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.

Comments:
As a former adjunct, I had a similar reaction to the Times... the folks just don't get it.
 
I was glad, at least, that they admitted that the pay isn't great. But I didn't like how they seemed to gloss over the fact that it's hard work. No adjunct orientation workshop will teach you how to teach, and no premade course materials will do the teaching for you.

My brother is an undergraduate in a field where adjuncts make sense as well: he's a criminal justice major and is looking to be a cop, so many of his courses (especially the ones from his cc) were taught by current or former police officers, state troopers and other law enforcement officials. Granted, it meant he had a lot of night and weekend courses, but he admits that they're worth it.
 
I wrote a snarky bit about this as well. And that whole adjuncts have different interests makes sense to me. When I was adjuncting 8 years ago, it was to gain experience for a full-time job (I was ABD and a trailing spouse). I ran into a woman who was just adjuncting basically for the fun of it. I didn't get it. But now, I'm adjuncting because I like teaching and a little extra money doesn't hurt.

And the work load. Crazy. I tried to contain the work to some extent, but I don't even want to think about the actual number of hours I've put into this course, and I only have 4 students. If the NYT wanted a real picture of aduncting, they should have dug up the archives of Invisible Adjunct.
 
My wife looked at teaching an adjunct class at local Large State U, but decided that it just wasn't worth the effort that would be required for the pay. She's got a Master's +30...I keep asking her when I get to call her Dr. and she keeps looking at me like I have three heads.
 
Copies of this appeared in my department yesterday, too. When I read it I realized the author just didn't get it. I adjunct because I have small children at home and I don't want a full time job right now. Nor do I want a gap in my resume so that when I am ready to go back to work full-time I will still be employable (as much as anyone is in this economy).

I have accepted that my CC will never EVER hire me full-time. I'm in the Social Sciences, I have most of a PsyD but I never finished. Our state budget is deplorable and they just aren't replacing tenured faculty who leave.

Every semester, though, I wonder if the abysmal pay is really worth it. The only way I can do it is that I don't have to pay for child care, thanks to my mother living nearby. If I did, I would be paying more in childcare than I'd be making.
 
You're certainly right about the diverse reasons people adjunct. People in grad school at large state u thought I was nuts for adjuncting at a nearby community college. It wasn't as much for the money, thank goodness, but for the experience, since I already knew they would be quite a different audience. (I had been a high school teacher before this so I knew how diverse students can be even among classes.)

I had adjuncted at a state regional school of medium size, was teaching (not ta'ing) at large state U as part of a teaching fellowship and quickly saw the writing on the walls that there would be more cc jobs than university jobs by the time I graduated. I did end up at a small state regional school but am glad I have the experience in helping our students. Especially those that some colleagues tell that if they get a master's, they're golden for a cc job. Not!

Thanks for, once again, bringing reality, to light.
 
Much like Christine,

-At home mom. I get to see grown-ups, dad gets baby bonding time, I make a little extra cash for our growing family and don't have quite as enormous a blank spot on my resume. (I teach night and weekend classes so I don't have to find childcare ... childcare costs would make it a negative-money proposition.)

It's a little appalling that a job requiring a graduate degree doesn't pay enough to pay a babysitter, though.
 
But please do not ignore the fact that in many places--here in Southern California, for example--freeway fliers are the rule rather than the exception.

They work full-time (and more) traveling from district to district without full-time contracts or an office or health benefits or job security.

Trailing spouses, retirees, experts with full-time jobs off campus, high school teachers who want to work at the college level (or make an extra buck) are the distinct minority--at least where I work.

--Philip
 
My students certainly seem to think anybody off the street could do my job. One of them told me that if her real career plans don't work out, she might decided to just teach. To which she added, no offense.

Nice.
 
Um, if you aren't getting paid, then of course the students deserve less. That's what "paid" means.
 
The more I think about that, the more irritated I'm getting. Yes, of course students who pay you more should get a higher-quality product. We aren't just giving our highly trained labor away and hoping someone tosses us some crumbs, at least hopefully. There has to be some line below which we've been informed that it's time to phone it in.
 
