Feb 2016 Advocate: Adjuncts feel full-timer/part-timer divide


While many adjunct professors work full-time, they often feel undervalued in a culture that divides part-timers from full-timers

by Kiran Malavade, Cañada, English

I’m an adjunct professor, but a full-time instructor. Let me explain.

I typically teach 15-20 units a semester, two-thirds of which are usually developmental English classes, some of the most labor intensive classes. As part of my job, I hold regular office hours, teach in learning communities, work closely with other staff to support my students, and whenever possible, attend department and division meetings. I am not the only one who does this. In fact, many adjuncts are not the casual teacher of one or two classes, but rather full-time instructors who love to teach and do everything we can to ensure our students get an excellent education.

Teach more, paid less, long-time, exploited

I am not bothered by the use of the term “part-timer.” I take issue with the assumption that “part-time” instructors are not as qualified, committed, experienced, or skillful as “full-timers.” Many of us hold the same or even higher degrees in our fields than our tenure-track colleagues. And yet, in our district, we are not compensated according to the level of education we attained, as full-time faculty are. To make ends meet, we teach in multiple districts, and because of this, many of us teach more classes each semester and have more “contact hours” with students and more regular classroom experience than many full-timers. And most of us have been doing this for years. We are not “newbies” earning our chops, like medical school residents en route to advanced qualifications. We are permanent, long-time—exploited—workers and professionals.

Multiple districts, uncertain assignments

I am able to make ends meet while working in only two districts. Many of my adjunct colleagues work on three or four different campuses. Some, like me, travel between multiple campuses in a single day. We juggle different academic calendars (different start dates, semesters vs. quarters, etc.) which means that we rarely get more than a week off, even during the summer or winter breaks.  With different school policies for offering teaching assignments to adjuncts, figuring out our schedules can be nerve-wracking. Sometimes we are asked to teach a class a few days before it starts.  If we are lucky, we manage to work out schedules in which we are teaching 3, 4, 5, sometimes 6 or 7 classes, at a time in order to earn a living wage—which is still less than what most full-timers earn teaching 2 to 5 classes.  We rarely request specific “pet classes” the way a full-timer might because we need to focus on simply getting enough classes to pay the bills. When classes are cancelled, sometimes at the last minute, we find our carefully planned schedules crumbling, and fears of not being able to pay bills become very real.  Since different districts also have different health benefits for adjuncts, most dependent on our teaching load, many of us need to think tactically about how many classes and in which district we need to teach in order to meet the eligibility requirements for coverage and lower costs, so class cancellations can have real consequences for our own and our families’ coverage. The uncertainty, the juggling, the travel with our bulging bags of materials– all of these are standards of adjunct life. Why do we put up with it? Because our work is solely focused on teaching: in the classroom is where adjuncts shine.

Quality instruction & student support

Our classes are engaging and innovative. Through our work at multiple campuses, we are exposed to different instructional methods, a range of technologies, alternate assessment techniques, different campus cultures, and different student populations. This variety keeps us sharp and creative. Many of us share vibrant office space with fellow adjuncts in other disciplines and routinely discuss assignments, challenges, and triumphs “across the curriculum.”  For example, after a discussion I had with a colleague in anthropology, I was able to adjust my developmental level English curriculum to better prepare students for the types of essay exams she uses. These informal meetings across disciplines allow for collaboration that transfers directly into the classroom. My fellow adjuncts and I hold office hours, tutoring sessions, stay after and come early to class to support our students in all the various ways they need support, spend countless hours preparing lesson plans, and attend conferences and workshops to grow professionally. And don’t forget, much of that is unpaid.

We should be seen as assets, not limitations

Yet in spite of our commitment and professionalism, I see a culture on many campuses that divides part-timers from full-timers and belittles our work and qualifications. Being evaluated by or told to get advice from a full-timer who happens to be less experienced than us is a common occurrence for many part-timers. This is galling and frustrating. The fact that we teach at other campuses should be seen as an asset, rather than a limitation. Want to explore other ways of doing assessment? Learn about successful student engagement programs? Why not ask the adjuncts? It seems unfair to be disqualified from certain tasks because of our “status.” For example, a student asked me to be the faculty advisor for a new club she wanted to start but, as a part-timer, I am not allowed to do this. Sometimes I’m shocked to hear the slights that occur. Recently, a well-respected adjunct’s fully-enrolled class was “hijacked” when a full-timer needed to fill an equivalent class. A faculty member from the department came into the classroom and announced to the students that they might want to drop that class in order to take the other instructor’s class. What message does this send, to the students and to the instructor?

I am dismayed when comments are made, often at meetings with very little adjunct representation, blaming part-timers for low success rates. Creating these kinds of divisions between us is not helpful. Faculty are faculty. We should support each other, collaborate, and believe that we do this work because we care about the students and love to teach. Based on my conversations with both tenure-track and adjunct faculty, this is true of us all. Yet, more than once I have heard justifications for full-time positions that essentially state that we need more full-time faculty because “all those part-timers” endanger student success and can’t be trusted to do a good job. This is insulting and undermines our work. If the college does not feel that those hired as part-timers are actually qualified instructors, then why hire us? If departments want more say in adjunct hiring, then full-timers must participate in interviewing and assessing adjunct pool candidates to maintain a pool that they value, rather than letting deans hire without their approval at the last minute.  And if departments want a justification for creating more full-time positions, maybe they can consider using: “We need this new full-time position because we don’t want to continue to exploit our highly qualified adjunct labor force and risk losing them to burn out.”
I would love to see a shift in the culture on campus to one that actively acknowledges the qualifications, experiences, commitment, and professionalism of adjuncts who put their heart and soul into serving our students so well every day in spite of low wages, no job security, and paltry benefits. Perhaps, like the undocumented activists, we need to imagine  “a day without an adjunct.” What would our colleges look like then?

Reject the two tiers, insist on equity

Some say that the current state of affairs in which administrations “save money” by relying more and more on adjunct faculty and limiting full-time positions is unlikely to change. I wonder.

Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education five years ago, Steve Street, long-time non-tenured faculty in the CUNY system, implored us to reject the divisive hierarchical wedge created by administrations. He asked us to imagine a different collective strategy: “We can continue to play the myopic game of those who created the two tiers in the first place by focusing on the differences between faculty members.…But what if, instead, we were to insist—in our requests to deans, in our contract negotiations, and, yes, even in our casual conversations at lunch or elsewhere—on…the same standards for pay, benefits, security, and professional advancement as well as for credentials and performance? What if we refused to speak the two-tiered language at all—except to insist on equivalent compensation for equivalent work? Wouldn’t equity rob management of the incentive to rely on adjuncts anymore? Of course it would.” What Street is suggesting can only happen if we see each other as equals. Hierarchies serve those at the top the most.

According to the California Community College Chancellor’s website, in Fall 2015, there were just 333 tenured faculty and 628 “temporary” faculty employed in our district. The numbers need to change, but so does the mindset that divides us.

Street, Steve. “Why Don’t We Insist on Equity?” The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 02 Dec. 2010. Web. 04 Feb. 2016. <http://chronicle.com/article/Why-Dont-We-Insist-on-Equity-/125557>.