The recent report released by the University of Southern California’s Pullias Center for Higher Education claims that the substandard working conditions of contingent or adjunct faculty at the nation’s colleges and universities can create a significant impediment to student learning.
This is a major issue, because the majority of courses are taught by adjunct or part-time “contingent” faculty who are retained as employees on a course-to-course basis, generally paid much less per course than full-time faculty, and do not receive any benefits. In fact, some sources indicate that 50- 70% of all college courses are taught by adjunct faculty. This raises concerns about the quality of a college education when it is taught largely by those who do not have a full-time commitment to a school and its students. What is the reality of adjunct teaching quality? Does low adjunct pay hurt the quality of instruction?
There are two schools of thought on this. The low rate of adjunct pay, which in some instances is decreasing (as at Argosy University, an online school that recently cut its per course pay by as much as 33%) raises concerns among those who fear that low pay equals low quality instruction. For example, Queens College political science professor Francois Pierre-Louis argues that adjunct instruction may not be as good as full-time faculty instruction because “adjuncts are not full-time faculty members here. They only have one or two classes. They are not paid for office hours. They are not paid to be on campus all the time to service our students. They have no obligations.” The result, argues Pierre-Louis’s colleague John Collins, a tenured anthropology professor, is “Turning professors into a flexible, poorly-paid, terrified labor force [that fear] being laid off in the next semester will tend to snuff out innovation, courage and the ‘extra-mile’ engagement with students that does so much to motivate them to engage the life of the mind.” Both professors agree that adjuncts are forced to do “slaves’ work” and the college needs to pay adjuncts more.
However, some argue that adjunct instruction is often better than that of full-time faculty specifically because of these conditions. In many cases, adjuncts possess equal or comparable education and commitment to scholarship as full-time faculty, and their goal is to secure a full-time position, an increasingly elusive achievement in an age of constantly shrinking higher education budgets and more cuts to college faculty and staff. Some argue that this goal leads most adjuncts to actually work harder than full-time faculty members, to ensure the high quality of instruction and student satisfaction that will help them hold onto their jobs or land better ones.
The Reality of Adjunct Teaching
Sadly, the low prestige and poor pay of adjunct teaching creates conditions in which it may be impossible for adjuncts to teach to the best of their ability. Adjunct work is both tenuous and high pressure because the performance of the students in their course often determines whether an adjunct has continual employment at a school-the “contingency” upon which contingent employment rests. In my experience and that of those adjuncts I’ve spoken with, this means that they have to bend over backwards not to teach thoroughly or fairly, with appropriate standards, but to try and please every single student and satisfy their academic desires, regardless of the student’s academic ability.
When I was an adjunct, I was terrified that any student who earned an F for plagiarizing would complain to the department and I would lose my job, which happened to several of the adjuncts I worked with. In many instances, adjuncts also have to handle a gang mentality among students who, in a difficult course, band together to complain that the work is too hard, even if it is the approved curriculum that full-time professors teach. This is something that full-time faculty face now and then, but the ramifications are different: full-time faculty will seldom lose their jobs over one bad course experience, but adjuncts almost certainly will.
In addition, adjunct faculty are paid poorly: Stories of adjuncts forced to rely on social welfare programs such as food stamps, despite having doctorates and years of teaching experience, have become more common. What is also clear is that, as higher education budgets shrink, adjunct and full-time faculty are taking on heavier teaching loads that reduce the attention each student gets. This means that both adjunct and full-time faculty work at more than one school, racing between the two, which is both distracting and exhausting.
What Can Be Done?
It is necessary to increase support for all levels of college instructors. For adjuncts, online petitions and organizations have formed at individual colleges, but there are also national groups advocating for higher pay and more respect. The Adjunct Project was created to track adjunct salary and benefits, and New Faculty Majority (NFM) advocates for contingent faculty in professional and legal matters. NFM recently applauded a victory over the tyranny of student opinion for adjunct professors everywhere when adjunct professor Darnell Rhea won the right to learn the name of a student accuser who cost him his job. Rhea’s teaching contracts at Santa Fe College in Florida were not renewed after one student sent an email complaining about him, and the school’s confidentiality policy made it impossible for him to defend himself against the anonymous critic. Rhea successfully argued that he had the right to rebut the specific accusation, which necessitated learning the student’s name, and that the email complaint was not a part of the student’s “education record,” which would allow him to see the student’s name without violating confidentiality. This decision will set a precedent that all faculty can use to defend themselves against unfair and inaccurate criticism.
To ensure quality higher education, such support is necessary at all levels of college instruction, and it needs to come from all levels of college instructors. Full-time faculty need to work with adjuncts and vice-versa, to address salary inequalities and professional development opportunities. Only when adjunct faculty are treated equally will concerns about the quality of their instruction be put to rest.