Surviving the Trip from Adjunct to Professor: How to Keep Writing Through an Overload of Teaching
Sally Shivnan | February 2006
You want to write and you want to teach. The dilemma: to get a tenure track job, or even a position as a visiting professor or full-time lecturer, you must publish, but where is the time to write if you’re scrambling to teach half a dozen classes as an adjunct instructor?
Before you abandon the classroom-figuring you will get more writing done by working in a bank the way T.S. Eliot did, or by living in a fire tower like Jack Kerouac-remember that college teaching experience is the other requirement for the job you want. Besides, you like teaching and you’re good at it, which is why you want to make a career of it.
The job descriptions for creative writing positions demand more, in some ways, than positions for PhDs in literature and other academic fields. While the freshly-minted PhD is hired on promise, dissertation in hand but unpublished, the MFA or PhD in creative writing is generally required to have a book in print or under contract, or at least to have "substantial publications," i.e. multiple works published in competitive literary journals, many of which accept only one percent of the submissions they receive, and take months to respond even when they do.
Realistically, building a c.v. that reflects modest accomplishment is a process that takes, at a minimum, a couple of years. During this time the would-be candidate is locked out of the interview pool for jobs and, often, is juggling a colorful assortment of adjunct classes-a busy little acrobat, although, on the positive side, he or she is gaining valuable teaching experience.
The publication requirement is a given, even for nontenure-track jobs. A survey of the eighty-seven full-time positions in creative writing in the AWP job listings from August–November 2005, the height of the academic hiring season, reveals that 88% of the sixty-eight tenure-track jobs have publication requirements, as do 84% of the nineteen nontenure-track jobs. Among tenure-track positions requiring publications, half specified a book, and half stipulated "significant publications," "strong publication record," or some other variation on this wording. Interestingly, of the 13% of ads that do not specify publication of any kind, some include vague language ("demonstrated potential in...creative activity") that suggests they prefer candidates with publications, and some are brief and lack detail, in general, about requirements, implying that the proportion of jobs requiring publications may be even higher than the 87% it appears to be.
This analysis looked at all full-time positions, excluding only those ads in search of a department chair or director of a writing program, and those ads that did not include the teaching of creative writing in their job descriptions. The nontenure-track jobs in the survey included renewable lecturer positions and also full-time but temporary appointments. Some of these temporary positions are for visiting writers with extensive publications-not entry-level positions-but it can be difficult, in some ads, to discern if this level of accomplishment is sought, and so these listings were not excluded. Their inclusion makes the proportion of nontenure-track positions requiring publications higher than it would be if considering entry-level positions alone, but not significantly-only three nontenure-track jobs (out of a total of nineteen) failed to specify significant publications as a requirement.
It’s a Catch-22-no time to write if you teach, no time to teach if you write-but since it’s the reality we’re handed, we have to find ways to make it work. And there are ways.
First, it’s essential to determine that you do, in fact, want to do both things. If you are passionate about writing, but not about teaching, pursue a profession outside academia. You will still write, because your passion for writing, if it is true, will ensure it. Teaching is not the only way to be a writer, though it would seem that way sometimes. Realistically, the adjunct lifestyle makes sense only if you’re committed to a long journey of teaching and writing. As Andrew Wingfield, an assistant professor at George Mason University, puts it, "(I)t’s important to go into adjunct teaching with eyes wide open. Don’t do it unless you know why you’re doing it."
Another consideration is that packing your schedule with adjunct classes is not the only way to demonstrate your seriousness about teaching. If you work in an unrelated field, you can keep your hand in teaching by taking on one or two classes each semester. Or you might lead a writing workshop for a community organization, local arts center, or retirement community.
But if you want to divide your time between writing and teaching, and are prepared to hang in there for the several years it will likely take, the following strategies can turn a time-management mess into a success story.
Guard your time
Make one demand of your employers, no early morning classes. The exact start time is negotiable, but the idea is to save the first hours of each day for your own work. Successful writers, universally, have well-developed work routines, and most of them write in the mornings, before the day gets cluttered with other people’s needs. A night-owl approach might work if you are one of those rare types who genuinely fires off after midnight, like Carolyne Wright, an award-winning poet who teaches for Whidbey Island’s low-residency MFA program, who prefers the wee hours "when banks and offices are closed and the phone doesn’t ring." Forget afternoon and evening-fatigue is a factor, and unfinished tasks of all kinds will clamor for your attention. Structuring this dedicated time is possibly the most critical factor for nurturing your writing-without it, the work just won’t get done. But saving this time for yourself requires discipline the evening before-you must resist the temptation to leave grading and planning for the morning.
