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A Focus on Adjuncts

April 12, 2005

The Community College of Vermont has an unusual distinction when it comes to its faculty: It is made up entirely of adjuncts.

So when a trio of the college's administrators put on a presentation at the American Association of Community Colleges meeting, it wasn't a stretch for them to call their session: "Supporting Adjunct Instructors Because Your Life Depends on It." While few community colleges may match Vermont entirely, it has become quite common for community colleges to have more part-time than full-time professors -- and that in turn has presidents very interested in how to recruit and retain adjunct talent.

Speakers at several sessions at the AACC meeting talked about adjunct issues. Most of the emphasis was on non-financial ways that colleges can treat their adjuncts better.

"We know we can't pay them what they are worth, so we need to ask what else we can do for them," said Desna Wallin, editor of a new book, Adjunct Faculty in Community Colleges: An Academic Administrator's Guide to Recruiting, Supporting, and Retaining Great Teachers.

The Vermont delegation focused on orientation issues, and how new part-time professors can receive training and guidance. Those at the AACC session were asked to participate in an exercise that is part of the college's mandatory orientation. People were urged to think about a teacher who had made a positive impact on their lives, and to write down qualities that they remembered about that person.

Attendees were then given a list of 18 attributes of a good teacher and asked to indentify which of these applied. And finally, they were asked to rank which of those attributes -- such as "encouraged independence through showing students how to learn" and "was knowledgable about the subject" and "was fair to all students" -- were the most important.

At another session, Alice Villadsen, president of Brookhaven College, spoke about orientation programs at her institution, which is part of the large Dallas district. The orientation covers three main topics: the first three weeks of a course, learning styles, and teaching a diverse student body (a majority of Brookhaven students are not white).

Villadsen said that the college also provides teaching awards specifically for adjunct faculty members and offers longevity awards to reward those who return semester after semester. She said that the college regularly monitors the quality of adjunct instruction, in part by comparing sections of the same course that are taught by part-time and full-time faculty members. She said that in only one area -- developmental math -- has the college ever found a quality difference. And as a result, the college has hired more full-time professors for that area.

Eduardo Marti, president of Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York, agreed that quality was high for many adjuncts. He said that "clear expectations" were the most important thing for administrators to remember when dealing with part-time faculty members.

Adjuncts, he said, may well be the people students turn to for advice on courses, financial aid, careers and more -- so colleges need to make sure that part-timers have good information. "The face of the colleges -- as far as students are concerned -- is the person in front of the classrom," Marti said, adding that students don't necessarily know or care if that person is a part-time or full-time professor.

Dale Campbell, director of the Community College Leadership Consortium at the University of Florida, presented research based on surveys of adjunct faculty members at community colleges in his state. He found that adjuncts placed a high value on orientation programs, access to professional development materials, and the benefit offered by some institutions of being able to take graduate courses at no charge. He said adjuncts' prime complaints were that colleges videotaped their courses to analyze their performance (in a way that they don't for full-timers) and that they have to go on departmental retreats for which they are not paid for their time.

He also said that in comparing professional development activities available to full-time and part-time faculty members, it was almost always the case that part-timers had access only to things that didn't cost the colleges any money.

Wallin, the editor of the new book on adjunct faculty members, said that while institutions should try to improve adjunct pay, she didn't expect significant movement. Part of the reason colleges hire adjuncts, she said, is because they cost less than full-timers, and colleges are stretched for dollars.

"We could not fulfill our teaching mission without adjuncts," said Wallin, who started her career in academe as an adjunct at Lincoln Land Community College. Wallin, who currently teaches at the University of Georgia, is a former president at Clinton Community College and Forsyth Technical Community College.

While Wallin was probably not the only former adjunct present at the AACC meeting, the sessions on part-timers featured people who are currently full-time administrators and faculty members. And while most adjuncts wouldn't object to better orientation programs or teaching awards, those items may not top their priority lists.

The Community College of Vermont, for example, is currently facing a union organizing drive of its adjunct faculty members. Catherine O'Callaghan, who teaches folklore and comparative religion, said that she's not surprised that administrators say that the system works well with all adjuncts. She is a leader of the effort to have faculty members at the college affiliate with the United Professors of Vermont, an American Federation of Teachers unit that already represents other public college faculty members in the state.

Adjuncts, O'Callaghan said, have careers without any job security. "Even people who have had a longstanding gig can be dropped the next semester."

 

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