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College Confidential

The adjunct economy

Universities rely on part-timers to do most of their teaching. So they should treat us better.

By Nick Parker
April 17, 2011

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Early on Monday mornings, in my classroom at Babson College, I shepherd 30 undergraduates into the room with a smile and a “How are you?” or a “Good morning.” From my seat, I have a clear view down a corridor to another classroom, where I can sometimes glimpse a colleague from my department offering the same perfunctory greetings. While we have a lot in common – PhDs from respected institutions, years spent writing and publishing, a passion for teaching – there is something that divides us: He is a tenure-track professor and I am an adjunct lecturer.

In the world of academia, the distinction between these job titles is a huge one. Tenure-track professors are hired by universities to do a combination of teaching and research and to help their departments develop. Pending a major review of their performance after five or six years – when they try to win tenure, which pretty much guarantees a job for life – tenure-track professors are essentially full-time members of the faculty. Their positions usually come with a range of benefits like health insurance and periodic semester-long sabbaticals.

On the other side of this divide, adjunct faculty members (whose positions are sometimes described by other labels such as “lecturer,” “contingent faculty,” or “instructor”) are exclusively teachers. They generally work on a system of semester-to-semester contracts, rarely enjoy benefits, and often are considered part time, regardless of the amount of teaching they do.

I am one of an army of these adjuncts working in higher education, and our ranks are growing. There were more than 19,000 of us employed in Massachusetts in 2006, the most recent year figures were tabulated. That’s nearly 60 percent of the 32,000 or so faculty members in the state. When you factor in graduate-student teachers, who often lead the discussion sections in math and science courses, the figure tops 70 percent.

Even prestigious schools rely heavily on adjuncts, especially for teaching classes of freshmen and sophomores. At Harvard, adjuncts accounted for 57 percent of the faculty in 2005; at Boston University that year, they made up 70 percent. And over the last three decades, the number of adjuncts employed across the country skyrocketed by 210 percent while tenure-track faculty hirings rose merely 7 percent.

This is all part of a wide-ranging effort in academia “to try to get away from the tenure-track system entirely,” says David Kociemba, an adjunct for 11 years who also leads a union of fellow contingent faculty at Emerson. “Something that tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty share is a sense that the profession as a whole is threatened.” Last year, for instance, Texas sought to save nearly $18 million a year by buying out the contracts of more than 130 tenured professors at two of its state schools and replacing some of them with adjuncts.

From a business perspective, hiring adjuncts makes good sense. We tend to teach more classes than our tenured counterparts and for less money. George Steele, for instance, pieces together his living as an English and film adjunct at three schools in two states (Babson, the University of Rhode Island, and Providence College). He made about $50,000 last year, having taught 11 courses. The average full-time professor, however, makes about $80,000, according to the American Association of University Professors, and might teach just four or five courses.

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I should point out that no one goes into teaching expecting riches, and plenty of us are happy to have any opportunity to ply our trade. Mike Martin, who has been teaching all over the Northeast for 14 years, enjoys the “autonomy, doing something I care about, [and] not being confined or micromanaged.” But other adjuncts work second or third jobs to pay the bills (this can lead to some awkward situations, like the time a friend of mine, an adjunct who also worked at a restaurant, had to wait on a student and her family; the father didn’t look pleased to learn that his server was also his daughter’s English professor).

“The most petrifying part of the adjunct life,” Steele says, is the feeling “that job security is only as fresh as every semester.” This concern seems especially acute in a city like Boston, which is inundated with overeducated and underemployed people who might jump at the chance to teach. In 2009, a professional association for humanities academics recommended paying adjuncts at least $6,600 per course, but people in this saturated market are sometimes offered far less. Before coming to Babson, I taught at a local college for $3,000 per course and felt lucky to have a job.

I know I’m not alone in feeling this insecurity, and that’s what worries me about a system ever more reliant on adjuncts. “Job security is necessary for free speech,” Kociemba says. “It’s not just simply about trying to make a living; it’s about doing your job as a teacher.” That means feeling safe enough to teach in a way that you believe is most effective.

Any adjunct will tell you that the scariest part of the semester is the arrival of course evaluations, in which students grade their teachers. At some schools, these documents appear to be the only things administrators use to judge an adjunct’s performance, which is unsettling. Accountability is essential, of course, but sometimes these reviews read like popularity contests – good professors are funny and their courses are easy; bad ones are strict and assign too much boring reading. I worry that teachers, especially those holding onto their jobs in a recession, might be tempted to give students what they want in an education, not what they need.

To help solve problems like this, some of Kociemba’s colleagues founded Emerson’s adjuncts’ union in 2001, using it to win health benefits for some of its members. The union, Kociemba says, “made for a better workplace and, as a result, a better learning environment for students.” It also implemented safeguards such as grievance procedures to settle disputes with the administration, and it secured members higher minimum pay per course. There are few such unions in the state, though – Suffolk University and the University of Massachusetts are two others with such bargaining units – and that leaves thousands of adjuncts to go it alone.

I think what I do as an adjunct is important, and I give it my best. I’ve been lucky to have been treated well by my colleagues and students. But if academia is going to rely on adjuncts to do so much of its teaching, it needs to find ways to invest in us for the long term. There is undoubtedly a bias in the larger system – a sense that the longer you’ve been an adjunct, for instance, the less you look like a good candidate for a tenure-track job, and the fact that many adjuncts don’t have office space or phones. It creates the impression that adjuncts are at the university, but not of the university.

The exhausting thing for me is the feeling that there is little connection between those who are moving forward professionally and those who are in the professional shadows, watching the real professors from afar.

Nick Parker is an adjunct professor and freelance writer in Lynn. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.