Thursday, June 5, 2014

Big Thirsty: What do adjuncts want?

Hi AWC folks.  I received this Thirsty from an anonymous reader.  She sincerely wants to know how her online program can best help adjuncts.  This is an important topic for many people in academia and I'm sure it's been hashed out elsewhere.  Surprisingly, it's not a topic we've dealt with yet at AWC.  Next week, we'll solve the problems in the middle east.

Dear AWC community,

I recently took a job supervising a successful online math program.  I am a professor for on-campus classes and this is my first involvement in online courses.  We currently employ adjuncts, giving them one or two classes ($2500 each) every eight week term (six terms per year) but it's not guaranteed work.  They are good instructors and I wish I could provide more courses or compensation for them.  Most teach elsewhere to get by.

Our online college dean recently brought up the idea of inviting a few of the adjuncts to be full time instructors (non-tenure track) who would teach four classes each term guaranteed with the idea that this arrangement enables them to make a good living just teaching for us.  The pay per class would be comparable to what they make now but we would add some service duties, similar to the service provided by other full time faculty.  The program chairs discussed what would be best for adjuncts at length and fell into two camps:
  • No, this would cause us to hire fewer adjuncts and they all need the work.
  • Yes, this helps a few adjuncts get the type of job they deserve.

We debated other factors as well but these were the two attitudes that are relevant to adjunct needs and wants.  The thing is, nobody in the room was or had been an adjunct.  How would we know what was best?

That's where you come in.  Set aside the idea of paying everybody lots more money, giving them tenure, candy raining down from the sky, and other impossibilities.  Take it as a given that we treat them with respect both as talented educators and human beings because I think we do that already.

What would be best for adjuncts?


  1. Let me know if I understand this correctly.

    Your proposal is to give some of your adjuncts a full four classes per semester, and at the same time not to increase their per-class pay, and also to require extra service duties from them for the same crappy per-class money that they're receiving now?

    The idea that "this arrangement enables them to make a good living just teaching for us" is indicative of the sheer obliviousness endemic to many administrators' attitudes to the whole adjunct situation. You understand, I assume, that teaching four classes per semester, at $2,500 per class, provides a total annual income of about $20,000?

    I'm not sure in what universe this constitutes a "good living," but it certainly doesn't qualify in any place that I'm familiar with. Even if you also give them the opportunity to teach four courses during the summer, they'd still only be earning $30,000 a year. Again, not what I consider a "good living." And for this, they're also expected to perform service on top of their teaching, which would (coincidentally, I'm sure) probably relieve the full-time, tenure-track faculty of some service duties.

    I'm afraid that you can't ask "What do adjuncts want?" while, at the same time, expressing your desire to "Set aside the idea of paying everybody lots more money," and simultaneously proposing to increase their workload for the same basic rate of pay. It just doesn't work like that. Because your question effectively then becomes, "How can we make ourselves fell better about the adjunct situation without really making any substantive changes?"

    1. Sorry, I left out two important details when editing her post. There are six terms per year. That's $60K and the work is guaranteed rather than variable by semester. I'll include this in the post now.

  2. Well, that changes things considerably.

    I'd still be interested in knowing how long the terms are, how many students per class, and how much time the instructors get between terms over the course of the year. I'd like to know how much time is spent on grading. Are these classes where grading is easy, or is automatically done online? Or does grading require lots of instructor time outside of class? I also wonder how much time they'd have for this extra service work, given that they're teaching 24 classes a year.

    But $60,000 is, indeed, a decent living.

  3. As an adjunct cobbling together 6-8 in person classes per semester, I can honestly state that the much better situation would be take your best adjuncts and make them the "full time, non tenure" professors. Yes, this makes life worse for the adjuncts you end up letting go, but it creates new jobs (that will be refilled when the current folk quit/retire/move on) and gets some people off the adjunct wagon.

    I can understand why people would say it's bad to give fewer classes to adjuncts, but your students and staff will both be better served by a few people getting good jobs, instead of having many people with bad jobs.

  4. As someone who holds a somewhat similar full-time position (and has been an adjunct), I, too, would be in favor of conversion of as many adjunct lines as possible to full-time positions (with, I assume, at least some benefits -- I believe you'll be required to provide health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, and full-time positions should really also involve retirement and any other benefits that are standard for full-timers).

