Thursday, May 10, 2007


Farm Teams

Growing up in Northern Town, I followed the local minor league baseball team. It was the AAA affiliate of a major league team, meaning that it was one step below the majors. Players there were almost ready, or almost good enough, or on the cusp. Once in a while, an obvious rising star would stop by on the way up for a brief sojourn before leaving for the majors, never to be seen again. (I saw a future Hall of Famer – you've heard of him, even if you don't follow baseball -- there during his brief stop in AAA. In baseball fan terms, real bragging rights attend to that.) And sometimes players who would absolutely dominate the league in AAA would crap out in the majors. Brighter minds than mine have spent careers trying to determine the whys and wherefores, since millions of dollars are at stake in distinguishing the true future star from the future washout.

Following a minor-league team requires a sort of Zen detachment. You want the team to be good, but not so good that all the players get called up. But then you feel guilty for wanting them to miss out on their career aspirations, so you wish them well anyway and just suck it up when their replacements play like a bunch of asthmatic nuns with vertigo. For an 11-year-old, that kind of emotional discipline doesn't come easily. I like to think it's an early life lesson.

(For that reason, I sometimes wonder about the emotional health of Yankees fans. Leaving aside the sociopathic rages of the team owner, I wonder about the ethical lessons taught by a team that can simply buy anybody it wants. But that's another post altogether.)

In watching a few of the end-of-semester events this time around, I was reminded of my AAA rooting days. Students who are completing their programs this month are finally getting really, really good at what they do, and the faculty have to let them go. Come September, a new crop will show up making all the same rookie mistakes this crop did back when it started. And the professors have to pretend not to mind.

If you go to every public performance every semester – and heaven help me, I do – you can see them grow up before your very eyes. Students whose initial performances could be described as 'tentative' or 'earnest' gradually develop technique, confidence, and a kind of comfort that's hard to fake. By the time they finish with us, they're pretty darn good. Then they leave.

It's easy to disparage minor league ball if you compare the level of play to the best of the majors, but it's also missing the point. Major league ball is supposed to be the top of the game. Minor league ball is supposed to be developmental. (That's not to deny that some people bounce around the minors for years and never break through at the major league level, or that those folks have a place, too. After all, even a team with only 5 or 6 real prospects still needs 25 players. But development is the point.) Similarly, it's easy to compare the grads of a cc with the grads of a four-year college and find them lesser. Of course they are – they've had two fewer years! It's an invalid comparison. Besides, we take everybody, so sometimes to appreciate what we do requires some sense of 'before' as well as 'after.'

As much as I like the farm team metaphor applied to students, though, I loathe it applied to faculty.

In some departments, a practice has developed over the years whereby chairs implicitly promise long-term and loyal adjuncts that they'll be first in line for any full-time positions. They then expect the adjuncts to cover for full-timers' absences, go above and beyond without pay, and so forth, to stay in the good graces of the chair. When those positions come along, the chairs conduct searches according to unwritten criteria and, whaddayaknow, the favored folk win. The new full-timers understand that they 'owe' the chair, and the practice of covering for each other lives on.

I've actually heard semi-principled arguments for this. One tenured full professor actually said – and I'm not making this up – that he prefers hires where he has “kicked the tires” already. When I picked my jaw up off the floor, I asked him how he ever expected to bring in new stars that way. He didn't have an answer for that.

We've tried introducing some procedural integrity to searches, only to run headfirst into chair opposition. If searches are truly open, and external candidates get a truly fair shake, then what will the chair have to lord over adjuncts? Who will cover for absences? How will the chairs ensure undying loyalty? If you take 'spoils' out of the system, the entire 'political machine' model collapses. Which is sort of the point.

To my mind, graduate school is long enough. (Honestly, it's too long, and too abusive. The tires get kicked too much as it is. But again, that's another post.) When you emerge with a spanking new doctorate, you're ready for a full-time job. You've moved on from the minors, and you're ready to start. To add the expectation of years of adjuncting and chair-pleasing before even getting a shot at a full-time job – effectively, yet another level of apprenticeship -- strikes me as adding insult to injury. In practice, it simply restricts the pool of future faculty to people who already live here. I can't see a valid academic argument for that. I love the minor leagues as much as anybody, but enough is enough.

Certainly getting ones "tires kicked" (although teeth seems more appropriate) is taxing. In fact, applying market economic theory here, the kicked-around "stars" (my new term) may very well choose to forgo the whole indentured bit and opt for corporate/media world.

What is left are the missionary folk (whose zeal helps them endure the rigors of college loan-low pay hell), the hard-working (they just seem to push on through), and the ones who either get or game the system. Not that this cadre is bad, but I wonder what the situation would be like without the filter?

Who is pushed out that would enliven the system?
Amen to:
1. your point that the political situation of adjuncts sucks; and
2. your skepticism about the ethical lessons of the Yankees.
"I asked him how he ever expected to bring in new stars that way."

