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A Quick Career Update: Surviving 20 Years (and 3 major crises) as a "Part-time" Community College History Professor

My Long Winning Streak

Twenty years ago last January, I walked into a Cerritos College classroom just before 6:30 in the morning to teach my first community college American History course. I started another course at 8 AM the following Friday. By the end of that first week, I knew that community college was where I wanted to be. Fortunately, a couple of opportunities popped up that same semester at El Camino and Golden West Colleges. Needless to say, I was happy to take whatever classes I could in order to get my foot in as many doors as possible.

While I was very happy to have finally found the teaching job(s) that I really wanted, I knew right from the start that these were unpredictable gigs. As an adjunct, I was employed on a semester by semester basis. There was no guarantee that I would be offered a specified number of classes at each school, and even when offered a class, there was always the possibility that it might be canceled shortly before it began due to low enrollment or scheduling shifts. But I could live with that. The ultimate goal, after all, was to get signed on full-time at one of these schools somewhere down the road. More than twenty years later, I’m still an adjunct at these three schools, and given that community colleges are probably not in the habit of hiring guys in their fifties to full-time positions, I have accepted the fact that I will be an adjunct either until I retire or my services are no longer required. (There are a few reasons why a full-time position at one school was never in the cards, but I don’t want to get into them here. Suffice to say that I no longer even search or apply for full-time positions.)

Technically, I am still living on a semester to semester basis, although the reality of this situation is not as bad as it sounds. I have a good relationship with my bosses, and my evaluations have always been positive. So each school has consistently done its best to offer me enough classes to get by. Adjuncts and our unions have also managed to improve our situations with somewhat better pay and retention rights based on experience and seniority. And while adjuncts often struggle to find medical insurance due to our part-time status, Golden West College allows adjuncts to get the same health care plan as the full-timers (so long as we teach the equivalent of at least 7.5 units). While these schools have all been good to me over the past twenty years, I am reminded from time to time that things can be unpredictable.

As a history teacher, I am very aware of how major events and developments can impact the average citizen. Since I started teaching, there have been three major shocks to the system that posed a potential threat to my little life and career: 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis, and the covid-19 pandemic. When terrorists struck New York and Washington in 2001, the country was already in the midst of a recession. With people potentially afraid of traveling or going to crowded places, it seemed that the recession might deepen. And when recessions deepen, state governments lose revenue, people struggle to pay for college, schools are forced to cut classes, and adjunct community college professors might have a hard time piecing together a living. Given that I was a relative newbie when this happened, and our first daughter was only six months old, there was good reason to worry. Fortunately, Americans were able to get back to their day-to-day routines pretty quickly, and 9/11 type of events did not become a common occurrence. So I was able to keep getting enough classes to get by for the next several years as the economy seemed to be humming along.

Then the financial house of cards built on bad home loans collapsed in 2008, leading to a far worse and long-lasting economic crisis than the aftermath of 9/11. I remember well a few semesters where we had to get by with a bit less, along with the hordes of students who would show up on the first day trying to add as they faced a severe shortage of available classes. While the number of classes I was teaching never got severely low, I was worried that my little dream ride might not last forever. And the prospects for any of my adjunct gigs turning into something full time seemed dimmer than ever.

As the economy gradually improved over the next several years, and as I accumulated seniority (and new policies benefiting adjuncts were set up), I settled into a pretty comfortable routine juggling classes between the three schools. But I noticed something changing gradually that would become important when covid-19 hit: more classes began to be offered online. And since a full-time position didn’t seem to be happening any time soon, I decided that it was time to dive into online teaching. If nothing else, it would improve my prospects for sticking around when some bad times inevitably struck again. So I put in a ton of work setting up online versions of both the Early American and Modern American history classes, and before I knew it, I was teaching more online than in the classroom. When covid struck about a year and a half ago, only one of my seven classes was in a classroom. The transition to online teaching, therefore, was hardly a transition for me at all.

For the rest of 2020, I made more money teaching than ever before. Without the need to commute or coordinate schedules between three schools, I could take on more classes. It also helped that there wasn’t a hell of a lot to do when we were all stuck at home. But given the state of the economy caused by the biggest disruption in daily life that I have personally witnessed, I knew in the back of my mind that hard times were likely ahead. During the Spring of 2021, community college enrollments began to drop significantly, particularly at El Camino College. My seven Spring semester classes turned into five, and my three summer classes turned into two. Then, about a month ago, I got word from both Cerritos and El Camino that enrollments were down even more, and there seemed to be a good chance that my seven classes would turn into three or four. For the first time in twenty years, I started thinking that I might have to look for additional work elsewhere. But as any 50-something person can tell you, it’s hard to make any serious career moves when you are well into middle age.

Then something funny happened. In spite of students possibly being burned out with online classes, dealing with covid infections, feeling compelled to work instead of going to school, and wondering if the limited number of in-person classes would be safe, enrollment began to pick up, with my classes at Cerritos and Golden West being basically full when they started. El Camino lagged behind, and I found myself checking the roster numbers multiple times a day. It wasn’t until the Thursday before my first El Camino class started that I found out it had barely enough students (20) to not be canceled. (Strangely enough, a bunch of people have emailed me this first week of the semester asking if they could add that class. Where the hell were these people a few weeks ago?) The worst case scenario of three or four classes had turned into the best case scenario of seven. With vaccination numbers gradually rising, and the virus likely to burn through the unvaccinated population over the next few months, there is a good chance that the worst of this pandemic has passed. I can tentatively now say that a third possible career crisis has been averted. The only question now is whether my teaching future will be mostly online or in classrooms. At the moment, I only have one in person class scheduled for fall of 2022, which will be the first time that I’ve been in a classroom in almost two years. Hopefully, teaching a history class in person will be just like riding a bike.

These three major crises created a certain amount of stress and fear as I realized that this fantasy life I’ve been living for 20 years could come to an end. While I lost a bit of revenue during those tough times, I never was the victim of a terrorist attack, came close to losing my house, or found myself hospitalized with covid-19. I’d like to say that I have persevered because I have worked hard to be a conscientious teacher willing to try new things to make my classes better and myself more marketable. While I am proud of the work I have done over the past 20 years, in the end, I have been able to work so long doing a job that I love, a job that has allowed me to have the time to do so much more than just work, because of sheer dumb luck. During times when others have suffered so much, the worst I have dealt with were a few classes cut here and there. The only question I guess is how long my winning streak might last, and whether some unforeseen future crisis might finally be the one that does me in.

We historians tend to focus on the big picture. As historians continue to describe the major crises of these past 20 years, the tendency will be to describe these eras as times of fear, political conflict, economic strife, suffering, and death. It can be easy to forget that during those dark times, particularly in an advanced nation like the United States, many people were fortunate enough to keep living their daily lives more or less as normal. In a nation of hundreds of millions of people, there are always going to be a variety of stories to tell.

I don’t believe anymore that there is any kind of divine plan, and I don’t know if people have any obligation to “give something back” when they have been blessed with good fortune. I just know that my time on this earth and in the teaching profession might be limited. So one of the best uses of my good fortune is to continue doing this job as best I can. Recent events, as much as anything else, have demonstrated the danger of ignorance. And one of the only ways to become a little wiser about the ways of the world is to try and understand how we ended up here.

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