Like everyone else concerned with the future of higher education, I have been following with interest the continued discussion and debate about the rise of part-time faculty. The headlines and descriptors that refer to this change and what it means for students, teachers, and institutions are often less than flattering, from “an ill-paid, overworked species of academic” to “the rise of the planet of the adjuncts” and “our dirty little secret.”
Where does this leave those of us who are adjuncts? In particular, how are we supposed to feel about our work, our contribution to the education of adults both young and not so young, and our value in an ever-changing academic marketplace?
I began working as a part-time college instructor in 1989. I love my school, my job, my students, and the time I spend on class prep, teaching, grading, and informal mentoring (well, maybe not the grading as much as the rest). What I and my part-time colleagues are not is a dirty little secret.
Don’t misunderstand me. I greatly respect and admire the work of the tenure-track and other full-time faculty I know (I am, after all, married to a full professor who has been at the same university for over 30 years), but I have the same professional respect and admiration for the work of part-time faculty. In both groups, there are educators who do not give their all, whether in or out of the classroom, just as in both groups there are amazing examples of pedagogy and, yes, even research.
There are real advantages to teaching off the tenure track. Because I don’t have to spend hours every week in meetings, I have more rather than less time for my own writing and scholarship, as well as time for freelance work that not only is an important supplement to my income but also lends practical experience to my teaching. Because I am free from the pressure to work in a specific field for the purpose of promotion, I can and do write and publish articles and books on a variety of topics (again, allowing me to transfer that experience into the classroom). Because I interact with my colleagues primarily in the context of friendly conversations over the photocopier, I don’t feel the competitiveness or political tensions that arise from jockeying for position within a department.
I realize that not every adjunct or other part-time instructor wants to or can be happy with his or her role and position, whether for financial or professional reasons. I fully understand both the calls for institutional reform regarding benefits, job security, and workplace conditions for what are sometimes called “contingent” faculty and the effect this new hiring trend has on those seeking more traditional, tenure-track employment.
However, I am also certain that there are many adjuncts who could be happier and more satisfied with their work if freed from the stereotypes and misconceptions about what it means to be a part-timer. After all, as I was reminded last night at an in-service for part-time faculty, the students in our classrooms don’t make such distinctions. They see only good or bad teachers.
Photo by EAWB used courtesy of a Creative Commons license