"The nation that expects to be ignorant and free expects what never will and never can be."  ....Thomas Jefferson.

Commentary of the Day - May 1, 2011: In an Adjunct Funk - on the Inside Looking Out.   Guest commentary by Cindy Ellen Hill.

Amongst the many professional hats I wear, I'm an adjunct professor, or adjunct instructor, or part-time faculty, the nomenclature varying depending on which institution is the related subject of the descriptor.  That means I teach undergraduate college courses, in communications, law and ethics.

I teach between three and five undergraduate courses per semester, two semesters per year, and sometimes a summer or intersession-term course as well.  For tenured faculty, this would be full-time employment.  Three hours of class time per week, plus six or more hours of prep time, at four courses would be 36 hours or more plus office hours, time for attending departmental meetings or other campus functions.

But at $3,000 -- or less -- per course, that full-time course load equates to $24,000 a year, received as contract pay with zero benefits whatsoever.  Deduct campus parking fees, and supplies and photocopying costs (some colleges are good at making a functional copier available to adjunct faculty, others are not) from that pay rate.  In other words, being a full-time adjunct college instructor, even at high-end private colleges, does not generate enough income to make a reasonable living.  A full-time college teaching job is a part-time sideline requiring at least one other source of income to pay the bills.

The advantage to the colleges is readily apparent.  You can hire a whole bouquet of wildflower adjuncts for the cost of one prized orchid of a full-time, tenure-track professor.  When you simply do not invite an adjunct back, it doesn't equate to an employment termination.  And academically, there are some cutting-edge fields, like filmmaking or video game design, in which having a professional teaching at your college can be a fabulous advantage to the students.

A March, 2004 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research entitled, "Do College Instructors Matter?  The Effects of Adjuncts and Graduate Assistants on Students’ Interest and Success," , indicates that adjuncts tend to reduce student interest in continued studies in the field in which they are teaching, particularly in the humanities.  In fairness, the study did note that adjuncts may encourage students in certain narrow technical or professional fields.

From my twenty-plus years of adjunct experience, I have come to believe that the downside effects to collegiate education of relying on low-paid adjuncts as core faculty in the liberal arts and humanities fields are much broader than the NBER study suggests.  It has also been my experience that these negative impacts are extremely frustrating to most adjunct instructors, who generally persevere in less-than-ideal teaching conditions because they truly love being in the classroom.

These negative effects include:

The inability to meet with students outside the classroom due to lack of office space, or the need to dash in and out of class to fit other work schedules, or a combination of these.  I've taught at five different institutions of higher education ranging from community colleges to elite private schools.  I've never had an office, and the classrooms I teach in have always been occupied before my class and then either occupied right after my class or, since most of my adjunct classes end late in the evening, security rushes me out so they can lock up.  Thus any conversations with students about their coursework or personal problems that are affecting their studies have to occur in the classroom whispered hurriedly in a corner with no privacy or time to engage in meaningful discussion.

The inability to interact with colleagues.  The only passing relationships I have ever forged with colleagues as an adjunct were chatting with the other instructors occupying my classrooms before or after me.  I come in, teach my course in a vacuum, and leave.  I never know how my course relates to courses being taught by other professors, and I can't brainstorm with others about why a homework assignment went over like a lead balloon, or share a particularly great role-play exercise I came up with.

The lack of training in teaching skills and professionalism development.  I've been fortunate in that the Community College of Vermont, an all-adjunct institution at which I teach, runs voluntary training for instructors at the beginning of each semester, which are fun and involve giving us a great meal.  While I know my subject matter well, and certainly spent enough of my life sitting in classrooms as a student, I have to say that anything I learned about how to actually teach came from these training sessions.  If I weren’t dedicated to improving myself as an instructor, I probably would be doing what I see many others doing; namely, lecturing with a Power-point slide show for three hours every week, instead of developing interactive and creative learning experiences for my students.

There are no substitutes, so there is no ability to cancel classes.  Full-time professors can ask a colleague to stand in for them in event of emergency, or reschedule classes to some other time or day if a cancellation is necessary.  Adjuncts are told in no uncertain terms that classes can't be canceled, and since they are not familiar with their colleagues and are often teaching at night when there are not other full-time instructors on campus, there's no one to call on as a substitute lecturer.  I have had to miss my grandmother's funeral and have had to delay necessary surgery past the end of the semester to avoid canceling classes, which would have resulted in the loss of my adjunct teaching slots.  The lack of a safety net creates intense anxiety and pressure.

Most college administrators answer that the role of adjunct is meant to be filled by a professional who effectively volunteers, for the nominal stipend, to teach one course a year or semester in his or her professional field.  While I have known a few professionals who taught one or two classes here and there and considered it their donation to the greater good, most adjuncts I know are teaching multiple classes -- as many as seven per semester in the case of one art instructor I know -- and juggling other jobs, praying that a full-time teaching slot opens up for them.

As a parent of college students myself, I can't envision paying upwards of $40,000 a year to send my son or daughter to a college taught primarily by adjuncts who don’t have the facilities or the funds to sit down with my child to talk about his or her academic progress and education, and career choices.  The liberal arts college experience is greatly enriched by time spent deep in discussion in a professor's office, by professors who consult with learned colleagues about subject matter or a particular student's study habits, and by instructors who remain interested not only in their substantive subject but also in learning new ways of enlightening young minds.  Full-time adjuncts on one-third-time contract pay, simply cannot provide that experience.

2011, Cindy Ellen Hill.
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Cindy Ellen Hill is a freelance writer and attorney from Vermont who has taught part-time at several colleges in New England.

The Irascible Professor comments: Cindy is right on the mark in her assessment of the problems adjunct and part-time college faculty members face.  Over the past two decades more and more undergraduate teaching has been assigned to part-time and adjunct faculty members.  At one time, the great majority of college courses were taught by full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty members,  But now across the country significantly more than half the courses are taught by part-timers and full-time lecturers on limited term contracts.  The conditions under which these part-time and full-time temporary faculty members work range from merely shabby to downright draconian.  In the California State University system, the system with which the IP is most familiar, pressure from the faculty union has helped temporary faculty members to obtain some limited health and retirement benefits provided they can cobble together six or more unit assignments at one or more CSU campuses for several semesters.  They also have won limited rehiring rights.  Nevertheless, even in a system where the faculty union still has some bargaining rights, part-time faculty pay is woefully low, and they are the first to be let go when a budget crunch hits, and they often are just one course away from losing their health insurance.  Many departments on many of the CSU campuses do make an effort to provide part-time faculty members with some facilities, usually shared by a number of part-timers, where they can meet with students along with computers that they can use to help prepare their classes and keep up with their email, etc.


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