Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Ask the Administrator: Professional Development for Adjuncts

A new correspondent writes:

What is your take on "professionalism" among adjunct faculty? Since there's so little money available for professional development for anyone, especially adjuncts, the attitude has developed that adjunct faculty don't really need to keep current in teaching and research in composition; that it's not fair to ask them to do so since there's no support. Most of our adjunct faculty get full benefits but have no job security though we have an informal seniority system--those with most seniority choose their schedules for the next year first. My question is what is a fair expectation regarding "professionalism" at least as it refers to currency in one's field, given adequate teaching evaluations? I've been leading an effort these past three years to develop a writing program--one with a coherent curriculum, vigorous assessment, and meaningful professional develoment. The toughest of the three to get going has been professional development, since it seems an added burden to adjunct faculty who get paid only 80% or so of what full-time faculty receive. I should note, however, that some full-time faculty also resist what they see as a call to currency in the field of composition, since they identify themselves as literature people, though they teach mainly composition. I should also note that across town from us is a very good graduate program in comp/rhet that churns out new graduates every year. Doubtless, they pose a threat to long-term adjuncts whose training is ten or fifteen years old. Also, we don't have any campus-wide professional development efforts or office to promote that, as of yet. And given the budget realities, we probably won't for a year or two more, in spite of our new president's desire to implement something like that. Thoughts?

Nope, no third rail here!

Many years ago, Microsoft got sued for employing what got called "permatemps." As I understand it, Microsoft had hired (and paid) employees as temps, but kept them around for years doing all the same things, for the same hours, as full-time employees. Eventually the chickens came home to roost, Microsoft was hauled into court for back pay and benefits, and wound up paying a chunk of change. (I don't remember whether they actually lost, or they reached a settlement. Readers who know the case better than I do are invited to clarify this account in the comments.)

I wouldn't be at all surprised to see something similar happen in higher ed. As the demands placed on adjuncts continue to increase, the justification for paying them proportionally less than full-timers becomes harder to sustain.

That's the background condition against which I come to this question. As an officer of the college, part of my job involves keeping the college out of trouble. That means, among other things, maintaining a clear and meaningful distinction between the expectations of full-timers and the expectations of adjuncts.

In your case, since you don't have meaningful professional development for full-timers, there's no difference for adjuncts. But if you're going to start a program, you should absolutely target the full-timers first.

The legal imperative here cuts against my preference as an educator. As an educator, I believe that any professor who gets up in front of a class should be as current and prepared as possible. But from an institutional perspective, where that preparation comes from makes a difference. The more the expectations for adjuncts parallel those of full-timers, the harder it will be for the institution to fend off a 'permatemp' suit. Perversely enough, well-intentioned efforts to break down the caste system can actually backfire for the college. (Ironically enough, this is one reason I support adjunct unions. At least with a distinct union contract, it's possible to spell these things out and negotiate them. When too much is left unsaid, expectations can spiral, and suddenly you're on the receiving end of a subpoena.) Systems take on logics of their own, and we ignore them at our peril.

Of course, in a perfect world, this wouldn't be an issue. Most faculty would be full-time, with adjunct roles existing only on the margins (for the occasional working practitioner, and for the occasional enrollment surge.) Those adjuncts would be paid a pro-rated assistant professor's salary, and we'd have single-payer universal health care, so health insurance wouldn't be an issue. But with the funding structure (and politics) we have now, that's not in the cards.

The tragedy of the current system, obviously, is that so many eager instructors are relegated to the economic margins, with professional development left entirely up to them on pathetic salaries. I'm inclined to believe that this is a sign of a deeper systemic unsustainability that will lead to entirely new forms of education emerging in the alarmingly near future, but that's for another post. I'm still working on that one.

So my answer is along two tracks. Ideally, adjunct roles would be few and far between, and to the extent they'd exist, they'd be pro-rata. However, in the world as it is, one college moving too quickly in that direction in some areas (teaching loads, professional development) without doing others (salaries, benefits) would be putting on a sign that says "SUE ME." Yes, there's a fundamental contradiction there. Welcome to my world.

