the ongoing criticism of the hiring of adjunct professors

When it comes to the practice of hiring adjunct professors, I’m definitely in the minority in that I don’t find the practice at all reprehensible.  I’m an adjunct myself, and a big fan of the system.

Could it be better?  Yes, absolutely.

It could be a lot worse, too.

People in this country will complain about anything, though, and hardly a week goes by that some pissed-off adjunct doesn’t write a blog entry about how oppressed they are, how poor they are, how much the conditions where they teach suck, blah blah blah.

My solution to many of these problems adjuncts think they face is simple:  GET A DIFFERENT JOB.  If being an adjunct sucks so much, STOP DOING IT.  I don’t make my living as an adjunct and you don’t have to, either.

Now, on with something of a point-by-point discussion of common critiques of the practice of hiring adjuncts.

 

76.4% of college professors are now adjuncts

I see this statistic thrown down in multiple places, and perhaps it’s true across the nation. I can only speak to one of the colleges where I teach. While I won’t explicitly name the college or the campus, if you pay enough attention to me on this blog or Facebook or Twitter, you’ll have a good idea where I’m talking about.

This college and campus has 15 history professors. Five are full time (which more or less equates to tenure) and 10 are adjuncts.  This indicates that 66% of the professors in this department at this campus of this college are adjuncts.  Pretty close, but below 74.6%

What I infer from this statistic, though, is that the majority of classes are being taught by adjuncts, which I do not believe is true.  At any given college in any given department, most adjuncts will teach one or two classes, while full time professors will often teach up to 4.  (For the record, I often teach 4 or even 5 classes in a given semester.)

To that end, let’s look instead at the percentage of classes being taught by adjuncts.  For the upcoming Fall 2014 semester, I counted 46 sections of history classes in the 100 (43) and 200 (3) levels at one campus at one of my schools. Here’s the breakdown:

  •          World history: 25 sections; 15 taught by full time faculty, 10 taught by adjunct faculty
  •          US history: 21 sections; 8 taught by full time faculty, 13 taught by adjunct faculty

Now, I’m no math wizard, but 23 sections taught by full time faculty and 23 sections taught by adjunct faculty looks a lot like 50%. At this school, in world civ/history, adjuncts teach 40% of world civ/history classes and 62% of US history classes.  Both of these numbers are well below the implication that nearly 75% of college classes are being taught by adjuncts.

 

The pattern of hiring adjuncts is symbolic of the corporatization of universities

Maybe. Probably. No matter what the high-minded among us think, universities are for-profit entities. They strive to make money, because the opposite – losing money – is bad for them. Local, state and federal budgets have been systematically gutting the budgets of ALL educational institutions, including higher education. If universities don’t make money, they disappear.

Every other aspect of US life and culture is corporatized or on the way to becoming so. Why should universities be any different?

By the way, what does corporatized mean, anyway? The articles decrying the corporatization of our universities never get into that. They throw it down as a critique, yet they don’t talk about what exactly they are critiquing.

 

Adjuncts are paid less than a living wage

My classes are all 3-credit classes; this implies 3 hours of class time per week, which is about right. Figure, though, that each class requires about double that amount of time, on average, per week. There are some weeks where I only have to answer a couple of emails from students in a particular class. There are other weeks where I spend 8 straight hours grading essays or exams. It evens out over the course of a 15- or 16-week semester, so I always tell people it’s safe to double the credit hours to come up with actual work hours. I figured it down to a rate of $26 an hour for each class I’m hired to teach. Given that the minimum wage at the time of this writing is $7.25 an hour, I think $26 an hour is pretty respectable. Of course, that number includes no benefits at all and doesn’t extend through the entire year, so it does have its limitations, but $26 an hour for a PART TIME JOB is pretty damn good money if you ask me.

Would it be hard to live on one class a semester? Yes, it absolutely would. Most adjuncts who don’t have other jobs (like I do) would have difficulty living on one class, so most of them (if not all of them) teach more than one class. I will agree that living on adjunct pay may very well be difficult, but I reject that it is impossible. Get a roommate.

 

Adjuncts don’t get any benefits like health insurance or retirement plans

What part-time workers get these kinds of benefits?  This is an ongoing issue in the USA, and when it’s solved for people who work at gas stations, 7-11, and Wal-Mart, it’ll get solved for adjuncts.

