Monday, January 13, 2014


Ask the Administrator: Which is the Lesser Evil?

A department chair writes

I’m given a dollar amount budget to hire adjunct faculty for my department. I translate this into the number of sections I can have adjuncts teach. Ordinarily I’ve hired them to teach two courses each semester because this brings them some benefits that don’t come with one course. A relatively recent rule change allows us to hire adjuncts to teach three courses a semester, and increasingly, people are asking to teach three. I find myself struggling to decide between providing more people with two courses each and fewer people with three courses each. There are all sorts of pros and cons I can weigh, but in the end I can't see which alternative is the lesser of two evils (the evils of exploiting these people in the first place, of course).

Nope, this shouldn’t be controversial at all!

I’m not sure what “some benefits” means.  If it refers to health insurance, and you can cover it, that’s great.  For the sake of argument, I’ll assume that there’s no “benefits” payoff to the difference between two courses and three courses, other than pay.  Also for the sake of argument, I’ll just bracket the Affordable Care Act, since guidance on the employer mandate in this context remains elusive.  And let’s just stipulate upfront that you’d rather have full-timers if you could afford to.  That’s true of nearly every department chair I’ve ever known.  (The only exception was one who had trouble finding full loads for all of his people.)  The issue here is not “what would be ideal,” but how best to play the hand you’ve been dealt.

So what it really comes down to is a greater per-person benefit for fewer people, or a smaller per-person benefit for more people.  For the sake of argument, let’s say you have twelve sections to cover.  Do you give four people three sections each, or six people two sections each?

This is where you have to think like a manager.  

Your first obligation is to cover the classes with good instructors.  Experienced chairs and deans know that entails more than just covering the classes; it also means having enough slack in the system that if someone goes down, the world doesn’t come caving in.  This isn’t just hypothetical; unplanned, abrupt absences -- usually medical -- happen more often than you might think.  

If you schedule your people to their absolute limits, and then someone gets sick, you’re defenseless.  The people you turned away will likely have found other things to do by that point, and you won’t have anyone who can step in.  From a student perspective, this is a catastrophe.

If you keep a little bit of slack in the system, by contrast, you’ll have the option of adding a section to each of several different people if someone goes down.  You’ll have a deeper bench.

The “deeper bench” argument assumes, of course, that you have enough good adjuncts around that you could spread the courses a little more broadly and still be confident that the students are getting good instruction.  In other words, if the four people to whom you’d give three sections each are very good, but adjuncts five and six are terrible, then you’re better off sticking with three sections each and hoping for the best.  Better to risk weak instruction than to guarantee it.  But if adjuncts five and six are also good -- which is often the case in evergreen disciplines -- then I’d go with the deeper bench.  

The obvious rejoinder is that the adjuncts who are asking for additional sections presumably have good reasons for wanting them.  But it’s not clear to me why Bob’s claim to a third section should trump Dave’s claim to a first one.  Assuming that there’s no clear reason to favor Bob over Dave, I’d go with a more even spread to at least capture the gain of a safety net.

Before the inevitable flaming, I’ll concede that it would be preferable to just hire all full-timers and be done with it.  But for various reasons, that’s often unrealistic.  Chairs have to make choices like these all the time.  Given that, I’d rather have some sort of theory behind the choices than just going with personal favoritism, rewarding the squeaky wheel, or adopting an arbitrary rule just to avoid the pain of thinking.

There’s nothing pretty about these choices, but they have to be made.  

Good luck.  I hope you’re able to find a solution that makes sense in your context.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Does the “deep bench” argument make sense, or is there a better -- and still realistic -- way?

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

Of course, there's something between "Give them all 3" and "Give them all 2." If you only give 3 sections, you lose flexibility. If you only give 2 sections, then people who go above and beyond never have a higher target or reward to hope for.

So balance it.
I think you also have to look at whether having additional sections taught by the same person provides additional value for the school.

For example, assume there's an obligation of offering one office hour per week per section (it wouldn't surprise me if some per-section adjunct requirement or other scaled like that, if not literally one office hour per class, which I'm choosing for easy-math and easy-visualization reasons). Now, if someone's teaching three sections, that gives students in all of their sections three different times a week that might work rather than only two. If those times are all out of different class periods it makes it much more likely that a given student will have at least one of them free.

Also, is the person teaching 3 sections likely to be able to get by only working at your school rather than picking up sections at other schools as well? You're likely to get more focus from them if they're only trying to hold down one job, and if 2 versus 3 makes that difference it's something to consider. It may make the adjunct feel more a "real" part of the school, which is both cynically useful to you and ethically problematic in ways that have been covered here may times before, but divided attention versus sole attention is a real thing to consider.
Agree on both comments above. And I would add the managerial parameter that some people do a lot better job with one less class (maybe because it is one less prep).

My solution is to make sure that you don't have a number that is divisible by both 2 and 3!

And you won't, because in my experience the number of sections where we need adjuncts varies between fall and spring semesters as well as from year to year. I'm not in that job (thank goodness) but the parts of it that I have to be involved in make it clear that we cut it a lot closer in the fall than in the spring.

So I would argue for an arrangement where they all get at least 2 in the spring and more of them get 3 in the fall.

I have been an adjunct for about 20 semesters. Adjuncting was my part-time job for many semesters. I only wanted one class when I got a full time job not in teaching.

