A few weeks ago, following Amanda's very nice suggestion here, I invited long-term non-TT faculty to share their perspectives on their jobs and the academy on the Cocoon. Here is the first submission I have received (if you would like to share your story, please just email me at email@example.com):
I thought about writing a submission for the “Long Journeys” series on the Cocoon and then again when the “Real Philosophy Jobs” series came out but ultimately decided against it. When the invitation for a non-TT perspective appeared, I decided I would finally share my story and my observations. It includes a long journey and a real non-TT philosophy job at the end. I am about to start my third year of a full-time, permanent teaching position in a philosophy department at a public university. Prior to this, I accumulated many years of experience in the profession doing temporary jobs that are now becoming more of a norm rather than an exception.
I started at an MA program in philosophy. The single most important thing I did during my time at this graduate program was the thesis option which gave me valuable experience with an advisor who was remarkably wonderful, impressively brilliant, and also very accomplished. The other benefit of this MA program was the opportunity to be a TA. I was there long enough that I was able to accumulate a lot of teaching experience which really formed the basis for my love of teaching. I only know what happened to eight of the students who went through this program at the same time as me--six of them went on to PhD programs and two (including myself) did not. I have crossed paths with a few of them as adjuncts in the years since graduation. I imagine at this point in time that most of them have probably finished up their PhDs and are perhaps new or waiting on the job market by now.
After I completed the MA, I thought about applying to PhD programs but ultimately did not for a variety of different reasons. One of the biggest reasons was that my spouse and I already had our first child (born during the time I was in the MA program; to my knowledge, I was the only student/parent in the program at that time). This was a game-changer for us. We started to put roots down and the idea of moving away became much more difficult. It was totally obvious to us that going on for a PhD (and what might or might not happen after that) requires lots of moving. While in the MA program, my department hosted a workshop for students about community college and adjunct jobs in philosophy. A philosophy professor at a local community college talked to us about the realities of this kind of career- how to apply, how often these kinds of spots open up, where the part-time adjunct opportunities were, the differences between working at community colleges versus universities, etc. These ideas intrigued me very much and I took the advice very seriously. This person emphasized the fact that if you pursue full-time positions at community colleges then you must have a true love of teaching since you will likely be teaching a 5/5 load every single year. He talked about the difficulties of obtaining a full-time job at the same place where you already teach part-time (but thankfully this did not end up being an obstacle for me). He spoke of the relative unimportance of publishing records and gave tips for doing teaching demos. Around the same time, I ended up getting my first offer to be an adjunct for one course. This led to more and more offers and it was ideal for me given our situation at the time. I ended up continuing to do this for about 7 years.
Over time, I had a circuit of places where I was teaching as an adjunct. I had one university and one community college that consistently gave me enough courses to keep me busy between the two of them. I even had luck getting an adjunct spot at a community college outside the area where we lived just by basically “cold calling.” I emailed the department and asked them if they were in need of staffing any philosophy courses and I guess it was just sheer coincidence that they happened to be in need at the time. I already had experience behind me and I think that really makes it easier to find new gigs elsewhere. The hardest part is starting out and getting your foot in the door somewhere. I’ve always told others who are trying to start out as an adjunct that it helps if you can show at least some past teaching history or if you have a reference that knows someone in the department that can vouch for you (or a personal contact within the department that can vouch for you). The people responsible for hiring adjuncts are constantly in a process of selecting new hires and there is no shortage of applicants wanting to fill those spots; thus, it seems that establishing noticeable credibility matters a lot. Higher education is increasingly reliant on part-time teaching staff and this worked in my favor because there were/are lots of adjunct opportunities out there to be had (I guess I’m taking for granted the fact that I happen to live in a major metropolitan area…). With being an adjunct you learn quickly whether you like the teaching side of philosophy or not and for me it became something that I was very passionate about. In all honesty, I can’t imagine any job that’s better for me than teaching philosophy. And, working in academia provides me with a lot of freedom and flexibility. As a parent of young kids, I had an extra appreciation for this. I realize not everyone has the luxury of being able to work an adjunct job that is by definition “part-time,” but thankfully I was able to make it work (with the support of my spouse) for many years.
