"In many disciplines, for the majority of graduates, the Ph.D. indicates the logical conclusion of an academic career." Marc Bousquet

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Do Your Students Know What an Adjunct Is?

How easy is it for a humanities department to replace an adjunct who quits a week and a half before spring classes start? As easy as it was for them to find me a week and a half before this past summer session began.

I didn’t want to teach this summer class, but I needed the money. I didn’t have a full-time job lined up and didn’t even know if I had any teaching assignments to look forward to in the fall (they wouldn’t finalize adjunct assignments until late July or early August). So, I agreed to teach a class I had never taught before, a class that was only partially in my area of specialization, a week before classes started. Because I needed the money.

The class only had six students enrolled, and under normal circumstances, this class, with a cap of 35, would have been cancelled, but four of the six students were paying out-of-state tuition. I guess the university was making enough money from the out-of-staters to run the class.

The only good thing about this class was that it was small. The intimacy motivated the students to come to class prepared and ready to talk, and the lack of intensive grading made it possible for me to spend time on the prep I should have been able to do in advance – though, of course, I couldn’t make up the time I had never had to actually select and organize the readings.

It wasn’t a great class, and although it went better than I had expected, I didn’t feel good about teaching it. Didn’t my students, for all the tuition they were paying, deserve to be taught by someone who had given time and thought and care to a well-planned syllabus? Didn’t they deserve a teacher in whom the university had invested as much as they themselves were investing in the class?

I don’t know the adjunct I replaced over the summer (*update* 7/4/2011: I actually learned later, after posting this originally, that I didn't replace an adjunct but someone tenured who just decided ze had more important things to do -- read more about my experience teaching this class here), just as I don’t know the person the department found to replace me this spring, and it doesn’t seem to matter that there is neither a sense of community nor commitment here. I’m sure they found someone glad to take my composition section, because it’s easy – for those of us who’ve taught comp many times – to fill in at the last minute. The syllabus is standardized, and the students are none the worse for having a different body in the room. But my other course? Well, my replacement’s book list suggests ze agreed to teach a course ze had never taught before a week before classes started for the same reason I did last summer. I had actually put some thought into this one and was somewhat looking forward to teaching it. If only my department could have made a small commitment to me, offered me four classes – even three – instead of two, I might have been less willing to flee. No longer a graduate student with loans deferred and family support available, I can no longer support myself on the salary from teaching just two classes.

But spring enrollments were down, and I guess departments like to spread things around among the adjuncts, keeping as many of us around as possible, you know, since we’re so prone to quitting.

We already know that the adjunct system doesn’t benefit adjuncts. In what possible way does it benefit students? It doesn’t. It benefits no one and nothing but the administration and their bottom line.

How do we change this system? Undergraduates are a key part of the solution. They have the numbers – and ultimately the financial power -- to demand change, but most of them don’t even know what an adjunct is.

If you’re currently an adjunct, come out to your students this semester. In the name of transparency and change, tell them who you are and why they should want their institution to make a greater commitment to you in terms of job security and salary. An investment in you is an investment in their education. A commitment to you is a commitment to them.


  1. The system is very difficult to change. It also depends on what kind of institution are we talking about. In my private, expensive, liberal arts university, they do not have many adjuncts because part of the "brand" the administration sells is quality of the education and the individual attention that each student receives. They do have more lecturers that I would like, but at least they don't have a bad deal: A full time lecturer has a 4-4 teaching load, full benefits, etc, and a salary in the mid 30s.

    The administration has tried to push for more adjuncts, but they are kindly reminded of how they would be devaluing the quality of the product they are selling in the long run (in those terms, obviously, so they understand). So far, they have balked at implementing those changes.

    Good luck on your new job, and I look forward to reading your posts.

  2. Now that is a great idea. If colleges really, really want to be consumer-driven rather than student-driven, then the "consumers" should know what they are paying for.

    Re: Spanish prof, glad to hear that lecturers at your school get a more reasonable deal than elsewhere. It's reassuring.

  3. @Spanish prof: Good point about different institutions and branding. If I had been teaching 4/4 at Grad University, my salary would have been in the low 30s, so job security was definitely at least as much a part of the equation as salary in my choice to leave. At the same time, a salary in the low 30s for full-time university teaching isn't exactly great, at least in this area. Starting salaries for public K-12 teachers with only a bachelor's degree are higher and go up with good performance, experience, and an advanced degree. Why should we expect less?

    @zsazsagoulash: The "consumer" model of education bothers me in a number of ways, especially when students think that the "product" they get for their tuition should be an easy A. But there's no getting around questions of money. Students really are paying a sh#t ton of money, and most of them don't have much of a clue where it is and is not going. As you say, they ought to know what they're paying for. IMHO, there ought to be more transparency, which ought to include more open conversations about and clearer definitions of what exactly the "product" is and/or ought to be.

  4. I think that it will take some really radical shift to make the system change. What exactly I'm not sure..but something fundamental. I say this since I think, like Recent PhD, that students are currently functioning within a consumer model where they are used to buying "things" such as education. They don't understand that in many parts of the world that people consider education to be a priviledge and not a right. Indeed, students also really don't know what they're getting when they pay for their fees and they also don't know what they really ought to be getting. I can't see any group of administrators making any fundamental changes since its much cheaper to hire a bunch of adjuncts for a uni rather than hiring the necessary tenure track faculty.


  5. Eeck correct url..


  6. I agree with everybody that a "consumer" model for a University sucks.

    @ recent Ph.D: mid-30s is not a great salary in my town, but it's not too bad either (let's say you can buy an OK house in an OK neighborhood for 120K). In my institution, in most departments (but not all) for full-time lecturers it's usually enough with a Masters degree, you don't need a PhD (and I really don't think you need a PhD to teach Beginning Spanish, but that's another issue). So it's a job like any other. If you compare that with what adjuncts make ($2500 per class), I would say lecturers are treated fairly.

  7. It's hard to compare salaries without taking region into account. I'm in a large, expensive metropolitan area that wasn't especially hard hit by the recession. You can't buy a condo, much less a house, in an OK neighborhood around here for anywhere near 120K. Adjuncts at Grad University make 4K per class, but, given the cost of living, that isn't so great.

    For me, though, location was another part of the equation. I like living here (despite the cost), and I'm much less willing to move than I was when I started grad school a decade ago. When I did my job search this past fall, I followed the general advice to apply for everything everywhere and decide whether to actually go if and when I was fortunate enough to have an offer. But even as I was sending out letters, I was thinking about how unwilling I'd be to move to some of those places.