what’s in a title?

Since I quit adjuncting seven too-short years ago, I haven’t had much need for a title. I’ve worked as a grant writer and as a tutor, primarily as the latter. My tutoring business grew quickly through word of mouth, so I found myself already barring the door and screening my calls before I ever had a chance to set up a website or offer anyone a resume.

As I’ve begun to develop an online presence in recent years, however, I’ve had more and more need to describe myself in writing, especially as various websites and publications have requested short bios.

Even though a bio can be an important means of introducing yourself, it’s not the same as a resume. Meaning, it’s not the best place to list your various degrees. Bios can be brief, direct, quippy, and clever; they rarely trespass on the verbose.

When people want the short version of a story, they want the short version of a story. Meanwhile, that’s not something I’ve ever excelled at. It’s taken me 80,000 words to describe what happened to me in the university. In one hundred words or less, how do I say that I came alive in the language of literature, that literary and cultural theory gave me the vocabulary I needed to make sense of my own thoughts, that I have a gift for teaching that the university helped me develop, that I excelled in my classes, published my research, and earned high marks from my students, but that the university is corporate and greedy and misguided about education, and that I gathered all my courage to leave what I loved because I didn’t want to go down the rabbit hole with it?

I told you. Nary a quip in sight.

Further complicating this story is the fact that most people outside the tower know very little about the university’s infatuation with contract labor. All of us ex-academics, we are like wounded war veterans milling among a populace that is oblivious to the war. In bios and on resumes, I am supposed to make myself sound as amazing as possible. But how can I tell my story of heroism when no one knows of the fight? Without that context, my status as an outcast phd can carry negative and inaccurate implications. Did I fail? Did I get fired? What kind of crazy would quit after all that work?

I used to think these possible interpretations by others were what kept me from advertising my credentials openly. Now I think the root of my denial lies perhaps in my own answers to those questions. Deep feelings of shame embedded by the university suggested to me that by quitting, I had proven that I was crazy and I had failed. It took me almost a year of writing before I mentioned my academic past on my other blog, small house, big picture. Even then, my profile only alluded to my research in a vague and dismissive way. For over a year, I didn’t mention my adjunct work at all.

Now that I have a greater need to describe myself in writing, I have come to see that I cannot erase ten years of professional development if I want to accurately represent my training as a researcher, writer, teacher, and intellectual. Consequently, I began to account for those experiences by describing myself as a “former college-level English instructor.”

That doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

Other professionals have nice tight words like “attorney” to sum up their academic and professional endeavors. With that one word, a lawyer communicates the pursuit and completion of an advanced degree as well as the implication of gainful employment.

“Professor” is the word that can do this for me.

Except it can’t.

Or can it?

For years, I have taken for granted that I cannot use the word “professor” to describe my university teaching. Even in conversations I have avoided the word. Instead, I’ve said things like: “I used to teach English in college.”

Imagine if a lawyer said, “I used to represent people in court” instead of “I was an attorney.”


Of course, all this silliness comes from the university and it’s refusal to call me “professor.” Instead, it asked me to answer to “instructor,” “adjunct,” “part-time staffer,” or “term employee.” At the time, I understood that these words and phrases marginalized me–that they diminished my work in an effort to justify my poor working conditions.

What I didn’t understand was how much I had internalized that marginalization. What I didn’t know was that almost a decade later, I’d find myself first avoiding the fact that I’d ever earned a phd, then ultimately stumbling over “college-level English instructor” in my not so quippy bios.

It’s not just the awkwardness of phrase or the evidence of internalized shame that needs to be addressed here. By so obviously avoiding “professor,” the phrasing diminishes my role, wrongly suggesting to mainstream professionals that I do not have the credentials of a professor–that I did not do the job of a professor. It takes more than the quip out of the quip, it takes the phd out of it too.

Ironically, as a matter of protest, I refused to go by “professor” when I worked as an adjunct. Students wanted me to be a “professor”–whatever that meant to them. I wanted them to know they paid for one and didn’t get one (at least not a university sanctioned one).

I don’t know why it took so long, perhaps because the indoctrination is deep, and because I left it to ferment untouched for so long, but it finally dawned on me to quit dancing around this word. I changed my ready-made bio, as well as my About page over at small house to read, “former adjunct professor.” I don’t know or care if that’s acceptable in the academy or not. My inclusion of the word “adjunct” is enough to keep me honest, and I need this word “professor” to communicate my education and experience to professionals in the mainstream. In the tweet-sized language of today, it tells them that I earned an advanced degree and taught college students as a qualified expert in my field. It also avoids the confusion conferred by words like “instructor,” “term” “staff,” and “adjunct” while returning the dignity they took away.

For me, it puts one more little piece of the thing to rest.


11 thoughts on “what’s in a title?

  1. This relates to something I’ve been thinking about lately. The adjunct angst and (occasionally partisan) wrangling over “what do we call ourselves?” does not disappear on leaving. My volunteer work for NFM connects to academia but I neither teach (unless you count stealth modes) nor have institutional affiliations. I shouldn’t be but am in limbo and reminded of it every time a fill out a form that asks for that information. Registering for online events or workshops, I occasionally pick up on a dismissive, patronizing note as in variants of, “we’ll allow you to participate (even serve us) even if you’re not really one of us.” It’s time to self-declare and name myself.

      1. Not every classic quest follower (is there a name that won’t evoke the squiggly red line?)~ seeker ~ is a spring chicken. Not here either.Being old I can identify with feeling old. Just this week two different adjuncts got patronizing with me for not having a uni affiliation or being (‘the event is for teacher but anyone interested is welcome’ and ‘we all do what we can’), I felt like an adjunct’s adjunct,especially since I put in a lot of volunteer time on *their* behalf. I snarked the first but restrained myself on the second. I feel a blog post on the topic coming on.

      2. missed this comment somehow! – anyway – sorry to hear that you were treated that way. that hierarchy-riddled university culture is a thing i don’t miss at all!

      3. I’m training myself not to reach for the flamethrower but don’t always succeed. What bothers me most is less the personal than what a stumbling block it is to change when adjuncts continue to buy into the culture and hierarchy, even (maybe especially) if unconsciously… thinking of an early pomo lit crit expression ~ don’t authorize that text.

  2. Pingback: Weekend Reading: New Frontiers Edition - ProfHacker - The Chronicle of Higher Education

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