Would You Advise a Student to Get the Ph.D. in Your Discipline?

So, here we are reading student intros for the newest iteration of the magazine-writing course, and up pops a young woman who announces she wants to go all the way through to the Ph.D. in English(!) because, heaven help her, she wants to be a professor of English.

Oh, dear.

What do you say to an otherwise smart kid like this?

I can’t imagine recommending that a student — certainly not one enrolled in a community college — get a doctorate in English. Maybe, maybe if she had a solid, credible shot at a graduate program at, say, Princeton or Harvard. But if this is a kid who’s likely to end up at a public university? Not a chance!

Maybe I was too blunt in replying that she should be very careful about what she wishes for. When I was that age, there was nothing in the world that I wanted more than an academic career.

I wanted to go into the sciences. But in the first place my math wasn’t good and in the second, as a practical matter women were even less welcome in astrophysics and microbiology (my two preferred subjects) than they were in university humanities departments. Hence by default I ended up first in French and then in English. But…in those days the baby boom was hitting college, and there were lots of jobs in just about any subject.

LOL! By the time I finished the doctorate, the boomers had graduated and the academic job market had collapsed. Since then, hiring in academic positions has gone from bad to worse, especially in the humanities.

If I were a young thang today and I envisioned myself, oh so vividly, someday pacing the ivied halls of academe, I would get the terminal degree in business management. The math required is not too onerous, and because of the apparently irreversible trend to convert university-level education into trade-school training, there are still plenty of jobs in business schools. Better yet, a Ph.D. in business will affect your real-world job prospects in exactly the opposite way of the doctorate in English: instead of making you unemployable, it will make you highly desirable.

If I could muster the math skills and gag down the boredom, I’d get the degree in accountancy. Even the Great Desert University is hiring brand-new Ph.D.’s in accountancy at salaries in the six figures.

You’re lucky to earn five figures with a degree in English.

What about you? What would you say to a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed young student who expressed a desire to pursue a Ph.D. in your field?

Adjunct: It’s Not a Job. It’s Community Service

That sounds ironic, I expect. But…maybe not. I’ve turned over a new leaf in the attitude department. A few weeks ago I came across a resumé posted by the Great Desert University’s radically high-paid legal counsel, a gent who happens to be a former law partner of my former spouse. On it, he mentions that he teaches the occasional course at the community colleges.

And where does he list this attribute? Under “Community Service.”

Heh. That’s good, isn’t it?

When you think about that, though, it’s more than just ironically, deliciously good. It’s freaking brilliant.

First, the guy has got it dead right: Pay for community college teaching is so absurdly low it doesn’t even come up to the level of minimum wage. It’s decidedly not what we  professionals earn.

Second, to say he’s teaching college courses as a “service” makes him sound sooo magnanimous!

Welp, after some rumination, I came to the conclusion that what I do to earn a few shekels on the side does not rise to the level of a real job, but it does qualify as a kind of volunteer work. It is, one could say quite accurately, community service.

So after this, that’s what I’m calling it.

You should see the difference in people’s reactions, when you say you teach as a community service rather than saying you teach adjunct, you teach part-time, or you teach on a contract basis for the junior colleges. It’s amazing. The other day I sprang it on one of my clients, a high-powered CEO of a foreign bank. He accepted the statement with equanimity and even gave me a fleeting look of respect.

Quite a change from the look of pity, the look of disdain, and the blank look the phrase “adjunct teaching” elicits.

So I’m feeling a little better about the job. Regarding it as a variety of volunteerism means the pay is irrelevant. And that’s nice.

I guess.

The attitude is much improved, too, by the fact that henceforth all my courses will be online, except for one short course this summer that’s likely to attract relatively high achievers. Not having to go into the classroom and deal with the barrage of disrespect, inattention, and outright craziness makes managing these courses bearable.

