Tuesday, February 07, 2006


Creating Emergencies

“Professor X is out next semester, and nobody else can teach his classes. We need to make a hire!”

Well, wait a minute.

The culture of my college, and of many others, has included a strong presumption in favor of whomever is in the room at the time. If you hire someone as a one-semester replacement, and a tenure-track line opens in that area, there’s a widespread (and, to my mind, unwise) assumption that the temp will get it. So emergency hires frequently become the full-time staff.

This is a terrible idea on multiple levels.

What you’re looking for in an emergency fill-in and what you’re looking for in a permanent hire are two different things. With the former, you want a good sport who’s ready to work and who will generally play well with others. Professional development, if any, is strictly a footnote. In a permanent hire, someone who shows no inclination for professional development is a disaster waiting to happen. So someone who might make a great temp might not be a great full-timer.

On another level, establishing an ‘audition period’ prior to hire as an informal but widespread expectation pretty much guarantees inbreeding. People won’t move for one-semester tryouts. So your temps will be local products, probably from the same few graduate programs that produced most of your current staff. It also extends the ‘apprenticeship’ period, which, as I’ve argued elsewhere, is already intolerably long. Graduate school is the apprenticeship, if anything is (and its claim to that is rapidly eroding).

Even more basically than that, you don’t make long-term decisions on short-term considerations. A tenure-track hire will be with you for several years at a minimum, and possibly several decades. Making a decision about that based on the convenience of a single semester is simply irresponsible.

Depending on the size of the department or program, requests like these will sound different. In a tiny department or program, I wouldn’t expect a deep bench. If someone is out, gaps in coverage are to be expected. In a large department, though, I would expect a competent chair to have developed his people enough to ensure at least some cross-coverage, especially for the basic courses. If, say, a Psych chair has a department of 15 faculty and complains that he doesn’t have anyone to teach General Psychology, I can only assume that he’s either lying or flagrantly incompetent. When a department has more than a dozen faculty, I should be able to assume some level of backup for the intro courses. If not, they haven’t hired right, and I’m not going to reward that.

Some departments that think themselves savvy have developed a habit of creating emergencies to get what they want. Withhold key information until something explodes, then use the explosion to argue that this is no time for the usual time-consuming process and we need to hire the favored candidate right now. Apparently, this worked in the past, with a previous administration. (As John Belushi put it in Animal House: “There’s a time for thinking, and a time for acting. And this is no time for thinking!”)

Breaking that habit is an ugly process. Saying ‘no’ to an emergency hire comes off as the height of arrogance, as unspeakably cold, etc. But it has to be done. Full-time faculty positions are far too few and far between to waste on pet mediocrities; I won’t be railroaded out of doing a real search by some contrived drama. Until they figure out that the rules have changed, departments will stick with the behavior that worked in the past, and simply ratchet it up when it doesn’t work. So the short term is ugly, with charges and countercharges and escalating drama and frantic searches for adjuncts. But it’s the right long term move.

Steady as she goes...

at our cc, the professional development program and funding is open to the temporary people so at least you can see who's inclined to take advantage of it. seems like a somewhat unfair characterization of temporary to assume no interest in development. is there something in your institution blocking it? or are the temps just too busy on the highway to have the free time?
Actually, I was thinking of a few specific cases I've dealt with here. Since we're in a very high cost-of-living area, most of the adjuncts are settled spouses of wealthy people, and they stick around a long time. I've hired full-timers from those ranks, but I object to the presumption that it should be automatic. If the adjunct really is the best, she could win a fair fight anyway, so why not have a fair fight?

Besides, it's not at all clear to me how to diversify the faculty without looking beyond the confines of our own county.
My cc struggles with this issue, as well. We tend to have very large screening committees and when someone who filled a position temporarily interviews for a permanent position, there are generally some people on the committee who want to see a "fair fight" and others who see themselves as simply rubber stamping an administrative decision.
I'm still amazed at how long your Department Chairs have authority. The more I think about it, the more your occasional arteriosclerosis issues are affected by that.
I'll weigh in as an adjunct.

If I was to apply in either of the places where I'm an adjunct I would expect a 'fair fight' not a rubber stamp. No matter how easy a stamp might be I want to know that I'm the best person for the job, not just the person already in the building. That is one of the reasons I stopped teaching in a particular department; they are going to do some hiring in my area in the near future and I'd rather not be a too-much-known quantity.

On the other hand at one of my jobs I was told that they might be planning an undergraduate 'stream' of study around the course that I design and teach, but had no plans to actually hire me or anyone else in this area, but made it clear they hoped that I'd stay on as an adjunct. In this town we have the problem that dean dad identified in his comments, high cost of living and my spouse is settled in a job he loves and couldn't do elsewhere so all of this made me feel a bit 'used' by the program, and I really think if you want to build a whole stream into your not-unsizeable undergraduate program you might want to actually hire someone to do it. And that you shouldn't be piggy-backing your new stream on a free-lancer's course design.

But I am easily made bitter.
Hang in there -- the future faculty will appreciate the fact that you didn't hire a hot coal when you needed a shining star.

Sometimes long-term adjuncts can be abused, as in the comments from "grumpyabdadjunct", other times the lure of a fresh face can be pretty tempting --

Just remember, the smarter the animal -- the more difficult it is to train. Faculty are smart animals, so you'll have to be crafty about training them to be good long-term planners.

I'd suggest that they increase the loads of the current adjuncts teaching the basic courses and have the full-time faculty take the special courses prof X was teaching. This gives them an opportunity to "cross-train", and doesn't require the adjuncts to write new syllabi for courses they may not teach again.

As a former adjucnt, I'd take whatever courses they had... but sometimes if I had too many preps (one semester was 5 at three campuses), I saw my teaching degrade and my interest in my professional development (i.e. finishing PhD coursework) slacked off quite a bit as I tried to keep my head above water.
Grumpyabdadjunct, I would hope most people applying for a job would want and expect a fair fight. I think the rubber stamp approach demeans everyone involved, perhaps the candidate especially.
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