It's Time to Give Adjuncts More Professional Opportunities

With the precariousness of many positions due to COVID, departments should help adjuncts gain experience that will allow them to secure needed employment elsewhere, writes Eric Falwell.

October 7, 2020
 
 
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In her April article on NJ.com, “We teach at Rutgers and we don’t know if we’ll have a job this fall,” Amy J. Higer, an adjunct professor there, lays out the plight of contingent faculty in the state of New Jersey. But more important, she showcases the odd dependency we’ve allowed adjuncts to develop when it comes to employment.

Higer mentions she’s been a part-time lecturer at Rutgers University for 20 years and may or may not still be struggling to cobble a living together by picking up courses at multiple institutions in the coming months. She mentions that she and many other adjuncts teach because they believe in the value of the work. But the question remains: At what point does that plucky optimism become sad, calcifying an adjunct into a permanent state of part-time employment? Collegial do-gooders don’t receive some special level of health insurance, and it’s difficult to get ahead today even at community colleges, which may be concerned with service but are often increasingly looking for candidates with a Ph.D.

With dwindling job prospects in the humanities and the precariousness of many adjunct positions in a post-COVID-19 world, now is the time for colleges and universities to help adjuncts march along to their next career opportunity. Specifically, colleges and university departments should intentionally assist adjuncts in gaining experience and connections that can allow them to leave those departments and secure better employment elsewhere.

Originally, adjuncting was meant to be a stepping-stone to a brighter career, but over the last decade or so, the idea of adjunct lifers has become somewhat trendy, with adjuncts making up 40 to 75 percent of faculty instructors at any given college and university since millennial students entered college. Recently, it’s come to the public’s attention that adjuncts often make $25,000 or less during any given year, which is below the poverty line for a family of four.

Almost every great article about the need for contingent faculty to organize reflects a shortsightedness about both the perils of unionizing (I previously taught at one college that threatened to fire any who tried to unionize), as well as what adjuncts actually want. As individuals, adjuncts don’t all subscribe to the same dream of academic life, yet every rabble-rousing article promises that with enough gumption and belief -- and a union card -- all adjuncts can have … something.

That something is vaguely defined and doesn’t account for those who want more than just an office lined with bookcases, an endless amount of student complaints to handle and stacks of papers to grade that never seem to get smaller. More money would be nice, but so would practical workshops, networking events and mentoring that could help adjuncts figure out how to transfer skills they’ve gained from teaching college students into a career that makes more sense for them.

In a recent article, L. Maren Wood discusses the need to get serious about plan B for emerging academics, writing, “Given that most nonacademic careers do not require a doctorate, it’s most likely you won’t be at a disadvantage if you start job searching in the private sector without finishing your degree. Don’t continue on in a graduate program simply because you started down that path. Don’t confuse what you do (in my case, that was studying history) with who you are as a person.”

While Wood wrote that for people in doctoral programs who are about to enter the job market, the same advice applies to adjuncts. If those of us doing it full-time aren’t likely to get a tenure-track or even full-time position, we need to reconceptualize what we want and who we are. That is where departmental support can come in handy. Catharine Bond Hill, former president of Vassar College, suggested we hire adjunct faculty to teach more courses and help colleges and universities recover, but why stop there?

A Faculty Focus piece by Rob Kelly discusses how St. Louis Community College-Meramec decided to offer professional development workshops for its adjuncts, which included applying Bloom’s taxonomy to multiple-choice exams, as well as much more difficult -- and pertinent -- subjects like writing and crafting a philosophy-of-teaching statement. While the college’s attempts at adjunct professional development are focused and well organized, that’s hardly the case at many other institutions. And while that may appear to at first be a negative thing, it ultimately demonstrates the vast room institutions have to grow when it comes to the development opportunities they can offer contingent faculty members.

For example, the University of San Diego debuted Faculty Recognition Awards at its career development center this year, and adjuncts were eligible for nomination. To help adjuncts who have been teaching two semesters, the Rochester Institute of Technology offers them grants of $500 to complete or develop projects. Grants and faculty awards would be huge boosters on anyone’s CV, and if more colleges took initiative to offer such distinct opportunities to contingent faculty, the current job crisis for humanities Ph.D.s and other faculty might be able to calm down to a mild panic.

All of this, of course, starts with universities and departments listening to the individual needs of the adjunct workforce. Maria Maisto, the president of adjunct advocacy group New Faculty Majority, points out that “Unless there is a union or professional association that is actively working to identify what is most needed and working to get the appropriate funding, most institutions give lip service to professional development or provide programs into which contingent faculty themselves have little to no input.”

It’s also crucial that adjunct faculty members have an opportunity to voice their needs and be taken seriously so that they can advance in their careers. A community college may not need to provide an academic grant to fund an adjunct’s research, but a top-tier research university very well might. Similarly, a four-year institution might not need to help adjuncts with crisis management or offer distance learning certificates. If we can get institutions to consider their contingent faculty members as a specific group of individuals and not just a sea of faces, we’ll be in good shape to help deliver the training and opportunities they need.

Recent studies project a dire financial outlook stemming from the impact of COVID-19, which will probably require struggling institutions to reallocate funds. Thus, now is the perfect time to begin discussing how colleges and universities can better help adjuncts once they’re in a position to do so. Departments could begin preliminary discussions now about how to work across disciplinary lines, so that English adjuncts interested in teaching journalism courses, or math adjuncts looking to break into elementary math education, could attend co-sponsored workshops that focus on the finer points of teaching the required skills of those disciplines to students.

Similarly, more advanced adjuncts could attend a workshop with a department chair to learn what they might be looking for in a full-time candidate. Any headway universities can make in not just providing tools adjuncts can use on the job search but also demystifying both the hiring and promotion processes would be helpful.

These moves won’t be easy and may even seem impossible at first. But if we’re going to solve the adjunct crisis, we need to help them succeed, not just assign them courses to teach and then totally neglect or shoo them off. All adjuncts pick up the mantle again and again because along with their desperation for financial security, they believe in the value of higher learning.

Wouldn’t it be great if once the COVID dust has settled, an institution could help struggling science adjuncts learn how to build a great résumé that would get noticed by nonprofit and for-profit firms beyond higher education? Wouldn’t it be great if English adjuncts understood just how many ways they could practically apply their degree?

It’s time for colleges and universities to focus on helping adjuncts get better positions and launch new careers so that they can see their exploitation isn’t for nothing. If adjuncts can start to trust that their time spent working as contingent faculty will lead to more opportunities, or at the very least, genuine recognition of their hard work, then they just might be incentivized to keep teaching a class or two once they’re in that coveted full-time role. How wonderful would it be for colleges, which so rarely generate the upbeat morale depicted in their brochures, to be able to do that with a few simple changes?

Bio

Eric Farwell is an adjunct professor in New Jersey. He’s written for Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The Paris Review Daily, Brooklyn Rail, The Believer and The New Yorker. He’s currently finishing a co-authored academic article on George Saunders’s “Pastoralia.”

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