The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Always open, always closed."...  ...International Revolving Door Company slogan.

Commentary of the Day - June 5, 2008: Migrants, Money, and Migraines: Headaches of the Adjunct Professor.  Guest commentary by Beverly C. Lucey.

A friend, Sean, from another university e-mails me.  He is leaving the classroom to rejoin the corporate world.  He is not happy, but he is doing what he needs to do for his growing family.  That's not a new story.  No one gets into education for the big bucks.  For the last four years he was an adjunct, an emergency hire,  with a year-to-year contract.  A university does not have an emergency for four years by the very definition of the word.  Academic lingo must be carefully parsed.

Here's the beef, the paradox, and a suggestion that would improve the freshman experience when it comes to General Education requirements, especially in the Humanities.

The beef.  Some (most?) four year colleges depend on the flexibility of adjunct hires.  It's very cost effective for an institution.  One gets paid per course, is often limited to two sections, receives no benefits, and additional sections of popular classes are covered -- often at the last minute.  The words "warm body" have been uttered in my presence.  At large universities graduate students, some with no teaching experience whatsoever, become "teaching assistants" for introductory courses.  They aren't assistants in that case; they are the whole enchilada for lesson planning, grading, and setting the tone for college level work.

Newly minted PhDs and those with Master's degrees, who wish to stay in a particular area of the country may find tenure track positions very hard to come by.  They are the fodder that feeds the adjunct machine.  With the exception of young female academics who want "mommy hours" and are happy to teach part time, most of the adjuncts that I've known teach at two or more colleges or work at the mall to supplement their meager salary.  College debts and everyday living requirements loom.  A person with a desire to teach could earn a person 12K--24K as an adjunct--the first teaching two sections, the second teaching four, which is considered a full teaching load. For health insurance the scholar might have to also work at Starbucks.  Starbucks provides a menu of benefits, including health insurance for all employees working twenty hours a week and up.

The paradox.  By not hiring faculty full time whenever possible, a college leans on a revolving door of instructors, often with no supervision, to meet, greet and teach freshman at a critical time in their transition from high schools.  Those high schools vary widely in their offerings, grading, and academic rigor.  No where is this reality more obvious than in freshman composition classes.  The latter are not lecture courses and require constant hours of grading throughout the semester, instead of  two tests and a final exam or other obligation found in many other courses.

Northeastern University, in Boston, did the following last summer: "As a part of its initiative, Northeastern did not renew the contracts of at least a half-dozen full-time instructors for next school year because they have not earned the most advanced degree given in their field, according to reports in the student newspaper and several faculty members.  Several other faculty members said that more than twice that number had been dismissed.  University officials would discuss the moves only broadly, declining to give specifics on the number of people affected other than to say that most were full-time instructors on annual contracts", according to a July 6, 2007 Boston Globe article by Peter Schworm.

Another twist comes from the tenure track faculty who worked very hard for their degrees and positions thank-you-very-much.  They have a special intellectual focus, pressure to publish, and often a decided lack of interest in teaching General Education" courses.

Also, depending on the professional association policies of the schools (read: union) some schools simply cannot hire full time General Education people for extended periods of time.  A teacher might get a year as a fill-in appointment, perhaps two years.  Otherwise an open search, often nationwide, is required.  That's expensive, and needless, if the adjunct is a good fit.  It seems as though both the academic side and the administrative side wind up on the same side regarding itinerant staff.

This squeeze insures that teachers of lower level courses will leave as soon as they can, no matter how much they love their jobs, when a reasonable full time position emerges.  Freshman often know only one of their professors well.  It's their comp teacher.  We might be needed to write letters of support for students who want to become Resident Advisors, take part in special programs, or need a recommendation to gain the renewal of their scholarship money.  In the adjunct room people come and go mumbling about Michelangelo.  Continuity matters.  Being known for successful classroom teaching should be a feather in any chancellor's cap.  Instead, professorial star power gets much of the attention.  Oh, and please make sure the football team gets what it needs.

As Marty Nemko noted in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article "...Many institutions tend to educate students in the cheapest way possible: large lecture classes, with necessary small classes staffed by rock-bottom-cost graduate students.

That's not to say that professor-taught classes are so worthwhile. The more prestigious the institution, the more likely that faculty members are hired and promoted more for their research than for their teaching."

The Solution   Not all great teachers are scholars, although excellent scholars can certainly be fine teachers.  Still, perhaps colleges should look at establishing a different criteria for General Education instructors.  The job description should focus primarily on teaching skills.  Such openings would be for full time non-tenure track positions with three year contracts, renewable upon successful teaching.  Call it a Lecture Line position.  Call it offering a reasonable wage for important work.  Call it providing benefits to members of the academic community who truly want to be in the classroom.

Adjunct positions can be exploitive if not desired by Mommies and Me.  The pay rate stays flat, year after year.  Previous teaching experiences are not counted because there is no salary scale.

(The Full Disclosure Policy Police might like to know that due to a move from South to North, yours truly resigned from a full time position and is now teaching two sections of freshman composition as an adjunct instructor.  In my case, it's exactly what I was looking for.  But that's me.  I've already been in the classroom for over forty years.  It's time for part time.)

My friend, Sean, who taught freshman composition and technical writing is a natural teacher.  He brought his real world corporate experience into the classroom, loved coming to work every day and truly cared about everyone on his class roster.  The students loved him.  He was rigorous, fair, and knowledgeable.  He had a year-to-year full time appointment, but no assurance of being rehired.  Last week he packed his briefcase for the last time,  What a loss.

2008, Beverly C. Lucey
Beverly Carol Lucey is a freelance writer and a Visiting Professor of Writing at Westfield State College in Massachusetts.

The Irascible Professor comments: The only problem with Beverley's proposed solution is that it would require colleges and universities to pay their part-time faculty members decent salaries and to provide them with reasonable benefits (health care, sick leave, and the like.)  But in their headlong rush to emulate the race to the bottom that has characterized so much of American private industry lately, it is exactly the opportunity to deny their part-time employees these hallmarks of a civilized society that drives the rush to fill more and more college and university teaching positions with part-time or adjunct faculty member.  One recent survey of American higher education revealed that nearly half of the classes offered are taught by these underpaid and under-appreciated part-time faculty members.


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© 2008 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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