Colleges that shortchange adjuncts are ultimately compromising students (essay)

My first adjunct job interview was at a local technical college. When the dean told me that he and his assistant would evaluate my interview and teaching demo, I found it unusual, since neither had a background that qualified them to assess my ability to teach in my subject area. I was surprised to learn that the dean’s assistant is a current student at the technical college, but a student perspective can be valuable. And although I had chaired and served on hiring committees as a tenured associate professor at my previous university, I hadn’t been on the job market in more than a decade. Maybe this is the way they do things at technical colleges, I thought, and I tentatively set my reservations aside.

I was offered the job shortly after I left campus. I didn’t receive an orientation or a resource packet, and though I’d asked about learning outcomes and whether or not there was a standard syllabus and course text, I was told I could do whatever I wanted. This, too, struck me as irregular, since learning outcomes and outcomes assessment are crucial issues on most college campuses today.

In the week after I was hired, which was the week before classes started, I tried repeatedly to obtain exam copies of the texts I was considering for my course. But the publisher refused to give me access -- perhaps because I’m now an adjunct or perhaps because I have no history with the technical college where I’m teaching.

In either case, my course prep became even more time-consuming. I could read the table of contents of the texts. I could, in some cases, even download a sample chapter. But I couldn’t carefully assess a text’s fitness for the students I’d be teaching. And I knew -- because I had studied the demographic data of the technical college -- that my students needed a very, very good text. I also needed to find one they could reasonably afford.

I emailed the dean and his assistant for help with procuring exam copies, thinking surely they would contact the publisher and assist with access to digital copies of the books. Nothing. I asked the publisher to contact the dean or his assistant directly. Still nothing. I phoned the publisher’s customer service specialist. Nothing. I was running out of time.

Finally, after looking up, one by one, many of the articles listed in the tables of contents of the texts I was considering, and after checking the student costs at sources such as Amazon and eBay, I selected a text. I purchased it myself and had it shipped to my home via express mail.

On the third day of class I received an email from the dean. “Oops” was one of the words in the subject line. That I could not use that text was the gist of the message. Apparently, they didn’t have the text on campus. Apparently, some students were eligible for free access. Apparently, I was the last to be informed. And apparently, I should just use the text they did have on campus.

Maybe some administrators at this institution were overworked and didn’t get the support they need. Maybe some were incompetent. It doesn’t matter. That kind of mistake doesn’t just make teaching more difficult; it compromises students.

I was not a welcome messenger on the third day of class when I told students that if they had already ordered the text listed on my syllabus -- the syllabus we’d discussed in detail the day before -- they’d have to return it. I was so mortified that I offered personally to refund students’ costs if they were unable to return their texts. On my adjunct salary, that would have been a much harder offer to make if my partner didn’t have a job that paid a living wage.

But it wasn’t just that. It was messy and unprofessional. I learned from my students that similar mistakes happen all the time, and I was humbled by how bad they felt for me.

I confess that when I received the email about the book, I momentarily considered quitting. A good administrator would have purchased the books and had them delivered ASAP. A better administrator would never have put a teacher or students in that situation. But I felt a tug of guilt about quitting. For lots of reasons, especially when I thought about the students in my class, it seemed to be the wrong thing to do.

So I began to draw on my experience with copyright and creative commons to assemble course materials that I could provide my students for free. I love doing it. Among the most important decisions an educator can make is choosing materials that meet the needs of his or her students. It’s just really, really time-consuming to start from scratch on the third day of class, not to mention that I’ll never be able to account to the environment for the number of paper copies this requires.

My adjunct contract pays me for the five hours of instructional time that I’m in the classroom each week and for one hour of course prep each week. Before I even walked into the classroom on the third day of class, I’d already dedicated more than 15 hours to course prep. I’m teaching a developmental-level course with 20 students. I knew when I accepted the position that I’d never be paid for all the time the course would require. It embarrasses me to admit that I treated teaching for such low pay as a privilege that, thanks to my partner’s job, I could afford. As long I had the opportunity to teach well, I wasn’t concerned about how much time I’d need to spend. I just hadn’t anticipated how rapidly the hours would accumulate.

