Here's how we can fix adjunct teaching.

It seems the mainstream media is finally waking up to the fact that over 70% of American university and college faculty are now teaching part-time. This is generally presented in the form of a narrative about the “plight of the adjunct”, fromthe shameful story of Duquesne long-time adjunct Margaret Mary Vojtko (updated here, by Slate) to the New York Times’ recent article on adjuncts to Rebecca Schuman’s consistently hilarious excoriation of the way things are in universities right now.

The thing is, I think there’s a place for adjunct teaching in colleges and universities. I actually think there’s a big role, more than many of my colleagues. Just as the workforce overall is changing – becoming more part-time, more hybrid, with far fewer jobs-for-life and far more flexibility and agility (for both good and ill on both sides) – so is teaching. My argument here is that this shift doesn’t have to be purely negative. It can actually be a major positive for both universities and adjunct faculty, if it’s dealt with in a way that adds value on both sides.

1. Adjuncts must be paid enough to make it worth their while.

Obviously, “worth their while” is a different number depending on many things: field, market forces like scarcity of qualified adjunct faculty, union rules, etc. But as an institution, if you want to attract the best teachers and ensure that they are able to reach their potential as teachers, you must pay them enough to make it worth their while to teach instead of doing other things with their time, whether those other things are income-earning or not.

It’s true that adjunct teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. Happy, well-paid teachers will be better able to teach. This does not mean that underpaid teachers are inherently worse teachers. But it does mean that underpaid and overworked teachers will, inherently, be less able to perform to their own individual potential than will teachers who do not have these barriers in their way.

I teach part time at York University’s Schulich School of Business, at both the BBA and MBA level, and in the McMaster-Syracuse joint MCM (Master of Communications Management) program; I’ve also been asked to do some executive teaching for a major telecom and a F50 financial institution. I teach marketing, which is also my non-academic field of work. I feel respected, valued and very happy at both of these institutions.

Both York and McMaster pay their part-time business school faculty very fairly, which is one of the reasons why I am happy to teach at these institutions. At least one other school where I formerly taught, which I will not name, does not. And that is why I don’t work there anymore. They don’t pay me enough for my time, so they are no longer entitled to it. If you are not paid enough by your employer, and you have other options (which you may or may not), I encourage you to vote with your feet.

2. Adjuncts who currently teach as their primary means of making a living should find an additional career – and should bring that expertise and experience into the classroom.

I recognize that many adjuncts already do this. But my argument is that most or all adjuncts should do this.

I want to be clear here about where this falls in the context of #altac (i.e. alternative academic positions) and #postac (i.e. the trajectory of one’s career outside of academia). Really, this can be anything, from an alternative administrative position within a university to a consulting job for a major corporation to being a baristo at Starbucks. The “post” in post-academia is the “post” in postcolonialism, to hark back to my home discipline: it denotes not a demarcation between before and after, but rather a process of emergence from one state and growing into another state that is indelibly marked by and bound to the first.

Thing is, this is actually the way adjunct teaching is supposed to work. This is why adjuncting started in the first place. Professionals, sometimes retired but not always, brought their outside experience to bear inside the classroom, which was seen as a boon both to the professional (spending money! A way to give back to the students! Teaching is fun!) and to the students (Taught by a working professional! A window into life outside the university! Up-to-date expertise!)

One of the major charges levied against humanities programs is that they do not sufficiently prepare graduates for life outside the university. College and university career centres are great to have, but they’re only one piece of the puzzle, and they’re often understaffed, underfunded and, frankly, behind the times (according toAlison Green of Ask A Manager, anyway, and I believe everything she ever says, pretty much.) There is inherent heuristic value in being taught by someone who is working on the outside and can bring that understanding to bear in the classroom, even if their specific work is not directly relevant to the class material. At the very least, this helps students to understand the role of critical inquiry in the world outside university – and it may help them also to understand that the importance of their class material does not stop at the edge of campus.

So how do you do this? You can start here, with my post on 4 things to do in grad school to prepare for a non-academic career. Or here, with 3 things PhDs leaving academia need to understand about business.

3. The model of adjuncting should change, both from the hiring side and the faculty side.

I am currently working with a colleague on a prospective model for non-tenure-track faculty hiring that maximizes value for both the hiring department and the non-TT faculty member. (If your department is interested in trialing this model or discussing it further, please contact me.)

What does that value have to look like? What has to happen on both sides?

On the department side: Department chairs, deans and other administrators must understand that even if they receive short-term gain in hiring adjuncts at pittance rates, that short-term gain will translate into long-term pain for the institution. Students don’t like being taught by teachers who don’t have the time or energy for them. If your students are your customers – as so many adjuncts lament – then treat them like customers and give them better customer service. Perform a gap analysis and understand that a department with happy, effective and well-paid adjuncts is more likely to provide the kind of service to your students that will keep your reputation high. This is a business problem for which you need to make an effective business decision.

Because as university gets more expensive, and the student loan bubble grows larger, students are more sensitive than ever to the quality of the education they receive – and they’re getting even more so, in part because of the press coverage I discussed earlier. Parents are starting to ask questions. Bad teaching quality means fewer students which means lower revenues. And that’s something that should very much concern you.

On the faculty side: Adjuncts must reject the notion of teaching as calling or vocation, and rather understand it as an economic exchange between themselves and the university. They must be prepared to reject that exchange if it does not offer terms that are acceptable to them. This does not mean that you can’t love teaching. It doesn’t mean that you can’t, privately, see it as a vocation. But what it does mean is that universities are becoming corporatized and you need to be able to understand their decision-making from that perspective, no matter how much you might object.

In that same vein, if and when you do find work outside the classroom instead of or in addition to your teaching duties, sell it as an advantage to the university, along the lines above.

I’m not saying “if you don’t like it, then quit”. I’m saying “stand up for yourselves on a large scale. Understand that you are valuable, your work is valuable, you create value for the departments in which you teach, and you must understand that value and hew to it if you are to strike a fair deal.” This is starting to happen. Keep it up.