Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Contract Teacher / Adjunct Life

"Who Teaches University Students? Contract teachers" by Craig McFarlane

A couple weeks ago I ran across this article from The Globe and Mail, and while it is written by a Canadian adjunct, it is not unrelated to concerns of American temporary faculty.  I did mean to write about it right away, but then I had three jobs to apply for and kind of got sidetracked.  This, too, is part of the adjunct lifestyle:  even though I have theoretically landed work at two schools for this fall, I never stop looking.  I never am set.  None of the jobs that I have are guaranteed to be there next year, and one of them is so far only for this coming fall.  I still hope and still peruse the sites for permanent jobs in my area of specialty.  Heck, I don't even care if they're tenure-track, but just permanent.  Something that I can plan my life around more than a nine-month academic year at a time!  Three jobs came up in the search and I applied for all three.  Are they in places I would like to live?  I'm not sure.  I experienced the usual rollercoaster of excitement at finding a posting followed by the dread of "What if I have to go there for an interview?" (flights are expensive/maybe they'll let me Skype/I'm a freaking idiot).  Every single time this happens to me.  It isn't that I don't want to leave, but it is the logistics of doing so and, with these three jobs, on very short notice in order to start the fall year at those schools.

Why, you might be wondering, would someone with a PhD be IN such a situation? Wouldn't that be enough education to ensure employment? Maybe in the past, but that is no longer the reality for many terminal degree holders, especially in the US.  The stereotype of the tenured professor with the lovely home, sabbaticals in exotic locales, is not the reality of most instructors today.  Certainly, some of that caste still exist, but as Craig McFarlane writes concerning the adjunct
                     This secondary class of teachers, however, are already teaching most undergraduate classes at     
                     North American universities. The vast majority of “professors” in North America are called  
                     adjuncts, or contract instructors, or sessionals. According to the American Association of 
                     University Professors, only 24 per cent of faculty are tenured or tenure-track, and a recent    
                     Canadian study estimated that less than 25 per cent of doctoral students will end up with 
                     tenure-track jobs.
High salaries and paid leave are as believable as unicorns and the tooth fairy to us.  Most adjuncts genuinely love the work of teaching--they'd have to because no one would do so otherwise.  Though I had the luxury of full-time health benefits at my former full-time temp position, I no longer do.  Due to budget cuts or some other unnamed reason, no full-time people were hired in that school's largest department.  The classes are there and they need to be taught, but we will not be getting them.  I find this wryly amusing.  I could, quite easily, look up the salaries of my dean, any of the various vice presidents, and the president himself.  I'm sure they're astounding.  I did look a couple of years ago, but I honestly can't take that much reality right now.

The truth is that colleges and universities would not exist without the students who come to them to learn.  Yes, I know some come to play on teams and some come to get the college social experience, but all those people must keep a certain GPA or they are gone.  However, it is classroom space and instructors that seem to be getting fewer and fewer of the budget dollars.  In our state, our governor has chopped away at education expenditures while giving more to police, prisons, and businesses.  Less state money means higher tuition for families, but this higher price tag, controversially, could be getting them less education for their money.  With these budget factors, administrators look for any way to save  and the ability to offer on-line courses looks like a golden bullet answer.  It is here that McFarlane provides a startling insight:
                   What is not frequently mentioned in the praise of online courses is the completion rate. CS50x  
                   Introduction to Computer Science I, Harvard’s largest online course, had an enrollment of  
                   150,349 students. Of those 150,349 students, only 1388 of them completed the course. That 
                   is a completion rate of 0.9 per cent. If my courses had a completion rate of 0.9 per cent, I would  
                   have been fired long ago –- and justly so. Fortunately, the completion rates for my courses are 
                   well higher than that, often above 90 per cent. And almost 100 per cent of the students who 
                   took the on-campus version of Harvard’s computer course finished it.
It seems that, though these courses allow for far more enrollment than could fit in a physical classroom space, they do not allow for much classroom community that might aid in student retention.  The large on-line classes make lots of money for the school, but what about the students? If they must take it again, they have to pay again.  Retakes, whether a student fails or withdraws, are the same price as the original.  Like the author of this article, I also pride myself on high retention rates in my classes.  If I start with 28 students, I want to finish with 28 students.  I don't care who they were before, because once they enter my class they are my students.  I care about their learning and what becomes of them.  I worry when students are absent and when they disappear completely.  I have been known to track people down.  Who could possibly keep track or reengage students teaching several sections of this on-line style?  It makes money, yes, but at what cost to both students and faculty?

So what will become of higher education in North America? I don't have that answer but I guess we'll see.  I've given myself one more year on the job market to find a place.  I don't think I can live this life many more months.  I'm looking at a 1 hour 21 minute commute each way (about 60 miles) three days a week.  I will teach six classes total over the course of the semester.  Personally, I hold myself to a high standard and never like to do a job halfway, and I just don't know if that's sustainable in this environment.

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