To the extent that I can avoid it, face-to-face teaching is now a thing of the past for me. I’ve got an English 102 section and the magazine writing course this semester, as many courses as the chair is allowed to assign. If he’ll keep that up, by golly, my teaching “career” won’t be at an end, after all.

Well, yes it will. It’s no longer a career. It’s a volunteer activity.

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…

Report from the Trenches

Welp, the 102s are quiescent as they labor toward their 2,500-word magnum opus. Of the 45 survivors, all of three have ever written a ten-page paper. Because this vast position paper is worth three times the score of one of their 750-word squibs, they’re understandably anxious to do as well as possible.

Next week we’ll be doing one-on-one conferences, during which each classmate will be required to show up with a thesis statement, an outline, and at least some evidence that he or she has managed to start the research. Final, spectacular papers are due on the 24th, providing a full three weeks in which to read the stuff before grades are due.

Meanwhile, speaking of grades, I scored an 88% on the first test in my real estate class. Not great, but better than one might have expected, under the circumstances.

I’ve been so tired. And on the day of the quiz I had a glass and a half of wine with the mid-day meal, which has become the main meal of the day in these parts. Interestingly, I’ve found that a drink consumed during the day, even (as in this case) several hours before class begins, dulls the edge on my knife in that evening class.

The sleep deprivation goes a fair way in that department, too. I’ll go along for four, five, six or more days on four hours of sleep a night, far less than I need to function. Wednesday I had a migraine or something like it, an experience I haven’t had the privilege of enjoying in lo! these many years.

Otherwise, Wednesday was a pretty typical day.

After writing, editing, and publishing a post at Funny about Money and drafting another,  I spent most of the day reading perfectly excruciating copy, struggling to finish editing a bizarre book whose author’s theory, upon which she exposits repetitiously and pointlessly for 325 mind-numbing pages, is based on a system of literary criticism that deservedly went out of style thirty years ago.

Then it was off to choir practice.

Back at the Funny Farm along about 9:15 or 9:30, I entered changes, edited, and proofread yesterday’s “Entrepreneurs” post at FaM and scheduled it to go live the following morning; then wrote three pages, single-spaced, reporting on the excruciating book, calculated time, and composed an invoice for the Press that is publishing said money-loser.

By then it was midnight.

Fell into the sack and passed out. Awoke as usual at 4:00 a.m. Couldn’t get back to sleep. Read news on the Internet.

On the road by quarter to seven: off to the weekly business networking group. Then to the client’s: drop off the excruciating book. Then to campus: teach two classes. Then back home: bolt dinner. Then back to campus: attend real estate class.

So “Wednesday” blends into “Thursday” with only a short nap and a man-made system of time-keeping to demarcate the two.

The real estate licensing exam is said to be a bear. You have to score 75% or above to pass; since some of the questions entail math, which I simply can NOT do (even with a calculator, I can run a series of calculations three times and come up with three different answers), I’ll have to ace all the factual, non-mathish questions if I’m going to pass the thing.

Thus 88% on a quiz that had no math problems is not satisfactory. On quizzes like that, I’ll need to hit 95% or higher to be assured of passing an exam that has hundreds of questions, some of which entail computation.

Last night the instructor remarked that a good way to learn the real estate business is to spend a year or two working as a successful agent’s assistant. That is exactly what I have in mind: to work as someone’s gofer, rather than to go out and market myself as a sales agent.

Not that I wouldn’t like to earn what real estate agents make. It’s just that I strongly doubt I can sell.

Nor do I need to earn that much. What normal Americans think of as a pittance would pay my bills with more than I have left over each month from adjunct teaching. In fact, if I could find a flunky’s job with flexible hours, I could hang onto my classes, earn part-time office wages, and double my income.

Doubling my income would hardly make me rich. A second job that paid exactly what I’m earning at Heavenly Gardens Community College would, when combined with the $12,000 Social Security income, generate all of $40,800 a year.

