Thursday, May 10, 2012

Reflections After a Year of Adjuncting

There are so many things one can do with an M.F.A. in creative writing. The program I went to (McNeese State University) was positive in so many ways. 1.) Because we gained teaching experience, and thus had at least one marketable skill upon graduating, and 2.) Because we didn't pay tuition, and, therefore, some of us (myself included) did not acquire any debt. These reasons are in addition to countless others, but my essay today is really employment after M.F.A. focused.

Graduating from school, I had a lot of high hopes for myself and my ability to find a full time teaching job. I applied to 60 jobs (starting in December), and I felt confident that my three years teaching experience, excellent references, teaching award, and dedication to academia would land me full time employment. Not exactly. I had 2 interviews I could attend (neither of which resulted in an offer), 2 requests for interviews I couldn't attend (our situations were already settled by the time I got the calls in late July) and 2 offers to adjunct. I took one of those adjuncting offers. 

I won't lie, adjuncting was never on my list of what I saw myself doing after school, and it took a few months for me to get comfortable with the idea. I'm an incredibly motivated person, and I saw my life after school going in this certain direction. I worked really hard, and I was incredibly determined, so not being able to land a full time job was a bit of a blow to the old (okay 25 year-old) ego. But you know what? I got over it. Times are tough (did you know only 51% of students who graduated from college since 2006 have full time employment?), and I started to count my blessings: 1.) I had some source of income 2.) I was going to be living with a partner that had a full income 3.) I would be gaining relevant experience teaching, which is a job I love 4.) I had something to do, something that would make me feel useful and productive, and 5.) I still had healthcare (thanks to a new law) for another year through my mom's policy.

Each day, I reminded myself of these five things. Yes, there were times it was hard. As happy as I was that Brendan had a full time job, seeing certain aspects of his experience (heck, seeing his paycheck), could be challenging at times. My first week in Midland, I was sitting in a cafe and saw a bus drive by from a community college that I had turned down an opportunity to interview at for a full time job. I felt my heart in my throat. Had I made the right decision? Would I eventually have the career I wanted? Growing up, I had always learned to evaluate people by the answer to that old question, "So, what do you do?" It was actually part of my own personal evolution that I came to realize that titles don't make you the person that you are (okay, this is also something Brendan told me A LOT). I also learned how to keep things in perspective. How many people have their career settled at age 25? Not very many. I began to go easier on myself.

A few months later, I began to feel proud of myself again too. I took on as much work as I possibly could, and I contributed an amount of income that was very significant, even if it wasn't as much as what Brendan contributed. I also realized, Brendan wasn't judging me because I was making less money. In fact, the only person judging me, was me. I focused on doing the best job I could do. Most of my students don't know I'm an adjunct, and probably do not even know what the term means. It never came up in class, and it never felt relevant. I was a good teacher, and I began to see, that was all that mattered.

It was important to me to differentiate myself from Brendan. I didn't want to be the woman that got an adjunct position because of her partner, I wanted to be seen as an equal asset to the college. When I heard the Department of Adult Education needed someone to adjunct in the Developmental English courses, I jumped at the chance. Not only did I have relevant experience, I also knew that I had the patience and dedication needed to work with the most unprepared, at-risk students. I took on teaching 2 sections, in addition to my 3 sections of comp, and I made it a priority to meet with the Dean every Friday to show her the student's progress. The course was a huge success. I took 70% of my Developmental Writing II students with me to 1301, and I'm proud to say that of those, 86% passed my 1301 course. The Dean arranged for the college to pay for my TESOL (teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) training. Meanwhile, I had definitely proven myself to the Dean of Fine Arts. My 1301 and 1302 classes went really well, and my evaluations reflected that.