What's YOUR answer to that question, Dean Dad? On the one hand, you've got a solid, competent, professional adjunct faculty member who's been working away semester after semester, and on the other you've got a potential "star" whose CV looks great and who has impressed you in a 45-minute interview. How do you pick?

My bias is showing here, but how can you ignore several--sometimes many--years of competent professionalism in favor of a flash of what might (or might not) be brilliance? Do a few balls hit out of the park during batting practice equal several seasons of solid, steady performance?

And are there really any "stars" out there? How many teachers have you seen who, five sections every semester, year after year after year, wave their magic wands and turn 18- or 19-year-old community college students who don't like to read or write or study into enthusiastic young scholars?

DD, it sounds like you and that chair have different ideas about what's wanted in a cc prof.

It sounds like the chair is looking for someone who will handle sections competently, get along with the rest of the department, and just generally keep things moving. With a long-term adjunct, you already know how he'll do with all of those tasks, so why not hire him?

You seem to have something different in mind. Is it an objection to giving Beige the Adjunct a salary line? What constitutes star potential, in your opinion?

To be clear: I'm asking specifically about cc's. I know what a R1 is looking for: funding potential, good publication record, at least some demonstrated interest in teaching, and no obvious disastrous personality quirks, in that order. :)

(speaking of funding potential...OK, back to the grant now.)
Dicty -- it's actually not about the salary, since we've already committed to a salary before doing the search. If we pay Adjunct Mike $45k or we pay External Jen $45k makes no financial difference.

Each search is context-dependent, but you're right that the desiderata are somewhat different from my perspective than from some chairs'. I've heard chairs argue that it's easier to go with a known quantity, even if that known quantity is nothing special. They're just looking to avoid trouble. To me, hiring somebody who's 'nothing special' is a recipe for continued decline.

As the adjuncts of the world well know, full-time lines don't grow on trees. Therefore, I think it's important that we use them to improve, rather than just to tread water. We don't have the luxury of mediocrity.

Typically what I look for is someone with the background and ambition to develop something new here. That could be a new program, a new specialization, or a new technology. A good hire, to my mind, is someone who can teach the existing classes well, get along with others, and not receive signals from the mothership, but ALSO can help us grow something new. I'm looking for folks who can BOTH fill the existing need and add something over time.

Sometimes, those folks come from the ranks of our existing adjuncts. I've hired from that pool when the strongest candidate was there. Certainly, it would be immoral to disqualify someone for that. But sometimes the person with the higher ceiling is someone from the outside. That can involve saying 'no' to somebody who has taught well for very little money, and yes, that sucks. But to do otherwise would be to restrict our hiring to people who already live here, and I can't do that in good conscience.
Amen to Brother Piss Poor Prof!

This is from a former adjunct who brought a whole new subject to the university and who received amazing teaching evals year after year for adjunct pay. (at a school where they depend on adjunct to do huge amounts of the total teaching, 470 of 508 faculty are adjuncts), I finally saw the light and got out!

Good writers and editors are in demand! There is money and flexible working conditions in the real world out there, and no indentured servitude!
I disagree with you, but for an obscure reason.

Say I'm a pretty good adjunct, so I have some opportunities in the non-cc sector of the economy. I get an offer to adjunct at your college, but, as you've mentioned, your adjunct salaries are very low. Normally I'd decide to look elsewhere, but the person offering the position gives me a wink and a nod and says, basically, "Show me you're good enough and the next line's yours." Now:

1) The CC gets the benefit of my added effort.

2) I'm being paid not just in dollars but in increased access to a tenure-track position down the line.

What happens if you veto the department chair's wink and nudge? You're hosing the adjunct who made decisions based on the promise of access to the land of milk and honey later on. Unless you have an orientation at the very beginning where you sit every one of the adjuncts down and say, "I don't care what the Department Chair said, I make the decisions on hiring around here, so they can't help you," you're complicit in stealing their time and effort. Further, if it becomes clear that increased access is a myth, you simultaneously lose access to high-quality adjuncts and their willingness to put in for supporting work. You need to either pay your adjuncts more in money or make it your explicit policy to deceive them, lest your students endure much worse instruction and service.
Kimmitt -- winks and nods like that are illegal. I'm trying to get my chairs to stop engaging in illegal behavior. (By law, a job search at a public college has to be truly open.)

Certainly I can't meet with every single adjunct, given the numbers. What I can do is manage the chairs. What I'm frustrated at is their attachment to unethical, exploitative, and illegal models.
I know I'm repeating myself, Dean Dad, but you wrote that "sometimes the person with the higher ceiling is someone from the outside."

But that's just a guess. You think External Jen has a "higher ceiling"; you hope it's true; but you don't know for sure. As you yourself pointed out, this means "saying 'no' to somebody who has taught well for very little money."

