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.