I also made it a priority to never say no. I graded CLEP tests, worked at college open houses, and even stayed late on a Friday to serve on a committee. I took on 8 hours of tutoring a week. If someone asked for a favor (substituting, etc.), I did it. As it turns out, having my foot in the door did not get me a full time job at the college, but showing that I was a great employee did something better for me: it helped me further create a reputation of excellence. And you know what? Titles are great, but all anyone really has is the reputation that proceeds him or her. I did a good job because that is the kind of teacher, colleague, and person that I am, regardless of whether or not there will be an immediate "pay off."

My other tips for adjuncting? I did not complain. Let me clarify: I complained to Brendan, family members, or even friends occasionally, but I never complained at work. Even if I didn't have the salary or benefits that I wanted, I had enough things to be grateful for, and complaining around colleagues certainly wouldn't change my situation. I thought about how I accomplished anything else I wanted to in my life: did complaining get me anywhere? No. What did? Hard work. Did hard work always result in what I wanted? No. But, that's life. And hard work is always beneficial. If anything, hard work makes me feel sane. Plus, people were nice to me, and I was genuinely thankful for that.

I also kept up with academic accomplishments. For example, I jumped at the chance to do TESOL training, and I presented at 2 conferences (one regional, one national) last Fall. I agreed to be a session chair and got a paper accepted for a conference for next Fall 2012. I kept submitting my work for publication (sure, all I have to show for that is a pile of rejections, but all anyone can ever do is try). Mostly what I did to survive was try to focus on my personal and professional growth rather than my paycheck. I stayed in touch with friends, made new friends, kept reading and writing (not enough, but that's another essay), traveled. I finally realized everything Brendan told me was right. The only difference between Brendan and I was that he had already gone through the humbling job experience (working for J-Crew), and this was my first experience like that. But when I wrote last week that I wouldn't change the experience of adjuncting for the world? I meant that. I needed this. I don't think I've ever grown so much in one year.

The way I would have written this ending before is that I worked hard, and it paid off, and I got a job. Simple A, B, C. But you know what? That isn't the truth. The truth is, I worked hard, it paid off in its own way, and in addition I had some luck, and I got a job. I know people who are just as capable teachers as I am that do not have full time jobs yet, and that doesn't mean they are any less wonderful at what they do. This is just the reality of living in our country right now. In order to get a job, there have to be jobs to apply for, and that isn't a reality for many colleges and universities right now (and I'm sure many other fields are experiencing similar hiring freezes, etc).

The fact of the matter is, if I saw that same bus from X college today, I wouldn't feel my heart in my throat. Part of that is because I've secured full time employment, but part of it is also because I survived and thrived without full time employment. Also, I've grown to realize adult life is about choices, either/or situations, and sacrifices. You can't always have the career, the relationship, the place you want to live in, all in the same place. In my case, I made my relationship my first priority. For me, that was hard. I was raised by a single, working mother who always made a career her priority (after the priority of raising my brother and I). I also look up to my mother in every way. But, I love Brendan, and even though parts of this experience were hard, I was always really clear about my feelings for him and thus my reasons for doing what I did. I said to my mother, "Maybe you think I'm crazy, but I'm doing this." My mom said she didn't think I was crazy, her quote was something like, "You're not crazy because it's Brendan." You know what? There's only one of him. And you know what else? A job is just a job. Some of us make it feel like our whole lives, but a job doesn't have to define you (and if it does, and you're happy that way, then that's fine), but I'm here to tell you, after a year of adjuncting, a title is a title, and a person is a person. A title doesn't make a person, and a person...doesn't need a title.

Maybe you need a job: a source of income/benefits, etc. But just remember, you can find a job. Sometimes, you just have to be willing to do something you didn't expect to be doing. Or, you do what you expected, but you just change your exact, detailed specifications about the way that will look. After all, many of my students still wrote in evaluations that I was the best English teacher they'd ever had. And that's worth more than they could know. But me finding a new way to define my sense of self? That's worth more than anything.

Here's to life lessons, however you learn them.
<3 S (with support from B, L&Z)

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