Even though the benefits far outweighed the costs for me, I feel compelled to share some of the undesirable aspects of the adjunct lifestyle. I will try not to repeat the numerous things that been reported everywhere else about the plight of adjuncts… I personally always had a nagging fear that I wouldn’t get classes for the next semester especially when it got close to scheduling time (which was usually a couple months before a semester started). I always felt as though I had to keep my foot in the door at these places and maintain my connections--thankfully I was always able to keep my foot in the door everywhere I wanted to. Some places had clear rules of seniority and/or union protections and some did not. I would always get what seemed like the worst possible time and day slots that were just leftovers from the full-timers- it made for schedules that didn’t make any sense at all but it was better than the alternative (which was nothing). I learned a lot about how community college systems operate and how efficient they really are at delivering education. Every institution has a different student population and this required me to be very adaptive with my teaching style. I never had my own office as an adjunct- unless my home or my car counts as an office. I never had any health care benefits as an adjunct. I never had any other kinds of benefits either; for example, the birth of our second child happened to coincide with the beginning of a semester and so there I was in the classroom when our newborn was just two weeks old. I very rarely had any interaction with the full-time faculty. At some places, I got the impression that they just didn’t care who we were and that I shouldn’t bother with trying to make any connections. However, I did meet many other adjuncts over the years doing the very same thing as me (and oftentimes at the very same places). Some of them stuck around longer than others but it was surprising how many came and went within a short period of time. Turnover is so high--but the demand from folks with degrees in philosophy desperately looking for some kind of job is also high. I also saw that the quality of adjunct instruction varies greatly. On the other hand, quality control (in terms of observations and such) varies greatly from institution to institution. Some adjuncts were trying to piece together a living wage by teaching ridiculously large loads. One person told me that they had taught as many as 9 courses in one semester! The most I ever did in one semester was 7 and I promised myself I would never do it again. I know the only thing that made this lifestyle possible was the fact that my spouse almost always had a job the entire time I was adjuncting. This allowed us to have health care (which would have been otherwise unavailable from what I was doing) and also to have a comfortable combined household income. I honestly don’t know how a household could survive on adjunct jobs alone and so I sympathize greatly with the growing adjunct-rights movement. If I may have a soap-box moment I’d like to say this: students pay a lot through tuition and I simply believe a larger portion of that should be devoted to the people who give instruction--not necessarily all the other trendy things that tuition goes for these days like administrative overhead, new construction projects, rock-climbing walls in the student centers, etc…
I took adjuncting very seriously and always strived to do my job as professionally as possible. After several years of doing this, I started to think ahead about what (if anything) it could lead to. A full-time job at a community college was an obvious option but, at some point, I started to take notice of the universities that had (a limited number of) full-time teaching positions. (Elsewhere, I sometimes see these positions referred to as “teaching track” positions…) These are non-tenure track positions that have no research requirements--permanent instructor positions in other words. I thought it sounded perfect for me but also unlikely/impossible to come across one in my geographic area. Occasional browsing on PhilJobs made it obvious that full-time, non-tenure track jobs anywhere were hard to come by. Since we weren’t willing to move, my spouse and I joked that maybe someday I could get the chance to apply for a full-time job teaching philosophy after someone retired--either someone at a community college or someone at a university who has one of these teaching-only positions. So, my strategy was literally to just wait for someone to retire to have a chance at a job (against potentially hundreds of other highly qualified people from a national search). Again, it’s painfully obvious that I really couldn’t have done any of this without the unending financial and emotional support of my spouse. I often felt guilty that the only way for me to pursue the career that I loved was for my spouse to hold down less-than-ideal yet stable jobs. Even though we were preparing to wait a long time, it somehow happened sooner than expected. A full-time teaching-only position at a local state university opened up–my dream job! I had extreme doubts that I would even be offered an interview--much less the job itself. Despite my doubts, it was absolutely essential that I had to at least try for this “one-in-a-million” opportunity. I went through what I thought was an intensive application and interview process. Somehow I got the offer and after an even longer approval process, it actually happened!! It was an incredible relief and a much needed validation that I had, in fact, been doing good work for all the years leading up to that point. This job offer was by far the best thing that has happened to my career and I hope to maintain this job for the rest of my working life. Despite many misconceptions, my teaching position IS permanent. When I go to conferences, I find that others are confused about my position--when I say “instructor” they think it is temporary or that it is a one-year renewal position or sometimes they even think I’m an adjunct. I don’t blame them because the word “instructor” can mean a lot of different things at a lot of different places. At my institution, instructors become permanent after a few “probationary” semesters. It is also protected by a non-tenure track union (which actually makes it comparable to the level of protection of tenure at other institutions where tenure is not backed by any union or any legally binding agreement). The only thing my position does not protect me against is a budget cut- in which case I would probably be one of the first to lose my job.
