If you’re an adjunct, I have a small but important task for you:
Ask your students what "adjunct professor" means to them. You might hear something like, It means you don’t have a Ph.D., or You don’t have tenure yet. (Yet ... if only.) Don’t be bitter or cynical, and don’t barrage them with statistics, stories of unfair working conditions, and vitriol against "the administration." Try to be as calm and diplomatic as you can, and simply listen. Some might understand and empathize, or some may simply brush it off. If you’re a multi-campus adjunct (or "road scholar," as we’re sometimes called), students may understand that their class and campus aren’t the only things demanding your attention. Carve out some time in class, and ask your students what "adjunct" can or does mean. Maybe they’ll like the break from talking about another scarlet A or going over their next writing assignment.
Better yet, ask your students regardless of whether you’re adjunct, tenure track, or tenured. Part- and full-time faculty, regardless of discipline, need to be collaborating -- both as part of this conversation and more broadly across our disciplines and campuses
Whenever I’ve asked my students what "adjunct professor" means, I’ve told them about some of the differences between being on and off the tenure track, how pay can differ, how we don’t get paid as much as other professors or administrators, and so on. Thanks to some Modern Language Association networking I did with New Faculty Majority, I was part of a "PBS NewsHour" story in March, and I mentioned it to a few students in case they wanted to watch. I had hoped the piece would be substantive and lead to others focused exclusively on adjunct labor -- and thus reach students’ parents -- but it wasn’t and it didn’t.
I’m ultimately trying to raise questions and spark discussions -- debates, even -- about how and why to talk about labor conditions with students. I’m not intending to provide a script or list of directives, short of saying that by no means should “Job Information List” or “search committee” be said in the classroom. Our students have a right to know that all professors aren’t treated and promoted equally -- and, more importantly, that this affects how we educate them. Anecdotally, I’ve had to limit my accessibility, office hours, and even designs for more ambitious courses in the past when I’ve taught at two campuses and had 70-80 students. This semester, for the first time since 2006, I’m only on one campus and have 26 students. I have a lot more time and energy for important teaching tasks: slowing down when I grade to write fuller, more meaningful comments; spending more time and energy to design new assignments and "know" my students more fully; and, simply enjoying more time to grade, prep, and meet with students.
Having been an adjunct for 14 years and counting -- the first six while finishing my doctorate, the last eight as job seeker and teacher-scholar -- I find myself thinking a lot about how to involve students in discussions of academic working conditions. Regardless of how we raise the adjunct question in our classes, we need to do so constructively, meaningfully, and diplomatically, and without simply airing grievances or ranting against "the administration." Tone is key. My program director once described me as calm and articulate -- which is typically how I discuss such professional matters in the department or online. There are private Facebook groups (e.g., Con Job), direct Twitter messages, and hallway conversations for the vitriol and the ranting -- which, believe me, is therapeutic.
By the same token, I’ve also been thinking about how to reach students’ parents in equally meaningful and constructive ways. I’d never advocate direct-emailing them or aggressively interrupting freshman orientation, but perhaps our conversations with students will trickle down to their parents. Or, perhaps we might find ways to talk with parents at orientations and move-in weekends. They, too, have a right to know that some of their children’s professors have limited availability, minimal financial support, and overbooked schedules across campuses.
Particularly with universities that (claim to) value the first-year student experience, new students and their parents should be aware that the professor of their intro-level course may work multiple jobs -- teaching or otherwise -- while acquainting students with college-level learning, or that s/he doesn’t have a TA to handle some grading. Parents might need reminding that most adjuncts don’t have other full-time jobs and simply teach "on the side" or "in the evenings." For some of us, teaching and working in several part-time positions is our full-time job.
It's crucial that we ask these questions and talk with our students. In my case, the adjunct question has come up in a few different ways with my students. Last fall, one student was a little impatient (albeit well-intentioned) about my replying to an email she sent asking about feedback on a paper idea, so she sent me one of those, "Did you get my last email?" messages. I replied that I’d seen the first one and planned to respond soon -- while reminding her that she was one of about 75 students I had that semester across four courses and two campuses. In a few other instances, students’ schedules have conflicted with my office hours, and I’ve sometimes had to teach on another campus when students requested to meet. We work it out, often with a little finessing of the schedule, but I seize the chance to tell them why I’m not around as much as they or I might like.
