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.