It’s been a pleasant and fortunate fact that all the departments I’ve been in so far have been extremely respectful environments. I’ve never witnessed or experienced discrimination or harassment of any kind--I’ve never even heard a single testimony from any peer. I often wonder how this has been possible given that I know it does exist- just elsewhere I suppose. Plus, all the departments I’ve been at have been well-represented by women and nearly all have had women in leadership positions at some point. I’m glad for this and it makes me optimistic about the future of the profession. One thing I am pessimistic about is the level of public/state funding for higher education. We are seeing a decrease in this type of funding all over the country and it is something that makes me fear for the security of my job and it’s probably the single-biggest thing that worries me. Budget cuts are realities and I’m not assuming that my position is immune to that (even though I am much cheaper to the university then someone who is tenure-track). I sincerely hope it doesn’t end up affecting this job that I spent most of my adult life trying to obtain.
Even though I do not have a PhD or a tenure-track job, I do believe that I hold a “real” philosophy job and I also believe it’s becoming more commonly accepted as one kind of path in academia. It is definitely not a “typical” research-oriented path and I know it’s not what everyone aspires for when they consider a career in this profession. However, for people like me, this can be a great option. For example, you will probably have far less pressures and obligations than your tenure-track peers. You will have more time to devote to improvement of your teaching skills, to public initiatives, or to any other projects that you deem valuable. Depending on where you work, you may even get to enjoy summers off. On the other hand, if you don’t like the idea of being at the lowest point of seniority in your department, then it may not be something that you’ll be happy with. If you don’t want to be paid a fraction of what your tenure-track peers get paid then, again, it may not be something that you’ll be happy with. But given what the job market has been like the entire time I’ve been in philosophy, I consider myself extremely lucky to have the position that I have. I am grateful every single day for my job- I think it’s an incredible privilege to teach philosophy in academia.
With all that said, I’m going to take this opportunity to express a few highly personal teaching-related observations and hopes that I have for our profession… Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about teaching. I’ve come a long, long way from where I started and I’ve become thoroughly obsessed with the wonders of teaching. Our discipline needs some improvement on emphasizing the importance of teaching. Most obviously, there needs to be better training in graduate school that prepares graduate students for teaching. There is already some awareness and promising movement in this area. Secondly, there should be more “teaching-track” positions and these teachers should be compensated and given status as-such for their talents. It’s disheartening to me that research is treated as front-seat/first-class and teaching is treated as back-seat/second-class. Some people are talented at research and some people are talented at teaching (and, yes, some exceptional individuals are talented at both!) and I’d like to see a system of higher education where we divide up these duties accordingly based on our strengths and weaknesses.
It’s understandable that most tenure-track philosophers don’t have adequate time to devote to the improvement of their teaching- they are busy enough doing research and that takes priority over, for example, sorting through evidence-based findings from SoTL. Thankfully, my teaching position has afforded me the opportunity to experiment with active learning, to focus on student-centered strategies, to discover activities that allow me to connect with my students and give them an engaged experience, etc. It takes time and effort to transform beyond “lecturing as teaching” and I feel that we need more professionals devoted exclusively to teaching in order to do this. Furthermore, in my humble opinion, we should pay, reward, and give recognition/prestige to these professionals appropriately on the basis of their teaching merits. The good news is that there is more support now than ever for teaching professionals (through associations, conferences, etc.) and I’ve seen some new efforts recently to recognize teaching excellence in our discipline. Even without major systemic changes in our discipline, I still hope that my fellow teachers will take seriously their teaching duties and also be willing to create communities where we can share and learn from each other (rather than letting everyone figure it out on their own). Changes in teaching can happen very fast (unlike with research which can be very slow)- every semester is a new opportunity to improve the design of your course and every time you enter the classroom you have an opportunity to improve the way you deliver your information to make learning more effective and memorable for our students. To me, this is what my job as non-TT philosopher is all about.