I posed the adjunct question to an honors-level Shakespeare course last fall, and it led to a short discussion of some differences in faculty rank and course assignments. Most recently, I asked a student (also a campus tour guide) what the university told her to say to prospective students and their parents about different faculty ranks and working conditions. They do acknowledge that the university has different levels of faculty, and that several professors are part-time and teach at other local universities. (About 13 years ago, another student-tour guide told me he was instructed to say that all university faculty were full-time, even though he knew I was an adjunct without a Ph.D. yet. At least some things have improved.) At this point, though, simply acknowledging that there are different faculty levels at the university -- while still knowingly maintaining an uneven playing field -- is problematic at best, and unconscionable at worst. Don’t just tell students you have different faculty ranks; help the part-timers earn more and move up those ranks.
Clearly, some things can’t be changed by one conversation with students. Tenure-track positions aren’t going to multiply overnight, department chairs and deans aren’t going to automatically promote adjuncts, and students aren’t going to march on the university president’s office. Although there won’t be immediate big-picture effects of such a conversation, we should still have it with our students. Ask them and see where the conversation leads.
I now have another small task for you: Start talking about how we can -- indeed, should -- involve our students in discussions of academic labor. Share and tweet this piece. Comment, answer, even disagree. Remember that there are different kinds of action: from simply reading and sharing this piece, to talking with your students, to figuring out what has and hasn’t worked well. And maybe see how and when you can reach a student’s parents.
Clearly, these conversations are fluid and ongoing. Your job -- our job -- is to take them off the page or screen and into our social media feeds, department meetings, and, perhaps more pressingly, classrooms.
This article is adapted with permission from one part of a series in Hybrid Pedagogy on contingent faculty members. Joseph Fruscione teaches first-year writing at George Washington University; he also works as a freelance tutor and editor. He has taught American literature, adaptation studies, and first-year writing at the university level since 1999.
A new paper from the Delphi Project argues that some key ways colleges can support adjunct faculty don't cost anything, despite administrators' assertions that they can't afford to improve working conditions.
For the layperson, the solution to the problem of low wages for part-time workers might be simple: a full-time job. But for part-time professors in U.S. postsecondary education, the hopes of landing a full-time job can be about as remote as winning the lottery -- especially in disciplines where part-timers outnumber their tenured full-time colleagues.
The layperson might also assume that full-time professors and their unions naturally favor equal pay since their jobs could be undercut by cheaper part-timers. But in the case of tenured faculty, their full-time jobs are guaranteed by tenure and thus they have little to gain from equal pay for part-timers. The fact that full-time faculty are tenured and are paid more per course has given rise to the elitist notion that full-time faculty are superior and more deserving.
And that in turn affects consideration of proposed legislation like California’s AB 950 (which was proposed this year), which would protect the ability of full-timers to teach up to 150 percent of full-time while depriving part-timers of the chance to teach those sections. Often seen as an entitlement by the full-timers, faculty overtime has caused disputes; in Wisconsin, an American Federation of Teachers part-time union challenged its AFT full-time counterpart. But inequities go far beyond overtime pay. For faculty and administration, it may take exposure to the egalitarianism of a system like Vancouver Community College’s in British Columbia -- where part-timers have equal pay, equal work, and job security -- to realize how internalized notions of full-time faculty elitism are manifest in U.S. higher education:
Disguised Low Pay
Not only are professors off the tenure track paid at a much lower rate -- in violation of the principle of equal pay for equal work -- their low wages are rarely disclosed in a forthright manner. The Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, for example, has long reported "part-time" faculty salaries as a percentage of what "full-time" faculty earn, as 60 percent of the average full-time faculty salary of $58,000, or $34,500 a year, which to the layman would seem a reasonably handsome average income for “part-time” work.
But a note in the same board report explains that $34,500 is not actual but hypothetical earnings -- what a part-timer would earn if he or she taught full-time. A more realistic average part-time faculty workload would be half-time, which would yield $17,400 a year, which is below the 2013 federal poverty level of $19,530 for a family of three. Indeed, since part-time faculty are not allowed to work full-time, reporting their income as if they were full-time is misleading.
