Dear Aspiring Professor

Robert E. Gordon

Dear Future Adjunct,


Most adjuncts want to become tenured professors. One can only be a nomad for so long. Of course, it is well known now that the track that leads from English 101 to the dissertation defense no longer promises an afterlife in the Elysian Fields of Academe, or a seat of glory in the Ivory Tower.

What then?

The single most valuable quality that an adjunct can have is positivity. A positive attitude is like a flying carpet. It is a private device under your complete control that can take you to wherever your mind focuses. In any situation, it can lift you up, provide perspective, and carry you over the muck and mire of everyday life. Your capacity to embrace this outlook will make all the difference in the contingent life of a part-time academic.

I am struck by the amount of complaining I hear in the academic world. Bureaucracies are frustrating, to be sure. However, never forget that your degrees are an honor. In a world of seven billion souls, the chance to research, write, and speak about what you believe is important is an unbelievable privilege. In a life of no imagination, anything can become tedious or exasperating. Yet it is the elevated individual who finds beauty in the world where it does not seem to exist, who sees himself as the one with the answers, who fancies himself the innovative thinker. Being positive is not just a matter of making lemonade out of lemons, but imagining that those lemons contain the seeds of infinity, and the beginning of who you are.

Do not play politics. There is a great political undertow in the academic world, possibly even more than in formal politics, whose current can drown you. You will encounter an arrogant hierarchy who take their titles, and their “academic pedigree” as the only warrant of legitimacy. Provosts, deans, and department chairs can be intimidating, and often use these designations for just that purpose. If you did not attend an Ivy League school, then you may begin to think that you will not have a chance when competing for positions. You might start feeling inferior to some extent, and question your self-esteem. You are “only” an adjunct after all.

When the weight of such worries seems overwhelming, take a moment to center yourself and place yourself in a more productive frame of reference. Remember the reason you chose your field. Go back to the beginning to find inspiration in the future you envisioned from the outset of your academic journey. Have faith in your originality and express that through hard work, inspired thinking, and meaningful accomplishments. If a full-time position is what you seek, then remember that academic departments are looking both for scholars who can distinguish themselves and people with whom they can work well. A good heart and a compassionate soul will most likely get you further than a plumped-up resume or an egotistical disposition.

If you are a scholar in the field of the humanities, you will be particularly attuned to those features that make us human. Art, music, philosophy, and religion all find their justification in cultivation of one’s hopes, dreams, fears and beliefs. Even if you work in the sciences, they too have begun to embrace personality, charisma, character, creativity, and instinct. And if there is one thing to which both sciences and humanities can point that can explain their remarkable successes, it is imagination.

Prior to becoming an adjunct instructor, I worked as a mattress salesman, an insurance agent, a picture framer, an airline ramp worker, a community manager, an account executive, and a closet designer. In each of these roles I kept a positive attitude and saw the best in people, which made me succeed at my work. I found satisfaction in standing on my own two feet and a gratitude for those who saw something in me that made them want to hire me. I learned how to create a human connection with virtually every type of personality from almost every conceivable background. You probably also have an equally varied range of human interactions you can draw upon to ground you in your work life as an adjunct and to inform your scholarship.

Therefore, future adjunct, I hope that you realize that your experiences are the ground of your imagination, which can take you to the peaks of thought if you will proceed with a warm heart and an open mind. Do not agonize about your marginal place in the halls of academia.

You have chosen this life as a vocation. A positive attitude fosters a freedom of spirit. Embrace the opportunity your privileged position affords. Even if you are not traveling on the high road to tenure, enjoy the side road. If you stop to look, it winds between banks of marigolds.


Dr. Robert E. Gordon is a Research Fellow at The University of Arizona Fred Fox School of Music American Culture and Ideas Initiative in Tuscon, Arizona. 



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