A quiet series of thoughts began to grow louder: This is not sustainable. The college is compromising the students it exists to serve.

After my sixth day in the classroom, I was hopeful I’d have access to the college’s online course management system. After inquiring at the dean’s office about the CMS during the week before classes started, and again during the first week of classes, and after repeatedly getting no answer, I contacted the technology office that manages it. When I didn’t get a response via email, I searched the college website for the contact information of anyone who might be able to help. For the past 10 years, I’d relied on a CMS to manage grades and to make links, course resources and other supplementary materials available to students. For me, it was an accessible class list as well as a tool for communicating with students.

I realized how much I had taken that tool for granted when I contemplated how to develop an alternate system for recording grades and for calculating each grade’s weight as it figured into the overall course grade. My course still isn’t on the CMS, and I just gave a quiz. It will take more time, but I will be developing a spreadsheet of grades soon, and I can use my personal web space or a free wiki to publish course materials. But students are paying for the CMS, and I can’t answer why our class does not have access to it.

I’m not required to hold office hours. For anyone who has been in a tenured or tenure-line position, this might even sound great. But I don’t think it occurred to me before what it meant to be entirely inaccessible to students outside of class. I don’t have an office. I don’t have a campus phone number. And I am not paid to meet with students or to support their learning outside of class. What this suggests to me is that the possibility that students may have questions or concerns outside of class isn’t a consideration when hiring adjuncts here.

It’s fortunate that I have my own laptop and my own adapter. Although the room I’m teaching in does not have a computer station, it does have a projector, and sometimes the Wi-Fi even works. I’d love to say that I can teach without technology. That sounds incredibly romantic. I even feel a little wistful for those bygone days that existed long before I entered higher ed. But I’m preparing students to live and work in the 21st century. I can cover a lot without a screen. I could use exclusively print materials. But at what cost to my students’ education? I’m still trying to find someone who will reply to my request to teach my class in a computer lab from time to time. A lot of my students don’t have computers at home.

Yesterday, I printed an article published in Newsweek on Campus in the late 1980s. It was written by a college student attending a prestigious West Coast school. He came from an impoverished background and felt as if he were “Living in Two Worlds.” I included a large copyright notice at the bottom as required for fair use, and my students and I read the article in class together. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen students read with such intensity and deep understanding. They recognized the unemployment, poverty and struggle of the author’s hometown. “Just look out the window,” one student commented. “I saw three homeless people on my way to class today.”

I thought back to a homeless woman I’d met and fed when I visited campus for the first time for my job interview. On the adjunct pay at this institution, there’s a very good chance that instructors can’t afford decent housing. Like many of the students in my class, they may need to share a room and scrimp for grocery money -- as well as book fees -- just to get by.

But the greatest cost, it seems to me, is borne by the students. The veterans in my class who enlisted for the sole purpose of earning money for college through the GI Bill. The high-school student hoping to get a head start. The gutsy ex-con who is starting over. They’re paying to be here. They have very real goals, and they are working very hard. Why, I wonder, isn’t this college giving them what they deserve?


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Essay on the thoughts of community college curmudgeons and how to engage them

Curmudgeons prosper in every sector of higher education. And every seasoned faculty member and administrator can identify at least one curmudgeon at their institution.

I recently conducted a study on this group, based on survey responses from 77 community college presidents. The study’s starting point was to define the campus curmudgeon in negative terms, because ultimately we were interested in their negative impact on colleagues and colleges. When I started reporting on the results of the study and began listening to the feedback from self-identified curmudgeons, though, I learned some valuable lessons about curmudgeons and their potential in helping our colleges improve.

In the original survey, the following definition was created with assistance from 14 national community college leaders:

Every community college has a curmudgeon; most colleges have more than one. They are highly visible on campus and can be identified easily by faculty, staff and administrators. Curmudgeons are contrarians who take enormous pleasure and pride in thinking otherwise. They can be cantankerous naysayers acting as self-appointed gadflies to the president or other leaders, including leaders of their own constituencies. Collaboration and civility do not seem to be values they hold in high esteem. They are quite vocal and opinionated and appear to prefer heated debate and prolonged circular discussion to solving problems and reaching consensus. Curmudgeons can be memorable characters with a certain flair or style, often using humor and sarcasm to play to their audiences.

