If you want a good example of the vulnerability of adjuncts -- at least as faculty leaders in Indiana see it -- check out the case of the instructor who lost his job because he responded to student complaints. The act that allegedly got him in trouble? Using supplementary materials.
Pejman Norasteh was teaching statistics this spring at the Indianapolis campus of Ivy Tech Community College when he tried to respond to one set of student complaints and found himself in trouble with the administration for doing so. Norasteh saved e-mail messages he received from students and superiors that document his version of events and that he shared with Inside Higher Ed, minus identifying information about students.
Norasteh -- like many adjuncts -- didn't have much control over the material he was supposed to cover. But students started to send him e-mail saying that the textbook was unclear. One student said he was getting "depressed" and giving up when he didn't understand the required assignments. Another student wrote: "As usual, our textbook does a poor job of explaining concepts. I am adding this chapter to my list of examples of how poor our book is...."
In response to the e-mail messages and personal requests, Norasteh started handing out supplementary materials to cover the same subject matter as the textbook, but with his own explanations. While the students who complained were happy, some others were not. They sent e-mail messages to the division chair saying that they were being asked to do extra work on top of the syllabus because the supplementary materials were not mentioned on the syllabus as required reading. That of course was true, since Norasteh didn't start the course thinking he would add to the reading beyond the textbook.
At that point, Norasteh received an e-mail from Mark Magnuson, division chair for liberal arts and sciences, and general education at the campus. Magnuson wrote that it was clear to him that "you are not using or following the syllabus or textbook," adding that "all instructors, adjuncts and full-time, are required to use the syllabus and textbook in each course to meet the statewide agreed upon course objectives. Individual instructors do not have the option of straying from the syllabus and/or textbook."
While Norasteh disagreed with the e-mail (he says he never stopped using the textbook, and only added material), he backed down and returned to the unadulterated textbook. He even has e-mail from one of the students remarking on his return to the textbook only. But it was too late. Shortly after, he was told his contract would not be renewed. He's moving to New York City to look for adjunct positions there.
Jeffery Fanter, vice president of communications at Ivy Tech, said he was aware of Norasteh's situation but said that college policy prevented him from commenting on it directly. But he defended the idea that the college might tell an instructor not to deviate in any way from a syllabus. "I can tell you that there are expectations that certain aspects of a courses syllabus be followed and taught consistent with the elements that were approved by the faculty in a specific department," he said via e-mail. "The syllabus and curriculum is developed by our faculty. As a transfer institution consistency in our academic delivery is an important part of our mission."
To faculty leaders in Indiana, Ivy Tech already is suspect on its treatment of adjuncts. Becky Lee Meadows last year found her contract as a full-time, non-tenure track professor suddenly dropped after she tried to organize a benefit concert to raise money for health care for adjuncts at the college. "We've been concerned about academic freedom at Ivy Tech for some time," said Richard Schneirov, a professor of history at Indiana State University and president of the Indiana AAUP.
Schneirov said he understood the need for a common syllabus for a course taught in multiple sections and on multiple campuses. But he said that all faculty members, including adjuncts, need to have some leeway to use their "best judgment" in how to guide a particular group of students through the material.
The Indiana AAUP has asked Ivy Tech officials to reconsider their treatment of Norasteh, but thus far there has been no move to do so.
Norasteh "was creating supplementary materials because students were having trouble," said Schneirov. Even if some students were afraid that they were getting additional work, he said, how could higher-ups take their side against an instructor doing extra work to respond to student confusion with the assigned textbook? He asked what it says when that is somehow viewed as grounds for reprimand and non-renewal of a contract. "This is not academic freedom," he said. "This shows that adjuncts have no academic freedom there."