Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Ask the Administrator: Where Did My Class Go?

A regular correspondent writes:

I taught a course as an adjunct at a CC three semesters in a row.  No complaints from students that I am aware of, a positive classroom observation from an admin, student evals on a typical bell curve, 1/4 glowing, 1/2 in the middle, 1/4 cranky.   Grades likewise pretty typical.  Lots of As, some Bs and Cs, a couple Fs.  
This Fall the course is listed as fully enrolled with instructor TBD, so I enquired if I'd be teaching it.  I had certainly assumed I was as I had filled out an availability form, been verbally told I was and reserved the time in my Fall schedule.  No answer for a long time.  Then a very terse email from the Dean saying "thanks for your interest in teaching at XXCC unfortunately we will be unable to offer you a class this Fall".  There's no full timer who would teach this class, so that's not the issue.  
Obviously they can hire who they like:  our Union contract wouldn't give me seniority for another year.  Having laid people off in my former life in the dreaded private sector, I understand that if they've decided to "go a different direction" there's no margin in explaining their reasons to me, as it only opens the door for me to argue. That being said, "thank you for your interest in teaching at XXCC", as if I was a new applicant, seems particularly cold since this is a Dean I had actually met and worked with.   What's your take as a Dean?   Are you a mean dean too?

Am I a mean dean, too?  I’ll leave that to the folks who know me.  Suffice it to say that there’s a difference between a person and a role.  

Since there’s no contractual entitlement to a course, my best guess is that you got bumped.  In many systems, full-timers whose courses don’t run can bump adjuncts with full sections.  The idea is that the full-timer’s salary has to be covered somehow, so displacing the adjunct -- whose salary doesn’t have to be covered -- offsets some of the loss from the section that didn’t run.  The bump may not have been direct, of course.  Full-timer takes slot from senior adjunct, so senior adjunct bumps junior adjunct.  In that scenario, even if they don’t have a full-timer who could have taught your course, the effect on you is the same as if they did.

If that’s the case, I wouldn’t be shocked to hear that you weren’t told why.  The goal would be preventing needless drama in the ranks.  Better to be angry at the “mean dean” than to sow ill will among colleagues.

Of course, that’s just a guess.  Any number of other factors could also have come into play.  Someone’s schedule may have had to be adjusted for personal/confidential reasons -- medical or family, say -- and your course made sense, whether directly or indirectly. (There, too, you wouldn’t get the full story.)  You don’t mention if there was a new full-time hire; if there was, that would also lead to a domino effect.  There may have been another adjunct with a special expertise they desperately needed, and your course was the only way to give that person enough sections to seal the deal.  Or, of course, there could always be something nefarious at play.  But I’ve done enough of this over the years to report that actual nefariousness is far more rare than some people seem to think.

The more bothersome part of your message is that you were “verbally told” that the section was yours.  Depending on “by whom,” and how explicitly, that doesn’t look great.  “By whom” makes a tremendous difference.  If you were promised by someone who has no authority to make a promise, then the promise is worthless.  And there’s a meaningful difference between “we’re pencilling you in” and “the class is yours,” even though some folks conflate the two.  The latter is a promise; the former is a hope.  

One of the frustrations of administration is knowing facts that you aren’t allowed to share.  I’ll give you one from my past.  Professor X, who was full-time, had been diagnosed with lupus, and just couldn’t do early-morning sections anymore.  She struggled valiantly, and didn’t want her colleagues to know.  I adjusted her schedule, and an adjunct who expected an afternoon section was bumped without explanation.  He assumed, naturally, that I was a rat and a fink, and let it be known.

I have lived that one personally.  That’s the price of administration.

That said, there are better and worse ways of telling someone he won’t have a class.  While some specifics can’t be shared, when you’re dealing with someone who has been around for a while and has done good work, it’s probably best not to go with the standard “thanks for applying” form letter.  

I realize this may all sound like a series of technicalities.  At a basic level, you were expecting some income that you aren’t going to get, and that sucks.  I get that.  But it’s entirely possible that someone acting in good faith could have done what you describe.  If you want to figure out whether this was nefariousness or just a collision of imperatives, watch for patterns over time.  A single case could be just about anything.

Good luck.  I hope you’re able to find a way to replace the lost income.

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

This sounds like something that would happen at my institution. It even sounds like things that have happened in my own department. (Note: I'm FT faculty with no hiring or supervisory responsibility over adjuncts. That's my dean's job.)

In my department, the most obvious reason why this would happen is that the adjunct wasn't very good and we cut him/her loose. It's always surprising when either the dean or fellow faculty members make suggestions for improvement (please hold lab for the entire time, please don't give all takehome exams; your students are cheating on them, please try to catch up; you're only on chapter 3 when you need to be on chapter 10, etc.) and the faculty member takes the conversation as friendly chit-chat instead of serious help.