Using this definition, the study found that:

  • Ninety-seven percent of the respondents indicated they had known a curmudgeon who fits the definition in the study. Fifty-eight percent indicated that the curmudgeons they had known were male, while 2.5 percent said they knew female curmudgeons. However, 38 percent of respondents indicated men and women were equally represented.
  • Full-time faculty members were identified by 82 percent of the respondents as the primary group representing curmudgeons.
  • Twenty-seven percent of the respondents who selected faculty indicated humanities/arts as the most representative disciplines of curmudgeons, and 27 percent selected social science. These two areas represent 54 percent of all curmudgeons in the study.
  • Eighty-six percent of the respondents indicated that the impact of curmudgeons on the college was either negative (49.3 percent) or highly negative (36.3 percent).

In addition to surveying the characteristics of curmudgeons, the study also asked presidents to describe the behaviors, motivations, damage caused and strategies used to mitigate the damage created by curmudgeons. Details on this part of the study are reported in a monograph, Community College Curmudgeons: Barriers to Change, which is available here.

The views of curmudgeons on leaders and their behaviors take on increased meaning when they speak for themselves, as they do in the italicized quotes below.

Curmudgeons Have a Point

Some curmudgeons distrust leaders who are constantly introducing the next big thing. It is not uncommon for some leaders -- especially presidents -- to always be chasing the flavor of the month or the innovation du jour. Whether this behavior is motivated by self-aggrandizement or by the desire to improve the college to better serve students, the behavior is viewed by some curmudgeons as negative, time-consuming and costly.

What if “curmudgeon” is simply another word for “not ready to get breathlessly enthusiastic for the current flavor of the month”!

I am proud to be one of those curmudgeons mentioned in this article. During the past 10-plus years, I have lived through layer upon layer of the Next Big Thing foisted upon faculty by an administration consisting of layer upon layer of folk who have never set foot in any classroom in a faculty role….

When my institution is among the first to adopt whatever latest snake oil is being peddled by Gates, Lumina, et al., over the objections of experienced faculty and in the face of any and all plain common sense that should tell us to run the other way, it is my duty to my students and to the taxpayers who fund this school to be that curmudgeon. If that hurts the feelings of Mr. O’Banion et al., too damned bad -- somebody has to say it when the emperor has no clothes, and I’m happy to be the one to do so.

The comments also reveal frustration with or disdain for administrators who have not been in the classroom or who do not understand the challenges classroom faculty face. Leaders who do not understand the very difficult challenges of teaching in a community college and who launch new initiatives without taking those challenges into consideration contribute to initiative fatigue and failure.

I take real pride in my role as a curmudgeon and sometimes introduce myself as our campus curmudgeon. I believe in the importance of separation of powers and checks and balances. When administrators know they’re going to be asked to explain themselves and the reasons behind their initiatives, they are at least a little more prone to stopping and seeing things through the eyes of those upon whom they’re foisting them. I realize that from an administrator’s point of view, we gadflies seem like pains in the butt, but as we know, power does tend to corrupt, and any sort of friction to slow this process down is worth hanging onto.

Some curmudgeons have been given a raw deal. Curmudgeons are not shy folk and speak out on many issues. Some do so because they have something important to contribute to the college conversation; some do so because they want to be visible to leaders who might support their aspirations to become a leader. If they take positions outside the comfort zone of the president or other leaders, or if they are not members of the internal network of leaders, they are often treated as outcasts. Their only choice to be heard or visible may be to become a curmudgeon. The following quotes from presidents in this study support these observations:

Curmudgeons should never be confused with whiners. It is easy to mistake their independence for hostility or simple negativism. Yet they can be reliable friends and forceful allies.

