Thursday, April 28, 2011

Christian L. Pyle: Adjuncts -- The Invisible Majority

Adjuncts: the invisible majority
By Christian L. Pyle
North of Center


Flashpoint: tenure at BCTC

My adjunct awakening came in late 2008 when the board of regents for the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS), the parent of BCTC, tried to remove the possibility of tenure for all new full-time faculty. My initial impulse as a college teacher was to support tenure even though I was not eligible for it. However, reading the arguments by full-time faculty members shook my sensibilities. The word “adjunct” appeared often to describe what full-time non-tenured faculty would be. We were described as “rootless,” despite the fact that many full-time faculty at BCTC came there from other places while many adjuncts are native to the area.

Furthermore, we were depicted as unreliable. One associate professor claimed, “Every academic coordinator has a story of the adjunct who bails out the day before the semester begins (or during the midterm).” While that may be true, I suspect there may be even more stories of adjuncts who’ve gone beyond their job descriptions in service to their departments: serving on committees, aiding with ongoing projects, and jumping in to take on those abandoned classes at the last minute. Prior to this, I had noticed that when there were full-time openings available, hiring committees in my area either hired someone who was new to BCTC or they chose someone who had only been an adjunct for a couple years (as opposed to a couple decades). The pro-tenure arguments also stressed that removing tenure would keep the college from “recruiting” new faculty. Recruitment would seem an easy matter as most departments had a large number of adjuncts serving them.

I could see that there was a stigma attached to being an adjunct that only became darker with time. I suspect that this bias may be a psychological reaction to the inherent unfairness of the full-time/adjunct system. Full-time profs recognize this inequity and subconsciously resolve their internal conflict by believing that adjuncts are inherently inferior to full-time teachers.

Academic caste systems

In today’s academic workplace, there is a caste system, and the two castes (permanent full-time teachers and adjunct teachers) live very different lives despite the fact that they may be teaching the same courses at the same school. At large universities, the caste system had a logic to it: tenure-track faculty had PhDs and were judged on the research they did rather than the classes they taught; adjunct faculty often had master’s degrees and focused entirely on teaching. Tenured profs taught upper-level and graduate courses; adjuncts taught freshman and sophomore classes. While that arrangement assumes that the “business” of the university is research, not teaching, it at least had a clear basis. At a community college, however, there’s little emphasis on research, and there are only two levels of classes. Although full-time faculty have a few added responsibilities, their primary job is essentially the same as that of adjuncts, but the two sets of teachers are treated very differently.

Just as there are two Americas, in the words of former senator John Edwards, there are two BCTCs. Consider this fact: the majority of instructors at BCTC are not members of the Faculty.

Really. The Faculty, as an organization that has a voice in the college’s policies and elects its representatives, includes only tenured or tenure-track professors. The majority of teachers at the college have no vote, no voice, no representation.

How much of a majority? In my division, for example, there are 30 full-time permanent faculty and 84 adjunct instructors. As the number of adjuncts increases much more rapidly than the number of full-time faculty, the ratio will eventually reach 3:1. How different are their lives? Full-timers get a living wage, adjuncts do not. Full-timers get a benefits package that includes health insurance, adjuncts do not. Full-timers are eligible for promotions and raises, adjuncts are not. Full-timers have a representative on the Board of Regents, adjuncts do not. Full-timers have offices and their own computers, adjuncts do not.

The lack of office space and access to resources for adjuncts raises another interesting issue. Not only are adjunct instructors treated as second-class citizens, their students are, too. Why don’t my students deserve to be able to meet with me between classes in a private office? They’re paying the same amount to take my section of a course as a full-time professor’s students are to take the same course. If BCTC is going to save cash by paying me starvation wages, why don’t my students get a discount? Even when I was a teaching assistant in graduate school, I had an office. Whenever a paper was due, I would hold extended office hours and allow students to sign up for appointment times to have private conferences about the papers they were writing. That’s not an option now.

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