The minimalist academic – Part 1 (on getting a bunch of work)

 This post is a blow-by-blow account of leaving FT work and applying for adjuncting/sessional work. It is intended to demonstrate how adjuncting work comes in, hours that are offered, bonuses if any, the reasons I accepted particular jobs and how much money the work is actually going to put in my hand.

My next post considers the status of adjuncting and whether it is possible or even desirable to work as an adjunct in an ongoing capacity.

In preparation from my flight from almost-six-figure teaching job, I have been doing much thinking, reading and searching about things like the meaning of work, whether it is really important to own a house, living on less, part-time work and the value of my time and freedom.

One of the main reasons I was frustrated in my teaching job was that I was teaching in a subject that I didn’t care about – I had no passion for. I did it for three years with a promise from my employer that this year I would get the chance to teach some classes in my discipline – that promise for me through the last twelve months and when it failed to materialise, and I was given platitudes and false flattery while my job went to an outside hire. I realised then that every day that I stayed teaching in the area they wanted me to would be a day closer that I became that person. My whole professional identity was being re-stitched and I was letting it happen – gone were the 8 years of tertiary education in my discipline, gone were the 9 years of tertiary teaching in my discipline – people thought of me, indeed framed me through what they saw me doing every day – and understandably so. I was that person for all intents and purposes because that is what I was seen to be doing and it wasn’t going to be long before every single trace of my previous skills and knowledge were superseded. And in order to protect my passion, I had to leave.

But back to point 1 – what about bills and houses and cars and careers and salaries?

Because I am leaving a FT job to finish my PhD, it is considered usual to work in an adjunct/sessional capacity. I have written elsewhere about adjuncting – about the positives it can offer  as well as some of the financial aspects. I was a sessional/adjunct for almost 10 years before I was a FT secondary teacher and I although there were many hairy times financially, looking back these were created by myself to begin with and had little to do with adjuncting as such. I was often so concerned with not having a full time, ongoing salary that I didn’t manage the work and income that I did have effectively or, stop to consider the positive aspects of my position such as the lower stress levels, the time I did not have to spend attending to ongoing and often soul-crushing administration that comes with teaching – in any sector.

My (financial) story from the past 8 weeks.

I began considering leaving my FT job at the end of December 2011. It was too late to apply for PhD funding (I had re-enrolled in my doctorate a few months previously) and I was very, very worried about supporting myself financially and in leaving a well-paid and permanent job. I have written about these anxieties here and here if you are interested but suffice to say that I was terrified of leaving the security that my job provided and terrified to stay in such a stifling situation; I was or rather I felt trapped.

Even before I had made up my mind whether or not I was leaving, I decided to test the waters of available adjunct work. It had been over 6 years since I had taught in the academy (although I never stopped identifying as being an ‘academic’ and my recent return to doctoral study had reassured me that my knowledge base had not evaporated in the process of marking year 10 essays for 3 years – which was a huge relief) and I knew that there had been economic shifts – I just wasn’t certain how the universities had been affected. I checked the national job outlook database and it was similar to what I remember it for academia – a growth industry with moderate outlook and higher than average salaries (Australia differs to the US in that we pay teachers and academics quite well – not fantastic, and we tax the hell out of them but that is a different story) – but I did notice something that I found unusual – 32.4% of the profession is part time, and that seems quite high (job outlook data for academics in Australia can be found here).

So, I did my research and started to apply for positions

I was always very good at obtaining adjunct work – and went back to worrying about my choice/s and how they would impact upon my life; would I get any work?, would I get enough work to live?, was moving back to the city and the subsequent increase in living costs going to be worth it or was I better of staying where I was?, could I do relief/subbing at the local high schools wherever I was located?, was I going to starve? etc …

I was being paid over December and some of January as school was on break (the Australian school/educational year runs from late January to Early December with summer break over the xmas period)  so I was okay in the short term but after my application for leave without pay was denied by the school, I hit panic button because I had not heard anything back from any of the work I applied for (given that semester 1 didn’t start until the last week of February, this was not surprising – the universities usually have no idea about final enrolments until a week or so before semester and consequently don’t know how much work is available – it is part of the stress of adjunct teaching. I couldn’t face the return to school for term one and I had approximately 21 days medical leave that I could draw upon because in all honesty, the decision was sending my stress levels through the roof and I was in no condition to be at work anyhow. I had also just heard back from a university with a nice offer to teach in a large, foundation level course.