 

Students who take more classes with adjuncts are more likely to drop out

I wish I could speak to that, but I’ve been kind of busy lately congratulating former students of mine who are graduating this month. Of course, I can only congratulate the ones that keep in touch, which is admittedly a very small number of them.

 

Adjuncts don’t get access to sample syllabi or learning objectives

I’m straight out calling bullshit on this one because it’s both untrue – and entirely unimportant. As an adjunct, I have exactly as much access to sample syllabi and learning objectives as any full time or otherwise tenured professor. I have gotten sample syllabi from my department, from books and from the internet. I have easy access to learning objectives at both the departmental and institutional levels from both of my schools.

This is one of those things where the responsibility falls directly and fully on the professor – adjunct or otherwise. The last sample syllabi I looked at was in a book about teaching large classes. One of my schools posts every professor’s syllabus on its departmental website, which I can browse through any time I want.

A syllabus is like any other professional document.  If you don’t know how to write one, LEARN.  Ask for help, ask for advice, seek out examples.  DO IT!

Criticism:  REJECTED

 

Adjuncts are hired last minute, so they cannot adequately prepare for a class

As I write this, it is mid-May. The spring semester is over and everybody’s gearing up for summer school. I already know my full teaching schedule for the fall semester, which of course doesn’t start until late August. LATE. AUGUST. To top that off, I’ve had my classes for the fall since April. APRIL, I TELL YOU! How exactly is that last minute? This is standard procedure for all the programs I’m involved with.

Of course, things happen outside normal processes. I have been asked just weeks or days before the semester started to take a class that a colleague had to abandon. I’ve even been tapped mid-semester to take over a course in progress when another professor was fired. Yes, that absolutely cuts down on preparation time.

However.

Any serious professor who is worth their podium has already done the bulk of the preparation needed for most classes they’ll be called on to teach. One of my deans could call me today and ask me to start teaching a Western Civ class next week – and 90% of the preparation is already done. There is always class-specific (meaning specific to those students in that section of a class) that has to be done, but it’s a few hours of work at most. AT MOST.

There is, however, the possibility I’d be called on to teach a class I’ve never taught before. If that happened right before the semester started (which would be unlikely), that would require some scrambling. In the normal course of events, I’d know about that class months in advance, so any resultant scrambling would be my fault, not the university’s.

Assuming adjuncts aren’t prepared to teach classes – even on short notice – is insulting to them at best and I completely reject it as a critique of the hiring of adjuncts.

Criticism:  REJECTED

 

Adjuncts are not provided with office space, making it difficult for them to meet with students

I’ve addressed this before, so I’m basically repeating myself here. I teach for a traditional 4-year university and a 2-year “junior” (community) college. The 4-year institution provides me with office space every semester. I share this office space with other adjuncts – we rotate using it so nobody has to overlap or double up. Every office to which I’ve been assigned has had adequate space and a computer (not that I need one). The 2-year institution does not provide me with specific office space, but every campus I have taught at has general/common office space, which includes rooms in which I can hold a private meeting with a student if necessary.

In addition, I often meet with students outside these office spaces because, frankly, offices are stuffy, weird, awkward places to meet. We have libraries, cafeterias, quads, coffee shops, and many, many more places to meet that are much more low-key than a tiny office filled with ceiling tile dust and fluorescent light.

Criticism:  REJECTED

 

Adjuncts spend too much time commuting between schools where they teach

Possibly. I teach for two different schools at three different campuses and one off-campus location as well. One semester each of my classes was at a different location, requiring me to wrestle with remembering which place to go on which day and which parking permit to use. I made it through, largely because … really? It’s that hard to remember where you’re supposed to be on which day?  In my whole history of teaching – now reaching into its 13th year – I have only once gone to the wrong class.  Yes, it was embarrassing to walk into a math class like I knew what I was doing only to see an ocean of completely unfamiliar faces.  We all had a laugh and my actual class got an unexpected day off.  They weren’t terribly upset about it.

However, I can certainly see how this could be an issue for some adjuncts. I’m lucky in that my campuses are all within a relatively small geographic region. Yes, the traffic in that region (northern Virginia) is astoundingly shitty, but still – having every campus I could possibly teach at in a 15-mile radius may be the exception rather than the rule.

