Always an Adjunct?

Regular readers of this website know that I left my adjunct teaching position at the University of Georgia last May.  Ultimately, I’m glad I did what I did. The job wasn’t bad, but it was keeping me from moving on to something better.

In this week’s post at Vitae, I discuss some of the questions I’ve been dealing with since deciding to leave my position.

For one, it’s just kind of strange to not be prepping for classes this year like I would usually be doing. After dedicating about seven years of my life to a career track, I’m having a hard time leaving it behind.

I’m also struggling with another important question. How does my role as a writer about adjunct issues change now that I’m no longer an adjunct? My professional identity for the past couple of years has been that of an adjunct who writes about adjunct issues. Now I’m wondering what my new life outside of academe means for my legitimacy as a higher ed writer.

Should I continue to write about adjunct issues? Am I allowed to? Will I even want to?

I have to admit that part of me wants to leave the conversation entirely. I know progress is being made. I see it every day. In the two and half years since the Adjunct Project first began, adjunct issues have been pushed into the mainstream. The tide appears to be turning.

As I discuss in the piece, I’m not sure what my new role will be and whether or not I will stay connected to higher ed. I know leaving was something I had to do. Now I just need to figure out how I can continue to be useful to the growing movement.

Read more about my decision to leave academe and about the questions I’m pondering at:

Giving Up the Good.


Walking Away

I’m walking away, but I’m not turning my back.

New Series About Adjuncts Who Change Careers

I’ve just launched a new series at Vitae called “How I Got Out” in which I tell the stories of former adjuncts who have reinvented themselves and escaped their bad situations.

Whether they’ve returned to school, switched careers, or picked up some kind of new certification, all the adjuncts I’ve interviewed for this series have made changes that allowed them to leave behind adjunct hell.

How to get out

I’ve been particularly interested in this topic lately because I’m in the process of doing the very same thing myself. This past semester was my last as an adjunct (I hope). So I’ve been trying to learn all I can about how other adjuncts have succeeded in escaping. And I’m passing along everything I learn to my readers, many of whom are also adjuncts contemplating a career change.

Earlier this week, I published Brian Flota’s alt-ac narrative about how he switched gears after his tenure-track job search stalled. Flota also saw that things weren’t working for him and decided to make a change.

For the first piece of the “How I Got Out” series, I talked to a former adjunct from the Seattle area who is now the e-Learning Director at the school where she used to teach part-time.

Alyson Indrunas did her research, went back to grad school for a second master’s degree, and hit the job market from a new angle. Her hard work paid off, and her life looks much different now than it did a couple of years ago.

Read more about Alyson’s story and how she made the change:

How I Got Out: One Adjunct’s Journey From Freeway Flyer to e-Learning Director 

My Graduate Degree’s Default Setting

I ended up a teacher by accident. At some point during three years of graduate school, I got it into my head that I was going to teach college students. I never even liked teaching or public speaking or even being around people all that much. So, naturally, I decided to become a teacher.

Actually here’s what happened: Someone told me at some point that teaching was a thing people do after they get a master’s degree in English. That’s what caused it. Someone said I should do it, and for some damned reason that was all I needed to hear.

I remember the day two women came to one of my graduate classes and talked about planning for the future after grad school. It was one of those pep talks or something like it. Come to think of it, though, they were mainly just recruiting future adjunct professors for the satellite campuses of the university. Out of the whole talk, that’s the message that stuck with me.

We hire people from this program to teach. In two years, we might hire you.

After class that night, one of the women—Director of Something or Other—told me I could be an adjunct professor with my degree. I didn’t even know what the hell that meant. It seemed cool at the time, and she gave me her business card so it was official. Said to contact her in two years when I finished the program. We’re always looking for good adjuncts, she said.

At the time, I assumed her invitation was a compliment. She had seen something in me, and she had offered me a guaranteed spot on the teaching roster after graduation. I remember being excited. It seemed too good to be true. It was.

Looking back that meeting could only be described as a kind of propaganda session, designed to indoctrinate us new recruits into the system of exploitation. The seeds were planted. You, too, can be a professor. Opportunity awaits.

When you’re green like that it’s easy to get thoughts implanted into your mind. “You’d be good at X,” and then suddenly you’re doing everything you can to become X because somebody with authority saw promise in you.

I fell right into it. Never even questioned the track once I had been set upon it.

Yeah, okay, a professor—that sounds cool. She’s right actually; I do want to be a professor. I remember now.

If I had thought about it for two seconds, I would have realized I didn’t want that at all. Too easy to take the path that had been outlined for me. Too convenient to follow the map that someone else drew rather than design my own adventure.