It still would be tight. But it wouldn’t be just awful, the way things are now.

First step off the treadmill?

Tonight was the first meeting of the real estate course I signed up for at Heavenly Gardens CC.

Actually, for most of the classmates it was the 11th meeting: the two five-week sessions of Real Estate 179 and 180, required before you can take the state licensing exam, run back-to-back; so all but me and one other person have been sitting in the class through the first course.

The content: extremely easy. About 30% of what was presented tonight, I already knew. Of the remainder, about 90 percent is common sense or things you can learn on a quick reading, leaving about 10% of 70% of the course material (that would be 7%) as somewhat arcane. The instructor’s exams are based on the licensing exam, so by the time you’ve finished the course you’ve been exposed to a bank of questions very similar to the ones you’ll be answering to make yourself employable.

The instructor is chatty and full of anecdotes. This characteristic makes him very good at presenting what otherwise could be pretty dry material.

Before class, I found him sitting around the outdoor lounge area. Talked for awhile. Learned he’d retired from a tenured university position, realized he couldn’t just sit around looking at the walls, and gotten himself a license. After having been in the business a while, he was invited to come teach the course at HGCC. I told him my issue was that after a layoff I’d been trying to keep the wolf from the door by teaching 3+3+1 adjunct, and he allowed as how that wasn’t a very practical approach. He said, in passing, that he earns more when he sells one house than he does teaching an entire course at Heavenly Gardens.


I wish I’d thought of this sooner. Much, much, much sooner.

Like…oh, say, before I got a Ph.D. in English.

Lookin’ for New Work

Welp, no one called from the college last week, so I assume I didn’t make the second-to-last cut for the full-time position. The chair said they would decide on the three finalists by the end of spring break, which has now come and gone.

Not that it’s any surprise. They’re hardly likely to hire a Social Security recipient into their plummy $70,000-a-year job.

Oh well.

I have got to find some other line of work!!!! Teaching adjunct helps to make ends meet, and if I didn’t have to pay into the loan on the house my son and I copurchased as we thought the market was bottoming out (how wrong can a person get? let us count the ways…), it would make ends meet. But because of that accursed upside-down mortgage and the stagnant job my son is in, I’m simply not earning enough to get by.

Late last week I applied for another job: a program director at a center for clean energy businesses. It’s short-term—ends September 30—but because it pays almost what I expect to earn in my editorial business, in five months it would earn as much as teaching six sections over an entire year.

I could probably do that job, but I’m not ideally qualified.

Tuesday I start an evening course to get myself a real estate license. You have to get through two three-credit courses and a ½-credit seminar; then take the licensing exam. I understand all of this is extremely easy, but it’s time-consuming. I can take the courses for $15 a hit as long as I’m teaching anything at the college. But they don’t seem to be offered in any timely way. The second course I need isn’t offered this summer anywhere in the district, so presumably the soonest I can finish this project will be next fall. That dooms me to a summer and at least two more semesters of sub-minimum-wage work in the classroom.

Meanwhile, my business partner and I are going to try to ramp up marketing our editorial business. I’m going to a Chamber of Commerce networking breakfast Wednesday morning; we’ll see if they’ll let me into that group. Because we don’t bill ourselves as a PR or ad agency, our business is different enough that I should be able to get us into just about any networking group. For those of you who are safely in academe and don’t have to indulge in this kind of hustle: business networking groups usually limit their membership to one person from any given type of industry.

I’m thinking, too, that we need to consider seeking government contracts. Back in the day, when a different business partner and I ran a finder’s agency for editorial, photographic, and design talent, he hit a little vein of gold when we discovered, by accident, that he had a flair for writing proposals. First one landed us a nice book packaging contract with BLM.

It was easier then, though. Now you have to join the SBA (which might not be a bad idea anyway), get yourself designated a woman-owned business, and jump through hoop after hoop before you can even get access to lists of contracts let and the forms to apply.

