An Adjunct Loses a Course

A chair isn't being clear on why a section was offered and taken back. C.K. Gunsalus analyzes the options.

July 22, 2009

Dear Survival Guide:

I've been an adjunct faculty member at a local community college for 12 years.

Recently I found out -- by accident and with no prior notification from my department head -- that one of two classes that I had accepted for the upcoming semester was given to a newer adjunct faculty member, who apparently had no classes.

My displeasure with this incident is not so much with the class being given to another adjunct faculty member as with the fact that I was given no prior notification of the class change, understanding that adjunct assignments are by definition tentative. I immediately went to see my department head, who reminded me that her term was ending soon and that I should go see the new department head. I then went to the dean of the school, who agreed that the outgoing department head's behavior was unethical as far as not giving me prior notification, and after then conferring with the outgoing head, told me that seniority was not a criterion that the department head used when determining class assignments.

I furthermore asked the outgoing department head why one particular adjunct faculty member had been assigned three classes for the upcoming semester and I only one (although I'm not certain, I believe that the reason was not based on merit but because he had accepted an online class). She has not responded to any of my emails and in fact contacted the associate VP of human resources to accuse me of harassment. I've since brought all that has transpired to the attention of the head of the part-time faculty association for my campus, who sympathizes and agrees with my evaluation of the situation but has basically told me that there is nothing that can be done until future bargaining results in more protective measures for adjuncts.

Is there anything else I can do, short of getting my butt fired?


Dear Frustrated:

I’m sorry this happened to you and hope that we can come up with some ideas that might help in the long term, even if there may be little you can do in the short term to change the unpleasant outcome. Let’s pull apart all the separate issues in this hard situation. Some of the factors at play include terms of employment, established practices, communication, relationships, budgets, student needs, and institutional priorities. It would be worth taking the time to do a clear-sighted assessment: do you think what happened was more about the outgoing head, the state of the college or you/your teaching? It’s likely some combination; teasing out the contributing elements can only be helpful to you. How have your teaching evaluations been recently? How central are the courses you teach to the department’s curriculum? Is this primarily about a budget crisis or is something else going on?

In community colleges without unionized adjuncts, the rights of part-time instructors are usually limited. If you teach, you get paid whatever the going rate is. Beyond that, the benefits vary widely, including degrees of certainty from one term to the next. At the very least you were treated poorly in terms of common courtesy: you were neither given any advance notice nor did you hear any explanation that would have helped you make sense of the situation. No one should find out about something like this “by accident.” Was it a matter of timing, or were you not going to be told for a while longer? That’s poor management, especially if the college might need you -- or others like you -- at some point in the future. Good manners and common sense call for more respectful treatment of all people; too easily, those seem to get lost.

The dean’s strange comment that this was unethical accompanied by what sounds like a “but what can I do?” is similarly rude and perplexing. If it was unethical and violated the standards of the college, it raises the question of whether the dean then took any steps to address unethical conduct or just acknowledged it and went on. Is something else going on here? Is there a reason the outgoing head is stepping down? Is she part of the problem? You’ve probably seen a number of heads come and go: where does she fit on the spectrum? How respected is she by others? Factor that into your assessment.

In terms of recourse, one question for you is why you didn’t follow the outgoing head’s advice to consult with the new head? At the very least, you might have learned more about whether this was an idiosyncratic arbitrary choice, or whether it suggests a change in the department’s priorities and planning. At best, it might have given you an opportunity to start building a relationship with the incoming head and a chance to share some of your ideas, strategies and commitment to serving the department’s students.

If the college has a commitment to online teaching and is going to be giving priority to those who are willing to include that in their teaching loads, have you considered signing on? Is this a harbinger of things to come? It might be worth asking the head of the part-time faculty association if he’s hearing anything that might indicate that, and help you figure this situation out. Think that one through pretty carefully. Whatever the head of your association has heard, online teaching is a growth area for community colleges, and other institutions that employ adjuncts. Being known as someone who is willing to teach online -- and can do it well -- can only help you.

Some introspection about your track record might also be in order: how well have your courses gone over time, from the perspective of the department and the students. Is the person who got three courses better received by students? How strong is your teaching? Could the head have been choosing for the future of the department and the curriculum?

One worrying part of your comment is the suggestion that the outgoing head accused you of harassment to the VP for human resources. Depending on the structure of the college and size of the community in which you live, it might be a sensible step for you to mend fences with that VP, so your reputation isn’t damaged in the larger setting. If you think there’s any possibility of the complaint being given any credence, consider making an appointment with the VP to address proactively any concerns about you or your professional conduct. Be prepared for the VP to think you’re overreacting -- as you might be -- and use it as an occasion to demonstrate your professionalism and commitment to your work and to the college. If the VP thinks you did anything out of line, find out what it was and do whatever you can to set things right. If you want to continue working for this college, mending fences is in your longterm best interest, even if you don’t think you did anything wrong, given the limited power adjuncts have.

It sounds like you there is little more you can do to address assignments for the upcoming semester. The best thing to do now is to start building a relationship with the incoming head. Make an appointment, and take with you a concise portfolio of the courses you’ve taught (and can teach) with relevant information: student evaluations, syllabi, and student compliments or recognitions that the new head might not know about, not yet having taken the reigns.

For the longer term, get involved with your part-time faculty association and see if you have useful contributions to make toward improving the treatment of your group of employees, who are likely carrying a large share of the teaching at your college.

Let me know what you find out when you visit the new head and the VP. And best wishes for a good outcome.

--Survival Guide

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