Sunday, May 1, 2011

Even Though We All Know About the Adjunct Crisis, It's Always Good When Someone Else Tells the World (Or Even Asbury Park) About It.

College adjuncts: Good for the bottom line, but how about for students?
by Michael Riley
for Asbury Park Press

You send your children off to college, expecting them to sit in classes taught by wise professors, with office  hours and a chance to develop a teacher-student relationship.

Well, odds are, your budding scholar will be taught by an adjunct professor of some sort — a graduate student teaching assistant, a professional with a full-time job or someone brought in to teach a course here and there at one campus, while teaching two or three more at another one.

While it improves the bottom line for colleges and universities, the impact of having so many part timers in  college classrooms and lecture halls raises the question: Is such a shift beneficial to students?

College administrators often point to the cost savings that come from nontenured and part-time faculty, which helps keep tuition down. They also say that part-time faculty provide the college with the flexibilty to meet the changing needs and desires of students.

Faculty unions say otherwise. An ever-rotating roster of part-time faculty or even faculty who are hired full time for a year or two need orientation and training, and those costs add up over time. And with a
constantly growing student body, all in need of the introductory courses most often taught by adjuncts, more full-time tenured professors would still allow for flexibility in assigning faculty.

But their main complaint is that part-time faculty generally cannot make themselves fully available to their students, nor fully integrate into the life of the institution.


  1. From the article:
    "They found that college students who take their introductory courses from adjuncts are more likely to change majors, enroll in a different university or drop out of school entirely."

    I am sad when I see that. And then, a snarky part of me says, "Isn't that what we were trying to do?"

  2. It doesn't keep tuition costs down, either. Tuition fees, like using adjuncts instead of regular faculty, are both seen by administrations as an endless renewable resource, an endless flowing stream of revenue. I'm not sure where the "savings" go, but it's not to the students.

  3. There's also the fact that with primarily adjunct instructors, the student is very unlikely to be encountering a coherent curriculum taught by the people who have conceptualized it. Adjuncts are often either teaching standardized courses in which they have not invested the primary thinking, or teaching, willy-nilly, whatever specialized courses are needed to fill curricular gaps. A tenure-line departmental faculty can take charge of its own sequence of courses, coherently measure outcomes, and be accountable to the changing shape of the field. I'm at an R1, and we do this with our undergraduate curriculum about every 10 years; our graduate curriculum every 5. Adjuncts are just thrown into the middle, with no sense of how what they do fits into a larger whole. This robs them of the large-scale intellectual work of thinking about and influencing the curriculum, and it robs the students of an education that makes sense.

  4. Alan highlights an important passage, I think, but I don't entirely buy the explanation in the article, which I suspect is based on the National Survey of Student Engagement or similar data: that the key to retention, at both the department/major and the institutional level, is contact *outside* the classroom. That may be important, but another key that often seems to be overlooked in these discussions is the ability of students to take advanced classes in a subject from the person from whom they first learned about the subject: the professor in their introductory class. As a colleague of mine points out, there's a certain "imprinting" effect, especially on first-year students: they'll often take a second class from the same person. Since adjuncts of the sort who teach intro classes rarely teach advanced classes as well, such continuity is lost. Of course, in departments with small intro classes, the math doesn't work out; this may also be, in part, an argument for the old intro lecture/upper-level-seminar pattern.

    In some places, it has almost reached the point where university students attend a more selective but less carefully thought out (because the faculty involved don't do service) version of community college for their first few semesters, then "transfer" to the system of upper-level classes taught by tenure-track faculty. Where that is the case, it's hard to argue that students shouldn't just save money by attending an actual community college for the first year or two. I wonder whether any university has followed that model, eliminating the first two years, and just offering junior and senior classes?

  5. I think F&T and I just said more or less the same thing at the same time (we were both typing at once), though from somewhat different perspectives: curricular coherence matters, and overuse of adjuncts/contingents undermines it.

  6. Do faculty unions represent adjuncts along with full time and tenured faculty?

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  8. [fixing stupid editing-induced subject-verb agreement error]
    @Ben: sometimes yes, sometimes no (and some of us don't have access to effective unions because of right-to-work laws). The combined model doesn't always work, because the two groups' interests have diverged so far; I've heard of some cases of intra-union conflict that arose when adjuncts felt that they'd been shouted down, retaliated against, and/or ignored by full-time members of the same union (who may, of course, also be, in functional terms, their supervisors). There's some of the same problem with the AAUP (not technically a union, but it functions as a bargaining unit in some places): they've been pretty smart about coming up with positions that both continue their historic emphasis on the importance of tenure and call for improved conditions for contingent faculty, but it's a tough balancing act, and, at least in my experience, it can be hard to come up with a strategy at the local level that both TT and contingent faculty can support. To take one example, the cost of research leaves for TT faculty is directly affected by the cost of hiring adjuncts to replace them for the leave period. In an institution like my own, an R2 striving to become a R1, that leads to very different agendas for TT faculty, who are looking to reduce course loads and increase research leaves, and contingent faculty, who'd like to see better compensation for teaching, and perhaps course reductions of their/our own to allow us to participate in the sort of curricular planning F&T mentioned above. In my own department, the shift from a 3/3 to a 2/2 load for newly-hired TT faculty has been very closely associated with a boom in hiring of both full-time and part-time contingent faculty.