My dean has a pretty straightforward policy. All new adjuncts are evaluated in their first semester. On occasion, she will make recommendations for improvements, usually in consultation with the department chair. She'll then observe them again in their second semester. If changes haven't been made, they won't come back. In our rather large division, I'd say that 3-4 adjuncts aren't asked back each semester.
One flag for me was that the adjunct would have seniority the next year. They may try very hard not to keep anyone that long because they don't want to deal with anyone having that seniority. Thus, if they can find someone new to teach that class, they may go for it so they can continue to not have a pool of senior adjuncts they have to accommodate in whatever ways the contract says they have to.
While keeping all DD's excellent scenarios in play, I'd emphasize the comment by anonymous above. As someone who has previously had managerial responsibilities but is now an adjunct (long story), I've had some frank off the record conversations with hiring managers, and a lot of the way my contracts or offers are structured revolves around certain lock-ins for the department that happen at a particular number of hours or years of employment. Luckily, as someone well-qualified and well-known to the administrative team, they seem to work around these as much as they can. But the constraints are really significant for a manager - budget changes from above are impossible to predict, so extending a contract that limits future flexibility to even well-loved people is not a good idea.

It's no consolation when you are depending on / hoping for the ongoing work of course, but this is the logic of managerial higher ed. The fact that you haven't been asked to change anything specific in your teaching suggests to me that it's not your performance that is the major factor here.
Yeah. As an adjunct, your course assignments for the next term can disappear at any time for any reason whatsoever, or even for no reason at all. That's yet another one of the things that really sucks about being an adjunct--you really have no guarantee of employment from term to term. You can be bumped at any time, for reasons you don't really understand and may never know about.

I guess that in most cases the reason that an adjunct loses their particular course assignment is because a full-timer's class didn't fill and got cancelled, and that he/she had to be given the section. After all, as an adjunct you are transient and expendable labor, whereas full-timers have priority in course assignments.

So I guess that all you can do as a lowly adjunct is grin and bear it, and give thanks for even the few crumbs that are thrown your way. That's just how the system works.
"student evals on a typical bell curve, 1/4 glowing, 1/2 in the middle, 1/4 cranky"

I'm not in a position to see a wide range of student evaluations, but the distribution our data that is well known suggest that these are not "typical" rankings at my CC. They are on the low end. That goes double when the grade curve looks rather inflated to someone from the sciences or math.

We do keep people around who are marginal, simply because there are no superior alternatives (and we do not have a mandatory priority scheme based solely on seniority to force our hand). It could be that someone suddenly came along who looks good on paper and they are getting the same shot that you did.
What CCPhysicist said. 1/2 in the middle and 1/4 cranky would be too low for every CC and ever 4 year teaching college I've been at. They'll give you a chance to raise that in a semester or two but 3 semesters of the same? No dice. Teaching comes first. This is doubly true if there's nothing being visibly done to improve--attending workshops, adding technology, seeking out your supervisors to improve. Three semesters isn't very long at an institution--certainly not long enough to guarentee you anything class wise. I've been with one school since 2008 and what/when I teach is always different. Senior adjuncts have been there many years more than me and even their classes aren't set in stone.
Why not meet with the dean and ask why instead of all this speculating?
Sorry for the harshness, but here are my honest thoughts:

1) At my college, a 6/7 for "overall teaching effectiveness" on student evaluations puts you almost exactly in the middle of college's results. Whether the correspondent means that 1/2 his/her results are in the middle of the scale (4 on our scale) or the middle of the faculty as a whole's results (~6 on our scale) makes a big difference.

2) I'm troubled if that grade distribution is truly typical.
Can't hurt to ask the Dean what's up. Do so in a way that acknowledges they don't owe you anything, and that any explanation is a favor to you, and that you understand that the dean may not even be free to discuss many issues. Maybe ask if at least the Dean can just give you an idea of whether this is a scheduling issue, or something you could work on improving in case you get adjuct opportunities in the future.

If nothing else it shows the Dean that a) you understand what s/he's up against, and b) you really are trying to improve yourself. Can't hurt when they're assigning spots next semester.

You know your relationship with the Dean better than us, so you're probably better able to decide if asking for an in person meeting would be more effective, or just annoy them. I'd probably ask in e-mail, expecting a reply via e-mail but offering to meet in person if they'd like.
I, too, don't want to sound harsh, but it may not be that you did a "bad" job teaching, only that someone else did a better job based on whatever yardstick they're using.
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