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"Temp" Teaching

For better or worse, adjunct faculty are here to stay


Published August 25, 2010 at 8:40 a.m.
Updated September 16, 2016 at 3:25 p.m.

  • Thom Glick

When you send your kids to college, who’s going to teach them? The white-haired Dumbledore types many people imagine when they hear the word “professor”? Or glorified temp workers?

Last December, in the New York Times Education section, Samantha Stainburn warned parents that the second scenario, while exaggerated, is closer to reality in today’s universities. Back in 1960, she noted, only about 25 percent of college instructors were part-timers without tenure prospects — what administrators call “contingent faculty.” Nowadays, 73 percent are. Most are paid a third or less of what tenured faculty make, sans benefits, and they often teach more.

But adjuncts help keep instructional — and tuition — costs down. In short, unless you can afford an elite liberal arts college such as Middlebury — where 70 percent of instructors were tenured or on the tenure track in 2007, according to stats from the American Federation of Teachers — you better get used to the temps. They’re here to stay.

I used to be one of those temps. I would contest the central implication of Stainburn’s piece — that adjunct teaching is inferior to that of “real” profs, and that it gyps students and their parents. But I agree with her on one thing: The current system is misleading and dysfunctional.

My adjunct story starts with the highly self-indulgent decision to pursue a PhD in comparative literature. To me, this meant I’d get to study great writers who happened to express themselves in different languages. To hiring committees, it meant I had GENERALIST tattooed on my forehead — the academic equivalent of a scarlet A.

When I started my dissertation at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1995, the academic job market was in a slump. My advisors urged me to draw out the writing process so I could be “fresh on the market” when things improved. That was supposed to happen as soon as the tenured baby boomers began retiring in droves.

So I moved back to Vermont — cheaper than the Bay Area — and starting doing “pickup” teaching. I began with a freshman writing course at Champlain College, where I had decent office space and students who couldn’t seem to stay awake. (In my experience, this is true of most freshman writing classes.) The next semester, I experimented with the life of a freeway flyer, as many adjuncts call themselves, with courses at the Montpelier and Middlebury branches of the Community College of Vermont. Here I found some of the friendliest administrators and students I’d meet anywhere. The pay was minuscule, close to $1000 per course, but so were the enrollments.

Since I needed to support my endless-dissertation-writing habit, I was happy to snag several courses at the University of Vermont. There, I got to teach actual literature — even upper-level courses normally reserved for tenure-track profs. Some of these were in areas I hadn’t studied in grad school — “Age of Alexander Pope,” anyone? — but I speed-read and ended up learning as much as my students.

At UVM, I was friendly with two successive department chairs. Like good academic liberals, they apologized for the low pay and no benefits of the work they offered on a contract basis, from semester to semester. It was a shame, they said. The job market would rebound.

In a moment of great candor, one of those chairs told me English departments almost never hire their own adjuncts when tenure-track positions open up, whatever the adjuncts’ qualifications. They don’t want known quantities, she pointed out; they want fresh-minted PhDs they can envision as future academic stars.

It was good advice, but I didn’t take it. A few years later, when I had my doctorate and was teaching in the Midwest — in a well-paid but still temporary position — I applied for an assistant professor job in my field at UVM. I didn’t make it past the first round.

When I returned to Vermont, I’d already started thinking of myself as a “recovering academic.” In six years of job seeking, I’d been wined and dined by fine schools — Berkeley, Dartmouth, Bard — but never offered a “real” job. I couldn’t afford to attend the annual Modern Language Association conferences anymore. And now that I finally had the degree in hand, I couldn’t get cheap student health coverage.

Still, adjunct teaching pulled me back in. When the scholar UVM had hired for the tenure-track job in my field — the one I’d been rejected for — moved on, I was hired to teach some of his courses on an adjunct basis. A professor friend asked me to help with the search for a new tenure-track prof to do the work I was currently doing. I declined.

Adjunct teaching is only feasible as a labor of love, which is why I stopped doing it when I started hating it. At $3000 per course — and that’s high end — it’s hard to make a living wage unless you’re a paper-grading speed demon. When you take on four courses and 120 students or more in a semester, it’s not just the papers you have to deal with but office hours, midnight emails and requests for recommendations.

But the more I disliked being an adjunct, the more I admired the people who stuck with it. Some of them were like me: doctorate holders who still hoped for a “real” job. Many others had stopped with their MAs and embraced “part-time” teaching as a full-time career.

When I shared offices with them at UVM, I watched those adjuncts with their students. They were among the most patient, persistent and attentive teachers I’ve seen. In short, many were born teachers — and maybe classrooms staffed with born teachers, rather than academic superstars, are what the average undergrad needs.

But that doesn’t make it OK to exploit the “contingent” folks, or good for the broader campus community. In her NYT piece, Stainburn hastened to assure readers that adjuncts can be stars, too — hey, Barack Obama once had a part-time classroom gig! But she added ominously, “They’re treated as second-class citizens on most campuses, and that affects students.”

Needless to say, the academic caste system also affects the morale of those doing the teaching. I’m not trying to dismiss the toil of “real” profs here. They have to balance scholarly research and service with teaching, which means that most of them — especially the ones still chasing tenure — work like dogs. I remember my dad, a tenured professor, working at all hours and writing mountains of recommendations each semester.

All the same, when an institution pays one person three times as much as another to teach the exact same course, something’s gotta give. And sometimes something does. In 2003, at UVM, a union called United Academics managed to secure a long-term contract system for adjuncts. Some of my former colleagues now have well-deserved benefits and a measure of job security.

At the annual Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor conference, held earlier this month in Québec City, a group called New Faculty Majority argued that the only solution is for schools to give adjuncts stable, long-term employment and place them on the same pay scale as other faculty. Its “Program for Change” asserts that universities’ “dysfunctional two-tiered system defies American ethical values related to fairness and equal pay for equal work and decency.”

But we’re currently facing a world where college grads seek jobs in vain and face debts at all-time highs. A more likely dénouement is that the “dysfunctional two-tiered system” in higher education will only end when all professors become “contingent.”

I don’t have a solution to this problem. But I think parents and students need to know that many adjuncts are great teachers, just like “real” professors. Some are skilled professionals and fine scholars. And others aren’t good at any of those things — again, just like some “real” professors. Students should shop around for courses, and not assume temps won’t be as rigorous as lifers.

But, please, if your instructor is making $2000 per course, try to keep those midnight emails to a minimum.

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