Two years ago, I came within twenty-four hours of abandoning my academic career before it started. None of the applications I had sent out had gone anywhere, I had completed my degree, and my department had no money to keep me around. We packed up and got ready to drive out of town and out of academia, but we had to stay an extra day because our car was still in the shop. It had only taken so long to fix because the factory had shipped the wrong replacement part. The night before we finally left, the College of Charleston called. Thirty-six hours later, after a telephone interview, they offered me a position. But for months afterwards, I wasn’t sure if I actually had an academic career or not. I was teaching full time, publishing articles and presenting papers, but I always wondered if perhaps I should correct my students when they addressed me as “professor.” Ever since, one year has been the longest time that I can confidently predict that my employment will continue, and with it my career. I am an adjunct, arriving unannounced to teach what I know for a year or two, and then leaving just as unceremoniously.
Outside of the tenure track, there is an exotic zoo of job titles and a wide range of working conditions, but one thing that many positions have in common is their terminal calendar. While there are occasions for using more precise terminology, and even for avoiding “adjunct” like the flea-ridden carcass of a plague-bearing squirrel, I’ll use it here as a catch-all for anyone who has to send out job applications every year. Lest anyone think that this is all about navel-gazing self-indulgence, take note that BYU graduates go on to earn Ph.D.’s in numbers that rival Ivy League and flagship public universities (see table 32 in the 2003 Survey of Earned Doctorates 1). Anyone taking that route, or thinking about it, needs to figure the role of adjunct faculty into the equation.
I have now concluded that I do have an academic career after all. If my students call me “professor,” then I need to rise to the occasion. But it is a strange sort of academic career, where I’m never sure if the current moment is the prelude or the coda. With no requirement to publish, I enjoy the dizzying freedom to dive into any topic that strikes my fancy. I also need to keep publishing with an eye on sending out the next round of applications. But on top of all that, there’s the possibility that the next thing I write may be the last chance I’ll have to make a contribution to my field. At times it’s difficult to reconcile the competing demands of following my bliss, padding my CV, and inscribing my epitaph.
As an adjunct, I do much the same work as my colleagues. They have always been helpful and competent, but there is a constant temptation to compare their benefits and higher salary and job stability and courseload reductions and fewer preparations and institutional support with my lack of the same. The parable of the penny helps. If taken in a literal sense, it reminds me that my paychecks continue to clear, and that I agreed to do a certain amount of work in return for them, and that what my colleagues are paid for doing their jobs is now irrelevant. (I have, however, turned down a job offer that promised little more than a halfpenny.)
Traditionally, “adjunct” was synonymous with part-time faculty, but for many people, it has become synonymous with exploitation. The counter-argument is that temporary positions are opportunities, an integral part of the one-to-five year period of post-Ph.D. work that seems to be a de facto requirement for being competitive for a tenure-track job in many fields today. Two years after finishing my Ph.D., I can confirm that my applications are being taken much more seriously, but not that a stable job is waiting for me somewhere.
This system places a premium on mobility–the job that best matches what you want to be doing is not likely to be located where you want to be living. For this, my church membership has been a great asset. Wherever we go, there are people who have something in common with us, who can help us and who need our help in return, and who are grateful for our presence. The networking benefit that comes from church membership becomes very noticeable when you move with kids. In economic terms, over the last two years it probably equals a significant portion of the tithing we’ve paid over our lifetimes. Our employment situation confuses people in our ward, but I don’t hold it against them. Not many people understand the academic job market, and even many academics don’t understand adjuncts. (As for the three people in our new ward who asked me on our first visit what program I was enrolling inâ€”I have forgotten their names and faces, and I forgive them, but it better not happen again.)
Fortunately, my wife and I are not tied to any geographic location. Our two hometowns are widely separated, and we’ve never resided long in either one. Everywhere is far from family for either one or both of us. Wherever we are at the moment is not just home, but as accurate an answer to the question “where are you from?” as anywhere else we’ve been. Luckily, our children have cooperated fairly well so far. By the time he turns eight, our oldest will have lived in five houses, three states, and a foreign country. It’s impossible to say how long I can maintain the adjunct life before giving up on the goal of a stable academic job; for now, I have postponed facing that question for another year. The ultimate answer probably depends on how long my family will put up with it.
The academic blog world has been in a minor fuss recently about an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Bloggers Need Not Apply”. It’s a silly article, but many have responded that its warning to always blog anonymously should be taken to heart. Am I hurting my chances of landing a permanent position by posting under my real name? Possibly. But many people fail to get good academic jobs for all manner of serious and silly reasons. Some hiring committees, for example, will not look at anyone who has ever been an adjunct. After facing the prospect of never getting onto the tenure track long enough, that threat has lost much of its terror. Besides, what I post here is very much a matter of who I am, and sending out dozens of applications for the last four years has taught me that I cannot escape from my own identity. Professionally, I’m a medievalist who works on printing in the fifteenth century, rather than on the great literature of the twelfth and thirteenth. There is no honest way to obscure that sometimes unwelcome fact as I send out my CV, so I might as well get on with making myself the best incunabulist I can be. That I’m a Mormon is just as obvious to the trained eye, even on my carefully scrubbed professional CV, so there’s no use hiding it. Maybe it means I won’t be considered for some jobs, just as medievalists and former adjuncts aren’t considered for others. I don’t take it personally. But there’s no point in waiting for something that may never happen before I admit who I am.