 

Adjuncts are often saddled with large amounts of student loan debt

Possibly, but that’s their own fault. You don’t hear me crying about paying off my student loans, do you? Why? Because they’re MY loans. I got them, I’m responsible for them, and that’s the news on that. When I was younger, I struggled to live within my means while still servicing my debt, and that often meant going without stuff like high quality food and cable. I had housemates until I was 35. That kind of sucked, but that’s what happens when you get a bunch of student loans. I didn’t have to do get those loans, but I did and that’s my responsibility.

In other words, why should adjuncts be any different than anybody else with student loan debt.  Can’t pay your loans on an adjunct’s pay? GET A DIFFERENT JOB.

 

Adjuncts are not compensated for outside-of-class activities, like writing recommendation letters or attending departmental meetings

True, but neither are tenured professors. I write rec letters on my own time and I attend one or two departmental meetings (out of 3 departments) a semester. Hardly worth crying about.  In 13 years of teaching at the college level, I have never once been invited to join a committee, let alone required to participate on one.

Criticism:  REJECTED

 

Adjuncts are afraid to challenge their students for fear of bad reviews, which prevents students from developing critical thinking skills

I’m going to reject this critique outright as well.

There’s a huge difference between challenging your students and offending them. Universities (and students too, for that matter) don’t look at a review that says “this professor is hard, he made me think outside the box and expand my mind” as a BAD REVIEW. This also assumes that student evaluations hold any significant place in whether or not an adjunct is rehired the next semester. I have found this to be patently untrue.

As a matter of fact, I have never had one of my supervisors (departmental assistant deans) bring up a negative review to me. EVER. They barely bring up positive reviews. If you want to talk about people in academia that are overworked, look right at the assistant deans. Hoo boy, do they do a bunch of stuff. I have had a handful of students complain to my dean(s) about me, issues which were addressed in normal fashions and which, I’d like to add, were all unfounded and resulted from a student being unhappy about something I said, did or graded. Sorry, I’m digressing.

Part of my job is to introduce students to ideas outside their own experiences, which in and of itself can be challenging. Trying to explain to a lifelong southern Christian about the motivations of the people who started Islam … you have no idea what a challenge that is for both me and them. Trying to explain away the myth that people in the 15th century thought the world was flat is, though perhaps less controversial, similarly challenging.

If you are constantly offending students and they’re not learning anything along the way, you’re just a bad teacher. That has nothing to do with you being an adjunct; it has everything to do with you being a shitty teacher. Students don’t equate HARD with BAD. If your class is so impossible to pass that students give you a reputation as an impossible-to-please professor, you’re a shitty teacher – adjunct or not.

It is, however, a lot easier to punish (“fire”) bad adjuncts than it is to punish (fire) bad tenured professors. With an adjunct, you just stop calling with offers. Getting rid of a tenured professor is a long, tedious process – and in my opinion, it shouldn’t be. Also in my opinion, it’s time to abandon the whole concept of tenure, but that’s a different discussion. To add to that, though, professors – including adjuncts – are no different than workers in other industries. Some of them are awesome, some of them suck, but most of them are OK.

Criticism:  REJECTED

 

Adjuncts are stuck in this academic wage slave system because they have to teach so much in so many different places for such low pay just to survive that they cannot produce scholarship (research/published articles), and that prevents them from attaining tenured positions

This is a big reason why I think we should abandon the tenure concept entirely. The idea that you have to publish an article or a book based on original research on such-and-such a schedule to be a good teacher is completely idiotic. It’s been my experience that great teachers generally care little about research and great researchers generally care little about teaching. Some of the worst teachers I’ve ever had have been brilliant academics that wrote important books that expanded the knowledge on some subject.

Teaching and writing do not go hand in hand. It’s time universities stop forcing them to do just that.

None of my feelings on this matter address the issue, though, that adjuncts are wage slaves stuck in the system because they work so much (commute, teach, write recommendation letters, meet with students, commute, teach, repeat) that they have no time to do original research, write articles and find somebody to publish them to boot. This criticism may very well be true, but it’s not part of my sphere of influence since I’ve never published a single article. I wrote one, sure, but it’s been rejected 67 times at this point by various publishers, so meh. I’m a teacher, not a researcher, so I really don’t give a shit if I ever get published. I also don’t see being published as a way to further my teaching agenda, but it’s clear that lots of folks do.

 

Adjuncts cannot organize with each other due to the nature of their positions – they are cut off from other adjuncts

Really? In the age of the internet, adjuncts can’t find a way to meet with each other?

