This Butterfly knows if you Pretend

Not a Scarlet Letter: Talking with Students about Being an Adjunct

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Don't Pretend” by Seth Anderson; CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Contingency in Higher Ed

This article is part of a series addressing the problem of contingency in higher education. The goal is to examine our role as pedagogues in a system wherein education does not always result in opportunity. The discussion is ongoing — see all articles in this series or the original call for papers that prompted them and consider adding your voice to the conversation.

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 MLA 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.

Sorry, but I can’t meet with you tomorrow. I’m teaching somewhere else.

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 adjunct for 14 years and counting — the first 6 while finishing my doctorate, the last 8 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.

I should’ve gotten these papers back more quickly, but I had 50 others to grade last week.

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 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 4 courses and 2 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.

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.

I’m not on a tenure track, but here’s what I’ve been doing to improve things.

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.

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2 Responses

  1. Pingback : Stress Points: Being a Professor is Easy, Right? | DC

  2. Pingback : Speak out for adjunct equity because your silence will not protect you - The Feminist Wire | The Feminist Wire

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