Our biggest curmudgeon on campus (nearly everyone can name him), has often ended up in leadership roles (such as chair of the faculty council). A few years back I had the opportunity to speak with him one-on-one about a topic, and during that conversation he shared with me that he had been at the college for nearly seven years and during that time he had reported to seven different supervisors with a different person conducting his performance evaluation each year. I believe that lack of effective leadership for these individuals is a key contributing factor to their behavior or should at least be considered.

Some curmudgeons identify problems that some leaders do not want to address. There are many challenging issues in the contemporary community college and many points of view on how these issues should be addressed. Leaders have their plates full in addressing the most pressing problems, but curmudgeons often identify problems that lurk under the surface and that influence campus culture. While leaders may sometimes dismiss these problems as gripes from a disaffected group, the issues, nevertheless, exist for those who are willing to register their concerns. For example, leaders in general accept the reality that many community college students are underprepared and very challenging. When some faculty complain about having to deal with the “toughest tasks of higher education” (as Frank Newman identified the challenge many years ago), they are met with some disdain and accusations they do not support the open-door philosophy. Instead of covering over these differences, leaders should make them more visible by listening to faculty concerns.

Here are some quotes from concerned faculty members who responded to the presentation on curmudgeons at the League for Innovation in the Community College’s recent conference in Boston:

Maybe if they’d listen to us curmudgeons once in a while, rather than trying to shut us up, community colleges wouldn’t be in the shape many of us are today: taking unconscionable amounts of students’ loan eligibility and seeing them leave when it runs out, as illiterate/innumerate as they were when they got here. No one wants us to talk about that, though.

I get so tired of administrators, who seldom step foot in a classroom, dissing faculty for resisting change. As soon as I question the notion that more technology in the classroom is the solution to every problem in higher education, their eyes glaze over and they stop listening.

Hey, I have initiative fatigue! I’m an adjunct who’s worn to a snot by administrators who keep coming up with crappy time-wasting boondoggles that add to my workload but not my paycheck.

Curmudgeons of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but bloated levels of directors, deans and deanlets whose understanding of education is limited to the marketing techniques of an M.B.A. and who lie supine and servile at the feet of the corporate interests, which are committed only to churning out indebted graduates with “employability skill sets.”

These comments come from only a few who responded to the reports, but they are spirited and are probably only the tip of the iceberg of how many faculty, including those who are curmudgeons, really feel about some of the issues facing community colleges. These comments touch only briefly on such key issues as student loans, student failure, technology as a silver bullet, adjunct faculty, overemphasis on career and technical education, colleges as bureaucracies, not listening to faculty, and tension between faculty and management. What would this list include if disgruntled and concerned faculty were honestly asked to identify the issues and challenges they would like to see addressed in the open? And what might be the outcomes of improved communication and problem solving if leaders and faculty were to engage in an open conversation about some of the challenges that are seldom addressed in a rational way?

What I Have Learned About Curmudgeons

In the sections above, I have tried to reflect points of view of a few curmudgeons regarding issues they care about. In summary, I have learned that some curmudgeons:

  1. Have legitimate and rational responses to perceived injustices and incompetent leadership.
  2. Have become cynical because of broken promises and constant changes in leadership.
  3. Have been passed over for promotions and recognition they deserved.
  4. Are very knowledgeable of college issues, policies and programs and are very articulate about sharing that knowledge.
  5. Would like to see improvement and change in the college and because of resistance from leaders and others have become more aggressive and belligerent as the only strategies open to them.

In education we do not like to give up on our students -- and maybe on our curmudgeons. If we could find a constructive way to engage curmudgeons directly, we might open up new ways to involve them, with more positive results for everyone. Not every curmudgeon, of course, wants to engage in such conversations; some really are destructive and want to do everything they can to slow and block change.

Fortunately, this group is a small minority. The great majority of faculty, joined by concerned curmudgeons who care, can have a very positive impact on a college and its students. Leaders need to learn to listen to the concerned curmudgeons and to hear what they are really saying over the static of the spirited language they sometimes use to vent their frustrations and their passions.

Terry O'Banion is president emeritus and senior league fellow at the League for Innovation in the Community College. He is a distinguished professor and chair of graduate faculty at National American University and a senior adviser for higher education programs at Walden University.


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