A Former Adjunct Professor Comes (Mostly) Clean

August 06, 1999

Years ago when I was an adjunct at a small college in Texas, I shared an office with three other English instructors. The office was actually a converted storage room, and long after the boxes and supplies and old mattresses were removed, a kind of smell remained. It wasn't terrible, but you definitely noticed it when you first came in. One day I was down the hallway getting my mail and I overheard two full-timers talking.

"What's that smell?" one of them said.

"It's coming from that new office."

"Yeah, but what is it?"

"I think it's the stink of the adjuncts."

It was just a joke, of course, and I tell the story often. It hasn't scarred me. But I've been thinking about it a lot lately. I'm celebrating the beginning of my 15th year in academia, and I've just left one large Southern state with a Governor Bush (Texas) for another (Florida). And, completely in touch with our academic times, I left behind a variety of adjunct positions for a full-time administrative post, where one of my jobs is the care and feeding of adjuncts.

And as I interviewed and pondered over this new job, I kept thinking: "How did it all happen? How did I get from one side to the other?"

About half of my career has been spent in non-tenure-track, adjunct, or visiting positions. But I've spent some years full time, and I've even logged three years on the tenure track. But it has all felt like some super-elongated test of my will and resolve.

I started with two dim years as an unprepared T.A. Then I slogged through three hardscrabble adjunct years (teaching at two to three colleges a semester). Then came the tenure-track position at a big junior college (five classes a semester and all the committee work I could handle).

Then I spent six odd, disheartening years as a ubiquitous "visiting assistant professor." I worked full-time, and got paid slightly less than I used to when I made sandwiches for a living. And when I left that place I spent one last year in a mammoth job search. I was an adjunct faculty member at a big friendly college, published a writing textbook (Writing that Matters, Prentice-Hall, 1999), and beat the bushes from New England to southern California, to the Pacific Northwest to south Florida, looking for an honest-to-goodness-I-can-tell-my-mother-about real job.

And through it all I've been more than a casual observer of the job-market crisis that has swept so many humanities folks into decidedly interesting and unexpected post-grad careers as editors, apartment managers, and caterers. And even though many colleagues told me I was wrong to hang in there, I kept teaching.

I didn't have time to wonder about whether I was in the right or wrong field. I had too many papers to grade. I had too many miles to drive. I had two briefcases going at all times. And both were filled to the brim with essays.

Many of my peers have given up the ghost. Rather than persevere through temporary underemployment, they left the profession to find careers where they felt appreciated. Adjuncts rarely feel like an integral part of anything. (Look up "adjunct" in the dictionary if you want some perspective.) Adjuncts are tools.

When I became part-time-by-choice last year, I again felt like an interloper. I wasn't one of "them," the "full-timers," the "regular faculty." My colleagues had never labored for more than a single semester in a part-time position. Their understanding of what the teeming adjuncts or visiting professors actually did was limited. But I knew, because I've come to understand that in this job market being an adjunct is just one semester past or maybe one semester future.

And so this job search year was a revelation to me. I started like always in August and September scouring The Chronicle and the Modern Language Association Job List. The job in sunny Florida caught my eye immediately. It had the elements I was looking for: a little teaching, and a chance to learn some administration "on the job."

I sent off a letter and my current vita (to south Florida in addition to about 30 other positions) and waited. By November I began to hear back. All of the campuses that were interested wanted to do a phone interview before any kind of convention interview or campus visit. But phone interviews are funny things. It's impossible to know how your ideas are going over. Am I speaking too quickly? Have I droned on for too long? Is that silence after my witty rejoinder?

But as colleges and universities try to streamline the hiring process, phone interviews are commonplace. This particular phone interview went well, and within weeks I had been asked to come to campus as one of three finalists. (Because they had been able to work so effectively in their phone interviews they had decided to skip convention interviews.)

During my campus visit, I spent two days meeting with the committee, the liberal arts director, and the dean. I felt like I was giving the right answers. At one point I was talking about what I believed I "could" do for a school if given the chance, and I felt my adjuncthood slipping away. I was in a suit, after all.

When I finished talking, I sat back and smiled. I felt like I might belong there. I began to understand that I might have really found myself a job. Someone might actually pay me enough money so that I could buy the really good can of pork and beans.

Why me? Why now? I had always loved the classroom, and my students had always given me the highest evaluations. I kept up with what was going on in the field. I published two books. But why did the karmic wheel spin this year for me when it hadn't in any of the others?

Maybe my talents and a college's needs are meshing for the first time. Maybe it's just my turn. Maybe the years of stumbling have turned me into a ballerina.

I have a title, and security, and a sweet-smelling office. My own phone. A file cabinet. A place to meet students. A place to tilt my head back and laugh at my good fortune.

Unlike the past, my duties now extend beyond the classroom. I hire and fire, and pick books, and schedule folks and evaluate instruction, and I'm the one who answers questions about writing across the curriculum, and the one who decides who gets stuck in the really hot classroom.

Over the past month I've been interviewing and hiring adjuncts to fill a bunch of our open writing classes. They all seem bright and eager. Some are just out of school. Some look just like me. Some have been stumbling, too.

What remains unspoken between us is this: "I'm one of you. I may have the full-time job now and the security of knowing that my school wants and needs me and will pay me a living wage. But I still have the stink. I still know what it's like to be disenfranchised labor. I am one of you, and no amount of full-timing will ever make me forget what it's like to be underemployed and underappreciated."

W.T. Pfefferle is associate professor of liberal arts and writing coordinator at Nova Southeastern University.