Adjunct Bait

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We have some Hav-a-Hart traps that we use around our garden. We throw groundhog-favored foodstuffs into the back of the screened pen (apples and melon rinds work well), and when the unsuspecting whistlepig wanders in, he has to step on a plate on his way to the fruit, and the door closes behind him. Then we pick up the whole trap, drive it to our neighbors’ homes, and let it out into their garden to keep ours safe.

[KIDDING!!! Just kidding. We take them quite a ways into the woods, of which there’s plenty around here, no closer to anybody else’s food.]

But the general idea is that Ms. Whistlepig thinks she’s getting a nice snack, not realizing that she’s about to have an unpleasant journey. Every trap requires the right bait.

As I’ve been talking with contingent faculty for this project, one of the things I hear quite often is this sense of being baited. Some school opens up a few courses and implies (in some vague and therefore legally defensible way) that they constitute a “position” and that success at these courses can lead to a permanent faculty line “soon.” So the happy, excited teacher has a great semester or a great year, and the department chair tells her what a great job she’s doing and how happy they are to have her. She gets those two courses again, plus maybe another one. At any other job, this would be a clear sign that she was being groomed for promotion, just as the whistlepig smells a canteloupe and thinks it’s a lovely dessert after the pea plants have been eaten.

And so the trap is baited, so the trap is sprung.

An adjunct position could, possibly, be converted into an offer of a tenure-track line. And my cat Ed could, possibly, be offered a spot in the starting gates at the Preakness. I mean, it COULD happen, but it won’t.

Tenure track job openings, even at a fifth-tier school, a Southwestern Central Nevada A&M State Tech, are the subject of national searches. They don’t hire people on spec to try them out. You don’t work your way up. An adjunct teaching position is exactly and only that, an offer to teach a specific course for a specific semester for a specific dollar amount, with no guarantee of further relations. You’re not only not guaranteed the job if it ever materializes, you’re likely diminishing your chances by a) accumulating more time since your dissertation and thereby going stale, and b) being seen as “just a teacher” and thus a diminished scholar.

But the bait is so, so appealing. It’s fun to be back in the classroom. It’s gratifying to have an e-mail address ending in .edu. It’s heady to have the chair tell you how highly she thinks of your work, and to read the students’ pleasure (in you and in their own capabilities) in your course evaluations. Magical thinking takes over, and we invest years in a half-promised permanence that we believe we might somehow earn.

I have a friend who was a highly-regarded adjunct at a major Eastern university for three years. So highly regarded, in fact, that they asked her to serve on the search committee for the tenure-track line that her chair told her not to bother applying for because she was, after all, just a teacher.

Every cult, from Amway to Scientology, has a series of loyalty tests that the initiates never quite can pass, but come so close that the next round surely will get you there. But it never will.