Adjunct or Starving Artist?

Should an M.F.A. trying to make it in her field accept an adjunct teaching job or take a break from academe?

Brian Taylor

May 27, 2013

Question (from "Anne Marie"): With my new M.F.A. in creative writing, I haven't been able to land a full-time teaching job. (No surprise there, I know.) But I'm young, single, and interested in other areas of the arts, so I'm moving to "Arts City" to try to break into the business. I don't want to abandon the possibility of a teaching career, and I've been offered a job teaching a composition class at a community college, for $1,300. My adviser tells me I'm crazy to consider teaching for such a low fee, but how else do I keep my hand in academe?

Answer: It does seem so right: writing, making music, or creating art during the day; teaching a course during the evening (or vice versa). Eventually, maybe you'll have a best seller or a hit movie, and all will be well.

But you can't live on $1,300 a semester—although the shadowy world of would-be academia is filled with people cobbling together five or six such teaching gigs at once.

That's possible because some 70 percent of college courses offered are now taught by adjuncts—part-timers who are paid a pittance and have no job security ("Not enough enrollment this semester, so no classes for you"). Few have on-campus parking. Hardly any have health insurance. They may get to use the corner of a desk, shared with half a dozen other people.

Respect? Ha.

By now it's a fall ritual for administrators to give adjuncts their lockstep day-by-day syllabus and classroom instructions ("On Day 5, all English 101 students will master the comma"). There will be draconian grading standards and percentages. Students will get rules about late papers and plagiarism. If they fondle their electronic gadgets in class, there will be swift punishments.

Already you'll feel like a warden.

Can you be original as a part-time composition instructor? In academic novels, free spirits always fail in appalling ways. In real life, novelists flee from teaching composition. In grad school, Erica Jong was advised to quit, lest she be "neck-deep in bad student writing" all her life.

In a community college, you can make a difference with the responsive students, the closet readers, the go-getters who can't be stopped. They are a joy. But many others will be angry or distracted by family, health, or money woes. Wednesday classes may be wonderful, but Mondays are moody and melancholy. The emotional temperature surges wildly. If you're a young woman who doesn't immediately establish authority, you'll run into incivility. There will be boors.

Still, you will learn. Grading compositions can enhance your ability to use words ("How do I explain a dangling modifier?"). But that work takes away from your own creativity. It can warp your spelling, so that you can't decide whether you need there, they're, or their.

Adjuncts rarely ascend into tenure-track jobs, except later at other campuses if they've developed a unique niche, published a lot, or demonstrated a flair factor. You can get better pay—up to $5,000 a course—if you're already notorious. General David Petraeus and the former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer ("The Luv Gov"), both derailed by scandals, are now adjunct instructors, and all they have to do is chat about their professional experiences. They don't grade papers.

For you, though, a 15-week course means 45 face-to-face hours and at least three hours of preparation for each class session, if you're a very fast grader. That's about $7 an hour.

You can make more as a waitress, and you'll be serving customers who want to be there. If you're a bartender, you'll get colorful material for memoirs, fiction, and country songs. You'll have surprises. You'll weep. You'll roar.

You'd even be better off working for free, which Ms. Mentor is about to recommend. If she were running your life, she would allow you to adjunct for one semester. But she also would urge you to use that time to ferret out the treasures and opportunities in Arts City.

You must be a reconnoiterer and a gadabout, going everywhere smart, creative people gather. Check newspapers and public radio. Go to free readings and events at synagogues and churches; find exhibits and outdoor concerts. Go to political caucuses, school board, and zoning meetings. Choose the ones where there'll be the most fur flying—bluffing, lying, the shredding of reputations. Traffic court is full of drama.

Grade your papers in bookstore cafes. Eavesdrop everywhere.

What you're seeking in your new city is community engagement—stories, tasks, and jobs worthy of your particular talents. You have the writing skills to be a speechwriter and the teaching background to tutor readers. You can volunteer to teach poetry or fiction through community centers. You can help elderly people write their life stories. You can offer to give energetic workshops for public libraries and book clubs.

At first you won't get paid, but think of volunteering as an internship. You're giving a free sample of your work to the world, doing important work and making contacts that can turn into paying jobs—as described in "So What Are You Going to Do with That?": Finding Careers Outside Academia, by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius. You meet interesting people, and they see what a dynamo you are—the kind of person they'd like as a spokesperson, site designer, ad writer, or campaign face.

Or you can waste yourself in endless adjuncting, as described in Alex Kudera's heartfelt novel, Fight for Your Long Day.

Ms. Mentor values teaching and thinks it one of the greatest gifts we can give our fellow sufferers in this vale of tears. But once you've taught composition a few times, having it on your résumé again won't increase your chances to be hired. Nor, often, does it add much to the knowledge of life you can use for your writing or your art. Volunteering, like working in a restaurant, brings in new material, new people, new life forms.

Ms. Mentor cherishes and honors the composition teachers whose dedicated work keeps colleges and universities afloat. Some remain enthusiastic despite administrators' efforts to make them miserable. Many are generous, committed community activists. They are optimists who deserve unions, high pay, and glory. They nourish us all.

But we are in a bad historical moment for American education. If you want to share what you know with eager learners, college teaching may not be the best place—compared with battered women who have stories to tell, or heroic politicians who need someone to create the memorable slogan ("I have a dream") to galvanize the public. As Marybeth Lima, a professor in biological and agricultural engineering at Louisiana State University, writes about her project to build playgrounds in poor school communities, "I would rather struggle with an issue in full-blown Technicolor than to watch on the sidelines and intellectualize."

You may not be able to change the world, just yet. But Ms. Mentor urges you to be good to yourself—to find the work that gives you energy, great material, and hope. That's what should feed you.

Question: In this month's "Sage readers" section, will Ms. Mentor favor us with suggestions for academic novels filled with all the skullduggery, plunging costumes, and swashbuckling derring-do that we've come to expect in committee meetings?

Answer: Certainly.

Sage readers: Fewer English professors are murdered in this year's summer crop of recommended academic novels than in past years. The books nominated by Ms. Mentor's experts feature the usual drunken poets, provincial naifs, and venomous turf wars. But there are also full-blown female characters, long scenes of sensuality, and a tasty dean who's perfectly cooked in a beurre blanc sauce, perhaps by anthropologists.

This summer's recommendations: Murder in the Museum of Man, by Alfred Alcorn; Tolstoy Lied: a Love Story, by Rachel Kadish; Foolscap; Or, The Stages of Love, Michael Malone; One Coffee With, by Margaret Maron; After the Workshop: A Memoir of Jack Hercules Sheahan, by John McNally; Gabriel's Inferno, Sylvain Reynard; and Crump, by P.J. Vanston.

As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes gossip, rants, and queries, as well as recipes suited to the academic palate. She regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally, and never speedily, and recommends regular reading of the Chronicle forums. All communications are confidential, anonymity is guaranteed, and no one will know if you are a bad cook. But if you wish to improve, you may peruse the herbal mystery novels by Susan Wittig Albert, among them Lavender Lies and An Unthymely Death. Albert is a recovering dean.


Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her most recent book is "Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia" (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her e-mail address is