What do you do for a living?

I’m a teacher at a Carnegie-level university, a Ph.D. granting institution in the mid-South. I’ve been at this school for six years now, but I was hired on the non-tenure track, and I’m considered an adjunct professor, even though I teach full time. In the area I teach, I teach about literature and composition. Some of the classes I teach are courses that many students take, regardless of their degree path, because they are considered “core” classes. Others are for those students who are majoring in English.

Not all of these are exclusive to majors, but most of them are majors or graduate students in English. For example, this semester I’m teaching a course in British Romantic Poetry, and I have a couple of people who are not English majors.  My area of expertise is 19th Century British literature, mostly the novel – but I also have an interest in poetry and prose of the period, and the politics and history of the time. The main genre of the 19th Century is the novel – that was the big focus.

How would you describe what you do?

This semester I have 75-80 students, and I am teaching three courses. The required load for my job classification is four courses a semester, for two semesters a year. But in my case, instead of teaching four classes, I teach three and advise college students, which means I work with students on their degree plans and coach undergraduate English majors and Master’s level students on their theses and course selections.

The normal load for college professors at the type of institution where I teach is actually two courses a semester, because they are expected to also do research and publish articles in their particular area of interest and expertise. This helps them to keep fresh in the area they teach in. Of course, that is not my case. At my school, we have gone from having a few adjuncts to quite a few adjuncts, because fewer tenure track professors are being hired. Many of our courses are taught by graduate assistants.

In our major, we have more than 100 graduate students who teach two courses and take two courses each semester, and are paid a stipend, plus they are given a tuition waiver and some health benefits.

What does your work entail?

Well, I already told you about the teaching. I teach on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and advise on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Right now I’m rather bogged down with several committees and advising a student group, but when I have time I work on several projects of my own, for publishing.

For example, I am working on an article about Darwin and Melville, who was a 19th Century American novelist –  doing some transantlantic work there – my husband is a19th Century Americanist, and we enjoy working on projects together when we can. I’m also working on a class on Thackeray for next semester, and will be going to a symposium in Boston on Thackeray, and have been doing some reading and research to prepare. Mainly, though, I’m just working to keep up on what I’m doing in class.

I’m doing a lot of preparation for the British Romantic Poetry Class. We are doing the famous six, plus Burns and  Scott – who are not in the canon anymore.

What’s a typical work week like?

I usually go in very early, because I typically have an early class around 8 or 8:30 or even 7:30, so I get to campus between 7 and 7:30, and my classes are typically over by noon – but this semester I’m teaching an afternoon class, and get out at 3:30. And then I have students come by. I’m working with a graduate student this semester on her thesis, so she comes by once a week for an hour.

And I have other students who come by and work with me on their projects. I help students decide what courses to take, and guide them on their progress. I leave campus by 4:30 or 5, and then I work in the evening. If I teach a Tuesday/Thursday schedule, I will go in on Tuesday and won’t always do prep that night, but I will be answering emails  and doing some research, or working on committees. I’m an officer in an international organization for English, and I work on that – spend a lot of time on a variety of things.

I’m also on a committee for the Modern Language Association. These are things that are related to teaching. I’m also an advisor to a student organization, so I do a lot of communications that keep me on the computer for hours when I come home. I try to go to bed by 9, but often it is 10 or 11. I never even think about how many hours a week I work. I can’t. But if I had to guess, I’d say 50, but I’m sure that is not enough. For example, this is a Sunday, and I’ve spent several hours creating an online test for one of my classes and working with technical support at the University to make it happen.   Is this typical? Yes. There are a minority of teachers who – maybe one or two percent of teachers, people who are “stars,” and are revered in your area, who don’t do all that. But somewhere they have been in the trenches to get there. And now there are even fewer of those, hired on the tenure track, now that tenure is under attack

What is the main difference between what you do and what a tenure track professor does?

I do the same work. I sit on committees, teach the same course and the same students, but I don’t have the release time to do the research. They typically teach two courses, and I teach four. I also sit on master’s and Ph.D. committees, and a variety of committees.

The other difference is benefits and pay. Some are tenured, but the trend today is to hire people on a contingent basis, non-tenured. Some are hired on a more permanent basis, but they still have little job security. For example, if a budget becomes strained, or they decide they want to hire someone’s friend or family member (and it not supposed to happen, but it does) it is possible that you could lose your job even after working there for years.

How did you get started?

I started teaching in 1989, when I was working on my master’s degree in English. I continued to teach while working on my Ph.D., both at the university I attended and a community college nearby, to supplement my income.  After graduation, I taught at a public college and a private college on the East coast. I always liked teaching, but when I started out, I wanted to be a labor lawyer. But when I was getting my bachelor’s degree, I took a class in Law and Literature.

And I thought, I could do what I want to do in the classroom. I could teach mainly middle and lower class students and teach them literature that would teach them to be more informed. So I turned from law and literature, and to the classroom because that is where I wanted to be. Sometimes I have regretted that decision, because of the situation, the labor situation, in academia today, because public education is under attack. In the part of the country where I teach, it is a right-to-fire state.

With tenure being eroded because of fewer teachers being hired on the tenure track, and more and more students coming in, the ratio for students in the classroom with an adjunct is going up. I’m thinking I could have had some impact. But two roads diverged, and I chose my path. But some of my students are going on to study and practice law, and I feel good to have an influence on them indirectly.

What do you like about what you do?

Being in the classroom with students. That is a real high.

What do you dislike?

It’s a mix. I don’t like stacks of papers, but once you start reading them, sometimes it is good and sometimes it is a nightmare. It can be a real joy when they are getting it.  I hate the politics involved in working at a university. And nepotism is a problem, when family is hired, or cronyism.

