You know me, Al

Over at Dean Dad’s, a reader finishing a dissertation in Islamic Studies asks for advice on landing the first adjunct job.  As usual, DD’s readers had a lot of excellent things to say, including the first thing that came to my mind, which was that the writer was starting way too early for a Fall 2009 position.  What you want is to be the CV that lands on the department chair’s desk fifteen minutes before or after she discovers that one of her most reliable adjuncts is suddenly leaving the state. 

But one thing I don’t think anyone touched on is the usefulness of knowing someone in the institution where you want to adjunct.  In this sense, the hiring process for adjuncts is less like hiring to the tenure track and much more like hiring in the world outside academia.  Jim, who works at Starbucks, says to his manager, “My friend Joan is applying for a job.  I think you’d like her: she’s smart, learns fast and gets along with everyone.”  If Jim himself is a good employee, Jim’s manager will at least take a look at Joan, right? 

Here’s how I got each one of the adjunct, part-time, or limited-term jobs I have held:

  1. I had a lectureship at a university where I’d previously been a student and worked in an area studies program (and was therefore already a known quantity).
  2. I applied to the two-year proprietary college known here as 2YC after seeing an ad on, believe it or not, Craigslist.  After I sent in my application, I said to my in-laws, “Doesn’t your friend Jennie work there?”  They immediately got on the phone to Jennie, who works in 2YC’s admissions office.  “Admissions office?”  you say.  “What do they have to do with faculty hiring?”  Well, at two-year colleges there are generally fewer bulwarks between departments and offices.  This is probably even more true at a proprietary college, where everyone is united, on some level, behind the goal of making the joint turn a profit.  Jennie trotted upstairs to the Dean of Education’s office, rummaged through the pile of CV’s on her desk, remembered that I use a different last name than Stubb (could’ve blown the whole thing right there), located my CV and handed it to the Dean.  The Dean, who needed someone to hit the ground running in two weeks, called me, and I came in for an interview that turned into a briefing meeting on the two classes of comp they hired me to teach.  I don’t think she even called anyone else.  After I’d worked there for a while, I sent her a guy I knew from undergrad (comp, public speaking, critical thinking) and a woman who dated Stubb’s friend (history of art).  She was glad to get them both.
  3. The dean of the small liberal-arts college I’ve called BAC, where I taught occasional undergraduate general-education writing classes, interviewed and subsequently hired me on the suggestion of a writer friend who was teaching in their graduate program.  I like BAC a lot, but the commute from where I live is brutal.
  4. My friend EJB, who’s commented here a couple of times, suggested I write to the chair of the English department at NCC, whom she knew casually (EJB teaches at a different CC in the same system).  It was from EJB that I learned about the panicked search for adjuncts in August.  (Why don’t departments look in their files for the letters from people who sent their CV’s in March?  Well, even if the departments keep the materials–and can find them–those people may have moved or found other work.  It’s safer to start with the people who wrote last week.)  FLS, who also comments here, has a friend who works in the physical plant office at NCC and teaches an occasional art course there.  This friend is a big NCC booster and in our occasional chats at FLS’s parties had suggested I look for work there, so in my cover letter I mentioned, without thinking too hard about it, that I’d heard wonderful things about NCC from a neighbor who was studying nursing there and from FLS’s friend.  The department chair knew FLS from a committee they’d both sat on, so she called her up.  Fortunately, even without warning (which I should have given her), FLS’s friend remembered me and was able to say something like “Yeah, she’s a good sort.”  That, plus EJB’s name (plus, I’m sure, my by now extensive teaching resume), was enough to get me hired over the telephone at the community college closest to my house.  Really, if I hadn’t begun at Starfleet Academy, I’d still be teaching there, and I’d be within a semester of qualifying for part-timer health insurance, too.  I still feel wistful whenever I drive past, and I’ve tried to leave the door open for future work there–you never know.
  5. A writer I know who teaches in the English department at New RU (which really needs a new name) suggested I send my CV to the graduate program in creative writing and put a good word in for me.  The program was making various changes and they happened to have a course open up that fit well with my teaching experience in CW.  I don’t think this will ever change to a full-time position, for reasons having to do with the structure of the program, but I’m fine with that.  It is a fabulous part-time gig–good (adult!) students, good pay, and I get to teach the stuff closest to my heart and speak about it as a writer–and they seem interested in continuing to hire me. 
  6. Strictly speaking, Starfleet Academy is not an adjunct gig–it’s a regular, full-time job, albeit an at-will situation with no issue of tenure, just like in most of the world.  But I do think it’s worth mentioning that I entered into conversations about the job after I visited to talk to the students about writing.  Then the possibility of the mid-year replacement came up and everything got accelerated.  But they’d had a chance to see me in action first.  And why did I go there in the first place?  Because one of my distant relatives has a kid there.

And note that none of these stories has any grim arm-twisting going on.  What, the staff member from the physical plant is going to force the English department chair to hire me?  But the fact is that said staff member, FLS’s friend, is a smart person and a good college citizen (she’s also a former lawyer, but that’s beside the point).  If she’d said “Yuck, no,” I don’t think I would have gotten a second look.  Once I did get the second look, the gig was mine.  And I have always gotten rehired, so I don’t think any of those people feel that hiring me in the first place was a mistake.

This it’s-who-you-know thing has never worked for me on the conventional TT job market.  Another friend of my in-laws is a major Dean at another big RU in these parts, and this helped me not at all when I applied for an actual TT job at the RU–I wasn’t what they were looking for, and I didn’t even get an interview.  But on the hunt for adjunct work, I don’t think it has ever failed.  So, in sum, here’s what I think Dean Dad’s questioner should do with the next twelve months: tell everyone you know that you would love to have a course to teach at Local Community College.  Someone you know knows someone who works there.  Find out who.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Such an interesting post. I do have a sense that the high school world operates much in the same was as the adjuncting world in this respect, as you experienced in point 6. So I keep thinking that one of my career projects should be to get to know as many independent high school teachers as possible. Not that I’m looking to move on, but I’m still heady with the thought that I *could* move on if it seemed desirable; no more getting stuck in tenure.


  2. […] while working on a book.  (I suppose I could have directed him to this blog.)  I gave him the advice I’ve given here and elsewhere: for adjuncting locally, contacts trump almost anything, and apply in August a few […]


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