A slightly different answer than Ms. Mentor to the question of “Adjunct or Starving Artist?”

Via the internets, I came across this latest Ms. Mentor column in CHE, “Adjunct or Starving Artist?” and while I generally agree with her, I wanted to add my own slightly different answer to the question because I can recall asking it of myself around 23 years ago and because I think Ms. M. has a typically bad attitude about teaching composition.

“Anne Marie” asks:

“With my new M.F.A. in creative writing, I haven’t been able to land a full-time teaching job. (No surprise there, I know.) But I’m young, single, and interested in other areas of the arts, so I’m moving to “Arts City” to try to break into the business. I don’t want to abandon the possibility of a teaching career, and I’ve been offered a job teaching a composition class at a community college, for $1,300. My adviser tells me I’m crazy to consider teaching for such a low fee, but how else do I keep my hand in academe?”

First, congratulations on your new MFA. I have one of those too, and I am sure you have realized by now that while studying creative writing at the graduate level is a great thing indeed– I learned so much about myself as a writer, an artist, a person– it is not exactly punching your ticket to a job in the arts business, in academe, or anywhere else in the “real world.” Hopefully you knew that before you started.

Second, you are clearly at a place where you’re not really quite sure what to do next with your life. To me, the key phrases here are “try to break into the (presumably art/writing) business,” “I don’t want to abandon the possibility of a teaching career,” and “how else do I keep a hand in academe?” What I sense here is a tension between wanting to “take your shot” as a real artist or to pursue a possible future as a college professor. This is totally understandable and normal; frankly, I worry about those recent MA/MFA graduates who seem overly confident with what they think is next.

As a slight tangent: I wonder about what exactly it is you mean by breaking into the “arts business.” If you’re talking about creative writing, I think saying you are going to make a living as a poet or a story writer nowadays is a lot like saying you’re going to be a shepherd: those jobs just aren’t listed on Craig’s List or Monster.com.  Further, when it comes to “professional creative writers”– that is, people who make a decent living solely as a poet or fiction writer and nothing else– I suspect there are more people on this planet who are solely employed as professional quarterbacks (counting all the second and third stringers, and if you add in the Canadian and European football leagues, too).  The vast majority of artistic writers do something else to pay the bills. That often means being a college professor, though there are other options– inheriting money, medicine (William Carlos Williams), banking (T.S. Eliot), and insurance (Charles Ives) immediately come to mind.

Third, both your advisor and Ms. Mentor are right in that $1300 for teaching a composition class is not enough money– assuming you have at least some experience teaching previously as a graduate assistant while earning your MFA. If that’s not the case, then all bets are off. But with some basic experience, you should be able to do better than that, and I would encourage you to check out such sites as The Adjunct Project to see if there are better part-time teaching opportunities in Arts City.

Fourth, I too agree with what Ms. Mentor implies that it is not a good idea to try to cobble “together five or six such teaching gigs at once.” The tale of the “road scholar” never ends well. However, assuming that “Arts City” is someplace like New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, etc., you’re going to probably have to have multiple jobs anyway, at least to get started. So my suggestion is simple: why not do both? Why not pursue that “arts business” position (probably along with something else to pay the bills) while simultaneously teaching a section or two at Arts City CC or Arts City State?

Essentially, that’s what I and a lot of my fellow MFA classmates did way back when, and it’s what I think a lot of my graduate students do now.  When I finished my MFA in 1990, I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do next, but I knew that I wanted to at least keep the door open to pursuing an academic career. So I ended up in a series of temp office jobs during the day while teaching a section of first year writing at night and also staying active in the “arts business” of sorts in Richmond, Virginia– that is, I wrote, I read, went to readings, went to a lot of art openings, wrote some freelance pieces for local magazines, etc. I knew a lot of people who put together similar kinds of lives/work, though more often than not as waitstaff or bartenders rather than the office work I did. The upside of waiting tables (instead of office work) combined adjuncting are flexible hours and probably better pay; the downside is the possibility of having to wait on your students, a story I heard from many of my waitstaff/adjunct colleagues.

My point is this: don’t think of of any of this as a “career choice” so much as an opportunity to explore your options and see what happens next. As long as you recognize up front that being an adjunct is rarely a path to a full-time/tenure-track position but rather an opportunity to gain valuable teaching experience and to be a part of an academic community, and as long as you see working in the “arts business” and whatever else you are doing to pay the bills an extension of your education, you’ll find the path that’s right for you. For me, my temp office job eventually lead to a “real job” with a felt-lined cubical by day and part-time teaching at night, and after a couple of years, I realized three things:

  • I didn’t (and still don’t) have the talent nor temperament to be a starving artist, so trying to make it in the “arts business” as a fiction writer was not for me.
  • I found having a real job to be rather boring and not fulfilling.
  • I enjoyed my teaching and ties with the university, and I knew the only way to make that happen as a professor was to get a PhD.

The rest, as they say, is history.

But this leads me to my fifth and final piece of advice.  If you see teaching courses like first year writing from the same angle as Ms. Mentor– that is, it’s about teaching students to “master the comma,” or it’s about the problems of “grading standards,” dealing with late papers, plagiarism, and cell phones; if you feel like teaching freshman comp is like being a warden in a prison, if you feel like teaching it is an imposition that “takes away from your own creativity,” and if you feel like teaching composition a few times is all you need to do to pad your résumé/CV for other work– in other words, if you’re not so much interested in doing the work of being a professor but rather you’re interested in the fringe benefits of being in academia, then by all means, don’t adjunct and just get out. We already have too many writers and professors in higher education who see the work they’re asked to do in terms of teaching and service as a burden that gets in the way of their art or intellect; find something else to do.


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