Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Adjuncts and Accreditation, Revisited

Academic Cog and Lumpenprofessoriat posted some thoughtful pieces in response to my skepticism about using accreditation agencies to force colleges to reduce their percentages of adjunct coverage. I don't usually do two posts on the same topic in such short order, but their pieces deserve some attention.

AC is, apparently, a TA for an adjunct – I'll admit never having heard of that before – and s/he reports that the adjunct in question is teaching distractedly, since the clock is about to run out on her current job so she's spending most of her time on interviews. At that university, apparently, you accumulate chits towards a full-time position as you adjunct there, so departments have taken to firing adjuncts before they hit the magic number.

It's probably possible to come up with a worse idea, but I'd have to spend some time on it.

The 'chits towards tenure-track' idea is one of those superficially appealing systems that makes no sense at all on the ground. It ignores the basic fact that adjunct hiring is driven by time-slot availability and geographic propinquity. It also ignores the basic fact that the trend towards adjuncts is driven by a lack of money. The fact that I can afford to hire someone at $2100 does not imply that I can afford to hire that same someone for $55,000, chits or no chits. So departments respond by gaming a system they can't afford to take literally. My modest proposal would be to do away with the chits, so you don't shove people out the door prematurely. If you're lucky, then use the revenues generated by improved retention to create a few more full-time positions.

LP points out, correctly, that some studies have shown that having full-time faculty in the early gatekeeper courses produces better retention numbers than having adjuncts in them. From that, LP jumps to the assumption that adjunct percentages are therefore fair game for accreditation agencies.

Well, no.

The whole point of “outcomes assessment” is that it isn't “inputs assessment.” If there's a retention issue, address that. If there isn't, then it isn't clear to me that there's an academic problem with adjuncts. (There's a fairness problem, but that's a different issue.)

Given limited funding, there's a choice to be made. Fewer adjuncts, or smaller sections? Which is the best way to improve student performance? To my mind, the way to settle that is empirically. Run the numbers, and base decisions on the outcomes. To declare upfront that 'adjuncts are worse, therefore you shouldn't use them' assumes an infinite number of other options; in other words, it's missing the point. The only way to hire more full-timers within the existing budget would be to stuff their classes much fuller. The soulless bureaucrat in me understands it as an equation, but the academic in me recoils at the prospect. If you can't identify the huge, sustainable new funding source to make the dilemma go away, then you need to confront the dilemma.

(Alternately, you could go with fewer programs, and just lay off everybody who teaches in the smaller and/or more expensive majors. Do fewer things, but do them well. There's an argument for that, and it's actually what I would prefer to do, given my druthers. But politically, it's a non-starter. Just look at the crap flying at USC in trying to eliminate its German program! Eliminating departments raises a kind of political hell that a gradual across-the-board watering-down just doesn't.)

None of this is to disagree that people who entered the profession to catch the 'great wave of retirements' are now struggling to eke out livings on the margins; I concede that upfront, and suspect that there's a special circle of hell reserved for the folks who did that study. I consider the plight of adjuncts reason number 734 to support single-payer national health care, and the concept of an adjunct union makes perfect sense to me. But an adjunct who does a good job in the classroom – which most do – does a good job in the classroom. As long as that's happening, I don't see an accreditation issue. A union issue, yes. A political issue, yes. An accreditation issue, no.

When I was a grad student, I was a TA for an adjunct on at least on occasion. Imagine that you have a department that only teaches intro classes with 120+ students. Once all your tenure-line faculty have put in for all their release time and such, you have a lecture that needs an instructor. Call in an adjunct! If the grad students have been promised funding, you've already budgeted to pay them. Doesn't matter who the lecturer is.

Of course, this was the 1990s in California, so I think that at least a few of the adjuncts were looking for something to do while waiting for venture capitalists to fund their crazy technology plans.
Last semester I TA'd for an adjunct, which was sort of weird since I'm only a year away from graduating myself. Generally I think s/he did a good job, but there were definitely a number of times when I wished I were teaching for someone who was better organized and who could focus more intently on the course.
"If you can't identify the huge, sustainable new funding source to make the dilemma go away, then you need to confront the dilemma."

If universities did away with writing across the curriculum programs, they would do away with a HUGE # of adjunct positions, they would do away with the need to admit large numbers of graduate students to support first year writing programs and/or TAs for writing-intensive courses in the majors (thus eliminating the oversupply in at least some fields, because departments would be able to admit smaller numbers or eliminate their PhD programs altogether), and they'd have all that money left over, ostensibly for more permanent positions. Of course, this would mean that the responsibility for teaching students how to write would fall back onto faculty in the disciplines, and nobody likes that. And it would also mean doing away with writing requirements for students, which I suspect taxpayers wouldn't like, employers wouldn't like, etc. And lots of departments would probably fight tooth and nail not to reduce the size of their graduate programs, even though a huge number of their students can't really expect to get a decent job when they're done.

So yeah, there would be lots of resistance. But as somebody who teaches writing with a literature PhD, I've got to say that I don't think it's such a crazy idea.
Thanks for coming back to this issue again. I still have some reservations about your argument that this isn't an accreditation issue though.