I was over the moon with this offer as it validated my currency to myself

I had been concerned about the time spent away – and it offered quite nice money. Basically, I was to be paid for attending a 2-hour lecture and a weekly 1-hour meeting with all people teaching the course (there are about 8 of us – it is a huge course). The rates for this stuff is about half the hourly rate for actual teaching but there is not much to really do but turn up and the money all adds up. The actual teaching was originally for 3, 2-hour tutorials/classes which was very nice and I was happy that I had managed to secure about 1/3 of my previous weekly salary for approximately 8 hours work – not bad! The kicker of course is that these hours are spread out across the week; the lecture is on Monday evening 4-6, the meeting on Wed morning, 8:30-9:30 and the classes are Wed 11:30-1:30 and then 2:30-4:30 with the other class (that I eventually gave up due to the day/time) would have been Thursday 2:30-4:30. Obviously it is great that most of my work is on a Wednesday and the Monday lecture is available online so after the first couple of weeks I think I will be able to watch it from home and when I removed the Thursday class,  the remaining 5 hours all happen on Wednesday – perfect!

Things were falling into place beautifully!

The next offer

was to be a course coordinator for a brand new class that is starting this semester at a campus located near where I am. The lecture and 2 tutorials/workshops are all on a Friday and it offered a fantastic opportunity to make some ties to the local university (I love my current location and being able to work from here would be a dream come true) as well as a nice juicy entry on the CV. The downside is that it is a 2 hour commute once I relocate to the city but, as I am being paid a high hourly rate, it is more than worth it financially, it is just less than ideal time-wise. In order to cut costs I placed an ad on the local ‘craigslist’ equivalent and found a woman who is happy for me to pay her $20 to use a room for the night – my coach/commute costs will be about $40 as well but even with these costs I am way ahead so it is still worth it. The other concern with this course is that it is brand new and I am responsible for every aspect of it – all lectures and workshops, readings etc have to be decided upon, written and delivered by yours truly and this is no small task. As this is a production course, marking is much easier than it is with others so I gain there but, it is still a large commitment. One last point that I considered is that if this course goes well and if I impress the department head, I should (repeat should) be a shoe-in to teach the course in the future.

At this stage, I am committed to Wednesdays in the city and Fridays in a commute and my earnings are just over 2/3 of my FT job which is not too shabby.

Offer number 3 was the cream of the crop.

This offer was to teach an online course for a first year class in my discipline. It was one I was really keen on because it is online which means I can be located anywhere, as long as I have an internet connection so my options for location are expanded as well. Also, the online environment has 4 study periods rather than 2 semesters so that it is possible to work 12 months of the year if you can get the work. I was initially offered the equivalent of 3 tutorials but that has been bumped to 4 – eight hours. I had now surpassed my previous salary and I was really ecstatic. This employer is also very generous with payments for admin (emails and phone calls to course coordinator etc) being paid every second wage, payment for completing an online teaching course myself (up-skilling plus CV addition – bonus) and an end of semester grading payment for each student enrolled (in addition to salary). This course makes it possible to me to stay in my current location if I want to. It is only offered 2 times a year however so that even if I do well, the very best outcome is that I get this class again in the second half of the year. I am hopeful that other classes offered by the course co may need people as well during the year and I may get an opportunity there – but I am getting ahead of myself.

At this point I was more than set. Classes for my first position started last week and I loved being back in a tertiary environment. However, I am still based in the country and am having problems getting my previous employer to fulfill their obligation to locate me back to the city. There is a caveat in there that states that as I was in my current position less than 2 years and did not resign in December last year, they are not obligated. That has left me stranded because the previous 5 weeks they have been agreeing to the relocate and reneging last minute has left me well and truly stranded here.

Just prior to hearing about this, I received yet another offer from my own university to teach for 3 hours on a Thursday. The offer came from the head of school and as it is quite a prestigious university, I was happy to get the call and agreed to teach even though I no longer needed the money and, was beginning to get a bit concerned about being spread so thin.This course also has a follow-on in semester 2 so part of my thinking was that I would more than likely get some work with that course as well so, it was an investment of sorts.

So, at this stage.

I have superseded my previous salary by about 30%. I have 3 teaching days and approximately 18 actual hours (including online). It is far more than I needed and I have been somewhat reckless in allocating my time due to fear of having nothing. I really have taken on too much teaching. As it is only for 12-13 weeks, I am not too worried that I may stumble or, outright crack, I love academia and I love teaching in particular and I have the enthusiasm of someone who has been away on my side.

But.

As I indicated at the start of this post, I have been doing some soul-searching about all of this and I am beginning to think that it is possible to use adjuncting as a way to live a more minimalist lifestyle, to NOT take every single offer that comes along due to terror of not being able to meet bills but rather to approach adjuncting as an opportunity to engage in teaching and to be part of the academy without the stress and pressure of ‘publish or perish’ or the never-ending administrative tasks.

So although I ‘won’ this semester in that I have been successful in landing more than enough work, I am not convinced that I have really won anything at all. Part 2 here

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