On Having an Effect

Picture 2It’s National Adjunct Walkout Day, during which university instructors who are not part of the tenure-track system (or even those who are) may not be showing up to teach or, instead, may take this opportunity to have a “teach-in” during which they depart from the regularly scheduled material, to whatever extent, so as to ensure their students understand some of the challenges facing higher ed at this particular moment in history.

It’s a snow day here at the University of Alabama — we’re expecting a few inches, perhaps, and so the state is shuttered tight and prepared for the worst, having already emptied local store shelves of both bread and milk — so a blog post will have to do today.

That many of their professors are basically sessional or contract workers, who sometimes don’t know what they’re teaching until the semester starts, who are sometimes without offices or much support services, often earning low pay and having heavy teaching duties, and who are without representation in whatever shared governance their institution has (“shared governance” = the process whereby the faculty get a voice [sometimes loud and effective and other times soft and ineffective] in how the institutional is run), are issues of which our students should be made aware.

Simply put, part-time instructional labor has become so pervasive in US higher ed that the traditional definition of adjunct, cited above, no longer holds; for it isn’t merely supplemental but, in some schools, is becoming the dominant category of employment and thus the main mode to deliver a university education.

Now, if you were a senior administrator and you were trying to deal with ever shrinking state funding allocations (cuts to education budgets are in the press all the time), you might find relying on grad students or part-time labor — people who sometimes get little or no benefits and always earn far less that a salaried professor — pretty appealing too, to be honest. That all sorts of senior admin positions seem to still get created, sometimes at rather large salaries, during those so-called lean budgetary times would, though, make budget-based arguments about the need for cheap non-tenure track instructors sound a bit flimsy. (Of interest is that, according to this report, my own school, between 1987 and 2011 — during which time the student enrollment increased by roughly 100% — had a 9% drop in the number of full-time administrators. See the table here or read the 2014 article that goes along with it here.)

And if you were a professor in the tenure/tenure-track system, intent on teaching as little as possible, in order to provide more time for your research (after all, your own career progress is often largely based on your publication and/or grants record), you might not think too much about the institutional conditions that made your teaching duties possible. Instead, depending on what sort of college you worked at, you’d likely take for granted that you taught less or taught courses with smaller enrollments, or just taught the upper-level seminars or mainly focused on graduate education, all while leaving the larger enrollment intro courses to the newbies.

You’d likely rationalize this as doing them a favor, giving them experience, etc.

Well, I don’t have control over state budgets (catching the imagination of voters and thus legislators seems to be the only way to tackle that — though, come to think of it, our students are voters…, so starting with educating them about higher ed’s needs isn’t a bad idea) and determining the best use of resources across my campus is not within my purview either (if you’re lucky enough to have an effective faculty senate, then that’s a place to invest some energy if you want to effect change). But I don’t think that means that a faculty member or a Department chair is ineffective when it comes to the issue of adjunct positions (sometimes also just called part-time, which is as misleading as the term adjunct, of course, because many of these people are full-time employees or end up cobbling together enough part-time positions across a variety of schools to end up working more than a full-time person might. Which is why many now opt for “contingent faculty,” in order to name and thereby organize that large class of people who are outside the tenure-track system). Although neither a chair nor a faculty member determines the way the structure works they do, nonetheless, have agency that can have effect — especially when they pool their resources.

I’ll give you an example.

In my own Department we decided, a few years back, that Instructors ought not to be teaching the 100-level intro course. We decided this, in part, because we’re generally agreed that introducing a topic is different from a survey and thus requires as much experience as possible, ensuring that teaching the 100-level course ought to be something all of the tenure-track and tenured faculty share. So, we all teach a 100-level course each semester. But, this decision was based on other grounds as well: given the dramatic (and planned) increase in enrollments on our campus (like I said, we doubled in size during my 14 years at Alabama), there’s been a far greater emphasis on large enrollment 100-level classes. Given that an Instructor in our Department used to teach 3 classes per semester, but now must teach 4 and, in some cases, is required to teach 5 (if a Chair cannot document that they also do some form of service), we decided that if anyone was going to teach 150 students in one or more classes, as part of their regular duties, then it should be the people in the tenure-track and tenured positions.

But because the 100-level is so important to our field (since students generally don’t know about the academic study of religion in US high schools, they often find us while fulfilling their lower-level breadth or Core requirements, making such courses crucial for recruiting prospective majors — and the number of majors/graduates is one of the coins of the realm), a Department such as ours therefore needs everyone to pitch in at the lower-level, so we decided that full-time non-tenure track positions would focus mainly on teaching the Honors version of our intro course. (The only part-time instructors that work in our department, and who either live nearby or elsewhere in the country, grade a small number of online sections of various 100-level courses — courses whose enrollments are capped at 30 or 35 and which might be open to students on campus or, instead, just to Distance Learning students.) This decision helps us to serve the needs of the Core curriculum, as well as providing seats to help serve the needs of the Honors College, while ensuring that full-time Instructors teach classes that don’t enroll more than 25 students each (that’s the cap for our Honors sections). While also trying to make sure such appointees get a chance to gain experience teaching in their own expertise, by assigning them an occasional upper-level seminar or more focused, topical course, this focus on teaching Honors courses was an important move to create conditions in which newly hired, non-tenure track faculty would, hopefully, succeed in their careers, inasmuch as they had multiple sections of the same course and would, ideally, master the material quickly and thereby create time for their own research and writing.

What’s more, a highly specialized, newly minted Ph.D. leaves us with the sort of broad teaching experience that, we assume, many departments in North American will value. For sooner or later someone on the other side of an interview table is probably going to ask them:

“How would you structure an introductory course…”

“Have you ever taught an honors course…?”

So this decision to direct an Instructor’s time toward smaller Honors courses, along with assigning them multiple sections of the same course (i.e., giving them as few preps as possible), was one made by the entire faculty (several of whom started their own careers as instructors), all of whom then stepped up to make a 100-level intro class part of their own regular rotation — teaching it not just once a year but each semester (maybe it’s the REL 100 Introduction to the Study of Religion course, or, instead, it might be an intro to a more defined area in which the faculty member also teaches other specialized upper-level courses). I think of this one case as a nice example of how faculty can have significant agency to positively affect the work conditions of colleagues who are hired as adjuncts or, better put, as contingent faculty. But it requires the tenure-track and tenured faculty to see that there’s a problem and to feel ownership for addressing it by recognizing that they benefit from the labor of part-time professors — not unlike how they each benefit from the service others do in the Department, for assigning advising duties to one faculty member, or event planning duties to another, allows everyone else to be freed from those responsibilities, and thus to focus on something that then also benefits others in the group. It therefore means not seeing the issues surrounding part-time labor as someone else’s problem — say, the Dean’s or the President’s. Sure, they have rather more influence than me when it comes to much on our campus but you’d be surprised how much agency you have either as a Chair or as a united faculty intent on making a difference.

This is only one example, of course, and, depending on an Instructor’s area of expertise, we sometimes need them teaching other sorts of courses, but we aim to make sure that they’re not seen as picking up the slack for the rest of us, as such positions sometimes are seen elsewhere — where more senior faculty seem to have perks they think they’ve worked hard to earn. But the key is a united group of faculty who understand that we’re all in it together, trying to help earlier career colleagues get a leg up on a profession that, at times, can seem rather unforgiving, especially given the long term sacrifices one often makes in order to earn a Ph.D. For such a faculty will quickly see that they can indeed have effect and thus, even though they might not sit on the Board of Trustees or determine state budgets, that they do have agency in this situation.

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