Lack of Raises for Experience and Professional Development
Many full-time faculty are granted automatic step raises in recognition of experience/promotion in rank and professional development, but not most part-timers. In Washington State, from 1999 to 2004, 90 percent of all appropriations for salary step increments went to the full-timers (who represented only one-third of the faculty), which contributed to the state’s current biennial disparity of over $115 million between part-time and full-time faculty salaries.
Smaller Raises and Cost of Living Adjustments (COLAs)
Bargained pay raises and cost of living adjustments are routinely calculated on an equal percentage basis for the part-time and full-time faculty. But since part-time salaries are lower, their pay raises and COLAs are lower too, which also contributes to increasing the pay disparity.
Workload Limitations or Caps
Few people are aware of the limitation on non-tenured faculty workload, often called “caps,” which prohibit non-tenured faculty from working full-time and from qualifying for tenure.
Rather than pressuring institutions to create more full-time positions, caps have encouraged an "easy come, easy go" approach to using cheaper contingents who can be hired or laid off at will and who have become the majority of faculty.
In California, a part-time faculty member’s workload within a community college district is now capped at only 67 percent of full-time; this restriction is set by state law, section 87482.5 of the California Ed. Code. But whether 60 percent, 67 percent, or some other percentage short of full-time, this limited workload means hardship for many of California’s 38,000 part-time professors who teach in the state’s 72 college districts, especially given the discounted part-time rate of pay.
Overtime for Full-Time Faculty
The cap, however, does not apply to the system’s 14,000 full-time faculty. Full-timers not only have a guaranteed full-time teaching load, they have the right to teach overtime if they desire. Full-time faculty are allowed to select their classes, including overtime assignments, before the remaining classes are offered to part-time faculty.
In Washington State, these “overloads” make up 13 percent of all full-time instruction in community colleges, and over the last five years, the “moonlighting” of full-timers has increased by 8 percent in Washington (page 58 of this report).
California Bill AB 950
This year California legislators considered but didn't pass (though it could come back next year) AB 950, for which the California Federation of Teachers (CFT), the state’s affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, provided backing. AB 950 would have instituted a new state regulation on full-time faculty workload, not by prohibiting overtime, but formally allowing full-time faculty to work overtime, up to 150 percent of full-time.
The bill is frequently pitched as benefiting part-time faculty, and some of California's 38,000 part-timers support it: limiting full-time faculty overtime (overloads) to no more than 150 percent of full-time would seem to protect the jobs of part-time faculty. Also, since the bill is sponsored by the CFT, some part-timers who are union members feel it is a show of good faith to stand in solidarity with their union to support the bill.
But the bill would NOT benefit part-time faculty. Of the roughly 14,000 full-time faculty in the California community college system, only 172 have accepted workloads in excess of 150 percent.
What the bill would do, however, would be to write full-time faculty overtime into state law, giving sanction to all 14,000 to teach up to 50 percent more, that is, up to 150 percent of a full-time load. The bill could result in more full-time faculty overtime and thus undermine part-time faculty jobs.
One consequence of enactment would be to doom appropriations in future years for faculty pay increases too -- if some full-time instructors are customarily teaching 125 or 150 percent of full-time, it makes it very difficult to claim that all full-time instructors are overworked and deserving of higher pay.
Also, since the general public surely expects full-time tenured professors to be working full-time, establishing the voluntary option of full-time faculty overtime in state law would seem tobe a terrific public relations liability, especially at this moment, as many federal civil servants are taking forced furloughs and could resent the unfairness of tenured faculty working overtime for additional pay at will.
The practice of allowing full-time faculty to teach overtime whenever they wish reflects a failure of full-time faculty to self-regulate, since the workloads of full-time instructors’ non-teaching duties — campus governance, research, curriculum development, etc. — are fundamentally self-directed and are the primary justification often offered for the pay differential between full-time and part-time faculty.
Whenever a full-time faculty member elects to teach more than a full-time load, he or she displaces a part-time faculty member’s job. If AB 950 passes in some future year, and a higher percentage of the 14,000 full-time faculty members feel empowered to teach course overloads, fewer classes will be left for part-timer faculty to teach. In this way, AB 950, presented as a means to limit full-time faculty who abuse their ability to teach course overloads, could actually end up taking away part-time faculty jobs and thus should be seen as a wolf hiding in sheep's clothing.