Criticism: REJECTED

 

Well, that wraps up today’s little rant about how poorly adjuncts are doing in academia.  It’s unlikely that my little blog will garner much attention outside my Facebook friends, but some of y’all are teachers, professors, students and former students, so maybe this will reach you.

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2 thoughts on “the ongoing criticism of the hiring of adjunct professors

  1. Very interesting post; I appreciate your point of view. I think that much of what you write is absolutely correct, basically, that there is a tendency to blame “the man” for choices that we’ve made ourselves. If we have a sucky job, we owe it to ourselves to go get a better one. It’s basically the free market principle. Whinging is never pretty.

    I do think that your own situation is, in some cases, not generalizable, partly because you have a fairly wide skillset which allows you to teach as a part-time position rather than needing to depend entirely upon your teaching income. I’ve never been an adjunct, but many people I work with are. Often, in order to make rent, they are cobbling together teaching positions from several schools in the area. This means that they are often unavailable to meet with their students and colleagues outside of class.

    I’m also not so sure that your scheduling experience is typical. We often have last minute changes and our Director calls up adjuncts and sometimes asks them to teach with only one week notice. I know you say that any Professor worthy of the title should be prepared to teach, but different institutions have different ideas of what a course should look like. A regular part of my job is to develop materials for all of my colleagues to use (syllabi, task descriptions, rubrics etc). We do try to make these available to all faculty, but, if you only have a week to prepare for your course, the odds that you’ll be ready and able to use our materials is pretty slim. I also get funded to attend conferences and workshops that enhance my skills as an instructor, whereas my part-time colleagues do not.

    As for your calculation of percentage of adjuncts, there seem to be two different ways to measure it. It may be that 50% of the course workload is covered by adjuncts, but if 70% of the faculty in a department is part time, then all of the other work falls to the remnant of full time faculty. As in your department, we don’t ask adjuncts to sit on committees, which means that I need to sit on every committee in the department, practically, as do the rest of my full-time colleagues.

    There are a few other points I’d quibble with in your post, but I’ve already written more than I intended to. I think it mostly comes down to this: Universities are acting like other for-profit businesses when they cut costs by hiring part time workers instead of full-time ones. Leaving aside the fact that most universities are not, in fact, for-profit, this is a bad model, for all kinds of businesses. Part time workers do not have the commitment to an institution that makes it thrive. Like I said, I think this applies as much to Walmart as it does to Harvard, but universities are especially sensitive to this because their success depends on having a strong institutional community.

    Leaving aside the high-minded mission type objections above, I feel strongly about this on one hand because it seems inherently unfair, and we have daily reminders in our department about how adjuncts are not treated the same as full-time instructors, but I also feel that it threatens the long-term viability of my job. It is true that it costs less money to hire adjuncts than it does to hire full-time faculty. This puts my job at risk. You can tell me to go find another job, but I love the one I have. It would be a great loss to me personally if I could no longer afford to do this. I’d like to think that it would also be a great loss to my students.

    I think the university has many other areas where it could cut costs, in particular, administrative costs have ballooned in recent years. This is very similar to the rising inequality in corporate America and I don’t think this inequality is a reflection of the value of their work, but rather a reflection of the fact that these decisions are in the hands of administrators, who, for obvious reasons, value their work over ours. The only way to change that is for some of that decision making power to be put in the hands of faculty. I am in general very opposed to unions, because it seems like they usually force choices that are bad for the institutions they are a part of. However, in this case, I think you have an example where unionizing would actually make universities healthier, which is in everyone’s interest.

    Sorry for the long reply; I got carried away.

    • Thanks for writing this – get as carried away as you like. I’m tired of the whining, I want to hear real discussion of on-the-ground (or in-the-classroom) situations instead of just “unionize now!” or “we need benefits” or “pay us more” stuff.

      I definitely recognize that I’m not the typical adjunct … but why can’t I be? Maybe if I was the rule rather than the exception, the system would be a little better.

      In regards to your comment about how adjuncts aren’t treated the same as other professors, well … life ain’t fair, now is it? I don’t mean that in a “they should be treated like dirt” fashion, but in the long run, adjuncts are not the same as full time, tenured professors – so they shouldn’t be treated the same. I have come across this kind of thing before as well, usually from younger PhDs. My steering the discussion around to a decade-plus of teaching experience usually shames them enough to end the conversation in a more or less pleasant fashion. They may not walk away respecting me, but they cannot argue with my experience.

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