Wednesday, December 07, 2011


Reading the academic blogosphere, you’d think there were only two kinds of faculty: tenure-track (or tenured) and adjunct. But that’s not true.

Some other types are well-known. For example, many colleges and universities have “visiting” full-time positions. These are term-limited, full-time positions off the tenure track. They were originally intended as sabbatical or medical leave replacements, and sometimes they’re still used that way. Some colleges have full-time faculty with no clear expiration date, but without a tenure system. (That was my situation at Proprietary U.) Monday’s story about Grand Canyon University treats this as news, but honestly, I did that back in the 90’s.

But then there’s the full-timer, tenure-track or tenured, who teaches overloads.

At my college, as at many others, full-timers who teach overloads get adjunct pay for the extra classes. (I’ve also heard of pro-rating, though never in a community college context.) From a budgetary perspective, there’s really no difference between Full Professor John and Adjunct Jane picking up that extra class. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll refer to the Full Professor Johns of the world as “overloads,” as opposed to “adjuncts,” but that’s just a linguistic convenience; institutionally, they’re the same.

At some levels, overloads are wonderful. They allow faculty to earn some extra money, which some of them really need. We already know they’re good teachers, so the quality control issue isn’t so urgent. (Amazingly, some manage to maintain high levels of performance even with workloads I would have considered herniating.) They already have offices and they already know the college, so they can provide the kind of attention that we may not be able to count on at adjunct pay. (Some adjuncts go above and beyond and provide that anyway, of course.)

But overloads do raise a few issues.

The most basic one is workload. When I have professors who routinely teach, say, 24 credits in a semester, I have to wonder why others claim that 15 is humanly impossible. Their colleagues obviously don’t think so.

Then there’s the dicey issue of entitlement. When a professor gets those extra, say, nine credits a semester for years on end, she often starts to think of it as her salary. And she will defend her salary against any perceived threat, such as new full-time hires. This can lead to distortions over time.

With department chairs, the issue can get even stickier. The temptation to self-deal in scheduling, so that the chair gets every section she wants, can be hard to resist.

From an institutional perspective, there’s a further issue with human frailty. If someone teaching a standard full load goes out on medical leave, we have to cover 15 credits. If someone teaching several courses above that goes out on leave, the coverage hole is that much bigger. The more you rely on any one person, the worse off you are if that one person gets sick.

The overload issue also makes it difficult to answer a superficially simple question, like “what percentage of your classes are taught by adjuncts?” Before answering that, I need a definition. Is John’s sixth course considered adjunct or full-time? He could decide not to teach it without losing his full-time job, and it’s paid at the adjunct rate, so that would suggest that it belongs in the adjunct category. But John is full-time faculty, possibly with tenure and certainly with an office and institutional support; by that criterion, it seems like full-time. Given the number and level of overloads taught, this is not just a marginal quibble; it materially changes the answer to the question.

(In a collective bargaining setting, the issues get even more complex. We have to specify upfront which sections are overloads and which are regular load, so that when we do faculty evaluations, we look only at the proper category. I can’t base a full-timer’s evaluation on his performance in an overload section. Don’t ask.)

A few years ago I inquired about limiting the number of overload sections that full-timers could teach, only to be told by the college attorney that I couldn’t apply a differential quota to people who happen to have full-time jobs with the college than I could to people who didn’t. After I picked my jaw up off the floor, the attorney mentioned that even if I tried, in the brief interim before the inevitable legal challenge they would just go to other campuses. At least this way they’re here, and students aren’t losing their travel time that could have gone to mentoring.

I’m not sure why overloads are so invisible in the popular discussion, since they’re very real on the ground. If anything, I’d like to see a more robust discussion of them so we can start to come to grips with some intelligent policies around them. In the meantime, some professors will claim that their existing workloads are unconscionable and others will routinely do half again as much without breaking a sweat. And I have to believe both of them.