You write: "But an adjunct who does a good job in the classroom – which most do – does a good job in the classroom. As long as that's happening, I don't see an accreditation issue."

To my eye, this issue is a structural one, not an issue about the performance of individual adjuncts. Time and money are the two resources that universities can provide to their faculty, and adjuncts aren't given enough of either. Since this situation has a measurable impact on outcomes -- like graduation rates -- it does not seem any less appropriate for accreditation agencies to look at adjunct use than it is for them to look at the number of instructors with terminal degrees. This is because it's a question about how to best organize university instruction and not about the abilities of some particular teachers who may lack a terminal degree.
You mention "outcomes assessment" again. I think I asked about this in the context of the last conference you went to, but never heard any more about it. DD, could you please blog about how you would (or actually do) assess the outcomes of a particular class? I'd single out composition (for Dr. Crazy) and college algebra (for me in the sciences) as of particular interest.

Do your humanities faculty give feedback to you when they get a student who can't write? Do you formally evaluate large math classes to compare success in later courses between students taught by adjuncts and t-t faculty and f-t faculty? [A throwaway comment deep in a blog I posted last night alludes to questions about who is mis-preparing my students, and why. You could also blog about whether yours is a "student centered" campus or a "learning college" and what that means to you as a Dean and former professor.]

The "chits toward tenure" issue is not so unusual if you imagine for a moment that the adjunct is working full time in an academic line. I seem to recall being told that one of the standard union contracts (AAUP?) automatically grants tenure to anyone who is appointed to a full-time teaching position for seven consecutive years regardless of the title (visiting, for example) on the job. That was a long time ago, but maybe others can confirm.
What's "inputs assessment" and how would that work?

Thanks for linking, btw.

Anonymous at 4:59 is describing exactly what I see over here --- with the added wrinkle that most of our adjuncts are people who just got the PhD from our U in the past couple years and still haven't found a permanent job. So, they're new to large-lecture teaching and don't have the time to deal with the learning curve on top of everything else.
One issue I don't think has been addressed in the discussion of adjuncts and accredidation is the impact on students when there are just too many adjuncts. I was wondering if there are policies within accredidation that sets standards for adjunct and student contact hours, classroom and office. Where I teach there is a huge disconnect between students and faculty due to the fact that most classes are taught by adjuncts with not office space and office hours, plus lack of adjunct involvement in scheduling and advisement. I just think it is bad for student retention. Or is this a management issue?

My point is the fundamental reason for having a low student to full-time teacher ratio is cohesion, student advisement and retention, etc. Having so many adjuncts can splinter a program.

I have had TAs in large computer classes and have been extremely helpful. It also helps students who are more comfortable asking for help from their peers.
sisyphus asks what "inputs assessment" is.

It's what most accrediting agencies do. How many faculty do you have with appropriate terminal degrees? How many sections do they teach? How many adjunct faculty do you use? How many sections do they teach? How big is y our library (number of journals, books)? And on and on and on.

The bottom line is, if your "inputs" seem OK, then you get reaccredited.

Most accrediting agencies have begun to place more emplasis on outcomes assessment, but it does not drive the process.

NCA (a/k/a the Higher Learning Commission) has adoped a quasi-TWM approach, which is really big on process, semi-big on outcomes, and has reduced its emphasis on resources (inputs) dramatically. Of course, without sufficient resources, your ability to use good methods (processes) and achieve desireable outcomes is, well, compormised, but tthat's a story for another day.
. . . I hear the faint creaking of learning actually occuring as a result of deliberate consideration . . . of course, those who were convinced remain convinced. It will ever be so.

I still have my doubts about the basis for the knee-jerk "adjuncts bad" bias. [side note: I love anecdotes about bad adjuncts! I see your anecdote and raise you three! While it may not be true that every single 15+ year post tenure faculty ain't worth horse poop in the classroom, well, what do the data suggest?]

And yes, of course it is all about measuring inputs.

Not because they are particularly meaningful; but precisely because they aren't!

Light/Truth are good things only if your biases and world views will benefit from light/truth. Otherwise, darkness and obscurity are your best friends . . .
Here in the South(Southern Association of Colleges and Schools),the reaffirmation process is highly outcomes driven. My schools last SACS visit was highly data driven and outcomes based.

No longer can we hide behind the stance of "we teach, therefore they learn." We have to PROVE that learning occured...which isn't a bad thing once you get the hang of collecting appropriate data.
I know the "earn credit for tenure" idea strikes you as bad DD if you're hiring the same people year after year for the same position there should be some job security in that. Frankly, I would have left my current position for industry long ago if there weren't benefits and some kind of tenuresque job security that I could eventually look forward to. The pay is too low and the hassles too large to ignore to other opportunities open to me.
The parallel discussion over on DD's IHE version of this blog took a different turn that is worth reviewing. When I saw that my comments would be too long for that venue, I chose to write a very long blog entry to address a string of rhetorical questions about the role of faculty in setting class size and number of sections offered at a college.
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