Why adjunct is a dirty word

by Dr Davis on December 5, 2008

Adjunct is a dirty word.

caricature-teacherIf you didn’t know it was, you haven’t known any adjuncts personally. It is amazing what people will say about adjuncts, even to their faces.

But here’s why:

The average adjunct is not as qualified as the average new full-timer. (I’m not addressing the folks hired back in the 60’s, when the market was entirely different.) And I’m not just talking about them receiving less institutional support, though that’s certainly true. Full-timers are recruited nationally, and vetted by search committees, deans, and vice presidents. It’s not unusual to get hundreds of applications for a single position, even at the cc level. When we hire someone to the tenure track, we’ve chosen the best of hundreds. Adjuncts are hired locally, ensuring a far smaller pool. They’re often chosen based on their availability for a given time slot. Yes, some of them are excellent instructors. Yes, sometimes we luck out and find really good people whose life circumstances steer them to us. (That was me, back in the mid-90’s.) But the idea that, on average, the best of hundreds aren’t any better than the best who live within a thirty minute drive and are available on Tuesdays at 12:30 just doesn’t pass the sniff test.

Absolutely the chances are good that the best of hundreds will be better than the best who live within an hour and a half drive. (I’m in Houston, after all.) That does not mean, as Community College Dean makes clear, that some aren’t good. Some are good. Some are excellent.

But we are regularly treated as if we are “the one living within driving distance who agrees to go to X campus.”

Even when we are not. Even when we have a PhD and more teaching experience than the full-timers. Even when our evaluations are glowing and our classes fill up immediately upon opening.

It reminds me of how doctors often treat their patients. Many doctors routinely treat their patients as if they are idiots and do not recognize their own symptoms. This happens even when the patients are bright, well-educated, and self-aware. The doctors do it because they have the expectation that the patient won’t be intelligent.

Maybe the academy has that same expectation. They expect the adjuncts to be poor teachers, place holders, cogs in a giant wheel that are interchangeable… And they get those things, to the detriment of the students. Maybe the colleges should give more and expect more from their adjuncts.

If students perform well when confronted with high expectations, shouldn’t teachers work the same way? We’re just older folks (usually). If adjuncts are expected to be underqualified, high graders without significant content in their courses, then that’s who they will become.

I work at three colleges with very different community cultures.

At one college everyone is introduced as Dr. if they have received one and by their first name as not. This is even when you are giving your name to colleagues. At this college, my PhD counters my adjunct status, as does the fact that relatively few of the faculty are adjuncts.

At one college the twain do not meet. Adjuncts (60 or so) have a four computers/tables office in a building, while the full-timers have individual offices in other buildings. Both the adjuncts and the full-timers have a start-of-school meeting, but the adjuncts’ is at night and the full-timers’ is in the day. Even adjuncts who could attend the full-timers’ meetings don’t because it means coming back to campus without pay. And it just continues that way. They don’t interact. This is CC1, which has offered adjunct certification.

At my third college, the adjuncts are invited (as far as I can tell) to everything the full-timers are. The adjuncts have offices in the same area as the full-timers, though they share an office and the ft have their own. (That’s okay, though, since few of the adjuncts are in the office area at the same time.) People talk to the adjuncts, instead of ignoring them in the halls like at CC1 and CC2. It’s a much more comfortable school to be an adjunct at.

Why am I working at three colleges?

caricature-edwardian-teacherI have been away from teaching college for fifteen years, teaching my children. Now I am trying to get back into teaching. I’ve been working at the local college for a while, teaching a Saturday morning or a Thursday night class. But this year my youngest is attending the local college for dual credit, so I am teaching part-time at several places trying to beef up my experience and my skills. I know that colleges look more at presentations and publications and I have been working on those. I have eight presentations this school year and two publications.

So I am working at several places, getting my feet in doors, hopefully getting to know people, and, next time they hire, I want them to be looking at me first. But when people think of adjuncts as the sweatshop workers, as at one of the colleges I applied for a full-time position, where they never hire their own adjuncts for full-time positions, maybe more adjuncting was not a good choice.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 G. Davey, Ph. D. 12.14.08 at 4:42 pm

True enough and having worked as both FTTT and Adjunct following a medical disability, I can attest to the differences in expectations and -sadly- treatment, regardless of ability, performance and accomplishments. But it’s important to recognize the continuing enormous growth in adjunct hiring and the concomitant precipitous decline in FTTT positions, which is forcing a high proportion of newly degreed faculty into the dark hole of adjunct-life – from which most will never escape. We must remove the incentive for institutions to keep replacing FTTT with adjunct faculty and the only practical way to accomplish that is to eliminate the enormous disparity in compensation AND expectations between the two.

2 Scratch 12.15.08 at 5:26 am

Good luck to you, Dr. Davis, but after twenty years adjuncting at over a dozen American colleges and universities — with conference presentations and national publications, too, though no book yet — I’m afraid that G. Davey is right: in the eyes of many of those who hire, adjunct experience is worse than no experience at all. Like CC Dean, they know the conditions under which that experience has been gained, the low expectations they themselves set for it and the little attention they paid to those who did it. The adjuncts who break the mold — whether from personal integrity and commitment to their subjects and students, hope that hard work will get them somewhere, or a combination — help keep this scam going.

3 RJO 12.16.08 at 9:55 pm

For “cogs in a giant wheel that are interchangeable” you might find a suitably citable example in “The Global War on Taylorism.”

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