Our fourth interview in the Contingent Faculty Series is a virtual conversation between Joshua Nudell and Dr. Bonnie Rock-McCutcheon. Dr. Rock-McCutcheon received her Ph.D. from The Ohio State University, where she wrote a dissertation on the role of spectacle in gifts to Delian Apollo in the Archaic period, before becoming a Lecturer of Classics at Wilson College in Chambersburg, PA. Her current research focuses on sociality with the gods, the role of gender in myth, and the use of graphic novels in the classroom. She was recently featured in an episode of the Creators Unite podcast, talking about her experiences using comic books and graphic novels in the classroom. When not teaching a wide range of courses for both the history and classics programs, Dr. Rock-McCutcheon spends time with her three cats and quilting.
Joshua Nudell: When we talk career pathways, there is, at least in theory, a formula for how one lands a tenure-track job, but less discussion of how one makes a path as a contingent faculty member. What was your journey into your current position?
Bonnie Rock-McCutcheon: [laughs] Well, on paper, it looks like I graduated in May 2018 and started a full-time job in August 2018, but the reality is that there was a very messy decade of dissertation-writing and teaching in there that is unaccounted for. In 2008, I chose to move to Gettysburg with my partner, who had just taken a tenure-track job at Gettysburg College. I was writing my dissertation at the time and had reached the end of my funding; my plan was to finish and defend it at the end of that year.
That didn’t happen — in fact, at the end of that year, I put my academic career on hold and decided to go to Millersville University to get my 7–12 Social Studies certification so that I could teach public school.
At the same time, I reached out to local colleges to see if any were looking for someone to teach a few classes. I got a response from Dr. Kay Ackerman at Wilson College, who asked me to come in for an interview. One of the questions that she asked was about the types of classes that I would like to teach. I pitched a class looking comparatively at ancient and modern governments. The following summer, I taught two classes — a section of Ancient Civilization and a class that I had designed, Governments of the Ancient World.
I feel like that moment really sums up my time at Wilson: since the very beginning, I have been seen as a colleague, regardless of my status, and I have been given the opportunity to design classes, and the support needed to make those things happen. I know that there are some who might see that as unpaid labor, but I was (and continue to be) thrilled to teach the courses that I design.
Between 2009 and 2018, I completed my Social Studies certification at Millersville University. I worked as a substitute teacher in local public schools, including a year as a 7th- and 8th-grade teacher. I taught Civics during the 2016 presidential election, which was, let us say, interesting. I also started working on my dissertation again, and ultimately graduated in May 2018, a full decade after I left.
I also kept teaching at Wilson, and my teaching portfolio slowly expanded. Our only classicist retired in 2013, and the decision was made not to replace her. Because I was qualified to teach her classes, I slowly picked up everything that she had been teaching except Latin, which was taught by another adjunct.
In many senses, my path to my current job was really a decade in the making. It was also a matter of dumb luck mixed with a little drama.
In the Fall 2018 semester, I was a shiny, new Ph.D., if not a new faculty member. I was sitting in my (shared with the copier and assorted student workers) office Monday morning and the Registrar called. Would I be willing to do a guided study for a student who needed a 200-level Latin class that hadn’t made enrollment? Sure, I said, and made arrangements to meet with the student. That afternoon, after teaching my classes, I ran into a colleague. She told me that the adjunct who had been teaching Latin had quit… with a class meeting at 6:30 that evening.
Honestly, at that point, I had no expectation that I would end up with a full-time job. It had been made very clear to me that if I taught more than three classes in a semester, the school would need to give me benefits. Since I was already teaching three classes and a guided study, I figured that was a non-starter. Despite that, I felt that I should do what I could for the students who would walk into a classroom with no professor. I walked over to the Registrar’s Office and offered to go to the class that evening. At the very least, I thought, I could assign some homework, so that they would not start the class behind.
The next day, our Dean of the Faculty and Vice President of Academic Affairs called and offered me a full-time job. Later that year, my division petitioned to have that temporary full-time lecturer position turned into a full-time, renewable, one-year contract; right now, I’m in my third year in that position.
JN: During a panel discussion at the SCS this year, you volunteered an interesting comment, namely that you don’t want to be in a tenure-track position. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that comment. What is your current position and, in your view, are there benefits of being in your current position?
