Tuesday, October 28, 2008


Ask the Administrator: An Interview Curveball

A new correspondent writes:

I'm currently an adjunct ESL teacher, and I just interviewed for a full-time position in my department.  One of the questions in the interview caught me off-guard.  Even days after the interview, I'm still not sure what my answer should have been.  The question was something to the effect of "what do you see as a full-time instructor's responsibilities in relation to part time workers?"   I've worked at several different colleges & universities, and at all of them (except for the one I'm currently working in), the full-time instructors had quite a bit of authority over part time workers.  They observed our classes, evaluated us, chose our textbooks, etc.  Part-time teachers were invited to some staff meetings, but did not have the option of participating in many committees, etc.  However, in my current department, there are only 8 full-time instructors and about 35 part-time instructors.  Many of these part-time instructors have been around for many years and are every bit as invested and involved in the program as the full-timers.  In this situation, it seems to me that the part-time instructors should be viewed simply as colleagues, not as subordinates.  What do you think?

There's almost certainly some history behind the question. And without knowing the specific local history, it's hard to say what the 'correct' answer is.

When confronted with loaded questions like that, my preferred approach is to ask for clarification.

For example, last year at an interview I was asked about my attitude towards people who work in Student Affairs. I paused, blinked, and asked the questioner to rephrase. As it was asked, I considered the question bizarre. Which people? Why? (I later learned that there had been a history of serious turf battles between academic affairs and student affairs.) When the question was rephrased – I honestly couldn't reconstruct how, other than to say it was a lot less off-putting the second time – I was able to answer truthfully that I thought internecine battles were asinine and destructive, since they distract from the shared mission of the college. Since 'shared mission' was my key message anyway, I considered it a reasonable answer.

In this case, I'd guess that there's some sort of history regarding the proper roles of full-time and adjunct faculty – if they're talking about faculty – and they're trying to find someone to join the ranks on the 'right' side. Instead of trying to suss out what they thought the right answer was, I'd recommend taking this as a chance to figure out what the right answer should be. Should full-time faculty supervise adjuncts, or should that fall to the Chair? Should adjuncts be included in meetings if they can't be paid for it? Should full-timers and adjuncts share the same union, or should each group have its own?

The issues get tricky when you really start mucking around in them. If adjuncts aren't quite at the quality level of full-timers, however defined, then treating them as colleagues dilutes the currency. If they are at the quality level of full-timers, then all that money for health insurance and real salaries and lifetime job security is money wasted. Some adjuncts really want full-time jobs, and are cobbling together a meager living trying to catch that big break; others are largely focused on something else, and treat adjuncting as an enjoyable way to pick up some money on the side. The needs of those groups are very different, and I would imagine each would have different requests of the full-timers.

If it were up to me, and if we didn't have the money to expand vastly the ranks of the full-time, I'd like to see the 'evaluation' part go to department chairs and program coordinators, leaving the rest of the full-time faculty to serve as resource people. That way, evaluation can be more consistent, and the adjuncts won't have to work in a panopticon. But that's me; surely there are other perfectly functional ways to organize a department or program.

A charitable read of the question might be that they're trying really hard to find a workable, humane, and sustainable model, so they wanted someone who has already given the question serious thought. A more cynical, and I think likelier, interpretation is that there's already a hard-won local consensus on it, and they want to make sure that your instincts will align with it, whatever it is.

Interviews aren't always fair, unfortunately.

Good luck with your search!

Wise and worldly readers – any thoughts on this one? Any weird interview questions you've run across?

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

To pick up on your line about the panopticon---as an untenured (full-time) faculty member, aren't I in the panopticon?
Ironically, I just wanted to thank you both for using "panopticon" in a non-theoretical setting.
"If adjuncts aren't quite at the quality level of full-timers, however defined, then treating them as colleagues dilutes the currency. If they are at the quality level of full-timers, then all that money for health insurance and real salaries and lifetime job security is money wasted."

Wow. Is it that difficult for you to remember that "they" are human beings? Are you really advising someone not to treat colleagues as colleagues? Do you ever give "them" the opportunities and support "they" need to improve their "quality level"? Do you really believe that if "they" are as good as full-timers then the full-timers' pay and benefits are "wasted"?

So it's actually true that becoming an administrator sucks the basic human decency out of you. Wow.
This is a great interview question which should not have taken the interviewee by surprise. We have so many adjunct instructors who apply for tenure-track positions without sufficient realization of the additional responsibilities that are entailed (advising, committee work, office hours, transfer articulation, etc.). I'm sure it was indeed a loaded question that was based on bad experiences with newly-hired tenure-track faculty who were unwilling to step it up and become a full partner in running a department.
To continue... I don't think that Full-time faculty should treat adjunct faculty as subordinates, but at the same time, those FT faculty are being compensated to make sure the dept runs well, and that includes hiring and mentoring good PT faculty. If a FT instructor absolves themselves of working with PT faculty, then they are not doing part of their job.
Al - I wholeheartedly agree with your views on the step up in responsibilities for FT faculty from adjuncts and that it is important that the FT faculty find it important to mentor the adjuncts in whatever capacity makes sense in the particular department.

That said, I think that the way the interview question was phrased doesn't match up with your first comment. They weren't getting at the general added responsibilities for FT faculty - they were specifically talking about the roles of FT faculty members in overseeing adjuncts. In this capacity, it is more of a curve ball because the ways that FT faculty work with and interact with adjunts differ very much from institution to institution.

It's not necessarily a terrible interview question, but the way it was worded made it seem a bit unorthodox.

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