Wednesday, December 07, 2005


Ask the Administrator: The Case of the Vanishing Adjunct

A freeway-flying correspondent writes:


I'm adjuncting at State College, which is the one a step below The University of State (if you know what I mean). They have a laboratory school on campus for pre-K thru 5. It's attractive because our city's public schools suck, and this is a private one that costs MUCH less than other local choices.

So, I was hoping my faculty status could get my kid/s in. Faculty kids get to skip the routine wherein everyone else applies as early as possible and then crosses their fingers in hopes of lucking into a spot. When I asked a lab-school secretary about my status in September, she said "you should be fine."

Last week, husband and I finally tour the place. Assistant principal says No, you may not count, because you're not in the "real faculty union." That night I sent him an email asking for a "ruling" ASAP. Haven't heard back yet.

Only today, I received word from my chair that I will have a course to teach next semester, as the Dean finally approved someone else's release time, so I will take over his course. Here's the problem…I also have a course to teach at U of State next semester. The ONLY reason I'm interested in the SC course is to get my kid in to the lab school. If the asst principal tells me it won't help, I am sorely tempted to back out on the SC course. Why teach one class apiece at two different schools? Other than the pay and prestige, ha ha ha ha.

I know that it is last-minute. My guilt is compounded by the fact that it's already at maximum enrollment. But my guilt is lessened by the fact that I was only officially awarded this course today.

So, if I get a negative ruling from the lab school, do I still have to teach there next semester because of the short notice? Or do you give me green light to back out?

In another part of the email, she writes that a piece I had done a while back on dealing with the fallout of adjuncts who back out at the last minute gave her the idea. So now I’m corrupting the youth. Great.

I’ve long thought that the way academia treats its adjuncts is immoral. (The line I used to use in my adjuncting days was ‘for what I’m paid, they’re lucky if I show up sober.’ Which I always did, btw.) A structure that makes sense for dealing with the retired professional who wants to teach the occasional class as a hobby has taken over half of academia. And I’m acutely aware of how it looks and sounds when a dean, with a manager’s salary, lectures an adjunct on workplace ethics.

All of that said, when I did the freeway-flyer thing, I always kept my commitments. I figured that even if I was being externally undervalued, I always had my professionalism. There were times when it felt like complicity with my own exploitation, but at least I could sleep at night.

Can you back out? Yes. Should you? From a manager’s perspective, I’ll tell you that adjuncts who back out at the last minute burn bridges; I didn’t go back to them again after they had pulled that trick. (At my current school, the department chairs hire the adjuncts.) I won’t argue that adjunct pay is adequate, that you were treated right by State U, or that child care and public schools in America don’t need to be taken much more seriously, but those are all much larger issues than can be solved by you flaking on a course. And there is the matter of the students...

Honestly, I’d reframe the question. Are you likely to leave the area altogether in another semester or so anyway? If so, you can probably afford to burn that bridge. If not, you’d be foolish to.

Current and former freeway-flyers out there: what would you do?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

Can your freeway-flier try to make a deal with the chair/administration? Tell them that it was very last minute, that you have another obligation at another school, but if they can do something for you--i.e. get your kids into the lab school--you'd be more willing to do it. I don't know if that kind of thing is done, but it can't hurt to try, right?
I think it would depend a lot on your prior relationship with the chair and department as a whole.

I know my department chair has made efforts to work things out to help various adjuncts. I also know of one adjunct who dropped things at the last minute more than once, and who probably won't be rehired by the current chair (or any other within the shared memory system) even if s/he wanted to return.

If indeed, the ONLY reason you'd adjunct at the second school is day care, and you're not going to get in, then burn your bridges.

But if you're going to be in the area, and maybe want courses in the future, or even a letter of recommendation, then put on a smile, thank the chair for the opportunity, and do the best job you can. It's a semester of pain, perhaps, but it could come back to you in good ways if you're lucky?

A good chair doesn't forget when people go out of their way to make things work.
I agree with Bardiac. Taking a few less comfortable semesters, or an extra course, has really paid off in the long run for me so far.

Another possibility: sometimes a really bad looking schedule has unforeseen positive aspects. I once taught 7:45, 2:15 and 6pm MWF (no night on F) and it turned into the only semester I didn't grade on the weekend. Somehow I was already in teacher mode on M/W and got the grading done between 9 and 2.
Bardiac writes: "A good chair doesn't forget when people go out of their way to make things work."

So perhaps this adjunct needs to think about what kind of chair they are working for. In some departments, it doesn't matter if you've saved the whole place from certain destruction -- you STILL won't get remembered when it comes time for better courses or other "perks." In a place like that, I wouldn't waste my time. Adjuncts do SO much extra stuff in the hopes that "some day they'll realize how good I am." Doesn't seem to work that way.

(Wow, I sound bitter today. Sorry about that.)

On the other hand, if it's truly a department that one wants to work for again, then you'd better not burn that bridge.
Terminaldegree is absolutely correct. You have to evaluate the chair and department you're working for when you're making these decisions.

Even in the BEST case scenario, I doubt a chair is going to be able to hire Adjunct A+ for a tenure track position on his/her own say.

But sometimes little things a chair can manage do make a difficult experience way better.
I have backed out of commitments for a couple of years in a row now. I hate doing it. I really hate that I've bailed on local catholic u. twice. But both times, it was because I was offered full-time contracts. And the department chair was fine. I also did offer to overload and do a moonlight if I'd left it too late for her to cover both classes.

But one of the schools I had courses lined up with got really nasty and have put me in a position where I have to appeal an unemployment decision. Despite the fact that their offer was both verbal and contingent (and they knew I was on the job market and the department chair had told me to take the Ft gig), they claimed that I turned down work and so caused the unemployment people to ask for some of their money back.

Very unpleasant. Only school in the area that will do that, apparently.
Thank you, to Dean Dad and the commenters. I will indeed teach at State College as well as U of State next semester. One semester doesn't last very long.

Your advice seemed right on. Frosting on the cake is that I've received word that my kid counts as a faculty kid to the lab school.
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