Friday, November 04, 2011

The Care and Feeding of Adjuncts

Another Episode in the Unfolding Academic Melodrama We Call Excellence Without Money: Hard Times in Higher Ed

QTU has been in the throes of one of those periodic policy tizzies brought about when a butt-covering well-intentioned board of regents seeks to appear to address a problem by coming up with a one-size-fits-all solution and imposing it on a complex system of institutions of varying sizes and missions. (Let's call it the University System of Turtle Country.) The policy, as you might have guessed from the title of this post, has to do with the employment of adjunct faculty. The BOR approved a system-wide policy in December 2010 and charged institutions to come up with implementation plans by November 1, 2011, which explains the recent tizzy on the campus of QTU. (Oh, and the policy defines "adjunct" as a non-salaried, non-tenure-track member of the instructional faculty hired to teach specific courses and compensated on a course-by-course basis.)

Before we go any further, we will pause to remind you that this blog has a long history of opposing what our epic animated short feature, Excellence Without Money: The Movie, eloquently describes as "the wage slavery of adjunctification." We consider the slow but steady erosion of tenured and tenure-track positions and the accompanying rise of non-tenure-track and part-time positions to be one of the more disastrous results of the defunding of higher education that has occurred in recent decades. Our pal Tenured Radical describes wage stagnation and the shrinking of the tenure-eligible faculty as evidence of "the casualization of academic labor." In our view, students and institutions were better served by a system in which most of the instructional workload was shouldered by full-time, tenured or tenure-eligible faculty who had strong incentives to work hard and creatively in order to achieve job security and to be loyal to the department and school that offered it.

Nonetheless, that happy world is largely gone. (For the Modern Language Association's latest report on its disappearance, go here.) Adjunctification is not a temporary aberration but a permanent and defining feature of the brutish neoliberal university. Given that troubling yet inescapable fact, one would think that any serious effort to examine and address employment conditions for non-tenure-track faculty would be applauded by the bleeding heart tenured radicals of Roxie's World. For far too long, after all, avoidance and denial about what was happening to the academic workforce have kept us from acknowledging the explosive growth in a class of workers that are treated as the pack mules of academe. We largely ignored them, and we ignored the harsh and often humiliating conditions in which they worked.

In that respect, then, yes, the regents deserve credit for breaking an unconscionable silence and trying to set a baseline to assure that adjuncts throughout the system are treated with a modicum of professional respect. Many requirements of the new policy are laudable and, you know, humane, if you think access to a university e-mail account can be considered humane. Beyond the no-brainers (e.g., access to telephones, office supplies, and "appropriate space" for meeting with students during office hours), the policy mandates what are basically kill fees for classes that are canceled less than 30 days before the start of the semester if the adjunct contracted to teach the course can't be reassigned to a comparable course. The fee is just 10% of the contracted payment amount for the course, but that's enough to make departments think twice before canceling a class. Managing schedules and seats is a departmental responsibility, after all. Adjuncts shouldn't have to pay for someone else's poor planning.

So far, so bueno, right? How is it, then, you may be wondering, that this new policy ends up being tarred by this humble blog as an example of Excellence Without Money (™RW Enterprises, LLC)? Easy peasy, my pretties. Aside from the kill fees, the policy delicately sidesteps the issue that makes the life of an adjunct so uniquely hellish: the shockingly low levels of compensation for work that institutions of higher education claim to value so highly. The policy's major statement on compensation is 100% weaselly: "Every effort should be made to make adjunct faculty compensation professionally appropriate and competitive to the extent allowed by available fiscal resources (emphasis added).

Curiously, the policy establishes a new class system among adjuncts, creating categories of "Adjunct Faculty I" and "Adjunct Faculty II" that sound a lot to us like the old plantation system's distinction between field slaves and house slaves. Adjunct II's (who become eligible for that category by establishing a consistent record of high-quality instruction over multiple semesters) would get priority consideration in teaching assignments (OK, so maybe it's more like a frequent flyer program than a plantation) and would be assured of making at least 10% more than the minimum per-course compensation rate at the institution. That sounds pretty decent, but, as it turns out, the Adjunct II designation would be available to almost no one on the QTU campus because of the way loads are calculated. (It's one of those boring, opaque questions of FTEs and other bureaucratic mysteries. Take our word for it, will you?)