Sometimes I don’t like the attitude of the many tenure track professors who don’t see what is going on, and don’t support adjuncts and recognize what they do. They are deliberately not facing what is going on. Sometimes I feel it when I’m walking down the hall. But the good thing is, the students don’t realize it. We can’t allow them to know that there is a difference between us, because they are all paying the same amount of money for the courses they take. All the teachers are professional, and the students don’t know that some are grading 150 papers and others can spend more time because they are grading 50 papers.

How do you make money/or how are you compensated as a college professor?


How much money do you make as a college professor?

I make $30,000 a year. That embarrasses me. If I were working in a factory, I would be making more by now. But I love what I do, so it is not all about money. That is the adjunct’s plight. We have student loans to pay off, and it is not that the jobs aren’t there; it is just that administrators aren’t opening them up.

Tenure-track professors make more money, typically $50,000 on up to $150,000 a year, if they occupy a position chair (which is a special category for specialists hired to be over a certain area, often with the pay supplemented by a donation to the school). I don’t have the same benefits. . I do have some benefits, though. I have a retirement plan, and health insurance, but no vacation. I’m on a nine-month contract but I’m pro-rated over a 12-month period because I chose that option. I have the typical holidays – when the students aren’t here, I’m not here.

How much money do you make starting out?

I started out making about $42,000, and when I moved to the East Coast, I made about $75,000 a  year. As I said, it was personal choice for me to come back to this part of the country and take the pay cut.  A typical salary, across the U.S., is $80,00 for a tenured professor in English. But getting a tenure track job is challenging.  Departments are using the hires they have to fulfill diversity tracks; those who fit one of those categories are usually persons of color, which I am not, and I understand that. They are looking for those that fill those categories.

What education or skills are needed to do this?

First, it is important to be a really good student. Excellent grades, mostly A’s and maybe a few (but not too many B’s) should dominate your undergraduate transcript. The education is challenging, and requires dedication, and you have to like reading and have a strong aptitude for writing. To teach where I teach, a Ph.D. is required. It takes about eight to nine years, typically, to get that degree. Sometimes, it takes as long as 12 years, depending on how much you have to work while you are going to school. First, you have to get a four-year degree, and then the master’s degree, another two to four years.

The Ph.D. takes from three to six years, and sometimes seven. It takes almost as long as to become a surgeon.  At a smaller college, a four-year college or community college, a master’s degree is required. the important thing is, if you are going to teach and advise graduate students, you have to know enough to be able to guide them. And you have to know where to get the information, if you don’t have it.

So the Ph.D. level is necessary at a school that teaches graduate students. It’s similar to medicine or law in that regard – you have to have the expertise to be able to guide students, and have gone through this yourself, so you can help them to become scholars.

What is most challenging about what you do?

Time management. For one, I teach a heavier load and don’t have the luxury of time to work on articles or research. I also don’t qualify for sabbatical, which is typically having a year or half a year off, with pay, to do special projects. That is a huge benefit only granted to tenure-track professors.

What is most rewarding?

The most rewarding things that I do is to teach, and then there is the camaraderie that I have with my peers across the U.S., in working on the various national committees. But the most rewarding thing is working with students. There is a joy in seeing students bloom and develop into scholars that cannot be compared with anything else, at least not for me.

What advice would you offer someone considering this career?

You need to think carefully about this before you do it. If you can move, go for it. But, if you are married to a particular place, and cannot move, you should not get a Ph.D. in English, because your job choices will be very limited. I would not advise anyone to do what I have done.

If not careful, you will be undercutting yourself. That is what happened to me, in a sense; I decided that living away from my children was not an option for me, and that I wanted to live near them – plus I love the place where I live. I’m fortunate that my husband, whom I met after I left the area and taught back East, was willing to move here with me and take a lesser position than he had there.

But this is not going to be the case for everyone, and the jobs you want to have may not be in the part of the country where you want to live. You also need to understand the difference in the culture between a four-year college, a public school and private school, and a Ph.D. granting institution, because those differences can be vast. The benefits, opportunities and job satisfaction levels can be very different between them.

How much time off do you get/take?

Except for the summers, when I am really unemployed, I am here when the students are here. The only time I am not here is when I am at a conference, which is maybe once or twice a year. I am compensated somewhat for the cost of these, but I end up paying much of the cost of travel and accommodations out of my pay.

What is a common misconception people have about what you do?

Several. First, people often think this is an easy job, with lots of perks. They think we don’t work hard, and take all summer off to play. There are also those who have a negative idea about what we do, that someone like me walks into a classroom unprepared, and pushes our ideas on our students.

They think we don’t teach anything. There’s a movement out there who spread this idea that we don’t teach, this idea that college teachers walk into a classroom, talk about politics, and try to teach a liberal agenda. That’s an unfair view. This is coming from people who are anti-intellectual. It is an easy cop-out, a very conservative viewpoint. My advice to teachers is to just be who they are, and not to talk politics.

My students, the average student in a core-level course, have no idea what my politics are. Yes, most of my peers are more liberal than conservative, which is really a consequence of our type of study than our political propensity. Conservatives are far more likely to go into other fields, such as business or law.

What are your goals/dreams for the future?

To continue teaching and see my students succeed in what they want to do, and my family, to see each of my kids, who are in school still, do what they want to do and what they like and believe in. They don’t have to be like Mom. But even though the job situation, and the job conditions with what I do is not ideal, the teaching part of it is ideal. I have had wonderful mentors in the past, and some are people I’m working with now. I’m continuing to grow as a scholar.

What else would you like people to know about what you do?

People think I’m in an ivory tower, and don’t relate to the real world, and that I’m elitist. But I don’t know anyone who teaches who doesn’t have their feet on the ground, and who aren’t in the trenches with the students.