BRM: You know, I’m happy where I am, and I think that there are advantages over a tenure-track job. Now that I am full-time, I am paid a wage that is comparable to a full-time public-school teacher in the area, which I am happy with. The school offers good benefits, and there is generous funding for professional development and faculty research.
More than that, I love where I am. I have great students, and love that I can introduce students in very different fields to a lifelong love of the ancient world. I have wonderful colleagues, and a supportive administration.
The advantage of my position, I think, is that because I don’t have to get tenure, I’m not beholden to a specific idea of what my role should look like. I see many of my colleagues worrying about how Thing X will look for tenure: will it count? I see my position as one of freedom. I work on research because I want to, and I don’t have to worry about whether it’s the right kind of research. Recently, I’ve been interested in issues of pedagogy, and am currently working on an article about using graphic novels in the mythology classroom, and doing the preliminary research for a project about alternative and virtual realities in the classroom. I have been slow to get things published, but there is no pressure for me to do so. I can take my time, figure out who I am as a scholar, and what I want my relationship to the field to be. It’s freeing.
The comment that you mentioned came out of a discussion at the very end of a panel where we were talking about dismantling the patriarchy and engendering equity in academia. If our goal is equity, I think that the very structure of academia is part of the problem. Right now, there are a small number of desirable tenure-track jobs, but a much-larger number of people are needed to teach, so we lump all of those together as “contingent”, whether they are full-time or adjunct. I think that we can do the greatest good by focusing on creating more jobs like mine that are in the middle area between “adjunct” and the tenured elite. Our focus should be on creating full-time positions with reasonable pay and benefits, not on chasing the dream of more tenure-track positions. If we’re serious about equity, we need to rethink the structure of our profession.
JN: How have you adjusted to teaching during COVID-19? Has the pandemic affected your position as a contingent faculty member?
BRM: Well, it’s certainly been a year. I have been designing and teaching classes online for several years and have always been interested in instructional technology and the possibilities that it holds. Our campus also adopted Zoom a few years ago, before it became the next new thing, so I had used it in online classes before. This made the transition online—in terms of teaching—rather painless; of course, this time has also come with challenges beyond how we communicate our content to students.
For me, the most challenging part has been trying to support my students. We have a large population of first-generation college students. Many of our students already work multiple jobs to pay for school and, for some, home is in a rural area with poor internet access. It is also not unusual for students to be responsible for children or parents. The past year has brought a lot of disruption for them, too.
I also realize that I speak here from a position of relative privilege: my husband and I own a house and we do not have children, so it has been easy for me to retreat into my lofty bower (as I think of my sewing-studio-turned-office on the third floor of my house). I have also enjoyed being able to coopt the cats for appearances on Zoom, which my students always appreciate. I will actually miss getting to see my students’ pets when we return to a more normal world.
JN: The past few years have seen a lot of talk about how we conceive of the field of Classics. From your position as a contingent faculty member, how do you think the field can adapt and evolve to better serve students and our communities?
BRM: I think that we need to do a better job of meeting students where they are. I’m in a position where there is no major, and a minor was only recently created. With the exception of Medical Terminology, no one is required to take any of my courses, yet many choose to. Of those students, many choose to take another, and another. It’s not unusual for me to see students who are taking their second or third course with me.
To do this, though, we really need to think about what students need and even want. The new courses that I have designed are all keyed to areas of high student interest that offer students an entry into the ancient world through something they are already interested in.
In teaching existing courses, too, I think that we need to be dynamic, to allow for change, and to think about our students first. My Classical Mythology course has undergone many transformations, but this particular iteration is perhaps the biggest one yet — we are going to be reading Garth Hinds’ graphic novel adaptations of the Iliad and the Odyssey alongside Homer. My hypothesis is that this will help students better engage with Homer’s text. The change that was perhaps even more difficult for me was to start with a unit on Greek drama, looking at Oedipus and Antigone, rather than with Hesiod. To me, that felt like a bigger shift even than using graphic novels. That said, we’ve talked about Oedipus and Antigone explicitly in terms of performance and modern understandings of plagues and protests, and it has given the class this incredible energy. Rather than facing overwhelmed students who lost track of who was who in Hesiod, and telling them that it will get better later, I have excited students who want to tell me why they hate Creon, or why (or why not) Antigone is feminist.
Header image: Dr. Rock-McCutcheon and the cast of Antigone for Arts Day 2019 at Wilson College. Image courtesy of Bonnie Rock-McCutcheon.