But guess what would apply to all adjuncts, both field and house, and the units that employ them. Say it with us, darlings: PERFORMANCE EVALUATION! Yes, it's true. The new policy, in the interest, of course, of supporting professional development for adjunct faculty, requires units to develop procedures for evaluating adjunct faculty performance on a regular schedule. As QTU has moved toward implementation of the policy, the regents' somewhat vague call for procedures has been interpreted to require, not just class visits and student evaluations, but what amounts to a full-on teaching portfolio for every single adjunct. Individual instructors will be largely responsible for developing those portfolios, though the employing units will have lots of new work to do in terms of collecting documents and data and conducting/reporting on class visits. Moose is really looking forward to implementing this policy in her itsy-bitsy, teenie-weenie queer studies program, in which the turnover rate among adjuncts is so high that she fully expects to be conducting performance reviews for instructors who will likely have disappeared before she's even had a chance to read their heartfelt statement of teaching philosophy. Oh, the fun just never stops, does it?

Here's the thing, kids: We are not opposed to evaluation or professionalization of the adjunct workforce. We are, however, violently opposed to increasing the burden of work on adjuncts and the understaffed units that tend to employ them without meaningful increases in compensation or resources. New policies that create new work under the guise of assuring high quality and continuous improvement while blithely ignoring the not insignificant problem of available fiscal resources are, sadly, exactly what you would expect in the age of Excellence Without Money (™RW Enterprises, LLC). Such policies can only add to the stress and demoralization of everyone who has to hold up or jump through the new hoops established by them.

Tenured Radical recently called on her comrades in the academic blogosphere to "find a way to Occupy Education." We offer this post in support of that worthy cause. Write back and let us know what's happening on your campus with regard to the wage slavery of adjunctification. One step toward changing the world is acknowledging what's happening in your particular corner of it. So tell us what's happening on your plantation in your neck of the woods. We are eager, as always, to hear from you.



    Hi- Love this post. I've been yelling and screaming about adjuncts in my own (former) field forever. I think one of the only things we can do is stage a national walk out. It would basically cripple operations at many campuses. In our situation, "occupy" means "leave."

  2. Anonymous5:54 PM EDT

    I am touched at the concern for professional development for adjunct faculty. Of course, the growing lack of full-time, regular rank, tenure track positions begs the question: professional development for what purpose. They wouldn't be adjuncting if there was something to develop into.

  3. The next stage in the system is when there are no more tenured/full-time faculty, and the adjuncts police themselves. Then the machines take over...

  4. Where I sit, we have the contractor/vendor versus FTE issue, whereby short-term headcount is always easier to justify than fulltime. Here, we have to be sure enough of our brand and reputation that people won't care who actually builds the widgets; we have the usual exhortation to embrace the corporate culture of excellence and customer expectation-exceeding blah blah but it's tough to be confident in the widespread consumption of your particular koolaid when most of the work is done by contingent staff who don;t get paid to consider that sort of stuff. So a University must be pretty sure of its brand and that of the few fulltime profs it employs if it feels it can continue to attract and satisfy the demands of students without any assurance that they will even see the professors whose classes they signed up for, let alone learn something from them. Or is that the problem -- students are not so much customers as funding conduits...who cares what they think as long as they - or at least their checks -- continue to show up..and after all, what else are the kids going to do?

  5. Bottom Dweller7:39 PM EDT

    Thank you, Tenured Radical. Good to know the regents have come up w/more hoops for us adjuncts and you tenured alike. For what's going on in my shared basement coat-closet-corner of the Turtle Country Ivory Tower, see all the entries from adjuncts on the and It ain't purty.

  6. dog-eared book8:11 PM EDT

    One small instrument of resistance is to rewrite their weaselly sentence so as to apply to the performance reviews that go nowhere (and that will be "paid for" by sucking time and energy from the few remaining tenured faculty's teaching and research).. Howsabout: "Every effort should be made to make adjunct faculty performance review professionally appropriate to the extent allowed by available fiscal resources." Every effort, indeed. Howsabout paid sabbaticals or humanities-center fellowships for adjuncts? Course release for tenured faculty mentoring of adjuncts? Some tracking of career trajectories, and accountability? A minimum ratio of adjunct to administrative salaries (1:3)? They can't be allowed to take the moral high ground, really they can't.

  7. My own second-tier state U already has a portfolio system of assessment for adjuncts in place, and an arrangement by which some longterm adjuncts get priority for assignments (full-time contingent faculty like me have a different system, more similar to the annual-report-based one for TT faculty, minus the research and service portions). I don't believe the adjuncts have to do a porfolio every year -- just the first year, and maybe even 2 or 3 thereafter. Still, keeping up with class visits and writing letters and assessing portfolios and annual reports is definitely stretching the ever-dwindling (at least by proportion, since we're expanding overall) TT faculty thinner and thinner. And the full-time contingent faculty are pretty frustrated that we can't visit and evaluate each other, since both our teaching loads and the areas in which we teach are quite different from those of the TT faculty ((broadly, we're talking comp and core lit vs. upper-level lit.)