Once I had the map, all I had to do was follow the dotted line to the buried treasure. Nevermind that the treasure might be fool’s gold.

Treasure Map

And from there on out, I was a teacher. Never questioned it again. Now, six years later, I’m finally starting to admit that I deviated from my plan, that I allowed the words of an authoritative stranger to influence my future. I didn’t go to grad school to be a teacher. That was never the plan. It was only a default setting that I forgot to switch off once I took my degree out of the package.

To be clear, I’m not blaming my mistakes on someone else. No, I’m the one who failed to plan. I’m the one who ignored the warning signs. I’m the one who veered off course. I’m the one who accepted someone else’s plan for my life.

And now I’m the one who is tearing up the map mid-course. I’m the one who is stepping off the trail and venturing into the wilderness. I’m the one who is now—finally—creating my own path.


My House is Burning

I dreamed last night that my house was burning and, as I rushed to escape the flames, the only item I grabbed was a set of kitchen knives. Out of everything in my house, the only thing my subconscious mind decided to save was a collection of Henkels.

It’s true I love a good set of knives. No secret among my close friends and family. Ask any of them. I’ve been known to joke that the only reason I want to get married is to add a great knife set to the gift registry.

But this dream was more than just an homage to cutlery. As I grabbed the knives and headed for the inflamed exit, I knew the precious cargo under my arm meant something important—like taking those knives was crucial to my ability to rebuild post-fire.

Burning House of Academe

When I woke up the flames were gone. The knives were holstered, as usual, in the block between the coffee maker and the refrigerator. It wasn’t until hours later that the dream began to take on a special significance.

I was talking to a friend on Facebook who also works in academia. She’s finishing her second year in a PhD program in Kentucky, and she’s also contemplating the long walk.

She half-jokingly suggested that my dream was a metaphor for the major life decision I’ve been struggling with lately. At first, I laughed. But then it hit me that she might actually be right.

The burning house in my dream is the academy. It’s a profession in flames, and I’m inclined to believe it can’t be saved as long as we stay on our current path of destructive labor practices, increased tuition, and defunded state coffers.

Or maybe I should just say that the burning house is my own personal status in the academy. I’m likely not going to advance any further than the adjunct role I currently hold. Same job, same pay for the rest of my life. My career is a burning building and I need to get out of it. So that’s what the house symbolizes.

Now for the knives. A little bit harder to explain. Here’s the way I see it. The kitchen knives represent a set of concrete, utilitarian tools that would help me reinvent myself in a new career. As long as I identify specific skills and specific actions I can take to employ those skills, I can recover from this transition and successfully reinvent myself. I’ve been in this position many times before. I know it can be done.

That’s why my subconscious mind grabbed the knives on the way out the flaming door. “Take something with you that can immediately be put to use,” my mind was saying. “Cover your ass and hit the ground running.”

I watch a lot of Top Chef, but I don’t think the next phase of my life will involve the culinary arts. The knives were just a symbol of a skill proficiency, something I could utilize when I escape my burning house.

Glad to see my subconscious thinking ahead. Now, as this house is subsumed around me, I just need to grab my tools and run.

Sprinting Down the Home Stretch to Freedom

The home stretch. April 1st is always a milestone for me because the end of the semester comes into focus. Just four more weeks. Surely we can make that. Right?

The second round of papers: graded. The third: about to begin. We’re in the momentary calm before the storm. One final push and we’re out the other end, free to enjoy the summer however we choose.

I’m suffering from a particularly acute case of senioritis this semester because I think this is my last semester as a teacher. It’s getting to the point where teaching isn’t worth it to me anymore. The extra hours and low pay don’t make sense. Besides, there are many other things I’d rather be doing.

Home Stretch

Entering the Home Stretch.


Actually, I should say that adjunct pay here at the University of Georgia is pretty decent as far as part-time professor pay goes. Considering the low cost of living in Athens, the pay really isn’t all that bad relatively speaking. But it’s still far below what I’m worth. I know my skills and experience are worth more than $32,000 per year.

That’s why I’ve been slowly breaking my addiction to teaching, gradually transitioning away from academic life. Luckily, I’ve found some healthy habits to replace my unhealthy behavior.

For example, I’ve rediscovered the joy of writing that had gone dormant within me since I began graduate school in 2008. Writing research paper after research paper zapped my desire to pen for pleasure. Add to that about 3,000 graded student papers each year and the result has been that I barely even want to look at a word processor, let alone write regularly for fun.