    If you're going to include service (which I also strongly support; service is at the heart of faculty governance), then you need to make sure that you have a rational explanation of how this full-time job compares to other full-time (including FT tenure-track ones). How does the teaching load compare to other full-time teaching loads? The service load? If the rationale for a much higher teaching load is that you're not requiring research, how much time do members of the department really spend on research? You'll also want to take into account any differences between 9-month contracts and what sounds like a basically year-'round job.

    Before you start down the non-tenure-track track path, you also want to think through some other things: how will contract reviews and renewals be handled? What about raises? Do you have a rationale -- one that you'd be happy to explain to students in the class and/or parents who pay the tuition as well as administrators and fellow TT faculty -- for why you're paying people who teach what sounds like an essential/foundational class (that's a lot of sections you're sure you're going to fill for some time to come) significantly less than those who teach more advanced (i.e.often easier to teacher) classes? Do you view this shift as a long-term solution, or the first step toward integrating teaching-intensive faculty better into your department (e.g. by advocating for a teaching tenure track)? On the flip side, do you have any reason to worry that an eventual proliferation of such positions at your university might eventually undermine tenure, and faculty governance in general (answer: yes, you do, but that's also true of adjunct positions; just don't take your eye off the ball once you've made one small step in the direction of both justice and self-protection).

    Finally, a question for self-reflection: how, exactly, did you end up supervising people doing a job which you, yourself have no experience doing? Is that really a good idea (here, too, I'll provide the answer: no, it isn't. Teaching online isn't totally different from teaching face to face, but it is significantly different, and someone in a supervisory position over a significant number of online teachers should have significant experience, and preferably also some training, in teaching in that environment, preferably with the same load, since it's very hard to judge what's possible in a particular work situation unless you've lived it yourself for at least a few years). I realize you've got the job for the moment, and you're doing your best to do it well, but shouldn't part of your job be either trying to get yourself up to speed, quickly (by taking some training, and by teaching a pretty heavy load of the online version of the class yourself), or -- perhaps better -- looking for a better-qualified successor, perhaps among those same adjuncts (which would also mean you'd have a former adjunct in the room next time you're discussing adjuncts)?

    1. I'm also cynical enough to hope that this proposed conversion is good news, in that it suggests that the online powers that be (why, exactly, anyway, do we -- the faculty -- accept the idea of a separate "online college" and "online dean"? does this make any sense) suspect that they might have difficulty hiring enough instructors on a part-time basis in the near future, and are trying to forestall that problem by instituting a new, somewhat more attractive, hiring pattern.

      And I continue to be disturbed by the fact that no one participating in the conversation had been an adjunct. That suggests that there's a lot less "class mobility" in academia these days than people (especially people who continue to produce Ph.D.s, and hire adjuncts) think.

  5. I moved from adjunct to full-time term professor and my yearly pay went from $18,000 to $53,000. Hell yes I was happy. I even got an office.

  6. As an adjunct, I would like something like that. Higher pay and knowing that I had a job semester to semester. I also think this will help your adjuncts be more hireable for tenure track positions (for teaching anyway). They will learn about faculty governance and other duties associated with being full-time. My friends often tell me it is easy to get a full-time gig at a college if you are already full-time. If I could get a teaching job like the one you mention without moving, I would absolutely do it. I am not sure I would move for this type of position, unless the first term was guaranteed for 3 years.

    CC brings up many good points. How will these new positions be comparable to the tenure-track. Some places treat the fixed-term folk like regular faculty and other places not so much. At my PhD institution the lecturers are on a fixed term and are asked to do service but have no voting rights. So they cannot vote for a new hire when a position opens up or other items that could directly affect them (I think this is garbage, but I understand from a Faculty Senate view point). How integrated and welcome they are in the department comes down to to you and your coworkers.

  7. As an adjunct turned faculty/adminiflake (director of our tutoring center) I'd mirror what others have already said. Competitive wages, benefits, and the respect that follows with the task of educating tomorrow's leaders. I'm thankful as hell to have the opportunity I have worked my way into.

    If I had any advice to offer the adjuncts of the world, it is this. Don't be a fly on the wall. Be the big, energetic, and even slightly annoying fly that buzzes around the entire department. I made my presence known so well I would have needed landing lights! So when this position opened up, I was first on the short list to be offered the job because of my "energy and drive."
    Don't go along to get along. Rattle the cage... within reason.