The minimalist academic pt 2 – rethinking adjuncting

In part 1 I described how I accepted a bunch of teaching positions because I was worried about money and also to prove to myself and my CV that I was still viable in the tertiary sector after being away for 6 years.

How much do we really need?

When I stopped to consider it however, I have effectively swapped one incredibly stressful workplace for 4 others! Not only that, but in my rush to say ‘yes’ to everything, I missed out on the opportunity to stay where I am which is a much nicer location and has a much lower cost of living. I am now a bit stuck. Physically because my previous employer has reneged on an agreement to re-locate me back to the city and professionally because I have agreed to teach these courses that rely on my being in the city in order to teach them. I wasn’t being greedy when I accepted. Yes, the money sounded great but I wasn’t driven solely by the money, it was a desire to jump back into tertiary teaching with both feet and a reluctance to create contacts and therefore potentially further work in semester 2 when the well traditionally dries up considerably. In my rush to cover bills and ensure, as much as possible, ongoing work next semester, I overlooked the basic tenet that if I stay here I will be paying less and will need to pay less and consequently work less. If I had only accepted the work from the local campus here together with the online position, I would only need to physically be on campus 1 day per week, and I would have more time to devote to doing a good job. Yes, I would have kissed hundreds of dollars a week goodbye together with almost certain work next semester if I am able to have a successful semester but, at what cost is all of this? All the traveling and re-locating is going to be hideous, absolutely hideous. And all so that I can ‘afford’ to live in the city. When I looked at it in this way, it was crazy.

Because I have made commitments, I am not 100% sure what I am going to do. But I have realised what I should have done.

I should have had more patience and belief that things would turn out for me. If I had waited for just a short while and/or been upfront with the first offer I received about my desire to stay, I would not be in this current position. Adjuncts are considered to be those who either haven’t or can’t get full time, tenure-track academic positions. There are many very good reasons why working as an adjunct is considered to be an awful place to be stuck but the reality is that many people who are working as adjuncts will either give up hope of every getting a TT job or will retain hope but never have that dream fulfilled due to lack of timing or funds there simply wont ever be a position for them amongst full time faculty. I don’t say this to be negative and I am pretty sure that most people are aware of the situation so I certainly don’t say it to be controversial. Those are the facts. The reason I am repeating them here is to raise the idea that perhaps there is opportunity when we hear only of limitation; that adjuncting can be a way to have more freedom while still doing what you love. I have demonstrated in my previous post that it is possible to build a solid income from working as an adjunct, that is not what this is about. Money is important insofar as we need to keep a roof over our heads and food in our stomachs. But, rather than struggling to raise your income to that of TT faculty, there is the option of lowering the cost of living so that less is required to meet those basic needs. There are hundreds upon hundreds of websites devoted to this idea so I am not going to expand on something that is both self-evident and covered elsewhere.

What I am suggesting is that we have a look at the positive aspects of adjuncting and consider if perhaps a crushing desire to achieve tenure isn’t always the only way to go.

According to the minimalist movement, work should be about our passion and it should have meaning. They advocate not working for the highest dollar in order to fund a lifestyle rich in gadgets and fashionable clothes but rather to reduce or minimise our life so that our time and freedom are spent consciously and used to provide what we really need rather than just ‘the latest’. I recommend reading about minimalist finance and budgeting by Josh Millborne here for an overview on how this works but there is masses of information available on how to minimise your lifestyle available so again, I am not going into that in any detail here. If you consider what being a contemporary academic means on a day-to-day basis, it is a career that is increasingly sutured to administration and the paper trail rather than teaching or research. The internet is full of stories about people who have left the academy due to stress, frustration or sheer exhaustion and perhaps it is worth reflecting upon our burning desire to join them at any cost and/or having our sense of professionalism and status invested in achieving a TT position.

I had a meeting with a department head on Friday to go over my contract and the details of the course I am writing. She also wanted to make sure that I knew where my lecture theatre is and that the library staff are all aware of who I am while I wait for staff ID to arrive. This particular women is what most people would consider a resounding success story. Two weeks after completing her doctorate she was offered her current position. It involved relocating to a lovely coastal town in a highly sought after area and she was ecstatic about the offer. Fast-forward 7 years and although her salary and responsibilities have increased, she is unhappy with her position on many levels. She explained to me that in order to attract students (when did this become the responsibility of the academic?) she has to serve on at least 3 boards every year on top of all other academic duties – and let’s consider those for a moment; the running of a department means finances, staffing, logistics of equipment. Being an academic means teaching, working on your own research, publishing and grant writing, committees, supervision of research students, being responsible for the administration of final grades, exam papers etc for hundreds and hundreds of students and these are just off the top of my head. We briefly discussed these things but what really resonated with me was when she said that no longer had the time to actually do what she was passionate about anymore – the whole reason for grad school in the first place has been lost in ever-increasing duties.

After this meeting I had a long think and realised that at this point in my life, adjunct work is offering me what no FT or TT job does – enough money to cover living expenses, keep access to university libraries, databases etc for research and a primarily teaching role with time to do my research.

Should we re-think our attitude to adjunct life?

Of course there are drawbacks.

We hear about these often and main one seems to be lack of job security and while there are some steps you can take to help maximise ongoing employment, the fact is that it is always uncertain.

One of the ways I think that adjuncts can better manage this aspect of the work is to have other incomes that take away the do-or-die desperation and stress that can occur. There are many ways to supplement an income that are complimentary to adjuncting. For example, there are online academic writing sites that hire academics and post grads to help edit student work. These usually run on a sub-contracting type situation whereby you are assigned jobs and can accept or reject them based on your requirements. Once you are familiar with the process, it would be possible to open up a similar site of your own and either do the work yourself or, work on generating enough traffic so that you can sub contract out to other people. You could work in copy editing either in person or online, be a professional blog writer (problogger has a job board with paying blog jobs posted regularly). There are loads of similar opportunities available that can function as a security income between adjuncting jobs and to lessen the urgency of getting work so that you can choose your teaching loads without the pressing needs for money to be your only deciding factor. You could also do a ‘day job’ like work in a video library or a cinema or clothes store 1 or 2 days a week for the same reasons. In fact, there is nothing stopping you slowly building an online business while adjuncting and working Saturdays in a store.

Obviously this isn’t for everyone and many people want nothing less than a TT position at an R1 university.

But if you are open to the idea of having more time to yourself to either spend with your family or to start a business or to really focus on the students you are teaching perhaps adjuncting isn’t necessarily the trap that you think it is. Perhaps you could consider it a way to avoid the more stressful aspects of academia while retaining the perks. Who knows, we could end up the envy of some of those TT faculty who have given up trying to make time for their passions.

A career or a life? Do we have to choose?


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