But now that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, my desire to write is returning. This website is helping, of course. I’ve found that I have something to say in this space just about every day, which amazes me. I happen to be an introverted, quiet person in my daily life.

So, the goal is to turn this writing thing into a full-time job. I’ve started getting serious about pitching stories to major publications—something I’ve been only pawing at for years. I’m ready to take my writing to the next level, from part-time job to a real career.

Jump without a net—that’s what I’m thinking. It’s how I work best. Do or die. Fly high or crash and burn. It’s stressful, but exciting.

I’ve threatened to walk away before. Actually, just about every semester since I began teaching has been my “last.” And every time, I accept the classes offered to me and come back to my addiction. It’s too easy to return.

Even now, as I write this, I wonder if I’m serious about leaving. I mean, I haven’t told anyone in my department yet. I guess that’s my way of keeping the door open. What if the writing life doesn’t work out?

I’m inspired by stories of other academics who are leaving or who have left, which is probably why I read every piece of quitlit I can get my hands on. Like the story of my friend and colleague Joe Fruscione, who is quitting his adjunct job this semester after 15 years in a classroom.

My four years as an adjunct pale in comparison to Joe’s decade and a half. I can’t imagine what he’s feeling. Some excitement, some trepidation I would think. I know the feeling.

Entering the home stretch this semester feels different than it usually does. I really think this is it for me. It’s a little bittersweet, I have to say. I will miss the college campus, but I know I’ll stay involved with the world of higher education. After all, I still love to read and write about it, which I’m sure I’ll continue to do on a daily basis. Ideally, the next phase of my life will involve writing about education.

Yeah, the home stretch is a little bittersweet for me this year, but it’s mostly sweet.

Escape From Academia

I’ve read a bunch of stories lately about people leaving academe. Vitae even started compiling a Google Doc full of quitter narratives and created a special genre that Sydni Dunn dubbed #quitlit. The document has 69 stories and counting.

I’m not surprised how many people are leaving the once-heralded halls of the academy–especially given the way all the good academic jobs are drying up and being converted to low-paying contingent positions.

I guess it is interesting how many people are especially vocal about their decision to flee the academic life. Usually quitting a job is not necessarily something to proclaim from the roof tops. You just kind of quit quietly and move on.

It suggests to me that people are especially bitter and pissed off about their circumstances in the world of higher education. Any job that causes you to do a happy dance after quitting must suck pretty bad.

escape from academia

Part of the post-quitter elation seems to come from finally releasing the hold gained by many years of academia’s burrowing into one’s mental and psychological health. It’s hard to give it up once you’ve invested so much. After investing a decade or more in earning a degree and training to use it, academics become especially adept at ignoring the sunk cost fallacy.

A form of cognitive dissonance I suppose. As long as I can convince myself that what I’m doing is worth it, then it must be so. Nevermind the interminable “apprenticeship” of adjuncthood or the low pay and self-sacrifice.

And that doesn’t even address the opportunity cost associated with an unsatisfying academic career. What might you be doing if you weren’t sticking it out in the academy? Could you be working a more fulfilling career? A better paying one? Might you have more free time?

It’s easy to forget about these opportunity costs when one is pursuing a goal with the monomaniacal tenacity of Ahab.

At what point must we own up to the sunk costs and simply walk away? All that time spent in grad school, all those years teaching as an adjunct, all those rewritten chapters of your dissertation? They’re already done and gone. They’re in the past and they can’t be gotten back. So why allow them to continue to derail your future plans?

Best to just leave the past where it is and move on to the future.

Anne Helen Peterson just did. I’m drawn to Peterson’s story*, which I read today in The Hairpin, because she’s achieved exactly what I’m trying to achieve. An escape from academia in favor of a career as a writer.

After earning a PhD, Peterson started writing on the side and gradually built up an online presence. In the process, she learned how to adapt her esoteric academic prose to the reading style of a pop culture audience. It worked and now she’s heading to Buzzfeed full-time. Lucky her.

Apparently, Peterson was as excited as the other #quitlitters to get the hell out of the academy. You can tell from the opening question of the interview.

After confirming her new position, interview and interviewee apparently shared a moment of exuberance because “eight minutes of screaming” had to be redacted from the interview transcript. Ha. An exaggeration no doubt, but you get the picture.

Getting away from a job for which you are “not a good fit” (as Peterson eloquently puts it) is a great feeling. Finding a job for which you are a good fit is even better.

The sooner I can join the quitlit ranks and embark on my escape from academia, the better. I always enjoy reading stories like Peterson’s because they give me confidence that it can be done.

*Thanks to Jacqui Shine for tipping me on Peterson’s escape from academia.