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  10. Um, Ben, very few tenure-line jobs are unionized. Tenure and self-governance are supposed to substitute for a union, or so they tell me. Frankly, self-governance has deteriorated to the extent that I'd like a union -- though I'm not sure I'd give up tenure to get one.

    So at my R1, everyone EXCEPT the tenure-line faculty is unionized.

  11. I just graduated from a school where I was able to take courses each year from a professor I had in my first year. Our school is small and most classes are taught by tenured professors (and I've never heard of one taught by a TA), so what Cassandra said about imprinting definitely hold true in my experience.

    After convocation, the department faculty hosted a reception and I spoke with all of the professors who were present, even ones I hadn't taken courses from, but who were familiar to me. Having such a small department has really made my undergraduate all the more special, and I am sad to know that a lot of other institutions are moving away from this type of system.

    *apologies for the sappiness

  12. I have to admit I don't know how common unions that try to cover both groups are (or how common unionized TT faculty are, since the state in which I live and work is a right-to-work one). Here's an article about the case I was thinking about when I wrote the above:

  13. One more vote for the importance of "continuity," especially for undergrads; the department we got our B.Rex from was extremely close-knit, made up entirely of TT faculty, except for the rare occasions when the department could abuse one of its endowments to sponsor a visiting professor for a spell, and got along famously—mostly, I suspect, because everyone realized that trying to make power plays within a seven-person department was just plain dumb (and got you nothing but extra paperwork).
    What really raises eyebrows is when when we tell people that our wonderful, "even the biggest name teaches freshman open-enrollment classes," department was actually "The Department of Monarchy and Democracy Studies"—and that our Henry VIII professor was on the "democracy" side of the fence. We can't imagine such peace and serendipitous integration happening if people were rotating in and out on a regular basis; there's a certain amount of mutual familiarity and respect that has to be developed in order to make academic incest really work.
    And Cassie: we like your idea of a "senior college." There might be a niche for it yet . . .

  14. Actually, the transfers at my school are better than many of the first- and second-years are as juniors, precisely because the transfers have had smaller classes with standing faculty members.

    Here's the complicated part: we keep handing over the first- and second-year classes to grad students (rather than adjuncts) because the grad students have such sucky teaching assignments. In order to get a decent job, they need to teach in their field and not just teach comp. But then our first- and second-year classes are taught by people who are on their way out of the institution, lessening the chance that an undergrad can take more than one class with the same professor over time, and thereby lessening undergrads' ability to get continuous mentorship, recommendations from professors who really know them and are at a senior stage in their career, and so on.

    It's a pickle, as my Granny used to say.

  15. I actually think that, at least in gen ed content (not skills) courses (which may or may not be the same as the intro-level classes in the major), there's an argument for the large-lecture-plus-discussion-sections-led-by-TAs model, precisely because it gives prospective majors the chance to be exposed to the work of a TT professor (or several TT professors) with whom they might eventually take classes. But that model doesn't provide the ideal training ground for TAs, who do, indeed, need to devise and teach their own syllabi, assignments, etc. For that, I like the model which has the TAs taking a graduate-level course in a subject, plus a second, pedagogically-focused class which covers the same material, both of these classes working a week or two (or maybe even a semester/summer) ahead of the associated undergrad sections. I still feel some regret that I didn't accept a grad admission offer from a department that follows that model of pedagogical training (also, that department didn't fall apart 2 years later, but that's another story). But, while that approach works well for the grad TAs, and, in some ways, for the undergraduates, it doesn't provide direct exposure to the TT professor supervising the course for the undergraduates. Maybe there's a hybrid between that and the lecture/TA approach that might work, but it would definitely be more time-consuming for the TT professor(s) involved than the existing models.

    Interdisciplinary lecture courses at the gen ed level can also be wonderful experiences. The one I took was in women's studies, and it's probably had more influence on my later studies and teaching than any other single course.

    Then there's the question of whether intro. comp., a difficult and crucial course, should be taught by the least-experienced teachers in the faculty pool, as it is almost everywhere. I'd say not (while understanding why it is). But I'm not sure what a viable alternative model would be (SLACs often have writing-intensive freshman seminars taught by TT faculty, but that model, like a number of other pedagogical models that rely on the particular environment of the SLAC, is hard to transfer to other environments).


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