The Times article was indeed insulting, but I am more concerned about some of the immediately above responses. IMO, it is never time, to, "phone it in". You should either decide that it is worth your while to teach a class or it isn't. Either way is fine, but if you do decide to teach a class, I would hope that you would then do the best job you could.

I will never forget the time when an adjunct instructor from another college asked me for help in preparing a class. I gave him my 200-page set of handouts and told him that he could use whatever might be useful to him. Two years later, I ran into some of his students and they showed me his handouts, which were mine, verbatim, with a different cover that implied that all the handouts were produced by this instructor. When I called to confront him about it, his response was, "they don't pay me enough to develop any course materials". But 'they' pay me enough?
 
No, they don't. That's his point. But you do it as a hobby, which is fine, and it's reasonable for him to take advantage of your hobby decision.

I don't really agree with this "if you take the job, that means you do fully professional work" ethic. That implies that our labor markets are a lot more flexible than they really are, or that college administrations don't intend to balance their budgets on the food stamps their adjuncts get. It's not a static one-time decision; it's a dynamic which seems to be getting worse with every iteration.
 
For me, it's a matter of professional pride and professional ethics. When I was working as a PT instructor, I did my best whatever my pay: if I take the class, I owe that to my students. If I'm going to take out my (justifiable) frustrations with the system on the students, I've got no business teaching. The students always deserve my best.
 
Did I miss it, or was there no mention of the VP's wife?

I can't decide if I found the article merely incompetently written and edited or deliberately ignorant. There was a time when the Times would convey facts clearly and accurately, but this article appears to deliberately conflate teaching welding with teaching calculus or art history. The clarification, such as it is, comes well after they imply that someone with "equivalent experience" can teach English at Miami Dade College! Imagine what Mr and Mrs Snowflake are thinking.
 
"Previous teaching experience is a big plus, of course, but not always required. Anne Zissu, chairwoman of the business department at the New York City College of Technology, says she considers related experience, like in-house training in the workplace, when she reviews applications."

Speaking as someone who has done both - teaching in-house training seminars is *nothing* like teaching a semester-long course. The students (and their reasons for being there) are completely different, the coverage of the material is different, the delivery of the material is different, and the workload is hugely different. The Times is completely wrong to suggest that teaching workplace seminars is adequate preparation for someone to teach an entire course at a college or university level. And even though the demand for adjuncts is high, my college would *never* consider hiring someone who only had in-house seminars as teaching experience.
 
For my partner, who was laid-off from a Proprietary U, the adjuncting has been OK. She was probably laid off due to age and medical reasons (not legal, but!), and we had decided that full-time work was out (if we could downsize our lives).

So we did. At this point, her adjuncting is extra cash into her retirement, since the 401K provided by Prop U got seriously hosed. Now she is in the state pension plan, and while it will be tiny, it's NEVER, EVER going away.

The pay is lousy, but the access to the state pension plan? Priceless. So, every cent goes towards that.
 
The indignation expressed over the Time’s article strikes me as a little too “inside baseball.” Not that you’re not correct about adjunct teaching, about the low pay and long hours that the article gives too little attention to. But people teach for all sorts of reasons, and they do not always accord with what their deans are looking for. That doesn't mean that they are not good teachers.

My experience in graduate school made it clear to me that I didn't want to be a full-time professor. However, I’ve been an adjunct for most of the 20 years since I left graduate school because I really believe that the skills I learned in graduate school did not merely have “academic” applications but had applications in the real world. (That sounds obvious to you and I, perhaps, but it was not obvious to the people I was teaching).

Over the course of my 20 years of teaching, I taught classes in my field—I have a doctorate in English from the University of Illinois—but I have also taught introduction to the personal computer at a local technical college and introduction to philosophy for a local philosophy department.

