Publication Date

October 25, 2021

Perspectives Section

On Contract, Perspectives Daily

AHA Topic

Professional Life


  • United States

I never imagined myself as a history professor. As a teenager, I dreamed of becoming a lawyer or the first African American and female president of the United States. My career took many different paths before I landed in my current position as program coordinator of the history department at Houston Community College. After a pharmacy technician certification program, a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, and an alternative teaching certificate in 8–12 social studies, I pursued a master’s degree in history at Texas Southern University (TSU), a historically Black university (HBCU). Then, with an MA in-hand, I accepted an adjunct position teaching two lower-division courses at TSU in the spring following my graduation.

Color photograph of a group of adults inside a hotel conference room.

From left to right, Mikie Koster-Mwanzia, Ernest Obadele-Starks, Merline Pitre, Bernadette Pruitt, Antrece Baggett, and Yvonne Frear at the East Texas Historical Association Conference in February 2016.

As I began my career as an adjunct professor, I realized how valuable my professional network could be. Although we talk a lot about networking in broad, general terms, we do not often talk about how vital it is for folks off the tenure track. My own career path was made possible in large measure through the support of professional mentors, scholarly peers, and friends. These types of personal connections may prove invaluable for adjuncts when trying to secure additional courses, landing a full-time position, or transitioning between institutions.

My own career path was made possible through the support of mentors, scholarly peers, and friends.

As a new adjunct professor, I relied extensively on the personal and professional networks I cultivated as a student at TSU. As a graduate student, I believed it was impossible for me to squeeze conference presentations and networking events into an already full schedule. Luckily, one of my professors, Merline Pitre, served as president of Texas State Historical Association. With her encouragement, I decided to attend its annual conference. It changed my professional path. I met many TSU history alums who taught at universities around the country who asked about my career plans and encouraged me to consider becoming a professor. After the conference, I cultivated these relationships by collaborating with my new colleagues on projects and building personal friendships.

This group of mentors and peers helped me navigate the tricky years where I was piecing together jobs at multiple institutions. The challenges of the non-tenure-track life are well known, and working at an HBCU posed an additional set of challenges. I taught large classes of over 100 students, had no TA support, earned low pay, and lacked benefits or job security. At TSU, non-tenure-track faculty have to deal with not having the resources required to teach and advancement opportunities are few. After one year, budget cuts brought my teaching career at TSU to a temporary halt.

Fortunately, Dr. Pitre and department chair Cary Wintz sent my name to former students who now served as department chairs at local community colleges. This helped me learn of available opportunities at nearby colleges. Eventually, I secured six courses between two community colleges. I taught as many classes as a full-time instructor, but did not earn enough to make ends meet. I also had to adapt to traveling between multiple campuses. After a year as a “highway flier,” my connections at TSU urged a new department chair to bring me back to teach that fall. This brought my total teaching responsibility to nine courses, three each at two community colleges and a four-year university—a heavy load by any standard.

Although the costs, in both time and money, of professional development fell on me, the benefits were quickly tangible.

Many institutions of higher education do not invest in preparing contingent faculty for full-time positions. Networking is not a substitute for the kind of sustained investment available to full-time faculty. However, it can fill in some gaps and help adjuncts remain abreast of key developments in the field. I am lucky that all three of my department chairs that year encouraged me to pursue professional development opportunities available at each college and university. My institutions offered many of these trainings for free, although I still had to make time in my nine-course schedule to fit them in. Likewise, I was invited to participate in department meetings and serve on committees, important professional development that too often goes uncompensated. I was advised to write, maintain my memberships in historical associations, and stay abreast of advances in the discipline, even though the colleges and universities offered no financial support for these activities. This was a major and unusual ask for a non-tenure-track faculty member. My chairs understood what hiring committees looked for in prospective candidates and wanted me to be competitive. To meet this expectation, I often attended conferences with colleagues, so we could pool our resources to lower the cost. Although the costs, in both time and money, of this professional development fell on me, the benefits were quickly tangible.

My adjunct career was a difficult and exhausting period that began to take a toll on my health. Often adjuncts miss full-time opportunities because they are consumed, through no fault of their own, with trying to make ends meet. This is a problem not of the adjuncts’ making; it is a systemic problem. They are too often seen as worker bees who are at the disposal of their departments.

After five exhausting years as an adjunct and two as a visiting assistant professor, I finally obtained full-time employment at Houston Community College. My path was unique, but I, like so many others, depended on the support of my network. As a profession, historians working in higher education in all roles should look at how we cultivate talent, support faculty, and build in support for the kind of long-term relationship building that’s required to advance a career. Networking is a vital professional task, one too often neglected when workloads get heavy, but it is essential for instructors working without the institutional or formal support systems available to their tenure-track peers.

Shawna Williams is program coordinator of history at Houston Community College.

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