You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

Woman sits at a desk with a laptop looking at an instructor gesturing at a board
Nataliia Nesterenko/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Some college and university adjunct instructors are fresh out of graduate studies, confident that teaching college students will be their career, while others come onto the teaching path after working in industry. Rebecca (we’ve changed her name to protect her privacy) was the latter. An attorney who had argued cases in Milwaukee and Chicago for many years, Rebecca had taken a break from practicing law to raise her daughters.

On the advice of a friend, Rebecca applied to teach business law at a local community college. Instead, the college asked her to teach an intro-level writing course. A former English major with no teaching experience but plenty of legal-writing experience, she accepted. After her first day in front of college students, Rebecca was hooked.

Within a year or so, a business law section opened up, and Rebecca started teaching it and other law-related courses—first at the community college, then at a four-year college. Then she began teaching M.B.A. business law courses at a university, and to share teaching ideas, she collaborated with local business law instructors and joined a national organization for such instructors. To understand the science behind learning, Rebecca also started listening to podcasts on teaching. She talked with her students, tried simulations and games, and strove to make the law come alive for her students. Rebecca drove between three campuses every week, teaching and prepping four courses each semester. She had patched together a second career, but it was precarious.

The academic workforce continues to shift from a full-time faculty to mostly contingent adjunct appointments. In 2021, two-thirds of all faculty members in the United States held contingent appointments, compared to fewer than half in 1987. Today, fewer than one in four faculty members holds a tenured full-time position, down from 39 percent in 1987.

The current overreliance on contingent appointments in the U.S. system of higher education, without tenure or the security of long-term contracts, “threatens the success of institutions in fulfilling their obligations to students and to society,” Glenn Colby, a senior researcher at the American Association of University Professors, wrote. Almost four in 10 adjunct faculty members in the United States need government assistance to survive, with a quarter of all adjunct faculty earning an annual salary below the federal poverty line, according to a report by the American Federation of Teachers.

Who Gets Trained to Teach?

Adjunct faculty are not just starving in terms of monetary support. Few have received adequate professional training. Colleges and universities that hire adjunct instructors often point to graduate programs as the places where instructors should have received training in teaching methods, but the primary focus of most North American graduate programs is research, producing scholarship that adds to a field, not the teaching that adjuncts primarily do. And while many graduate students may be asked to teach—either as teaching assistants or directly as course instructors—graduate programs seldom provide formal preparation for quality teaching or recognition of it. Teaching is devalued when it comes to the distribution of funding, fellowships and awards.

Why? Because teaching is thought to be a natural skill set rather than a learned one, as John Tagg describes in The Instruction Myth. This leads to graduate students largely not being formally prepared to teach, despite college and university hiring departments assuming that newly hired adjunct instructors have received training. This leads to a mismatch between stated values and actual practices around the core business of colleges and universities: teaching. This set of assumptions requires changes at the level of campus culture.

Adjunct, contingent and non-tenure-track instructors are key contributors to student educational success: they create students’ learning environments. Adrianna Kezar, Tom DePaola and Daniel T. Scott explore in depth in The Gig Academy how this largest group of instructors is mostly excluded from strategic planning, decision-making, shared governance and departmental processes. Poor policies, practices and support around adjunct employment conditions (a lack of health-care benefits, limited office space, little if any voice in decision-making, limited opportunities for promotion) directly affect student learning outcomes and satisfaction.

The reality is that the vast majority of students are in classes taught by untrained adjunct instructors, most of whom are contractors rather than full employees of our various institutions. Even full-time, non-tenure-track instructors are unlikely to have access to—or to receive pay for—formal teaching training. Yet look at marketing materials from many colleges and universities and you will find language about “the student experience,” including the quality of teaching and access to very smart people whose field-based skills and knowledge are touted to potential students.

Teaching Centers as Part of the Problem?

Engaged, supported adjunct instructors who participate in professional development and teacher training are more likely to influence student learning positively—quality teaching and access to rich educational experiences are correlated with improved student retention. Adjunct faculty members who feel supported by their institutions are also more likely to connect students to campus programs, supports and systems, as well as to return to teach future courses and contribute to institutional continuity, student learning outcomes and learner retention rates.

In North America, centers for teaching and learning have been a feature of the administrative structures of colleges and universities for many decades. Historically, they have primarily served full-time or tenured faculty members and are not structured well to serve the loosely tied adjunct faculty members who may teach at multiple institutions and have semester-based teaching contracts. Yet the demand for professional development among adjunct instructors significantly outweighs that for full-time faculty members.

Teaching and learning centers are often unable to plan for the training needs of our adjunct colleagues due to issues of staff capacity, budget and time. Those that do not—or cannot—offer continuous training, spaces, programs and funding for adjunct instructors unintentionally reinforce inequities and hamper teaching quality. For instance, teaching center hours and offerings seldom match training availability among adjuncts, who are ordinarily on campus only during contracted teaching time. They also often don’t have the staff to support large numbers of part-time instructors; the average center staff–to–instructor ratio is close to one to 500.

Some barriers to such centers’ effective outreach to adjuncts are systemic: adjunct instructors are seldom paid to engage in professional development or recognized for doing so with meaningful rewards, such as moving to the front of the line for selecting future teaching assignments or progressing toward promotion or greater job security.

