A Strategy for Adjuncts: How to Acquire Classes in the 11th Hour

Thomas Kunz | August 2006

August is here, and by now you’ve either succeeded in securing a few classes or now find yourself stuck in limbo for another semester, assuming that the chance of picking up a few classes this semester is over. You could be wrong.

Yes, it’s true that by now most faculty positions are filled, but unforeseen events sometimes cause these positions to reopen and even create new positions last minute. Believe it or not, established full-time teachers and rotating adjuncts may walk away from their positions before or even after the first day of class due to a number of reasons-personal, medical, etc. Additional course sections are often added last minute; a university or community college with a crowded faculty roster may need you to step in and take over.

Dr. Annette Heishman, English Chair at Coastal Carolina Community College, acknowledges how multiple variables factor into the scheduling process: course subject, number of sections, times, days, room availability, related program requests, full-time faculty preference, adjunct qualifications, and most importantly, student needs:

Last minute openings for adjuncts come in many forms. An adjunct may commit months in advance, but have other opportunities come available. How many of those opportunities are truly ‘last minute,’ I’m not sure. I believe some adjuncts may delay the call to me because they feel there could be future ramifications for scheduling. While it helps them escape the "phone call" for a period of time, the delay puts me in a scramble to find a qualified instructor. This usually happens at least once, if not more, during any given semester.

Finding any faculty position is difficult. It helps to know people on the inside to get your foot in the door, but if you don’t know anyone, how do you even snag a job at the bottom of the academia food chain? If you plan to stop after receiving your MFA but want to teach, you’ll be competing against a number of PhD applicants; this is an unfortunate truth but not impossible to overcome.

If you want to ‘win’ yourself an entry slot among the faculty, you’ll need to practice effective networking skills and pry open the doors of academic circles; if you go through the same channels as everyone else, how do you compete with a PhD or even an MFA candidate with TA experience? What if you have an MFA with zero teaching experience? How do you get an interview to prove yourself? Should you just give up?

Before you abandon all hope and wait for next spring’s postings, try the following advice to acquire a few classes if you’ve been unsuccessful thus far. Remember: an adjunct must build credentials in order to secure a full-time position in the future. Each semester is crucial for gaining experience. How do you get lucky?

First acknowledge to yourself that ‘good luck’ can result from proper ‘planning.’ This fall, before you wait tables, serve coffee, or solely concentrate on your ‘writing’ while trying to perfect the art of the student loan deferment letter, try these simple steps:

1.  Use the Yahoo Education Directory at http://dir.yahoo.com/Education to access every college website in the U.S. categorized by state.

2.  Bookmark every departmental or human resource page in your ‘favorites’ folder that interests you (sort by state or coast). This will take some time, but afterwards, you’ll be able to search 50 to 60 colleges for employment opportunities in less than thirty minutes. (Sometimes colleges will post an immediate ‘call for adjuncts’ but in most cases, the need will be handled internally, quickly, and your ‘timing’ must be perfect).

3.  Most Departmental Chairs post their email addresses online. Create a database of addresses. Send a quick letter of interest (credentials, resume, etc). If you’ve already applied for a position there, remind them who you are. It’s best to send this e-mail one week before classes begin (Start dates vary among colleges; consult their academic calendar first). Indicate your interest in any last minute slots that may open up. Try to keep this letter extremely brief, informative, and concise-fifty to seventy-five words.

For example:

Dear Chair,

My name is John Smith. I’m writing to inquire about any last minute adjunct positions in your English Department for this fall semester.

(Insert one sentence that represents your best teaching experience, if any). I’ve attached my resume for your consideration.

Feel free to contact me at your convenience if an opportunity should arise.


4.  Play the waiting game: Round One. This is the hardest part. You might hear back from a few places claming there is no position, etc. This is normal. Three to four days after the first week of classes, send each Chair one final e-mail thanking them for considering you and wish them the best with their upcoming semester (Be sure that your original email is still pasted below, just in case they need a reminder of who you are; don’t forget, it’s hectic at the semester’s beginning and you’re unfortunately forgettable).

