Friday, September 08, 2006


Ask the Administrator: The Case of the Dissed Adjunct

A member of the academic proletariat writes:

I'm a sessional instructor at Big Deal U. I have
taught the same course for four years now, and love
it; great students, fun course and a collegial
atmosphere. The teaching unit recently went through
some changes and the collegial atmosphere has taken a
beating and now I'm starting to think so have some
more important things.

This course requires a room with technology,
preferably TV, VCR, DVD, internet access and Power
Point capability. After three years of cobbling this
together in an unwired room I finally got a great room
last year and the course improved because of it.

I have always had TA support for this course. Last
year the TA hours were cut in half, which was not
great but we made it work. This year I was led to
believe I'd have the same TA hours, and three weeks
ago was asked what type of candidate would be

After signing my given-to-me-at-the-last-moment
contract on Tuesday I received an email from the
Director on Wednesday telling me that a) my room has
been changed to one without AV equipment (I can order
AV equipment but this always means that it is late,
there is more set up, etc.) and b) I have no TA
support at all for this course.

I'm trying not to over-react, but I feel angry.
Classes start next week, I signed my contract with the
tacit understanding that I would have some TA support
and I requested the same or similar classroom again
for this year. I'm being paid to teach something that
is supposed to take 10 hours a week, without the TA
hours my workload has just increased by 4 hours a week
without any extra pay and at the last minute.

Even though there is no reason for me to do so I
attend curriculum meetings, social events and write
student reference letters when asked to. I have been
a good employee, the course is highly regarded by
faculty and students (it is a required course, too)
and yet I've just been shafted.

The students have also been screwed. I'm going to have
to remove an assignment in order to keep my hours
reasonable, and while they won't miss the work they
will miss the practice doing the research method they
are supposed to be learning. They will watch me waste
time dealing with technology issues; I may not even be
able to use Power Point and have to waste Unit
resources photocopying, which will also eat up more of
my time.

So, should I suck it up or protest? And if I protest
how can I do it effectively and create positive change
instead of just bitching?

Thanks Dean Dad (and commentators!),
PO'd sessional

Beware the ‘tacit understanding.’

I don’t see a painless answer to this.

One option is to suck it up, put on a happy face, be a good girl, and trust in the benevolent fates. That has been your strategy for the last four years. As Dr. Phil says, how’s that working out for you?

Another option is to quit in a huff. Were there more time before the class started, that would be my recommendation. But it starts next week, the students (who aren’t at fault) are registered and waiting, you’ve signed a contract, and walking out at the last possible moment should be reserved for personal emergencies, medical incapacity, and similar exigencies. Offended dignity, to my mind, doesn’t cut the mustard. But that’s one man’s opinion.

The middle option is to take the course, let the Director know of your unhappiness with the situation, and make clear that this will be the last time you take it unless you get, in writing, assurances that you’ll have what you need next time. You won’t be rehired, but at least you’ll be able to sleep at night.

Creating positive change is an admirable goal, and there are probably special cases where adjuncts or temporary faculty have been able to do that. But from the point of view of a harried Director under cost pressures from above, a temp on a crusade is an easily-replaced pain in the neck.

It sounds like you’re an admirable, ethical, dedicated instructor who has done her best despite lousy pay and no security. In other words, you’re enabling your own abuse.

One of the many dirty little secrets of academia is how much work is done based on goodwill. In some cases, the goodwill is reciprocated; when that happens, the sun shines, the birds sing, spiritual peace reigns over the land, and all is well. More often, though, the goodwill is unilateral. The dedicated adjunct gives the college far more than it ever gives back, inadvertently making it possible for the college to continue to rely on adjuncts. Naïve good intentions allow terrible exploitation.

A close friend of mine was once offered a horrible one-year position in June. It amounted to a pile of adjunct courses strung together. It was at a school in an uninviting clime, teaching huge sections. He had nothing else in the hopper, no spouse to support him, no independent wealth to fall back on. He said no.

Since then, his career has come together admirably; he’s on the path to tenure at a respected university, with a research project in the hopper that’s going to surprise a lot of people. I can’t prove ‘instant karma,’ but it’s hard to deny that saying no to a terrible opportunity created the possibility of something better.

My vote, given the late date, is to take the third option – teach the class, let it be known what your conditions are for teaching it again, and look for other opportunities to take when your demands aren’t met.

Wise and worldly readers: what do you think?

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

Well, since Dean Dad thinks you might not be hired next year if you take the middle road anyway, then I might just add one more thing: demand that you get what you want. You might at least be able to get the wired classroom, although a TA might be too difficult to score right now. I don't think this is much different than simply voicing your displeasure, and you might actually get part of what you need for this course.
A followup to ianqui's suggestion is to ask a (the?) staff member in the original department if she/he is aware of media-equipped classrooms elsewhere on campus. Perhaps they have a friend in the registrar's office that can be called to inquire?

It is likely that classrooms commonly used in a very different field (pick from engineering, English, medicine/pharmacy, law, etc.) may exist and may even be available at the scheduled course time. It is not guaranteed that faculty in one of these departments would know faculty in these others. Staff, on the other hand, may have staff colleagues that can be asked. It may require the original department to call in a favor with the department that has resources available, but there may be a better chance than first thought that appropriate resources are available somewhere on campus, without relying on different equipment loans for each class.

This doesn't help with the TA hours, but at least it could cut down the technology headaches.
Dean dad is right, alas, that adjuncts usually have very little leverage. However, this isn't necessarily the case at small institutions in small towns and/or in fields in which it is very difficult to find instructors. And there are at least some schools that recognize when they have an amazing adjunct and will try to do what little extra they can to keep her or him. If any of this is the case for you, then maybe if you made some reasonable demands in advance of your next contract you might get somewhere. It might not be a certainty that you won't be rehired.

That said, I absolutely agree with Dean Dad that it makes sense to look at other teaching options.
You've received a very clear signal from the school -- they do not value your effort. It makes some sense to confirm the signal and make sure it wasn't sent accidentally, but after that, accept that your effort is not valued by these people and make decisions based on that fact.

My 2c, anyway.
I agree you should look in to the room problem. On our campus, rooms get assigned (and changed at the last minute) by the registrar's office without any regard to anything other than number of seats. So, when we are teaching a "technology enhanced" course, we must continually stay on the room assignments to get/stay in an acceptable room.

Also not sure what to do about the TA problem. But I think voicing your displeasure is an important step.
PO'd sessional here.

I think I've worked out the technology thing, the room does have a projector and screen I just have to book the equipment for all the days I'll need it. Big Deal U does all bookings centrally and it is almost impossible to change rooms after they've been booked for the year.

The lack of a TA is trickier. I'm thinking of cancelling my office hour and only being available by appointment, which I know will drive the Undergrad Coordinator crazy but will free up an hour a week for grading. No one comes to office hours anyway, they all use email. I've looked over the assignments and they all add up in a nice progression, I just can't see ditching one without actually changing them all which would be too much work at this point.

I'm still not sure whether or not I should be taking this personally or not. I don't think I've received a clear signal or not, I could just be getting lost in a larger shuffle. It is a big University and I have no real pull except that the students love the course and there isn't anyone else around who could teach it like I do (not that I'm a god or anything, just my life/academic experience make my approach unique). How can I test the waters about whether it is me? Because if it is I won't take the contract next year if it is offered to me. Of course if it is me then they won't offer it to me and I won't have to worry about it!
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