Karen Kelsky

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The Professor Is in: Don’t Tell an Adjunct Tale

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Will it hurt my chances for a tenure-track job to have adjunct work on my record?

There is a lot of anxiety out there about that question, and a lot of what I consider undue paranoia. Adjunct teaching does not typically harm anyone’s chances of getting a tenure-track job, at least in the humanities and social sciences. Indeed, at this point, adjuncting may well be almost an expected part of a successful candidate’s record.

Despite its terrible reputation, adjunct work is evidence that you’ve taught a course entirely on your own, and that type of experience is a critical element of a competitive candidate’s record. No amount of TA-ing, even at highly ranked universities, will substitute. The fact is, teaching one course on your own at a local college counts for far more on your record than four semesters of TA work at your doctoral institution. Because TA-ing is, fundamentally, not teaching. (Unless of course your institution is one where TAs actually teach a whole course on their own, in which case that experience is as valuable as any other sole-teaching experience. If that is your situation, make sure your application materials identify you as the instructor of record for those “TA-ed” courses.).

This question arose on The Professor Is In Facebook page this week, and some respondents contributed opinions from the sciences that deviate from what I wrote above. According to those commenters, in the sciences, time spent in the adjunct trenches is time spent away from research. And that means a sharp decline in your competitiveness for tenure-track jobs. In STEM fields, wrote commenter Stephanie Wright Nelson, “it is very hard to maintain a research program while doing the adjunct shuffle." And commenter Rachel Schwartz said, “In STEM more teaching = less research, and once you're out of research you are not competitive, even at teaching schools.” I have not personally encountered that problem among my clients, but I’m not an expert in STEM hiring. So I would welcome comments and opinions to this post from readers in those fields. In your view, is adjunct work damaging to tenure-track candidates in the sciences?

For now, I will say that at least within the humanities and social sciences, a record of adjunct teaching does no harm to your competitiveness for a tenure-track job. However, its value for you does very much depend on how you articulate it.

I see adjuncts make consistent errors in how they present their teaching record. In short, they tell a chronological tale: “In Spring 2013 I taught X at XX College; then in Fall 2013 I taught Y at YY College; then in Spring 2014 I taught Z at University of ZZ.” That summary does nothing for your candidacy. All it shows is that you’ve done a lot of driving. It does not articulate expertise in teaching. Instead, you need to write, “Whenever I teach X, I focus on Y and Z. I have students read Q and do an assignment on R. In my B course, by contrast, I focus on C. In that class, I have students … etc., etc.”

The difference here --- the oh so critical difference -- is that in the first case you are telling an adjunct tale, while in the second case you are presenting a teaching philosophy. Notice even the tenses are different: past tense in the first case, present tense in the second.

Nobody wants to know all the campuses where you’ve taught. They want to know how you teach. So scrutinize your job letters and teaching statements for signs of the “adjunct tale.” That is dangerous for you, not because search committees have a bias against adjuncting, but because that tale is not giving them the actionable information on your teaching methods that they need to shortlist and hire you.

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