Hello “Good Adjuncts”
With the slow but steady uptick in the nation’s economy, more revenues have been drifting into community college budgets, meaning we’re getting fired/laid off/left off the schedule less and, joy of joys, getting shots at the coveted full-time position. Er…maybe “shot” isn’t quite the right word, but rather, “long shot”.
A colleague of mine, Dennis Callahan, may he rest in peace, was one of the lucky few who after years of toil as an adjunct managed to secure himself a full-time position. When speaking of getting the position, he didn’t say, “I earned it,” or “I was clearly the best candidate, “or “I simply gelled with the department.” Instead, he described his getting the job as, “having won the lottery.”
I would tend to agree with this analysis, and I’ll discuss why later, but what’s being left out is this distinction. A lottery winner simply buys a ticket for a chance shot at a glorious prize. The would-be full-time position applicant, by contrast, will be asked to write pages and pages of applicant questions, beg full-time colleagues for letters of reference, revise and ever so tweak a curriculum vita, go through a battery of disingenuous interviews being asked often abstract or obtuse questions by people who are coached to being largely smiling robots, wait for a response, which may not come for months, if then selected, go through a largely ceremonial interview with three other candidates when in truth, one of you has been chosen already, and then finally be anointed as full-time instructor. This for a job that, while clearly better than being an adjunct, usually pays around 40,000 dollars a year to start.
Welcome to the “silly” season.
Every time in the past that I had the opportunity to apply for a full-time position at one of the local colleges (I am bound in part due to my wife’s work to the area), I have dutifully applied, spending a great deal of time and a bit of emotional angst over putting together the application, and going over the prospect of an interview in my head. I have been luckier than most in that I’ve always managed to make it through the written application process, but stall out after the first interview. Each time after that interview, I would wait, and wait, and wait, sometimes for up to two months before I heard a decision was rendered, usually by getting that fun little thin letter in the mail saying effectively “thanks, but no thanks.”
I would then spend the time between that interview and the next application process going through my head what I should have said or not said, talk with other full-time faculty, and ”strategize”.
And I did this knowing that everyone else who was interviewed and failed did the same, along with the other applicants who never even made it to the interview. Oh, and but of course, you would tell yourself, along with the other well-meaning full-timers who you’d talked to, “Buck up! You just have to keep trying.”
It’s interesting to think that for the last 11 years of teaching that I have worked hard to be seen as a good adjunct to put myself through this process of self-flagellation. The fact of the matter is that honestly, getting a full-time job is more about being a good applicant than being a good teacher, and to some extent, more about luck than it is about skill or talent.
The byzantine application process in California is largely the result of Equal Opportunity guidelines, which are meant to level the playing field in terms of which sexes and ethnicities are present in full-time positions. These guidelines have been in place for over 20 years. And how effective have they been?
Well, I teach in English, which at community colleges are the largest departments. I can say that in terms of full timers, at the two schools where I teach, among the 40+ or so full-timers, there is one African American, three Asians, and perhaps maybe ten Latinos, which is notable in that one of my campuses is located approximately ten miles from the US-Mexico border. In what may be perhaps a more progressive sign, the majority of faculty are women, primarily white and non-Hispanic. At both campuses, the ethnic diversity is slightly higher among the adjunct field, but I do notice, and maybe it’s just me, that many minority adjuncts will simply disappear. My presumption is that the prospect of living paycheck to paycheck means that they, like many of my white, non-Hispanic colleagues, simply move on to other professions.
What I mean to say, in short, is that if EEOC guidelines were really meant to address the problem, they’re doing a thoroughly crappy job of it.
Now in truth, the biggest problem with the application process is that there are, even in the “best” of times, remarkably few positions available in comparison to possible applicants. When you have sometimes up to 200 people applying for one position, and at least half if not more of those applicants are serious contenders, there are going to be losers, and a lot of them.
Clearly, the easiest solution to this problem would be for more full-time positions to be offered. This is a no-brain answer, which can be addressed by doing something equally simply from a monetary standpoint, but difficult from a political one—give more to higher ed. with the stipulation the money be used exclusively to make more full-time positions.
I would agree that’s one solution to the problem, but only part of it. Part of the problem is also a process which is cumbersome, unwieldy, artificial, and creates a hyper-competitive environment where people strive to escape the world of the have not’s to be among the haves.