At a time when U.S. higher education is seen as a job prerequisite and is the subject of reform from the highest levels of public policy discourse, it is very long past time for non-tenured faculty to be respected as professionals, not as casual workers without job security, job protection or equal pay, whose jobs can be raided at will. The true solution would be to move toward the Vancouver model, where full-time faculty may teach full-time, and no more, which then permits part-time faculty to have job security, and to allow part-time faculty to work up to full-time.
Jack Longmate and Keith Hoeller are members of the Washington Part-Time Faculty Association. Longmate teaches English at Olympic College and Hoeller teaches philosophy at Green River Community College. Both are contributors to Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System, edited by Keith Hoeller, forthcoming with Vanderbilt University Press (January, 2014).
The National Bureau of Economic Research this month issued a working paper containing a preliminary report on a study of the learning outcomes of students in courses taken during their first term at Northwestern University. The study considers an impressively large sample, "15,662 students taking 56,599 first-quarter classes" and, its authors claim, offers clear statistical evidence that the students learned more in courses taught by non-tenure-track faculty members than in courses taught by tenured and tenure-track professors.
Not surprisingly, the study received extensive coverage in higher education publications like Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education, as well as attention from the mainstream media. Unfortunately, that coverage tended to misrepresent the study’s findings by claiming it shows either that "adjuncts are better teachers" or that "tenured faculty are worse." A close look at the working paper yields no evidence that the study demonstrates these things in a broadly generalizable way.
What thereby shifts into the background — though it does not go unmentioned — may, in fact, be the most important finding reported in the paper, that this successful cohort of "non-tenure-track faculty" were not short-term temps, but rather long-term employees. Admittedly, it was also downplayed by the study's authors. They remind their readers that Northwestern is an elite institution, and that "its ability to attract first-class non-tenure-track faculty may be different from that of most institutions." But the only details they give about these faculty appear in a footnote, which tells us only that "[a]lmost all classes taught by non-tenure-track faculty at Northwestern are taught by those with a longer-term relationship with the university."
Why is this so significant? In the first place, because the paper strongly hints that the study may call into question the applicability of a number of previous studies showing that the widespread use of adjunct faculty negatively impacts students at many types of institutions. The authors are careful to say that their work bears only upon research institutions, where tenured and tenure-track faculty members have significant research duties, but rhetorically this qualification merely serves to reinforce the suggestion that tenured and tenure-track research faculty are inferior teachers.
On the other hand, if we recognize that the contrast being drawn actually involves two groups composed principally of long-term employees, it becomes considerably more difficult to account for the differences between them on the basis of "tenure."
But there is another feature of the "non-tenure-track" cohort that the paper only alludes to in passing: they are full-time employees. When queried by my colleague at NewAPPS, Eric Schliesser, the paper’s lead author, David Figlio, made this explicit: “we are comparing long-term full-time lecturers versus tenure-track professors.” Moreover, "these lecturers have long-term contracts and the same benefits as tenure-track faculty."
In his e-mail, Professor Figlio congratulates Eric and me for "picking up on" this. He is being far too generous. From the working paper alone, I found it impossible to determine with any confidence the conditions under which these faculty members were working. Having clarified this, it becomes evident how wrong much of the initial reporting on the study has been. Far from showing that they are better teachers, it provides no evidence whatsoever about the effectiveness of “adjunct” faculty in the more common sense of part-time employees hired to teach on a course-by-course basis. Nor can this be easily blamed on lazy reporters.
By describing the "non-tenure track" cohort in vague terms, and by making multiple references to studies of “adjuncts” in its introduction, the rhetoric of the working paper does a great deal to sow confusion on this point, especially among those unfamiliar with the nuances of academic hiring terminology.
So what does the study establish? Broadly, it shows that full-time, relatively stable and (presumably) well-compensated non-tenure-track faculty do well in the classroom.
Specifically, the paper outlines evidence for two conclusions: 1) that students "learn" better during their first term at Northwestern in classes led by non-tenure-track faculty, and 2) that students taking classes with non-tenure-track faculty are more likely to take another course in the same discipline.
