Friday, February 05, 2010

The Times Whiffs Again

Several alert readers sent me links to this article from the New York Times. It's a weirdly chipper "pick up some money in your spare time by adjuncting!" piece, written for (and apparently by) people who aren't terribly conversant in higher ed.

Depending on your angle to the universe, it could be read as refreshing, bizarre, or deeply offensive. (I fall into the 'bizarre' camp, with sympathies for the 'deeply offensive.')

First, credit where it's due: there's nothing actually false in the article. It notes, correctly, that the demand for adjunct faculty is high right now in many areas, and that the pay is generally underwhelming. It notes, correctly, that a graduate degree isn't always a hard and fast requirement, though from reading the piece you'd think it matters a lot less than it actually does. (At my cc, it's usually a deal-breaker outside of a few, very specialized, occupational programs.) It cites professional networking as a major benefit of adjuncting, which is probably true in a few niche areas, but which most composition instructors would find strange.

That said, the reality is sooo much more complex than the article suggests.

Having been a freeway-flier myself, I know it's easy to assume that all adjuncts feel exploited and really want to be full-time, but it isn't true. Many do, many don't. Adjunct gigs can make a certain sense in some situations, all of which exist on my campus:

- The full-timer who picks up an 'extra' course or two, just to supplement salary. I have a surprising number of these on my campus. Some of them are young and paying off student loans; some of them have kids in college; some, I'm told, will do anything not to go home. (I try not to pry.) These people get health insurance and salaries anyway, but the marginal benefit of another course is adjunct pay.

- People with other full-time jobs, whether on campus or off. We have full-time staff who pick up a class at night because they love teaching and/or want to pick up a few extra bucks. We also have a non-trivial number of high school teachers who like to stretch their wings a bit with an evening class. Of course, there are also the classic professionals-in-the-field, the model that adjuncting was built to fit. We actually do have a few of those -- lawyers who like to pick up the occasional business law class, say.

- Trailing spouses. Typically, they aren't trailing anyone who works here, but the two-body problem brought them to this geographical area, and a course or two fits their needs. In some cases, we get some pretty wonderful people this way. Some would probably prefer full-time employment, but some find the part-time schedule a better fit for their lives.

- Grad students trying to gain experience in the classroom. It's one thing to TA a discussion section; it's something else to teach your own class. I'd argue that you hit diminishing returns relatively quickly, in terms of future employability, but some experience is better than none. This is particularly true for folks who want to find a full-time community college position; hiring committees here are much friendlier to candidates who have taught at the cc level.

- Retirees. We have about a dozen retired full-time faculty who like to teach a class or two. (Some of them teach only in the Fall, using the Spring to travel. Looks good to me...) It's a way of staying connected, without being bogged down in the stuff that comes with a full-time gig. These folks are usually wonderful instructors, and we're happy to have them. We also get occasional retired muckety-mucks from the business or legal worlds who like to pick up a class as a way of sharing what they know and love. Again, most of the time, these work out quite well (though this group usually needs more orientation than the others).

None of this is to discount the real frustration of someone who's trying to break in, ekeing out a living in the meantime by cobbling together jobs that were never meant to be cobbled together. But I think it does explain, in part, why it can be so difficult to get adjuncts to organize; their interests aren't always the same. Reforms that might appeal to a freeway flier may be irrelevant to the full-timer teaching an overload, and might be actually distasteful to the retiree or the high school teacher. I've seen each of these, and untold variations.

The common denominator, though, and what really irks me about the piece, is that college teaching isn't something to be done on a lark. It's work. (Historiann did a nice piece on this -- check it out.) Doing it well requires time, focus, and a willingness to do what needs to be done. Even when it pays badly, the students don't expect -- or, to my mind, deserve -- any less. It's not an easy and fun way to pick up a few bucks. (It can be fun, but the fun is a byproduct of job satisfaction.) I've gone on record suggesting that romanticizing the task too much is a bad idea, and I stand by that, but this piece trivializes it. When the professor is in class, she's the professor, regardless of her paycheck. If she doesn't respect her own role, I don't know why the students should.

I don't expect much from the Times' coverage of higher ed, but this is really a bit much. The pay is bad enough; suggesting that anybody off the street could do it just adds insult to injury. No, thanks.