Thursday, September 27, 2007


Ask the Administrator: Adjunct Course Development

A new correspondent writes:

I am a recovering adjunct. I still teach a few
courses but I am now doing more and more work as a freelance writer and
loving it. The college (trying hard to a be a university with a few new
graduate degree programs) where I teach has long relied on the R1 down
the street (and where I got my Ph.D) as an adjunct factory. Most of the
general core curriculum and the courses that help them meet their lofty
mission statement are taught by adjuncts. It is the lowest paid adjunct
gig in town but they will hire you back semester after semester. Anyway,
nothing new there.

BUT, and this is the crazy part to me. They rely on adjuncts to do a
huge part of their course development. There may be a course development
meeting in the spring (which they compensate us for) but then adjuncts
are supposed to pick textbooks, plan assignments, etc to meet the
general course requirements and incorporate their specific interests.
Fun and often interesting but a huge amount of uncompensated work.

This week I received the following email:
> BSS is hoping to offer a brand new course this Spring for the Global
> Studies (formerly International Relations) major. It will be a
> multi-disciplinary survey of the Middle East (and presumably North
> Africa) that will serve as the gateway course for those interested
> pursuing a (yet-to-be-developed) Middle Eastern track. Would you be
> interested?

BSS is Behavioral and Social Sciences. And yes, they do not have a
syllabus, texts, or course description for this class developed. That
would all be expected from me. Free! They imply a promise of further
work and perhaps a full-time job further down the line. (It is not
unheard of for such things to happen here). But really, I have better
things to do with my time.

Anyway, I just wanted to touch base with someone and see if this is a
common practice to farm out not just the teaching to adjuncts but course
development too.

I'll start by making distinctions among 'syllabus,' 'texts,' and 'course descriptions.'

Every professor here does her own syllabus, including adjuncts. We have past syllabi for guidance, and the syllabi in certain courses (English Comp, Gen Psych, etc.) are fairly standard. But I don't think it's out of bounds to ask an adjunct to customize the contact information and suchlike. And in the less-heavily-trodden areas, it's not unusual for adjuncts to customize assignments.

Textbooks are generally assigned by the department. That's not a universal yet, but we're moving increasingly in that direction to make it easier for students to buy (and return!) used textbooks. It's a cost-control effort. Admittedly, success there has been mixed, and it will probably never catch in the really rapidly changing fields, like immunology or IT. And there have been cases in which adjuncts have chosen their own textbooks, though they nearly always have the option of a 'default' choice.

Course descriptions are another matter entirely. (Stephen Karlson likes to say that syllabi are course descriptions, and that what we usually call syllabi are actually something like 'work plans.' For clarity's sake, I'll use the terms as they're generally understood.) Those are part of the curricular hard-wiring of the institution. We have a fairly long (okay, too long) and thorough (!) process for vetting course descriptions, including approval by the college-wide curriculum committee. The idea is that course descriptions go into the catalog, and establish a permanent record of what we do. Transfer-of-credit decisions are often made based on course descriptions.

That's not to say that we haven't had adjuncts create courses for us in the past. That has happened when somebody brought unique expertise in a specific area. But when that happened, it was the adjunct's idea. We don't turn away good ideas just because they came from adjuncts. But when we need something developed, we look to our full-time faculty. The courses that adjuncts have developed have been cases of folks trying to create jobs for themselves: let me teach this, it'll be a hit, then you'll need to hire me full-time to keep up with the demand! That has worked more than once, in areas of specific, narrow expertise and high student demand. (That is, never in the evergreen disciplines.)

We do pay for faculty -- both full-time and adjunct -- to convert traditional classes to an online format. The initial change is very labor-intensive, so we compensate for it. (We probably don't compensate enough, but that's endemic to the cc world.)

My usual advice to adjuncts who are looking for f-t jobs holds here, too: don't get trapped by false hope. If the gig makes sense on its own terms, then great, but don't endure it as a form of dues-paying. The odds against that working are just too long, and the folks who've fallen into that trap are, in my observation, pretty miserable. Best to avoid it in the first place.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers -- what have you seen? What do you think?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Maybe I'm an outlier here. I'm always eager for more money, but I am a fulltimer and on salary and any new course development I do is voluntary (in the past few years, I've created one online version of ENG 101, four new live courses, and an online version of one of the new live courses). AFAIC, my salary covers my time creating that stuff.

I'd feel degraded snuffling around for loose change--whereas, I feel professionally puissant developing things without having to clear, confer, meet, and talk with (no offense, deandad) such creatures as deans.
I have adjuncted for several years now and for each course I have had to either design it or re-design it, including doing at least a syllabus and selecting the readings. If it is an existing course I can usually use the existing course description, but sometimes this needs to be changed to reflect new material or my particular focus. Good text books are thin on the ground in my field, so selecting readings means putting together a collection of articles; this take a long time and a lot of effort including copying everything, preparing a bibliography, posting articles online, carting paper copies to the get the picture. This work is unpaid and I do resent having do it, on the other hand I am glad that I get to design my own courses, use the material that I want to use and generally put my own stamp on things.