Well. We’re not exactly spending every waking moment in $60/hour work. And I did tell Tina (present partner) that I would spend 50% of my work time marketing us. So…next week I guess that’s what I’d better start on.

Meanwhile, on Monday another friend—a disaffected academic who’s tenured but dreams of escaping—and I are hosting a third friend of mine, a successful Realtor, for brunch at my house, where we hope to learn as much as we can about whether and how one can make a living in real estate. Not necessarily in sales: there are many ancillary jobs that bring in steadier pay. I’d settle for a part-time job that would return a little more than I’m earning in the community colleges, but pay out over 12 months instead of eight.

It’s too damn bad. I’m good at teaching. I like students, get good results 90 percent of the time, and do well with mentoring them. I get along with colleagues (most of the time). I understand how academic institutions operate and I know how to work for the benefit of my unit and my college.

But you just can’t make a decent living at it.


Interview Day and the Teaching Philosophy

Welp, today’s the day for the big interview for the full-time job at Heavenly Gardens Community College.

Naturally, I woke up at 4:30 this morning with the worst bellyache I’ve had in years. At 6:00 a.m., it hasn’t gone away. It’s incredibly painful. Hope it doesn’t get any worse during the day. The interview is at 1:00 p.m.

I have to leave in a few minutes for the weekly 7:00 a.m. meeting of my business group.

Just what I need while I’m out here in the trenches trying, without much hope, to land the first decent job that’s come along since I was laid off three years ago. No one is going to hire anyone my age, of course. But that’s not stopping me from asking. I’d just like to ask without a grimace of pain on my face, dammit.

Oh well. At least I don’t have to run by the client’s office on the way home. The press doesn’t have any work for me…so the news is mixed there.

As soon as I get back from Scottsdale later this morning, I’ll need to rehearse the dog and pony show and try to anticipate the questions the search committee is likely to ask. Trying to think of some of the doozies from past interviews:

  • Do you understand how much work is entailed in teaching five sections?
  • How do you plan to deal with the diversity of a community college student body?
  • What is your philosophy of teaching?

Argh. What is my philosophy of teaching…breathes there a search committee that has not asked that question?

Survival. My philosophy of teaching is that everyone in the classroom, myself included, should get out alive.

LOL! Too flippant, eh?

It’s hard to know what philosophy you can have when you’re confronted with legions of young people who have graduated from high school without ever having written a sourced term paper, who know little or nothing about their own country’s history and culture (to say nothing of the rest of the world’s), whose understanding of science-based knowledge and thinking is so woozy they buy into all sorts of superstitious health and dietary scams, and whose math skills are so weak they don’t recognize a fallacy when numbers are involved in it. Is triage a philosophy?

About the best you can do is help them learn how to teach themselves and then point them in the right direction. That’s why I like to call myself “Virgil to the student’s Dante.”

What’s your teaching philosophy?

Teaching: Why Am I Still Doing This?

Do you ever wonder why you’re teaching at all, given the pay and working conditions?

I sure do. Recently it’s come to my attention that a lot of successful small business owners and executives once spent time wondering the same thing, and they came to a conclusion that looks mighty attractive to me. Last time the business networking group I belong to met over breakfast, I learned that four of the dozen men and one other woman present had been teachers, long long ago and far far away. At least a couple were very successful teachers.

With varying degrees of regret and relief, they left teaching for pursuits more lucrative and less stressful.

Now we learn that Arizona’s wacko legislature, having been shouted down by a governor’s veto last year, is once again going to try to push through a law allowing students, faculty, and visitors to carry concealed weapons on college campuses.

Enough is enough. Friday—was it only yesterday? Time passes so fast when you’re having fun!—I spent a good five hours wrestling with software to prepare course materials to post online. Those five hours were basically unpaid. The District’s policies specifically say adjuncts are paid for the hours they spend in class. So in fact, any course prep and grading amounts to free labor. Add what you get paid for the work that’s recognized to what you get paid for the real work of teaching, and you come to something well below minimum wage. Hell, it would be below minimum wage in Bangladesh!