The most heartbreaking thing for me was when they changed the requirements for teachers at the technical college to having a Master’s Degree. This meant that I could no longer teach computers, as I had no formal computer training. (I had earned several (prestigious in my field) certifications that made my Dean decide to take a chance on me as a person who could teach computers and who could communicate his learning effectively to others).

This always made sense to me. But when the college upgraded their policy, they exchanged me for a guy with lots of formal training but no ability to speak English (he was a very nice Chinese guy). But they allowed me to go back to teaching English, which my resume qualified me for. I was okay, but I thought that the department had screwed their students. Who’s to say? The conjunction of events made it so that someone would be disappointed.

My point is that we don’t get to completely determine the conditions in which our students learn. Or what they want to learn. Of if they even want to learn. And I think you know that, Dean Dad. And the same thing goes for the adjunct faculty. Deans can change their minds about how much education our teachers need, and there may be tradeoffs there, as well. That doesn’t mean you give up on hiring people. It means that you prioritize your goals.

The same thing holds true of adjuncts. If you’re an adjunct, then you need to decide if the reason you’re teaching accords with the world (and its constraints) you are teaching in. If it does, be happy. If not, you are free to look for one of the many positions that in my experience are always available and that accords more with your reasons.

If we relied only on insider journals, with their (marginally) more perfect understanding of exactly what our deans are looking for, then we would soon find that not all deans agree on what they are looking for in hiring adjuncts. My experience suggests that things change even within a department.

All the profession can do is throw out as wide an invitation as possible—and I think that the NYT is a good place to start, even if it is not a perfect venue. We can allow the hiring dean to inform the new young adjunct of what is expected of them. I’ve had that talk with the dean at every institution I have ever worked for.


That’s my two cents.
 
"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."

A recent post on my blog:

Jan. 2. Where do old politicians go?

Some go on the lecture circuit and make tons of money recycling old speeches and holding hands with sheikhs and shaking hands with despots and founding libraries and charities that honor their own name.

Others get rid of the missus and find fancy new trophy wives while they lobby their former colleagues. Or they make Oscar-winning documentaries. Or they found consulting firms. Or go back to practicing law. Or open think tanks. Or become CEOs of international corporations notorious for their taste for corporate welfare. Or are elected to the boards of businesses with a yen for prestigious names on their letterheads.

But what of the politicians whose names don't move and shake us with shock and awe? Of politicians with no special talents? Of politicians whose speaking style is so dull that no one would willingly listen to them? Of politicians without law degrees or doctorates?

Which brings us to Maine Governor John E. Baldacci, now entering his last year in the Blaine House. One of his post-political plans, we learn in today's BDN, is to do a job that takes no particular skill or talent or ability or training or knowledge. That is to say, he has nominated himself to be a teacher, preferably at Orono.

Never mind that he's never shown any previous interest in teaching. That he has no experience. That his degree (BA in History from UMO) does not qualify him to teach at UMO.

Never mind that his policies have put the University on a starvation budget and that positions have to be cut, not added.

Never mind that, so far as today newspaper report tells us, no one has actually asked him to teach.

How hard could it be? You show up. You sit down. You regale the eager young minds with a few war stories from your decades of distinguished service to the people of the State of Maine. You hand out the A's. You collect your paycheck. You go home.

You are now a teacher, Governor!

 
I just discovered deandad's blog today as I was researching "adjuncts". I have to say that the first thing that popped up was a post from October 10, 2007 and the most insightful commentator was "Philip" from SoCal cc.

My question to both is what do you make of www.adjunctnation.com, the New Faculty Majority, and other articles on the use/abuse, and nature of adjuncts in articles posted by the AAUP, Inside Higher Ed, Chronicles of Higher Ed and the like?

--Independent Adjunct Advocate
 
I created the adjunct jobs site http://adjunctprofessoronline.com.

It aggregates jobs from some of the big job boards, and also pulls in unique online teaching opportunities.

Over the past four years, I've seen a lot more interest and clicks on the jobs. From what I can tell from the back end, there's a lot more competition for adjunct jobs today that a few years ago -- no way to know if this competition is equal (are there more novices out there today than yesterday?).
 
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