In the third paragraph of this essay I gave a loose description of the process as done for community colleges in California. Consider that including question responses, transcripts, letters of recommendation (optional at some places), and a fully developed curriculum vita, you’re most likely talking close to 20 pages of information to be perused for each candidate.
This means every committee member will have to go through literally thousands of pages of documents to assess who should even be interviewed. The committee members are all too likely not given release time for their work, and the time they have to spend winding their way through the applications could be time better spent on curriculum, instruction, or professional development. Moreover, are they really going to be able to make an honest assessment of the candidate under these conditions?
Then there is the interview process itself, which will also take the committee members out of the classroom as they need to go through hours of interviews asking tightly refereed questions. Much of the time, the committee members are not even allowed to interact with the candidates except on the most perfunctory level. You could just as easily put the candidates in an empty room and have them respond to the questions submitted over an intercom.
After that, the committee members will have to score the candidates on the basis of their direct responses to the questions, pretending, if one will, that the information given in the application packet didn’t exist. The committee members then also have to pretend as if they don’t even know these people, even if they have been working alongside them for years.
From there the committee members will usually submit three choices to a vice president for further review. Often the committee will have the candidate they want in mind, so this part of the process, is for the most part, a formality, but again, the Kabuki Dance must continue.
One might ask, “How a vice president, who may not only have no knowledge about the subject being taught, but have never really taught a class, should be a final arbiter in deciding the who is right for the position?” It would be a good question. The answer is that it makes no sense, other than that the vice president or president wants or needs that power for largely emotional or psychological reasons.
And for anybody who fires back, “it’s in the Ed. Code”, let me just ask, “Who made the Ed. Code, and what was their motivation?”
I’m always struck by people who say that schools should operate and manage themselves more like private corporations. I ask, “Where in the corporate world would such a process be used to hire one candidate for an entry-level position?” If you can tell me this, can you also tell me when they’re filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, because no company would be able to function effectively if it dealt with personnel and hiring in this way.
As for all the good adjuncts out there toiling away in the hopes of getting a job, 95% of them will be out of luck until, next year, when another 95% of them will be out of luck again, and at this point, the inevitable self-doubt, refection, and bitterness sets in.
And as for the lucky winners of the full-time position? Well, they’ve been anointed the best. They are a cut above. Why of course, the system works, because after all, they made it, and if people were just like them…
Sometimes, these lucky few go on to view the adjunct condition as merely a temporary transitional period which effectively separates the wheat from the chaff, and therefore there is no “adjunct” problem, but rather, a problem of old adjuncts who just haven’t figured out that they suck and need to quit the profession.
I’d be curious to know that if they had to go through the same process on an annual basis if they in fact would get the job again year in and year out. My bet is that nine times out of ten, they would not. In fact, this actually happened at one of my institutions. A full-timer took a year off for family issues, reapplied for the position, and didn’t make it past the first round of interviews.
What can, could, should or should be done about the process? That my good adjuncts, will be the subject of my next essay.
A “good” adjunct who hasn’t figured out yet that he sucks.
miximinao, thank you for your hard honesty, saying things that need saying. You identify several albatrosses which help to maintain the status quo of the exploitation of the many. The one that I think is most egregiously damnable is the system of hiring. Although it was conceived, as you note, as an antidote for the old boys’ network, it has become, quite ironically, a mechanism for maintaining the class system that undermines faculty power and the unwieldy means by which tenure will finally be destroyed or, more accurately, retired. Tenure will become synonymous with “writing program (b)administrator.” Unless we can reverse the 40 year trend of steadily declining full-time positions (at the current rate, the % will be less than 20% in about ten years), we can only resist by empowering the majority faculty. This begins with, as exemplified in Colorado, one pay scale for part-time and full-time faculty. Much more besides this will need to be accomplished, such as perhaps redefining what how academic freedom is protected, but without financial security, people may be too vulnerable to resist. WE need to replace the current 20th century hiring system, which was good for its time and place, with an innovative new system that reflects current needs and realities. Doing this will not require a dispensation from God. It is doable, if we have the willpower. The old FACE legislation, a mission that needs to be resurrected, has working language that addresses this, but which can be refined to create a track for adjunct/contingent to become full-time. Details can be negotiated, but legislation to establish fair hiring in higher education is not only feasible but morally imperative. The anguish which you describe is well known, even if it is one of the dirty secrets we keep in the higher education closet of shame. Thanks again for speaking rude truth to power.
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