Save your breaks
Likewise, strive to protect your time over summer and winter breaks. Though you may need to do some teaching during summer and winter sessions, try to save at least parts of these for yourself. Breaks are great opportunities for beginning new writing endeavors. Andrew Wingfield says that as an adjunct, "I used those breaks for launching new projects, the hardest part of writing for me. During the semester, I had minimal writing time, and what I had was fragmented. I couldn’t begin something new during the semester, but I could continue with something I’d started over break; I could use that momentum."
Limit your exposure
Cluster your classes, so you’re on campus two or three days a week and working at home the rest of the time. Even though your teaching days may be grueling, especially if you teach for the "University of the Beltway" and commute all over the map, the ability to stay home the other days boosts productivity and is helpful psychologically.
Though you may teach a fat handful of classes, keep the number of different preparations to a minimum, ideally no more than three. At the same time, strive for the versatility that will impress hiring committees-try to teach a variety of writing and literature courses. Keep your workload manageable by building a lot of student responsibility into your classes. For instance, let students work individually or in groups to design their own reading and writing assignments, and encourage them to turn to each other for feedback, as well as to you. Stick to clear, simple policies regarding attendance, late papers, and make-up work; design these policies so they are labor-saving for you and responsibility-enhancing for the student-it is perfectly reasonable not to accept late papers and not to allow make-up quizzes.
Make your syllabi as detailed as possible so you can use them as roadmaps throughout the term, saving you from having to figure out where you’re going. Andrew Porter, an assistant professor at Trinity College in San Antonio, goes even further. In his adjunct days, he sat down before each semester and typed up lesson plans for every class. "This was an exhausting process," he says, "but it saved me an enormous amount of time... Instead of worrying about what I was going to do each day, I would simply pull up the file for that day on my computer, spend half an hour studying it, and then go to school."
Share your energy
Find ways to perform university service without much time commitment-"service-lite." For example, work as an assistant to a full-time faculty member who advises the student writing club or journal; make your contributions small, useful, well-defined. Occasionally, take on larger roles. This all goes beyond what’s expected of you as an adjunct, but it can help your c.v. later on. As Porter puts it, "Anything that suggests that you’re actively involved in your department will look good to a potential employer." But he warns, "Before you commit to something, you should weigh the pros and cons. Is this something that I could add to my c.v.?"
Commit to a consistent submission schedule, so you always have a few stories, essays, or poems in the mail to various journals. When something comes back in the mail, send something else right out. As a busy adjunct, you have to stay on top of this, or it will get away from you. If you are a novelist, consider a book design that will let you submit individual chapters as stand-alone short stories, which can help you in terms of getting published now and also later, when you’ll be able to impress agents and editors with your published excerpts. When you get that novel finished, put yourself on the same sort of schedule with your query letters-the journey to seeing your book into print is typically as uphill and slow as the process of getting a story or poem published.
Stay organized in your writing life. Carolyne Wright recommends keeping detailed lists to track queries, deadlines, and follow-up calls and e-mails. Though she often has a variety of writing projects going at once, she says "when I focus on a piece, I give it the attention it needs till it’s done, whatever that takes." Work on your own writing every day, even if it is only for an hour-the minimum time needed for getting into your work and doing something substantive with it. But take a day off, too, once in a while, and don’t beat yourself up for it-it’s good for you.
Stay informed about issues that affect you as an adjunct instructor. Read publications like The Adjunct Advocate, and find out about the status of collective bargaining in your area. Taking an interest in the issues is not only important for your work now, but as you move up to more secure employment, you can continue to advocate for adjunct teachers’ interests.
Lastly, remember, always, the writing comes first. Everything else, including the teaching, is in service to the writing. Make no apologies for it, to yourself or others.
While the teaching/writing dilemma is far from an ideal way to start a career, it is no more difficult or competitive than many other occupational ladders. As long as you feel passionate about both writing and teaching, you will survive it, and even enjoy it. Teaching offers flexibility over one’s time and a degree of autonomy that are matched by few other professions, which is why we are drawn to teaching and why it is such a good fit for a writing life. Teaching offers real joys, available to tenured professors and adjuncts alike-the thrill of helping students think in new ways, the satisfaction of helping them acquire new skills.
In time, your classroom experience, and all the hours at your writing desk, will add up to a substantial c.v. And the juggling skills you perfect now will serve you well as you continue the balancing act of writing and teaching that will challenge you the rest of your career.
As Walter Wellesley "Red" Smith famously said, "There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein."
Fortunately, combining writing with teaching is just as easy-maybe, even, a little easier.
Sally Shivnan’s work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Glimmer Train, Rosebud and other journals, and in The Washington Post and other newspapers, as well as in anthologies of both fiction and travel writing. She is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.