"Learning" is operationalized here in terms of grades earned by students in a subsequent course taken in the same discipline. This, it is suggested, offers a good way to measure whether "instructional quality has a lasting impact" or "deep learning."
The most precise comparison listed shows the difference between the two groups of faculty to be less than a 0.1 grade point (gp) improvement, with slight variations for classes within and outside a student's intended major. Relaxing the statistical controls makes the effect appear to grow to around 0.2 gp.
So there is a consistent, though modest, improvement relative to faculty on tenure lines. This is a genuinely interesting result, and it would obviously be valuable to understand how it was achieved. But we cannot do so without knowing more about the working conditions of those being compared.
How many courses per semester are those in each group expected to teach? How many times have they taught the courses being studied? How recently and how often do they do so? How large are their classes? Do they differ materially in format? And, of course, what other responsibilities are they expected to balance?
All of these factors, were they found to consistently vary between the two groups, could plausibly be seen to contribute to the improvements in student learning the study identifies. Indeed, it is far more likely that they should be doing so than the bare fact of not being on a tenure line — especially with regard to full time faculty who are long-term employees.
Sadly, while it goes into considerable detail regarding differences among various groups of students, the working paper provides no information about these matters bearing upon faculty. Worse, it does not appear that the authors have even conducted much analysis of these factors. When asked about the effect of variations in class size, in particular, Professor Figlio acknowledged to Professor Schliesser that he and his co-authors had not yet looked into this factor.
All of which leads one to wonder why the authors have chosen to circulate a vaguely framed paper based on such incomplete results. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this is a rhetorical exercise. But if so, what do these authors intend to suggest?
As usual in these instances, it is helpful to look at their conclusion, the final two sentences of which read as follows: "Our results provide evidence that the rise of full-time designated teachers at U.S. colleges and universities may be less of a cause for alarm than some people think, and indeed, may actually be educationally beneficial. Perhaps the growing practice of hiring a combination of research-intensive tenure track faculty members and teaching-intensive lecturers may be an efficient and educationally positive solution to a research university’s multitasking problem.”
Especially read in the context of what preceded them, these statements involve a remarkable amount of equivocation and deliberate obscurity.
In the first place, while people are very much alarmed at the growth in the ranks of adjuncts, there is less concern about full time, long-term teaching faculty. And where questions do arise, they tend to have more to do with the welfare of these faculty or the institutional devaluation of research than with their educational effectiveness. In which case, a study showing that such faculty are effective teachers answers a question that virtually no one is asking.
Why, then, make such a big deal of answering it? Because, as the media and everyone else recognized, the answer suggests questions about the pedagogical effectiveness of tenured faculty.
Indeed, it does so despite the paper’s careful qualifications on this precise point: "the evidence that non-tenure-track faculty produce better outcomes may not apply to more advanced courses.”
It may not, but no matter. The seed of doubt has been planted. This leads us to the last sentence, which is an equivocal tour de force. At the end of a report on a study contrasting non-tenure-track to tenured and tenure-track faculty, we are told that hiring "teaching-intensive lecturers" in addition to "research intensive tenure-track faculty" is an "efficient" solution to the problems facing administrators at research institutions.
Notice how the operative distinction has shifted to one between teaching and research-intensive faculty — but without quite disconnecting it from the issue of tenure.
Given this shift, the claim may be true. But there is nothing about teaching-intensive faculty that is incompatible with their being eligible for tenure — especially if one fully intends to build long-term relationships with them and keep them around.
Why, one is led to ask, can we not have "efficiency" and tenure? The answer, if there is one, must have to do with other ways in which non-tenured faculty differ from those with tenure. The authors mention academic freedom — an important consideration.
But they otherwise ignore the degree to which non-tenured faculty lack a secure position from which to question, criticize, or oppose the actions of university administrators.
And here, indeed, is another sense of "efficiency" that administrators at many institutions might well wish to cultivate, allowing them to enjoy a pedagogically effective, but largely vulnerable, and therefore easily controlled faculty.
Edward Kazarian teaches philosophy at Rowan University and is a contributor to NewAPPS.