I agree that hiring shouldn't be liimited to existing adjuncts. but a solid track record should count for a lot more than you're apparently willing to concede. The grass on the other side of the fence always looks greener.

When you emerge with a spanking new doctorate, you're ready for a full-time job.

Certainly, but in the t-t business that usually means a post-doc or two to develop the skills, publication history, and funding potential to be worth the risk of *starting* on the path to a tenured job. What is the equivalent for a CC t-t position?

There are few grad programs that offer a solid developmental program to produce teaching professors who are also PhD caliber researchers.

You are right about illegal promises, but you must have a half-dozen adjuncts applying for some positions. What you need to address is what it says about the quality of your teaching staff if you think all of your adjuncts are second rate. They are teaching half (or more) of your classes.

Now there is something to be said for hiring the *other* college's long-time adjunct (and they hiring yours). Institutions learn that way, but they also lose when the outsider leaves after a few years of disliking your community.
Two questions separate from my comments:

1) A "star" to start a new program? Your CC is going to offer a PhD in nanotechnology? You need a Princeton grad to teach firefighting?

A new course, certainly, but I think Anonymous Philip is closer to the mark about seeking a person who inspires a new learning style among your students, and the low probability of finding that person based on a short interview.

2) Do you hire out of the public school system? We get some "stars" at teaching developmental math and english classes from there.
Ahh, what about the fact that the analogy is flawed on its face?

AAA ball *is* about development. Adjuncting isn't. As I have written here before, an 'adjunct' should be serving the college/university as an additional job to that which they already have. They aren't there as some sort of "developmental pool."

I am not sure if there is an appropriate sporting analogy. I mean, softball leagues would be my first thought. You aren't doing "ball" as your job, but you do it because you love it (or you love beer.) Of course, you don't bring all that professional "cred" that adjuncts bring to the classroom.

Perhaps the best analogy is that of swim coach. Most often was a great swimmer themselves when they were younger. They have been there. They have done that. They have the "Cred" that the young swimmers need. They almost all have full time jobs, though (and in my experience almost all have been teachers.) Only a few, the truly "gifted," go on to be those swim coaches that get to coach full time, for college or national teams.

Do you hear Swim Coaches complain that they have to coach for 3 or 4 different teams, and never get that shot at being the "big team" coach? Nope. They know--they UNDERSTAND-- that their role is different.

Yup. I like this analogy.
Dean Dad:

From what I can see, your chairs are rational actors who are "satisficing" by taking the best solution that is at hand that will do the job for them. They are highly risk averse and will take the first person who can do the job well enough. They fear that, if they take an outside person, that person will turn out to have some kind of defect that was not revealed in the interview. Less charitably, they might fear that hiring more talented faculty will make them look bad or make others look bad, shake up the institution and make life uncomfortable for them in large or small ways.

As for adjuncts, people should not be led into thinking that they will have a shot at the TT unless they are able to win the job fair and square against all comers, including outside competition. If people do not like the prospect of teaching as adjuncts and if they feel exploited, then they should certainly get out and find other employment.

As for your chairs, I suggest that you try to find some way to offer them incentives for holding real competitions and for hiring new blood. You need to somehow change the calculus for them so that they will see the advantage of bringing new energy into their departments. I do not know exactly how but I think their incentive structure needs shaking up. I am not usually so into rational choice theory but, in this case, I think it does shed light on the dynamics.

The British have the RAE system where the department only gets funding, new hires, etc, if research performance improves. Now descending into complete and utter neoliberalism, perhaps you could try creating an audit/performance system for departments in which they are somehow rewarded if they improve their performance indicators. Over time, this might create incentives for better hiring decisions.
The student portion of this post nearly exactly describes what it is like to be a debate coach at a CC... except, that your graduating competitors go on to compete against your new team... sigh.

As for the loyal adjunct vs. rising star hiring... I was the "star" walking into a department as the second TT person. There were three current adjuncts who applied for the job and were not hired. It wasn't easy, but I managed to have a relationship with them eventually.

Over the next few years we had more lines open up, those same adjuncts applied. We didn't hire them because we developed a long-term vision of what we needed in a TT person and the adjuncts didn't fill those needs. It is true that they were minimally qualified to teach the courses, but the market was such that we were looking at a plethora of maximally qualified candidates with the background to develop the department as a whole in a direction we wanted to go.

All of that is a long way of saying that even at a CC, there is a lot more to the job than teaching and if the adjunct has the ability and willingness to do those things, then they should be considered along with others of their experience level.
Dean Dad:

It is my opinion that your department chairs are in an untenable situation. They either must engage in the illegal/unethical activities described above or resign themselves to an endless procession of "beige" for adjuncts.

If you want to change their behavior, it is vital that you give them an alternative which is not loathsome to them. You may or may not have the power to do so.

Also, upon reflection, maybe you don't need to meet with each adjunct. A sufficiently emphatic mandatory podcast might do the trick. ;)
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