The Ideal Adjunct

In Philly Blog on July 29, 2014 at 11:15 pm

ideal adjunct

post by Jennie Shanker

When adjuncts point to their inability to thrive on the low salaries they receive from their work, they are often met with the same argument:

This work is meant to be part-time. We never intended for anyone to make their living from it!  

Indeed, there are some people who teach as adjuncts who don’t particularly need the work or the money. They may have their own business, a well-paying job elsewhere, or another breadwinner in the house whose income covers the family needs. These are the professionals the administration will assert as their consummate adjuncts. They are the ideal candidates, receiving pay as a token of thanks for their generous service.

This faculty member, however ideal, is not representative of the vast majority of adjuncts. Any administration even minimally engaged with its educators knows this. The extensive number of courses taught by part timers cannot be filled with these outside professionals.

Adjunct positions are primarily filled by people in a predicament. Many started as recent graduates who needed work. It’s often the most logical place to immediately share one’s unique expertise. Perhaps a department or a local college makes it all too easy by offering up a class. Some may have always been interested in a teaching career, but learn quickly that in order to apply for full-time work, they need to have three years of classroom experience. Once they have committed three years of their lives to the profession, they find that they have only attained the minimal qualification for a tenure track job.

The growing number of adjunct teachers drastically overshadows the dwindling availability of full time jobs. It is common for a single position to have over 200 candidates. A recent opening at a local, unionized community college had over 500 applicants.

The academic search is the moment when a young adjunct might realize that the kindness of their chairs and colleagues has been just that. They have been incredibly kind in offering a way to make money and a chance to gain experience. In applying for full time work, one quickly learns that the experience gained, primarily in teaching and service, is not as highly valued as a candidate’s research.

A department may be religiously committed to an individual as an adjunct, but will not see that person as being a competitive candidate to be included as faculty ‘in the department’. An early, resolute commitment to teaching leaves promising graduates with little time to do the work that would make them attractive job candidates.

By the time young adjuncts find that they are not what schools are looking for, they have become very good teachers. If that were not the case, they would not have been repeatedly re-hired in today’s buyer’s market for adjuncts. Schools have no reason to keep hiring people who do not perform. Three years in, an adjunct has gained experience and found their love for teaching. If they lose bids for full time work, they are often labeled as both older and unsuccessful. They have lost valuable time in trying to establish themselves in other occupations.

A great percentage of adjuncts are older, highly effective teachers. They were yesterday’s recent grads. They stuck with it, committing deeply to mentoring the next generation of professionals and scholars. Many have applied for full time work without success. Their teaching abilities and commitment have left them at a disadvantage in earning a livelihood, regardless of whether they look within or outside of academia.

Who really is the ideal adjunct? Is it the beneficent professional from outside of academia who considers the salary to be a nice gesture? Listening to the voices of administrations, one might think so, but the numbers say otherwise. The vast majority of adjuncts are people who have become dependent on teaching for their livelihood. Often they were the top students in their graduate classes – students who had been identified as special and as having something important to develop and share. The requirements to become a full time teacher and the odds of being chosen to fill one of the few openings ultimately leaves them in the unenviable position of being more committed but less rewarded. Indeed, most struggle to make ends meet. It is a treacherous system that seems to open doors and offer nurture, but ends up undermining the future of young scholars and exceptional educators.

It is, of course, hypocritical when administrators defend the low pay offered to adjuncts by saying they’re not the ideal type of person for the job – that it’s intended for someone who is successful, but not someone who is fully committed to teaching. Being well-off is not a job credential. Adjuncts are not paid low wages because they have made a mistake in accepting a job that is allegedly meant for someone who doesn’t need the work.

Colleges are filled with ideal candidates for full-time work. Their adjunct faculty members have on-site track records. Departments know and believe in them, hiring them time and time again. They deserve to be seriously considered and offered secure positions that allow them to earn a salary that is not meant as a mere token of thanks.