there is a state-imposed fine if a discipline has more than, say, half of the staff working as adjuncts. At my schools (I’ve taught at four), about 70-75% of the departments are full of adjuncts. So yes, the colleges are fined every year. But it is cheaper to pay the fine than to hire more full-time teachers. What kind of a world do we live in where this makes sense? (It reminds me of some of the concepts found in Michael Sandel’s book What Money Can’t Buy.)

All that to say, going to “the dark side” makes sense, especially for job advancement. However, I just don’t want to go to my version of the dark side. I’ve contemplating going into technical writing or copy writing, but I really think that would suck the life out of me. I also don’t feel business-savy enough to transition into that world. So I teach literature and syntax to people who could really care less, all for the lovely compensation of a full-time barista at Starbucks. Of course, it has its beautiful moments, like when someone actually learns to write a strong essay, for instance, or when a conversation takes place in the classroom that hits people in new ways. Those moments help me to “keep calm and carry on.”

In a perfect world, I’d hide away in a small cabin and write creative things. I just have yet to figure out how to make that marketable, so I teach, and I continue to apply for full-time jobs, but with little hope. There has to be a better use for six years of higher education and ten years of teaching.


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