Is there really a good reason I should risk my life for $2,400 a semester? How, really, does this make sense, other than that it just barely keeps the wolf from the door, in a good month?

You think I exaggerate with the “risk my life” bit?

Well, take a look at this.

That video was made by a young man who used his gun to cripple a U.S. Congresswoman and kill a passel of innocent bystanders, including a child. Listen to the tone of his demented monologue has he stalks around the Pima Community College campus. Take note of what he says to and about one of his English professors.

Jared Loughner is far from alone. Anyone who’s taught more than a year or two has had at least one raving nut case in a class. Let me count them up:

• The lady who wrote about the conversations she and her fellow patient used to have with the raven that perched on the wall at the state mental institution.

• The radical “poet” I invited as a guest speaker to one of my classes, who cornered and tried to rape me and then came back to the classroom to harass me and my students.

• The dope dealer who told me how close he came to shooting a cop who tried to arrest him—and reiterated that he had no intention of going to jail, no matter what it took.

• The big bruiser who threatened to beat up a girl(!) in his study group.

• The one who came to class wearing reflective sunglasses every day and who launched a confrontation that led to his being tossed out of the room.

• The dude who showed up in class at 9:30 a.m. reeking of alcohol.

• The guy who announced he’d just been expelled from another English class because when he wrote about his prison experiences, the instructor thought he was threatening her.

• The two gang-bangers who showed up in colors (can’t complain about them too much…they turned out to be two of the best students in the section).

• The “Moth,” who spent every moment in class staring fixedly at the overhead fluorescent lights.

• The gent who arrived at the first class meeting out of breath, just having knocked a fellow student unconscious on the mall.

One could go on and on.

Would I have liked any of these characters to have been packing heat in class? (Admittedly, some of them—like the one who said she carries her pistol everywhere she goes—probably did.) Would you care to confront any of the obstreperous folk who have showed up in your classroom if you knew there was a good chance they were armed?

It’s already less than perfectly safe to stand up in front of a roomful of hormone-laced strangers every day. IMHO, when this law is passed (that’s when, not if: it’s only a matter of time), the risk to college instructors will rise exponentially.

Maybe that risk would be worth taking for full-time pay. After all, if I could get my foot in the door to a f/t position at the college where I’m teaching, I’d start at something between $65,000 and $75,000. But for $2,400 per 16-week class? It’s insensate!

I love teaching. However, it’s one thing to do what you love (and what you’re pre-eminently trained and qualified to do) for less than minimum wage. It’s another thing to take on even more risk than one does in most jobs that deal with the public. I think I’m reaching a point where it’s just not worth it.

So…what else can an old lady who’s too superannuated to get a corporate job do?

How about real estate?

For a great deal more preparation than it takes to get a concealed weapon permit in Arizona, you can get a real estate license. You take two courses, which Realtor friends have said are ridiculous, and then you take a state exam.

Now, I enjoy real estate and know a lot about it, but I don’t want to sell houses. Sales is not my thing. What I want is a part-time job as an office assistant in some real estate office—I would do just fine filling out forms, answering phones, keeping someone’s appointment schedule, filing, and writing ad copy. But to get any assistant’s job in any real estate office here, you have to get a real estate license.

This semester is mercifully slow for me. A seven-week class starts at Heavenly Gardens Community College just next month; I could take the second course in a summer session and have the license before fall semester begins. By the time the proposed new legislation turns my classroom into an armed camp, I’ll be working somewhere else.

Pay would be abysmal, but that’s OK: I’m making abysmal wages now. Office jobs, however, pay twelve months a year; that would be a big improvement on the eight months of sporadic pay the colleges disburse.

How about you? Ever think of straying from the sylvan groves of academe? Where would you go? What would you do?