Wise and worldly readers -- has your college found a reasonable way to handle adjunct professional development without getting itself into a bad legal position?

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

Dean dad, I'm struck by the unusual generosity of the adjunct pay scheme at your correspondent's school. According to the letter, most of the adjuncts get full benefits, and they get paid 80% of what full-time faculty receive.

That strikes me as an extraordinarily good deal compared to the situation of adjuncts at any other institution I've heard of.

Assuming that adjuncts are excused from committee work and other forms of service expected of full-time faculty (e.g., advising clubs, etc.), 80% of full-time pay plus benefits seems like a reasonably justifiable deal.

If there are going to be lawsuits filed on behalf of adjuncts, your correspondent's school seems like the last place in the world they would be likely to happen, since their compensation scheme is by far the most generous I've ever heard of for adjuncts.

As far as professional development, I can understand that, say, biologists certainly need to stay current with recent developments in their field, but I don't see that there have been any "cutting-edge" breakthroughs in the field of composition recently.

But maybe I'm just clueless--it's not my field.

If the professional development opportunities are good ones, then perhaps they could be made optional rather than required for adjuncts. Then they might be perceived as benefits rather than burdens.
I just went back to adjuncting this semester at a school that has long relied on the R1 down the street to provide an endless supply of adjuncts. My employer will hire the same adjuncts back year after year.

I think that they were definitely approaching the danger zone: adjuncts were expected to play a role in course development, curricular reform, some (including me) were on committees. I finally left when I was asked to design a new course for a new major without any additional compensation.

After a four semester break, I have returned to a school where course development is back in the hands of full-time faculty! Hooray. I used to provide them with 10K of work for each course that they paid me 3K for, now it is more balanced. I pick my own books and modify their standard syllabus but no more wholesale course development work. My compensation and work produced are in much better balance.

I have a feeling that someone, somewhere, pointed out what a dangerous path they were on.
Moira, I agree, 80% with benefits sounds like a dream!
Microsoft settles 'permatemp' suits
Two $97 million cases reshape employment for temps nationwide

Wednesday, December 13, 2000


Microsoft Corp. said yesterday it will pay $97 million to settle two suits filed by "permatemp" workers in cases that reshaped employment policy not only at the Redmond software giant but for employers nationally.

Here's one way we avoid DD's lawyerly scenario: schedule professional development workshops off-contract (e.g., Spring break) and pay interested FT and PT faculty an equal hourly rate for participating.

(And three cheers for pro-rata pay for adjuncts!)
Where I teach, the distinction is made that adjuncts (who are called part-time instructors) are not allowed to have a full teaching load, whereas full-time instructors do have a full teaching load (as well as additional hours for committee work and the like).

Other things, including committee work and professional development, are generally scaled in proportion to each part-time instructor's teaching load. We're eligible for tuition reimbursement in proportion to how much we teach. We attend faculty development workshops in proportion to how much we teach. And some of the instructors who teach more are on a committee or two (which we get paid for, in addition to our teaching load).

We certainly don't get paid well at all, but they've done a very good job at making the distinction very clear.
We're in the same boat with Mikey--not allowed to carry a full-time teaching load. We're allowed six courses a year, I think. I wouldn't really know...I'm lucky if I get assigned one.

I should add, though, that while some adjuncts seem to do a bit of service--voluntarily and mostly as a way of solidifying their position--we also have access to many of the same development opportunities as full-time folks.

So I do think the way they maintain the distinction is purely by keeping us from teaching a full load. Otherwise they might be in trouble.
Last spring I taught 7 classes, mostly comp, at 4 different colleges. I need to do that much to pay my bills.

When would I have the time, between running from campus to campus, grading papers, doing prep work, to attend professional developmental workshops?

What if it was required at all four colleges where I taught?

I don't make anything like 80% of a full-timer's prorated salary at any of the schools. Thirty or 40% is more like it.

I see a lot of young people coming out of these rhet/comp programs who've learned absolute crap about what actually works in the classroom. I've read some of this newer stuff and taken some grad courses recently on my own, and my feeling is a lot of it is total bullshit.
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