Adjunct Teaching: Just Not Making It

Recently I was going over the current state of my perennially headachey finances and realized that on average I’m running about $500 a month in the red. To make ends meet, that’s what I have to pull out of my retirement savings: about $6,000 over the course of a year.

That’s ridiculous, considering the amount of work involved in mounting and teaching three courses. I work seven days a week but don’t earn enough to put food on the table and keep my paid-off roof over my head.

The last time I saw the spreadsheet for The Adjunct Project, several people reported on a college in Vermont whose entire faculty consists of part-timers. The only full-time employees are administrators—and this is a public school, not one of those proprietary scams. Pretty clearly that’s the direction in which academia is moving: away from education and toward learning factories whose workers are paid Third-World wages.

As a practical matter, the practice of hiring adjunct reduces teaching from a job to a hobby. And I can’t make a living at a hobby. Few of us can.

Last semester I started training to become a real estate agent. Evidently if I manage to have any success, I could earn more than adjunct teaching pays. On the other hand, I’ve never tried to sell anything, and I kind of doubt I have the temperament for it.

However, over the past couple of weeks, several pretty nice projects have come in to my small business, The Copyeditor’s Desk, which a former coworker and I founded together. If this kind of work could be persuaded to come our way all the time, I could get by adequately by providing editorial services to businesses and government agencies. This summer I’ll have to pull several thousand dollars out of the little corporation to make ends meet, and so to that extent it actually is already helping me to get by.

The problem we’ve had is that Arizona is not exactly a hub of publishing. Most publishing companies here, with exception of Pearson, are vanity presses or one-person self-publishing enterprises run out of a PC on a dining-room table. People who have hired us have either wanted to pay us graduate-student rates or have been raving nut cases.

No joke. One of them wanted me to edit a tome in which he purported to prove that the spectacular red rock formations of Sedona were put there and embedded with a secret message to humanity by the same space aliens who built the Egyptian pyramids. More recently, we met a fellow who channels the dead and believed his deceased father was sitting at the conference table with us, participating in the meeting. In between we’ve  seen a long series of would-be authors who write novels in which nothing happens, coaches trying to write books on youth baseball (or maybe football? no, let’s write about basketball…), folks writing memoirs of their long-gone relatives, and on and on.

Good clients are almost invariably businesses: either legit publishers or owners of small businesses that need to reach their customers through print and the Web. And professionals: we have a medical doctor who writes handbooks for residents in gynecology.

Those are the customers we need to target. A plumbing and HVAC company based in Chicago hired us last year and didn’t even blink at our $60/hour rate. The work was easy and pleasant. And we got paid promptly.

Marketing is not our strong suit, though. Neither of us is very bold about barging up to people and pitching our business. Pretty clearly we’re going to have to get that way, if we’re to make this work. But lo… it looks like help is on the way!

The Small Business Administration, through the Maricopa County Community Colleges’ Small Business Center, is partnering with Arizona Public Service (a large power company) to offer a two-year training program for small business owners called AAAME: the APS Academy for the Advancement of Small, Minority, and Women-Owned Enterprises.

Incredibly enough, it’s free. That makes the price right.

You get two years of courses, projects, seminars, and personalized mentoring with the same cohort of business owners, many of whom presumably could use your services. It sounds like a great way to meet potential customers and at the same time learn a lot about running a business and, more to the point, about marketing one’s services.

I’m signing up for it. Have to write a business plan (almost done with that—we had a sort of sketchy outline of the same, sitting on my computer) and print out financial statements. Apparently you have to compete to get chosen, so it remains to be seen whether I can get in. But…if they take me, that would be helpful.

The copyediting business is already started, and it’s something I do reasonably well. Going into real estate would entail starting a whole new business doing something that I don’t know whether I can ever do well.

Really, all that’s needed is a decent customer base. We have the start of that, right now. Instead of wasting my time teaching, I should be devoting my time and effort to reminding past clients that we still exist, asking them to refer us to colleagues, and hustling up new business.

Meanwhile, my summer course starts in three days. Only 19 students were signed up—enough to make, but fewer than the cap. Several will drop when the see the workload, and so I expect to end up with about 15 people. That should be manageable enough to leave several hours a day in which to get serious about building The Copyeditor’s Desk and finding customers who will pay us what our time is worth.

The class runs only eight weeks, and so it will be done by July 19. That will give me just about a month to focus, unmolested, on marketing the business.

Well. No. During that period, I’ll have to rewrite the 101 syllabus to fit my new, lower-workload schemes and resuscitate the 102 and 235 schedules to fit the fall calendar. Those tedious chores will take about a week and a half. So that leaves only about two weeks in which I can work full-time on this enterprise.

Damn. If I knew for certain that we could get enough editorial work, I’d quit the teaching, at least for a semester or a year, so I could focus full-time on  marketing. Wonder if I could get a grant? It looks like some are out there…not interested in a loan—that sounds like bellying up to the craps table.

But a grant, in which someone else gambles on our success: that could help a lot. Hmmm…


  • KC

    May 26, 2012 at 9:11 am Reply

    I often see real estate ads that could use some significant copy editing. Maybe there’s somethig for combining those two things?

    • Melete

      May 26, 2012 at 9:14 am Reply

      @ KC: It’s a possibility. The original idea in getting the RE license was not to sell houses but to get a job as a flunky in a real estate office, doing paperwork, filing, and answering phones. That would pay as well as or better than teaching and be a lot less work and headache.

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