    I'm strongly in favor of the AAUP's proposal for converting contingent positions to teaching-intensive TT ones. Structured correctly, those could spread the assessment burden among more people (because more-senior full-time contingent-become-TT faculty could evaluate less-senior ones, and probably also part-timers, since their teaching loads and modes would be more similar to ours). At least in my present institution, however, that would be expensive, since they'd have to move the current contingent-become-TT faculty from 4/4 to 3/3 to allow for service (TT faculty with both research and service expectations are mostly at 2/2, with a few whose contracts reflect an earlier era at 3/2 or 3/3, with a lesser research and greater teaching expectation. In some ways, the AAUP plan would simply recreate the sort of faculty position that my institution had 3 decades or so ago, which I think is part of the point). The expense is just one reason that the AAUP plan is probably just pie in the sky.

    So, given the realities of the current situation, I have to say that I support an approach that evaluates adjuncts carefully (i.e. on more than just student evals.), even if it's hard on the TT folks. Evaluating people who may well be gone before you finish the process of evaluation is one of the many costs of using migrant labor (maybe a better metaphor than house/field slaves?). I just wish there were a way to make the burden fall more heavily on those who choose to use migrant labor, rather than those who are forced to do so.

  8. Thanks for these wonderful comments, friends. I especially love some of your suggestions for subverting the process. Alas, Digger, I fear we are dangerously close to the point at which the machines take over! And, Richard, yes: Students shall henceforth be referred to as "Funding Conduits" here in Roxie's World. Thanks for the suggestion.

    @Contingent Cassandra: There was another whole post here wanting to be written on how the small, snazzy programs (interdisciplinary, diversity-focused, and/or tailor-made for the Gifted and Talented set) that universities use to distinguish themselves in the marketplace these days are almost entirely adjunct-staffed. We are absolutely forced to rely on temporary labor, and the burden of these new evaluation procedures will be considerable -- because we have basically no TT faculty to conduct the reviews. That post didn't get written because my weary typist would likely have turned it into a rant. Thanks for your insights. We are with you on the AAUP proposal -- A good idea, but probably pie in the sky in this world.

  9. Great post and comments. I'm with Ann: Occupy means walk out.

  10. Anonymous5:13 PM EDT

    We have this kind of class system. Non tt faculty outnumber ladder faculty and are promoted based on relationships with administrators so it comes down to de facto tenure evaluations by so called senior adjuncts who are that because of their relationships with upper administration. Plantationlike, yes.

  11. @Roxie: I can see how this would be a particular problem for small, interdisciplinary programs. I had reason to contact the professors for our Intro to Women's Studies sections recently, and had to do a good deal of searching to find email addresses. It turned out both professors of record were grad students (at least they were our own grad students). There are lots of affiliated faculty teaching cross-listed courses, but yes, the basics are taught by non-TT folks. I'm not sure how the evaluation system works in the programs here, just my department.

  12. Thanks for this one, Roxie. Possibly your best one yet in the Excellence Without Money series (and that's saying something!). Reading this affirms my decision to walk out by walking away when I did just before this past spring semester began.

  13. In bureaucrat-speak, "every effort should be made to achieve X" == "we really don't give a flying fucke whether you do or don't achieve X, and we're certainly not going to provide the resources necessary to do so, but we need to mollify people for whom achieving X is important".

  14. I wrote a post today over at IHE about how tough it is being off the tenure-track and then being unable to get back on the TT because of the lack of specialization and time to do "appropriate" research. The comments all basically told me to stop complaining, suck it up and be a "professional". In other words, excellence without money (or clear guidelines as to what excellence even means within the discipline anymore).

    Sorry this isn't a live link, but the idea that an adjunct is an adjunct because they aren't good enough is too pervasive to ignore.

  15. Here is a live link to Lee's important post.

    It's unfortunate (yet, alas, not surprising) that so many of the commenters at IHE miss your point about how narrowly defined the tenure track game is and how framed it is by things that we keep saying don't matter in the way they once did: disciplinary boundaries, books. We're stuck in old grooves, when the world that gave rise to those grooves has largely disappeared.

  16. Happy to be here
    from Turkey :)


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