How Did I Get Here? Part I: Up from Adjuncthood

MLA’s coming up later this week.  Can you bear to read yet another advice column?  If not, then you may want to skip the following personal narrative that, yep, includes some advice (well, inasmuch as my personal example may be instructive… which it may not be).

You may ask yourself: well, how did I get here?

— Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime,” Remain in Light (1980)

Here’s how I got from Adjuncthood to Professorland: Luck, hard work, and opportunism.  Not much to say about the “luck” component, but I can say plenty about the latter two. I spent two and a half years as an adjunct before I got an MLA interview. Why? No publications.

1. Don’t Get Mad.  Get Published.

A year after I got the Ph.D., my partner won a tenure-track position at the College of Charleston. So, we moved to Charleston. Asked whether there would be any professional opportunities for her spouse (me), the Chair of the College’s English Department said “No.”  So, I began that year (fall of 1998) teaching one section of Composition to the tune of $1850 for the term (no benefits, of course), and seeking gainful employment beyond academe.  I sent out applications, went for a couple of interviews, and even did some free-lance computer consulting.  A month into the term, an adjunct flaked out, leaving the Department with three sections of Composition suddenly in need of an instructor.  The Chair offered me the full semester’s salary for each section, if I would teach all three.  With a dwindling savings account and no other opportunities, I accepted, and began shouldering the 4-4 course load that I would maintain for the next two years.  I also decided that maybe I’d stick with academia.  I had one article forthcoming in Children’s Literature, but that was it.  I quickly realized that I’d be doomed to adjuncthood unless I published.  Also, working as an adjunct made me angry — angry at the exploitation, angry at the permanent second-class-citizen status.  I decided: let’s channel this anger into an enhanced rate of production. This was my Scarlett O’Hara moment. With God as my witness, I’ll never be an adjunct again! Well, words to that effect.

Deciding to publish my way out of adjuncthood, I said “yes” to every opportunity, figuring that once I’d committed to doing something I’d simply have to follow through and do it.  Articles, book reviews, encyclopedia entries, conference papers.  I began revising the dissertation as a book manuscript, and began laying the groundwork for another project — what was then going to be a Twayne series book about Crockett Johnson (when I learned that the Twayne imprint was defunct, it developed into a double biography of Johnson and Krauss). After I presented a conference paper, I would then revise, expand, and publish.  Indeed, I’ve maintained this practice: Every conference paper I’ve presented either has been published (in expanded form) as an article or chapter, or will be published.  In the past few years, I’ve had to curtail the practice of saying “yes” to every opportunity — otherwise, I’d have imploded.  But it was a successful strategy for turning my anemic CV into a healthier one.

When I was increasing my rate of production, I decided to market myself as both a twentieth-century / contemporary Americanist (the field in which I trained) and a Children’s Lit person.  I thought that trying to compete in both categories might increase my chances of success.  It did.  I never got any interviews as an Americanist, but at the 1999 MLA, I had three interviews — my first MLA interviews ever!  Two were for children’s lit and one was for teaching with technology.

2. Better Living Through Technology

Philip Nel's Homepage

Why technology?  During my underemployed months (before I had that 4-4 load), I developed my website.  I’d launched it the year before because I thought that learning to make a website would give me a useful skill.  Also, there were no websites devoted to Crockett Johnson.  And I wanted to write a paper for a Children’s Lit conference.  These three ideas prompted me to create a Crockett Johnson Homepage, in addition to my main website.  Work on the Crockett Johnson website in turn developed into a conference paper (1999), articles (2001, 2004), a reference entry (on Ruth Krauss, 2006), and a double biography (2012).  I came to realize that having a website is useful for both self-promotion and research. The Harold for whom Johnson’s purple-crayon-wielding character is named found me through the website, and helped me contact his mother (Johnson’s sister).  Indeed, I met Julia Mickenberg (my co-editor on Tales for Little Rebels) via my website — a friend of the Crockett Johnson Homepage directed her to me.  These days, you have blogs and social networking sites, too. But, whatever sort of presence you maintain, a web presence is useful. I later found out that my website was a factor in Kansas State’s decision to hire me: the first thing I did upon arriving (on the Department’s request) was to redesign the English Department website.  Fortunately, it has since undergone a much better redesign — tho’ I & my colleague Naomi Wood continue to maintain it, albeit less regularly than we ought. (This is part of the service component of our jobs.)