For example:

Dear Chair,

Thank you for considering me for any last minute openings or additional course sections. May I contact you again regarding any possible openings this spring?

All best for a great semester.


5.  Play the waiting game: Round Two. If you’ve e-mailed every community college and university within a thirty mile radius, your chances of being contacted are pretty good if a new section opens or if a faculty member steps down for any reason. At this point, you’re fresh in the Chair’s mind, and if they need to make an immediate decision to fill a position, they’ll need a solution, most likely act fast, and often go with their gut. That solution could be you. The majority of everyone who applies is qualified, some more than others. You can have a good chance if you create one.

Your chances will be greater at some of the larger community colleges since English Departments tend to have anywhere from ten to thirty adjuncts per semester, but this is just a number. The weeks before and after classes are crucial; it’s a fourteen day period where miracles can happen and ‘timing’ prevails if you’re thorough and effective.

Scott Ridley, Chair of the English Department at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, NJ, handles adjunct placement each semester:

Many variables are involved with scheduling adjuncts, not the least of which is their availability and our needs. Timing is often as much a priority as an instructor’s degrees, training, and experience. In a perfect world, the course we must fill and the quality of the adjunct we are assigning make for an ideal pairing. However, given the unexpected turn of circumstance and the tenuous pool of adjuncts, sometimes a Chair relies as much on his gut feeling as he does his pedagogical perspective.

Positions may open up due to cancellations and additional course sections during August and September. The same applies to January and February for the spring semester.

Don’t forget that some colleges offer ten week courses that begin in mid September for fall or mid February for spring. Some full-time instructors turn down summer classes, so investigating possible employment in early May or June is also recommended. You have nothing to lose by inquiring, and at the same time, you’ll establish correspondence with the department. Don’t worry; if you struck out this time, you’ve just increased your chances for next semester. It may seem like a loss, but it’s certainly a gain.

It can be emotionally jarring for an MFA graduate to break into the adjunct’s life, but it will happen if you try, and when it finally works, teach any classes they offer you. Convince them you’re the most flexible and agreeable adjunct to ever walk the earth. Constantly network once you’re inside and express enthusiasm about your classes, drop by the office frequently to say hello, attend regular faculty meetings, inquire about the school’s literary journal and volunteer your time, make your voice known, ask questions, be involved.

You’ll probably find that once you’ve fought for a place in the adjunct’s world, it’ll only be a matter of time before you decide to fight your way out and secure a full-time position. You’ll feel like you deserve more, and after two to three years, you’re probably right. But one thing should lead to another and how you conduct yourself after getting through the door is crucial to your survival. No one will remember you from the thirty other adjuncts unless you step up and give them no choice.

It Worked! I’m In! Now what? Here’s what you need to expect:

  • Community colleges usually pay between $1,000 and $2,000 per class. (Most likely lower than higher).
  • Universities vary but mostly offer between $1,500 and $2,500 per class.
  • Teaching any course for the first time means an overwhelming amount of planning that you won’t get paid for; plow through it. Once it’s planned, teaching the same course a second time around will be much easier.
  • •  Do not expect an office or office hours. Sometimes you won’t even get a phone extension, which means staying in contact with your students by e-mail.
  • Encourage your students to be thorough on their Teacher Evaluation forms; you can use these as part of your dossier in the future.
  • Keep writing. Keep submitting. If you publish something, inform your departmental chair. Do everything in your power to publish more than any full-time faculty member. Let them see your ambition since chances are you’ll be facing a faculty committee in a possible future interview.

It’s disheartening to acknowledge the fight for a position that barely pays, but your perception is crucial throughout this transition; remember the adjunct world is a temporary stop. Don’t let the PhD candidates throw you for a loop; granted some colleges ‘prefer’ them and might not be inclined to invite MFA graduates, but getting through the door is not about the highest degree; if you’re fortunate enough to interview, prove why you’re the better choice. Remember that you deserve a position, and your commitment will benefit the institution and its students.


Thomas Kunz received his MFA from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and has taught English and Writing at several colleges. Still searching for a full-time teaching position, he’s working on a novel and has fiction forthcoming in Other Voices. His other stories have appeared in Slow Trains and Ellipsis.

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