The Fallacy of Adjuncts part 1- the short term

Nov 29 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers], [Life Trajectories]

In these troubled economic times, more academic departments turn to untenured teaching options as a way to meet staffing needs.  Many R1 investigators are finding it harder and harder to capture grants, which means fewer indirect monies for departments.  Adjuncts, visiting professors, and lecturers (oh my!) are increasingly called upon to take the load off.  It ain't hard to see why.  Today, I'm going to deal with just adjuncting, or the practice of paying someone to teach "by the class".

If your primary academic mission is not teaching, then it makes little sense to have your profs devote hours per week to teaching Intro Psych or Gen Bio when they could be writing multimillion dollar research grants.  And since funds are low for everyone, new tenure track hires are even more painful; thousands of dollars go into a search, hundreds of thousands go into a startup package for your typical assistant professor labspace.  If you have the option to staff your classes with cheap, temporary labor, why wouldn't you?

To be fair, there are clear benefits to adjuncting for both the institution and the wayward adjunct.  These include-

  • Minimal application process/expenditures-  You can often get a job simply by emailing a department chair and asking "hey, you need any courses covered?"
  • Defined hours- The adjunct is there to cover a course, period.  No departmental meetings or other bullshit time sinks.
  • Money- Adjuncts don't make great pay, but it is nice when you need a little extra money in a short amount of time.  You can work as much as is available.  The Uni benefits from not having to spend as much on searches and bennies.
  • Entertainment- Admit it, you like teaching.  Why not dabble, and get paid for it?
  • Full time transition- at least at community colleges, if you've been a successful adjunct for a while, you may have a leg up if a TT spot opens.
  • Sharpen your skillz- never taught before?  Here's a chance to get some teaching under your belt.
But, some things about adjuncting really, really bite.
  • Shitty hours- you're almost guaranteed to get night shift.  Hope you weren't planning on seeing your family.
  • Worst courses- you get stuck with the ones nobody wants to teach.  That Human Bio for nonmajors section where only 50% of the students show up on a given day, don't know the difference between fats and proteins, and don't care?  Yours.
  • Shitty money and no benefits- "you can live on it, but it tastes like shit".  A year ago, I worked 15 credit hours in one semester.  I made less money than the nearby State Mega U (SMU) assistant professor teaching 9, and I had to travel between 3 different institutions to do it (located 60 miles apart).  I also received no health insurance, retirement, vision, dental, or anything else.  There are no raises or merit-based increases.  This is typical.
  • Drastic differences in workload/salary- SMU courses may pay upwards of 7 or 8 grand for 3-4 credit hours, if you can land them.  There will be a line.  Community colleges and SLACs may pay about $1000 per credit hour.  The lower the prestige, the lower the salary.   That Cornfield Community College satellite campus class may only net you $2200 for a semester, and then you have to drive an hour to get there.
  • You may not know the material-  chances are, the class is only tangentially in your field of expertise.
  • Communal everything-  phones, desks, offices, printer, copier, etc.  Unless you're very very lucky, you have to keep everything in your car.
  • Pecking order- Adjuncts that have been around the longest get the pick of the better courses, or priority for courses if any are offered.
  • Zero job security-  You have absolutely no idea if you will be needed next semester.  Hell, your class might get canceled 2 days before the semester starts if enrollment is low.
Ok so adjuncting is not ideal.  However, as a short-term solution it can be beneficial to many parties.  But what are the long-term consequences of relying on adjuncts?  Personally I think they're pretty dire.  I'll cover that in a subsequent post.

4 responses so far

  • Great post, I was a former adjunct. I fondly remember teaching 7pm-10pm at night and having to be back for a 7:30 am lab the following morning that I had to teach.

  • Ethan Rop says:

    As was I, and for all I know may be again when my current position is up.

  • Janis says:

    Finally, a public record of why it is mind-blowingly difficult to do this (2 labs and 1 lecture two nights/week) and also teach full time... say, at a high school, and for example, teaching five sections of preAP chem along with another section of, oh, let's say physics. I am both embarrassed to say I did that more than once and proud that I am still here and sane. (-:However, I still stay up too late. I will look for your subsequent posts. Good luck w/what remains of this semester. Remember: It is, at times, really fun.

  • Rob Knop says:

    The one time I was an adjunct, it was a full-time adjunct position, so really I was more of a visiting professor. Yes, my office was a desk in the physics stockroom tbat I shared, but overall it was an OK gig. To be honest, I'd rather go back to that than to an R1 tenure-track job where the law was get grant funding or get fired (i.e. don't get tenure).