3. Opportunism

J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter Novels: A Reader's GuideIn early 2000 (about the time Kansas State made me an offer), Continuum Publishing asked Mark Osteen if he’d like to write a readers guide to Don DeLillo’s Underworld.  He wasn’t up for it, and so he recommended me… which led to Continuum asking me: would I like to write this book or were there any other contemporary novels (British or American) for which I’d like to write a readers guide?  I was feeling a bit DeLillo-d out at that point — having just written a reference entry and two articles on him.  But I said sure, I could write on Underworld, and, as for contemporary novels, what about Harry Potter?  I’d recently written a reference entry on the Harry Potter phenomenon, and was about to start a children’s lit job.  So, I said, I’d be happy to write two readers guides, one on Underworld and one on Potter.  David Barker (at Continuum) said sure, Harry Potter was a good idea, but he’d prefer to have one author per book in the series: So, which would I rather write, Potter or DeLillo?  The Avant-Garde and American Postmodernity: Small Incisive ShocksI chose Potter, which (published 2001) quickly became the best-selling volume in the Continuum Contemporaries series of Readers Guides — indeed, it paid the $3000 in permissions fees for the book that developed from my dissertation (The Avant-Garde and American Postmodernity: Small Incisive Shocks, UP Mississippi, 2002).  Choosing to write on Harry Potter wasn’t consciously opportunistic: I thought it would be fun, and I imagined that it might find an audience.  I had no idea that it would lead to so much media attention, or that it would even lead to my first invited talk, in 2003.

The two Seuss books represent a more calculated intersection between my own interests and a developing opportunism. Deciding that a book published on the 100th anniversary of Seuss’s birth might conceivably draw some media attention, I worked hard to finish the manuscript of Dr. Seuss: American Icon so that it could appear by early 2004.  (For more details on the Seuss books, please see “Fortunate Failures; or, How I Became a Scholar of Dr. Seuss” — the debut post on this very blog!)

I’ll continue this tomorrow with: the job interview itself, thoughts on dual-career hires, and links to other articles on career advice.  So, if this didn’t bore you to tears, then please tune in again, dear reader!


  1. Clementine B Said,

    January 4, 2011 @ 3:05 am

    Thanks, that’s very interesting!

    I can see the point of getting published a lot to get your name out there, but is it better to do a lot of ‘smaller’ publications or to focus on a few ‘prestigious’ ones?

    Also, I would think that in the children’s lit world where there are comparatively not very many people, networking’s extremely important, perhaps more than a website? I mean for newbies.

    anyways thanks, your blog’s always very helpful

  2. Philip Nel Said,

    January 4, 2011 @ 10:14 am

    Clementine: Thanks for your comment. Glad you found the post interesting! To answer your question: if you’re interested in obtaining (and keeping) an academic position, the key word is “refereed.” Whether you publish in a journal or with an academic press, aim for refereed publications. In my experience, the quickest way to get published is in a special issue of a journal — if it’s a special issue, there’s a scheduled publication date, and so your article won’t simply sit around waiting for a space in an upcoming issue.

    Having said that, any kind of publication experience is valuable — on a website, on a blog, etc. As noted above, my Crockett Johnson Homepage has proven to be a very useful endeavor — but it’s not refereed. Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence (book) and Planned Obsolescence (blog) both have good ideas on the benefits of non-refereed approaches.

  3. Nooney Said,

    January 4, 2011 @ 11:52 am

    Really enjoyed this post, Phil! Very helpful as I turn the corner on the job market in a couple years.

    The advice about special issues in the previous comment is particularly insightful…

    I’ve always heard more than a year or so of adjunct work is pretty much death for someone aspiring for a tenure track gig? Is that just an old wives tale intended to scare the crap out of us grad students? And what significance do you think teaching experience has when getting hired (particularly at teaching vs. research institutions)? I’ve heard flip-flopping opinions about the significance of being an experienced teacher and having taught lots of your own classes.

  4. Philip Nel Said,

    January 4, 2011 @ 12:28 pm

    Thanks, Nooney! Hope grad school’s going well for you!

    To Question #1: I say old wives’ tale (or old husbands’ tale?). I was an adjunct for three years prior to making it to the tenure-track. What matters is the work you do. Publish, present at conferences, get involved in the profession. This is hard to do as an adjunct (for one, you’re going to be funding your own conference travel…). But it’s a tough job market out there, and any hiring committee worth the name will know that. So, as long as you stay engaged in scholarly work, I don’t think that adjuncting is the kiss of death. It is hard to work as an adjunct and publish as if you’re on the tenure-track, but it can be done.

    To Question #2: Teaching experience is definitely helpful, ’cause you’re going to teach and (in the interview) you will probably be asked about teaching. Some campus visits actually have you teach a class. But is the quantity of experience important? Not necessarily. Being able to do it is important, yes. How many classes you’ve already taught is less important. You’re correct to assume that a teaching institution may be more likely to want more experience than a research institution, but it’s also hard to know just how much that may be true for any given institution. Which is to say: academics are idiosyncratic. Results may vary. If you can pull it off in the interview (MLA or on-campus), then the amount of experience you have may not matter at all. So, you know, if in answering the questions during the Q+A after your job talk, or if in answering the questions in an interview, the faculty listens to the way you address the questions (and ask questions of your own), then they can also get the sense that, hey, I can see how Nooney would be great in the classroom.

    I had no experience teaching children’s literature before my first semester at Kansas State University. None. I had taught other things, but nothing in the field of my alleged expertise. Happily, my kind colleagues helped bring me up to speed….

  5. Curt Said,

    January 4, 2011 @ 9:32 pm

    Hi Phil – don’t forget that all important DeLillo bibliography we worked on way back in the 1990s!

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