My vote is give one class to an adjunct with <3 semesters of experience as an adjunct if salaries are lower than surrounding schools. Then they can get another one or two classes at another school. Leave an hour between classes at the same cc, so the adjunct can immediately critique his/her lesson plan and make adjustments for the next class.

Give experienced adjuncts (>3 semesters) two classes. Two classes gives the adjunct excellent experience to make tweaks to lessons, and how the tweaks work.

Only give three classes to anyone if there are very few good adjuncts available. By giving less experienced adjuncts one class, and more experienced adjuncts two classes, you can help the newer ones gain experience and you will have a larger pool of experienced adjuncts after a while.
In the last contract they negotiated, our part-time union and the administration agreed to a formula whereby adjuncts would be assigned a minimum load equivalent to what they'd had in previous years, assuming student demand exists and the adjuncts were qualified to teach the classes. This provides some basic income security to people from one semester to the next - which previously had been a major source of anxiety reported by many adjuncts.

After everyone's minimum load was fulfilled, additional sections are offered to those who are a) qualified and b) interested, in order of seniority, up to the contractually-specified threshold for maximum part-time employment. After that, if there are still classes to be covered, new people can be hired from outside the unit.

This prevents the University from stringing along a large pool of people on one or two classes at a time. It allows people for whom this is their main job a way to make enough money that they can afford to teach at just one school. It gives flexibility to those adjuncts who really only want one or two classes. And it save Dept Heads the hassle of having to run around finding and then supervise & evaluate a whole bunch of un-tested new people all the time. The dept. heads who were on the University's negotiating team were very happy about this last point.

Most importantly, because the practice is right there in the contract in black & white, everyone knows what to expect and there's a lot less tension and fewer problems to deal with surrounding course assignments.

My thoughts are along the same lines of those of anonymous 7 p.m.: you need to think in terms of what will concentrate the maximum amount of the adjuncts' energies with your school and your students, and, to do that, you need to think in terms of the adjuncts' likely overall workload. You can't, of course, inquire too much into what else adjuncts are doing (though you'll probably learn a bit come scheduling time); since they are, by definition, part time workers (even if in practice, at 3 or even 2 sections of a challenging course taught to a challenging student population, they really aren't), so they're free to work elsewhere (as well as, of course, to decide that part of their "work" time should be spent on family responsibilities or other activities). However, at least for adjuncts who are trying to make a living by adjuncting, any void you create by assigning an individual adjunct to 2 rather than 3 classes (and I'd argue that would, to some extent, create a psychological void; it's money that, in the worker's mind, (s)he could earn, without taking on another school, or perhaps even another prep) is likely to be filled, as long as possible before the semester starts, with other work elsewhere. The adjunct may well still take the 3rd class if it is offered at the last minute, but it will now be part of a larger overall load, quite possibly spread over more employers (and, once again getting into psychology, it will also likely feel like the course that it might be okay, if the need arises, to shortchange a bit, because it was scheduled so late). I also suspect the 3/2 load argument applies at many schools. You want to give good adjuncts as much work as possible, lest they go looking elsewhere.

And the final, obvious point: part-time contingent faculty members (I was one for 5 years) are in many cases extremely dedicated faculty members, but, ate least in the case of adjuncts who are trying to make a living by adjuncting, faculty work conditions really do dictate student learning conditions. Trying to figure out how best to schedule adjuncts has a certain rearranging-the-deck-chairs-on-the-Titanic quality to it.
Or, to put the above in a slightly different way: The administrator needs to think of hirself as part of a local academic labor market, and to think both of the good of hir individual school (understandably the first priority) and the local higher ed market/community (because that affects hir school). I'd argue that it's best for everybody in the market -- individual schools, and adjuncts -- if as many adjuncts as possible make as much money as possible by teaching at as few schools as possible (so, let's say that the average adjunct in that market teaches at 1-2 schools per semester rather than 2-3. I've never taught at more than 3, but I know some people do, if only to keep up relationships that will increase the chances of receiving enough classes in any one semester).

The other thing to think about is the wages/course load tradeoff. Most adjuncts would prefer to teach as few classes as possible at as few schools as possible for the maximum amount of money possible. Different schools fit into different places in that equation, with community colleges often being able to offer more classes (because of overall demand, and because of the course load of their full-time faculty, which often affects the maximum adjunct course load) but lower wages, and private universities often being able to offer higher wages but fewer classes. The overall good of the local higher ed community will be maximized if each school offers its adjuncts as many classes as possible at the highest wages possible. Schools at either end of the spectrum (high class load/low wages; lower class load/higher wages) need to maximize the benefit they can offer, both in order to attract the best adjuncts to themselves, and to contribute as much as they can to the overall health of the market/community. Those who can offer a larger number of classes should (and should do their best to maximize wages as well); those who can offer higher wages should (while also trying to maximize number of classes).
Here's a novel thought: ask the adjuncts. Yes, departmental needs must take precedence, but some adjuncts may prefer two classes, others may prefer three. Their reasons may vary.
Gather the adjuncts into a room, lock the door, and pump in carbon monoxide. Then hire H1B replacements for half-cost.

Seriously, I dunno, you're talking about how to exploit people less awfully. I don't know how to compartmentalize that well. I'd be stuck on "these are human beings and we need to make health care and basic human decency happen for them". But I understand that's socialmalism.

This comment has been removed by the author.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?