10 Years an Adjunct

Kirk Livingston
Jun 20 · 6 min read

Lessons from a Practitioner’s Brush with Academia

By Kirk Livingston

Early one morning I startled awake from a dream. My dream left me clammy and queasy:

I had been standing in front of a university class. It was the third hour of a three-hour lecture. I realized I had only planned for two hours. I stood with no clue about what to say next. In this dream — like in life — I could feel the trickle of sweat down my back as I wished I was anywhere but here.

That dream was good to wake from. As my pulse recovered, I remembered that, indeed, I did not have my third hour of lecture planned. But I could flip the class in that hour and start the group project, which college students uniformly despise.

Should a job wake you before sunrise with flop sweat and heart palpitations? What if the job is a hobby? Are those signs of an engaging hobby or signs of a regimen of personal torture and humiliation? Job or hobby? Uplifting or torture? These are the questions adjuncts ask.

Adjunct instructors make up from around 50%[i],[ii] to 75%[iii] of many university faculties. Adjunct faculty cost the university a lot less than full-time tenured faculty. This source of cheap, skilled labor undergirds a sclerotic teaching system — a lesson not lost on the many blogs, tweets, columns, editorials, happy hours, rallies and other crime scenes where adjuncts gather for bitter complaining. Adjuncting to put food on the table or to pay rent (adjunct salaries typically force a choice between those two) is an endless cycle of juggling part-time jobs that carry 24/7 expectations but pay for only the several hours on campus. Adjunct positions are ephemeral, without benefits, and easily excised if academic freedoms run afoul of administrative truths. But adjuncting as a hobby, well, that’s sort of a luxury.

Stand and Deliver

While adjuncting may be an unpredictable way to make a living, it is not bad as a hobby for the practitioner. There is a long tradition of practitioners taking up teaching in their later years. Some call it giving back. Some say it is a way to articulate pent up wisdom to people moving that same direction (and thus — one hopes — halfway interested in dodgy old practitioner blather).

Adjuncting as a hobby assumes a mature level of practice and competence. In fact, this is often what the adjunct can deliver: the practitioner’s perspective versus the academic’s perspective. It’s the view of the doer, but it has distinct disadvantages when placed in the industrious anthill of academics: it’s hard to produce a citation for the 20 years of absorbing how a particular rhetorical approach affects clients. That disadvantage can be turned upside down, however, which an provides opportunity for the adjuncting practitioner to backfill knowledge. This backfilling process is enormously interesting, as it opens channels to hear from academics who have earned their degrees in the why’s and wherefore’s behind the practitioner’s tacit knowledge. Adding explicit knowledge to tacit knowledge has a way of communicating credibility to students.

Between the learning and relearning of explicit knowledge and the codifying of tacit knowledge, between the demands of assembling lectures and adjudicating grades, the hobby quickly eats away at the allotted hours and eats into billable time, artistic time, and family time. Teaching has a way of taking over everything. But it’s not the low pay that makes me turn from the hobby. It’s the uncontrollable nature of the task that hijacks every spare minute that I’m walking away from.

Ten Year Take-Aways:

I will take these with me from my ten-year brush with academia:

Articulated Thoughts Become Owned Thoughts. The opportunity to unearth and articulate the copywriting principles I use daily provided useful connections. I learned things I didn’t know I knew as I spoke to classes. I also backfilled with reading and discussions with smart academics, those concepts that I should have known all along.

The old trick of saying something aloud makes it my own. Again and again, this was the case. Whether or not I knew it before, I certainly knew it after standing before 30 graduate students and saying “This is that.” in an authoritative tone.

Articulation helped ease my imposter syndrome. It’s easy and common for most any teacher to ask, “Who am I, to be teaching these people?” Hearing my take on a concept that would help these students write also made sense to me. In a sense, the teacher is always talking to himself or herself. If only the teacher would hear the very advice they offer students.

Teaching Was Fun. Grading, not so much. The part of teaching that was fun was not the standing-up-spouting-off part, exactly. But the gathering of words, attitudes and artifacts to explain concepts — that was fun. The articulation of those concepts and artifacts, especially when I knew the concept would make a difference right away for the students — that made teaching great fun. One of the parts was seeing a student suddenly understand — posture and eye contact and depth of color in the student’s eye were the giveaways that something just happened.

Credibility is earned. The point of crossing your T’s and dotting your I’s is that it helps your reader believe you. Rules for writing English are not some medieval device to torture writers. Take, for example, when my wife, who costumes plays, watches a play. If any small detail about a costume is not appropriate to play’s era — say the trousers on a Titanic actor are worn low and saggy — she is reminded that she is watching a production, a fiction. She immediately falls out of the story and can no longer believe what she is seeing. This example helped me convince students who cared little for grammar, to begin to pay attention. Some realized that what they said and how they said it could have real-world consequences, like getting the job and raises and promotions and increased authority.

People matter. Each person matters, no matter their color, religion, ethnicity, or what language they learned to speak first. Their story matters. Their voice matters. Their understanding matters. Their take on what I just said matters. And it matters a lot because their perspective helps shape my understanding as I move forward with churning tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge. I take this “ethics-first”[iv] notion with me to my clients as I help them hear people throughout their organizations versus just the loud- and fast-talkers with corner offices.

Can anyone change their mind? I’m not sure this was a lesson I learned from adjuncting, but it came up in many interactions with students. Learning is all about changing one’s mind about some unexamined “truth.” The answer is “Yes, people can change their minds,” with a proviso: if someone really wants to sort out the truth, change is possible. But changing my mind necessarily involves an uncomfortable transit from cock-sure to “I’m not sure” to “Now I see.”

My ten years as an adjunct profoundly changed the way I interact with people. I’m grateful it could be a hobby and not a gig to depend on. For those adjuncts who have forgotten why they teach in the midst of racing between part-time jobs, I can only say, you are doing a good work.

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Kirk Livingston is the author of ListenTalk: Is Conversation an Act of God? (2015) and President of Livingston Communication, Inc., a marketing communication firm in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

[i] American Association of University Professors. Background Facts on Contingent Faculty Positions. Accessed June 4, 2019.

[ii] Magness, PW. Are full-Time Faculty being adjunctified? Recent data show otherwise. May 19, 2017

[iii] Flaherty, C. A Non-Tenure-Track Profession. Inside Higher Ed. Oct. 12, 2018.

[iv] Emmanuel Levinas and Martin Buber have a lot more to say about this.