As for course descriptions and syllabi for the courses that I design myself, I consider these to be MY intellectual property, and I register them with a Creative Commons license. That way I get a little protection, and I'm hoping that will pay out in the long run when I get a 'real job' and use them at another institution.
Cart. Horse.

Gateway Course. Curriculum.

Yeah, sounds like that college is almost as big a wannabe as Morris Brown was when it tried to jump to division 1 athletics and ended up bankrupt and without accreditation, plus a former president convicted of fraud.

Does this college even have a t-t professor in the field where this course is being developed? Very strange. But also hinting at a possible opportunity if you fantasize that you can trust the people in charge to hire the person who put together the plan for this new curriculum. But I would not do it without compensation. That is nuts.

Our CC, like every place I have ever been around, develops new courses within a curriculum and that context is part of the documents reviewed at various levels before the course is approved. It is common to teach a new course as a special topics class to feel out the subject, but that is not the same thing as actually creating a new course that shows up in the catalog.
Colleges should definitely pay for course development. And I would include constructing an entire syllabus (along with an assignment sequence and course description) and selecting a text as a part of course development.

In my CC English department, we provide our adjuncts with a syllabus, well-developed assignments, and a textbook. And we pay them to attend forums where we all meet to discuss the course.

We ask that our adjuncts use the textbook (to keep book costs reasonable for students). And we ask that they meet the basic course objectives. But they're free to riff off of the syllabus we provide. It's always easier, though, to adjust something that's already been created than it is to construct something from scratch.
Syllabus/assignments? At my CC both full and part-time instructors are free to (have to, really, unless they find someone to borrow from) design their own, as long as they cover the required course content and meet the outcomes. Teachers in most disciplines choose their own books; the exception is in departments like Spanish where they have to use one text so students are adequately prepared for the next level.

Course development (creating a course through the official channels where one didn't exist before)? Typically done by FT instructors; part-timers would only do it if we don't have a FT with expertise in the area. And they would be paid, either hourly, through a stipend, or through flex credit. And my understanding is that curriculum development is loadable work, so only PT instructors who were well under the ed code limits would be allowed to do it at all. (The part from "flex credit" on may be purely California speak--I haven't taught elsewhere, but I understand we've got a whole bucket of rules that others states don't.)
Although there are exceptional circumstances, I would recommend that adjuncts do not get involved in controversial academic politics or contentious issues such as creating new degree programs, making curriculum changes, or introducing new courses. Since adjuncts can be fired (or, rather, “not renewed”) for making only the slightest waves, it is usually a mistake for them to try and get involved in these issues--they will just eat up your time, you will invariably offend at least some of the full-time faculty, you will probably antagonize the dean or the department head, and people will wonder about your motives and will think that you are acting above your station. As an ever-vulnerable adjunct, the last thing you need is for faculty members or administrators to be suspicious of you.

A lot of adjuncts labor under the expectation that if they do a good job, obtain glowing student course evaluations, and perform extra work above and beyond their regular duties, they might be able to attract enough favorable attention from the administration so that their jobs are eventually converted to a full-time or tenure track position. However, such hopes are usually in vain. It is very rare that part-time positions are converted to full-time, and even if they are, the adjunct faculty already on staff seldom receives any priority consideration. Typically, when a non-tenure-track position is converted to the tenure track, or if a new full-time position is created, the department advertises nationally, usually resulting in a flood of hundreds of CVs from super-qualified applicants. At research institutions, adjuncts have little opportunity to publish in peer-reviewed journals--so their lists of publications will generally be much less impressive than those of recent PhDs. The teaching experience of adjunct faculty members may actually work against them—it is often true that the longer an adjunct works as a temporary instructor the farther behind they will fall in the publish-or-perish game. If an applicant for a full-time job has been an adjunct for too long, the search committees will look askance at their CV and will start wondering what is wrong with them. Tragically, in academe, once you are branded as a part-timer, you are likely to stay one, and all too often you will find that you are in a dead-end rather than an entry-level job.
That's a great assessment in that last comment. Good stuff. I'll add this. I came into a new adjunct assignment this fall (comp 101) and explicitly told the dept. chair that I would expect course material to be provided, and I was promised it. A blackboard site was opened for regular faculty to add course material for adjunct to use and it remains empty. We have 26 adjuncts teaching comp 101 (current grad students at the nearby state college) and something like four full timers. The full-timers of course make comp their least priority, so I'm stuck building my own curriculum on the fly. I actually addressed this potential problem in my interview with the Dean. He said he could not offer and additional compensation for course development and I asked if I would be expected to do it myself for free. He said no. My requests for help and/or material from the dept. chair and full timers have fallen on deaf ears. That is, they don't respond to my emails. In all fairness, they hold periodic pedagogy workshops (unpaid), but nothing practical comes of this. We mostly talk about students getting "in touch with their emotions" and such nonsense. Of course, despite building good material on my own, I won't be returning in the spring. I'll sure, however, that I'll be easily replaced.
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