Most people in my world outside of the university don’t know what it means to be an adjunct professor. If I mention that I’m in the process of applying for a job they look at me quizzically. “I thought you already had a job!” Well, yes and no.
I looked up the word once to make sure that I was explaining it well. Miriam-Webster’s definition of “adjunct” rubbed salt in the wound: “n. 1. a thing added to something else as a supplementary rather than an essential part.” However, if adjuncts were non-essential, schools would stop using them. These days, no school can afford not to hire adjuncts. And anyone who has invested years of energy in grad school is unlikely to say no when the opportunity arises. In fact, without experience as an adjunct, a job offer is most unlikely.
And so I find myself here, in between “student” and “faculty” status. Waiting.
New Testament scholars are fond of the phrase “already, not yet” as a fitting way to describe the kingdom of God (the 50-cent term is “inaugurated eschatology”). Jesus has already come, but he has not yet consummated his rule. He has already been raised to life, but the fullness of new creation is not yet realized. He has already triumphed over Satan at the cross, but evil has not yet been fully defeated. We are not yet fully free.
As an adjunct professor, this is a phrase particularly apt for me as well. I have already finished my degree. My diploma arrived in the mail last fall, six months after I walked across that stage, wearing that expensive robe, shaking those hands, bringing closure to my educational journey. My dissertation is already bound and sitting on a library shelf. In fact it is already under contract for publication. I am already teaching university classes. I am already Dr. Imes. That part’s for real.
But some days the “not yets” loom large. I do not yet have a permanent contract. I have no office of my own. I am not yet a bona fide member of any faculty, though I have been warmly welcomed to hang around the department by those who are. My dissertation has not yet been released. In many ways, though I already have my “club card” for academia, I am still on the outside looking in — not yet a full-fledged participant. I am already credentialed, but not yet settled in my career.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I’m unhappy. This is a sweet season in so many ways. I am deeply grateful for the open door to teach at two universities, both of which I love dearly. Teaching adjunct allows me certain freedoms as well. I’m not expected to go to faculty meetings unless I want to. My office hours can be short and sweet. No one minds if I work from home. All the same, it feels uncertain, tenuous, incomplete. Joining the contingent labor force was not the aim of my education.
But here I am.
So what do I make of this?
On my bad days, bitterness seeps in. The list of what I do not have looms large. I watch my husband juggling three jobs and three kids and running our household so that I can pour myself into a fulfilling career that pays less than minimum wage, and my heart breaks for him. For us. How long can we keep pushing like this?
Thankfully, I have more good days than bad. These are the days when I’m mindful of three imperatives:
- Cultivate gratitude. Being thankful doesn’t come naturally at first. It takes practice. Like Pollyanna, we must become intentional about naming our blessings. When I do, my attitude brightens and my work becomes a joy.
Honestly, it’s hard not to love my job, in spite of the uncertainties. I get to spend long hours studying and thinking, crafting courses and assignments, meeting with students, attending events on campus, teaching classes, and writing. I love every minute of it. I may not have an office of my own, but I do have students, and I can still meet with them and hear their stories. Yesterday I grasped hands with a student who is facing an arduous healing journey. We prayed together and the tears flowed. Another student comes often with his bucket of questions. We delve into whatever he’s wrestling with until it’s time for class. What a privilege to walk alongside students such as these!
- Embrace the opportunities. I decided not to wait until I landed a full-time job to invest on campus. Whenever possible, I attend faculty meetings or lunches, participate in faculty trainings, and collaborate with my colleagues on course development. Every single time I go, I learn valuable information and meet new people or deepen connections with my colleagues. My students also benefit when I’m in the loop regarding what’s happening on campus.
I’ve found that it helps to think of adjunct teaching as an internship. Many careers require an internship or hours of “residency” — counselors, primary school teachers, doctors, nurses — and graduates in other professions are increasingly recognizing the value of an internship, even if it’s not required. Teaching as an adjunct is a great way to build your CV, develop courses, and experiment with teaching methods without the administrative expectations of a full-time position. Teaching at more than one institution exposes me to various learning software platforms, different administrative structures and styles of leadership, and a more diverse student population. All these are preparing me to contribute more effectively as a full-time member of the faculty someday.
- Remember who’s boss. I’ll give you a hint: it’s not the guy in a suit and tie down the hall. In the words of Paul to indentured servants living in Colossae, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Col 3:23). Paul urges them to lift their eyes and see their work as a form of service to God. If a bondservant can adopt this perspective, surely adjuncts can, too.
Humanly speaking, those who assign me classes do not have the power to pay me more than they already do or offer me a tenure-track position. Frankly, the power is not in the hands of the Provost or the college President or the School Board either. Our sovereign God opens and closes doors, and it is to him that we must give account of our work. Our job is simply to be faithful with the opportunities God provides.
And so I wait, trying to harness the flexibility of this season of contingency for maximum growth.
I had hoped that by now I would have left the pool of contingent labor, so that I could say to each of you, “Hang in there! Your time will come!” Instead I am still saying it to myself, with another unsuccessful job search behind me.
The bright side? In a tight market, every new job posting (even when it goes to someone else) is a cause for celebration. Someone will be justly employed, and students will benefit from that stability. The applicant pool will be one-qualified-person smaller, and next time around I will be that much better prepared.