Wednesday, March 12, 2014

At One 2-Year College, Adjuncts Feel Left Out by Robin Wilson

“Two days a week, Kamran Swanson arrives at Oakton Community College just before one of the three philosophy courses he teaches. Between classes, he heads for a windowless office on the second floor of the campus building, where if he's lucky he can find an open desk. Oakton provides 25 of them for its hundreds of part-time faculty members.

“After Swanson is finished teaching for the day and has held his required office hour, he is out the door to catch a bus home—without ever serving on a faculty committee, attending a department meeting, or even having a cup of coffee with any of the college's other professors. If students want extra help, Mr. Swanson usually handles their questions by e-mail. ‘Without my own desk,’ he says, ‘you never really feel at home.’

“Swanson acknowledges that it is partly his own schedule that leaves him little time to do much more at Oakton than teach. He lives a two-hour commute from the suburban-Chicago campus here and teaches two classes at another community college downtown. But even adjunct professors who have worked at Oakton for decades and are inclined to hang around the campus—which is dotted with 20 outdoor sculptures and a 16-acre lake—say they feel like outsiders.

“Their lack of connection to full-time faculty members and to what goes on at the college outside the classroom poses a crucial problem, they say, not just for them but for the institution and its 10,766 students. After all, the college's 540 part-time instructors outnumber its 154 full-time professors by more than three to one, teaching 60 percent of the courses here.

“While administrators at Oakton have taken several steps to encourage part-time professors to play a bigger role, and even pay them to attend faculty meetings, most of the college's part-time instructors either can't make the time or feel they don't really belong…

“Complaints about a lack of connection are not unique to adjuncts at Oakton. The Chronicle heard the same lament from several part-time professors in the Chicago area who took a survey it distributed last spring. ‘In my role as an adjunct,’ one wrote in an anonymous comment, ‘I have very little contact with regular faculty, or even other adjuncts, so I feel very marginal to the educational process of the school.’

“Part of that feeling is built into the job: Adjuncts are paid to teach, and many work at several institutions, which leaves them little time or inclination to get very involved at any of them. But that poses an increasing problem as part-time adjuncts now make up about 50 percent of the professoriate nationwide. That means that half of the nation's college instructors may not feel much of a connection to the campuses where they teach.

“By adjunct standards, Oakton is actually one of the better colleges in the Chicago area to work for. It has the state's oldest union for part-time instructors and pays them a competitive rate—between $2,475 and $3,540 for each three-credit course [in 2009]. The college is known for giving adjuncts freedom to teach the way they see fit, and it isn't reluctant to back up instructors if students challenge a grade. It also encourages, and often pays, adjuncts to get involved outside the classroom.

“Margaret B. Lee, the college's president, was once an adjunct instructor herself. She taught English at Alpena Community College, in Michigan, during the mid-1970s, while she finished up her dissertation at the University of Chicago and worked on a pig farm with her husband. ‘I have an innate sympathy in my heart for those people who get called a day before class starts and get sent the syllabus in the mail, and there's no other contact throughout the semester with anyone until you're told, turn in your grades,’ she says. When Lee was an adjunct, she recalls, ‘I could say, nobody knew my name.’

“…Part of the gulf between full- and part-time faculty members here is financial. Full-time faculty members at Oakton teach five courses a semester and earn an average of $86,000 a year [2009]. Adjuncts, who can teach up to three classes each semester (a new contract will allow them to teach four), earn a maximum of about $21,000 during the academic year. Like other colleges, Oakton does not provide adjuncts with subsidized health insurance. And full-time professors can qualify for up to $1,000 a year in travel expenses for scholarly conferences; adjuncts usually get only as much as $100…

“The gap in pay and benefits feels particularly unfair to adjuncts at Oakton because, unlike at many four-year institutions, the credentials of full- and part-time instructors here are not much different. Nearly as many adjuncts as full-timers hold Ph.D.'s: 18 percent compared to 22 percent. And all but one of the full-timers here are tenured or on the tenure track, while many adjuncts don't know from semester to semester how many courses they will be teaching…” 

from At One2-Year College, Adjuncts Feel Left Out, October 2009


  1. If I'm not mistaken, the original idea of adjuncts was for the occasional odd class that might be best taught by a working professional in the field. Som of the lawyers at the firm I work at teach 3rd year law classes, for instance. The structure of the adjunct position works quite well for those situation. A professional working in the field doesn't need a high salary or benefits - they get that from their day job; they just a bit to cover their time and expenses. They're not really supposed to be part of the college/university - the fact that they are outsiders with a different perspective is supposed to be a plus. Being limited to a one or two classes per term isn't a problem because they don't have more time than that anyway.

    The problem came when some geniuses (the same geniuses that thought TFA was a good idea, probably) decided to save money by staffing large numbers of college teaching positions this way. Now you have a whole cadre of barely paid, disconnected instructors with little sense of the big picture of the education the college/university is trying to provide its students (for that matter, I'm not sure colleges/universities generally have such visions any more, just visions of $$$). Yet another field that has been deprofessionalized for profit.

  2. Argh. Please forgive all the typos.