Adjunct professional development is an investment in the financial success of the institution. As we strategize how best to retain our students through more inclusive admission and campus life practices, we must also create more equitable and inclusive employment systems for adjunct instructors. A strong place to start is for institutions to fund professional development programming for adjunct instructors.

Campus Leaders Have the Power

Teaching and learning centers should serve the broadest instructor populations. But we cannot do so alone. We need to work with campus leaders who have the power to adjust adjunct instructors’ schedules, create pay streams for adjunct training time and support teaching centers’ offerings at times and in formats that reach our adjunct colleagues effectively. Adjunct instructors who currently find ways to participate in teacher training and professional development programs—facilitating workshops, serving on advisory boards, mentoring peers—find that their efforts don’t count toward promotions or eventual full-time teaching contracts. Campus leaders have the power to increase outreach and connection to adjunct instructors, to offer more training opportunities and to create more full-time and tenure-line job lines by hiring from our existing adjunct pools.

What used to be part of the compact between the institution and its employees—benefits, job security, career progression, training and support—is eroding in the name of cost savings. It is sobering to remember, then, that it costs more to replace temporary workers regularly than it does to hire, retain and support a core of employees who are familiar with the institution, who foster a sense of belonging among their students and are committed to the success of the collective endeavor of our colleges and universities.

How do we get there from where we are now, with many adjunct instructors little more than contract wage earners? Professional development is necessary and must be paired with meaningful reward and recognition systems. We must develop or adopt baseline expectations about teaching quality that can be compared across disciplines, such as are modeled in the work of Elaine Hogard and Roger Ellis. Our teaching centers and campus leaders must create, pay for, make time for and recognize ways that adjunct instructors strengthen their teaching through self-study, formal study, external training, in-house training and collaborative ventures. And we must create a life cycle of support for teaching that goes beyond a few hours during onboarding or orientation sessions.

When one of us, Anna, created professional development programs for adjunct instructors at her community college, policies and state code seemed to prevent tying completion certificates to employment benefits, such as salary raises or moving to the front of the queue to select courses to teach. Anna asked her college president to sign and personally award certificates of completion for adjunct participants in a ceremony each semester. The president agreed. College administrators attended to meet the adjunct participants and learn about their teaching projects. The marketing team published pictures and articles in the college newsletter. Anna intentionally planned the certificate ceremony as a celebration of the adjuncts’ success.

Formal recognition from college leaders enhanced a sense of community for adjunct instructors. The completion certificates weren’t a direct promise of future employment or promotion. Rather, they became artifacts of commitment to professional growth in adjuncts’ curriculum vitae. The ceremony each semester helped adjuncts become more visible at the college, rewarded and recognized by their community.

A Call to Action

We have reached a tipping point beyond which the cost savings of adjunct hires are offset by the erosion of our cultural and institutional identities, which lead to markedly poorer student retention, persistence, and satisfaction. As the New Faculty Majority succinctly states, “Faculty working conditions are student learning conditions.”

The current trends toward adjunctification are not sustainable and have become shortsighted from a business perspective. Adjunct turnover, inconsistent teaching quality, lower student persistence and declining learner satisfaction are all leading indicators that we need to tip the teaching balance back toward institutional identity, community and support. We call upon college leaders and teaching center staff to create buy-in and support for equitable engagement of adjunct instructors. Here are some guiding questions they should explore:

  • To what extent do your adjunct colleagues currently express a sense of collegiality, belonging, inclusion and community?
  • Which key stakeholders can support and include adjunct voices in curriculum and instruction conversations?
  • What practices, policies, gaps and norms are barriers to a sense of common purpose among adjunct instructors?
  • How can you expand institutional capacity for broader engagement with adjunct instructors?
  • What would formal career paths look like for your adjunct faculty colleagues?
  • Who can fund sustainable support for adjunct professional development as an investment in overall institutional quality?

To our teaching center peers, recognize that we cannot address systemic issues by calling upon colleagues’ individual efforts and commitments. Work with your campus leaders to effect change for adjunct instructors, using all of the levers for cultural and institutional change: practice, policy, group advocacy, financial responsibility and institutional identity.

Increasing Adjunct Success Stories

To return to Rebecca, whose story we shared earlier, after eight years of teaching as an adjunct instructor—and driving between four different campuses—she applied for a new full-time business law position at the community college. She was thrilled to get the offer, and she accepted.

In addition to her personal persistence, passion and grit, Rebecca was aided by the supports for which we advocate in this article. Her institution paid her to engage in professional development and teaching training and recognized her expertise in both her subject area and teaching. They also documented and rewarded her labor beyond the classroom.

Rebecca’s happy ending of finding a full-time position is rare. It need not be. We have it within our collective power to help our adjunct and non-tenure-track colleagues to strengthen their practices, build foundations for meaningful careers and find support and training that can enable them to thrive.

The time for change is now. We should start by offering every instructor professional development as a first step toward adequate institutional support for performing their important and invaluable jobs.

Anna Conway is a professor at Des Moines Area Community College, where she has served as director of teaching and learning for seven years and is one of the content developers for the Inclusive STEM Teaching Project. Thomas J. Tobin is a founding member of the Center for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and an expert on technology-mediated education. His most recent books include Going Alt-Ac: A Guide to Alternative Academic Careers (2020) and UDL for FET Practitioners: Guidance for Implementing Universal Design for Learning in Irish Further Education and Training (2021).

Next Story

More from Career Advice