Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Some thoughts on Adjuncts and Retention of Majors

It's just after midnight and I suppose I should be sleeping, but I've gotten into the nasty habit of staying up late to get things done.  This particular Unarmed Education Mercenary enjoyed having two days in a row off, thanks to Labor Day.  This means I only have to make the horrendous drive twice this week and one of those days is the weekend class, which isn't as difficult due to lower traffic volume.  

All six of my classes are up and running now, and I am enjoying the work.  However, I'm trying to find some sense of balance among the two schools, late hours, family life, and generally getting everything done.  One benefit of the commute is that I have a considerable time to think and an article I read a few weeks ago has been gnawing at me for a couple of reasons.  Scott Jaschik's "Majoring in a Professor," published on on August 12, 2013 just won't get out of my head.  (Read the whole article here 

While this article may not appear to relate to adjunct faculty at first glance, it is indeed closely tied to the work that we do for colleges and universities.  In summary, Jaschik reports on a sociological study which finds that:  "Undergraduates are significantly more likely to major in a field if they have an inspiring and caring faculty member in their introduction to the field. And they are equally likely to write off a field based on a single negative experience with a professor."  More plainly, the first impression a student gets of a field can significantly affect whether they stay in that major or perhaps change to that major from another, less favorable one.  Now, consider the courses most often assigned to adjunct faculty.  From personal experience at the four different higher education venues where I have been employed, adjunct faculty are generally forbidden from teaching any course over the 200, or second-year level.  Occasionally, from dire need or emergency, an adjunct may fill in during an absence or be given a higher-level course, but often as a one-time arrangement.  Therefore, most students encountering subjects for the first time are likely to do so via adjunct teaching. Furthermore, "From 1987 to 1999, the percentage of courses taught by adjuncts at public research universities increased by 50 percent, and adjunct usage increased by 80 percent in public doctoral universities" (National Center for Education Statistics qtd. in Bettinger and Long's "Help or Hinder? Adjunct Professors and Student Outcomes"; See full article here:  The likelihood is great that a college student's first encounter with their chosen major is through an adjunct instructor.  

Although Bettinger and Long criticize the shallow teaching of some adjuncts in their study, many adjuncts are doing the very best that they can and employing learning/student-centered methods in their courses.  However, as their study shows, some people do not teach in this manner or cannot based on their specific situations.  Yet the cry goes out from department chairs and deans:  "Retain! Recruit!"  Obviously, in a time of strict education budgeting, stronger programs will receive more funding.  It is in every department's best interest to not only keep majors that come in declared and excited about their choice, but to snap up as many undecided and wavering students as possible.  An important task, no? Important as upper level courses that are often fought over and even given strict rotations to ensure some sort of fairness among the tenure track faculty?  Glance at many on-line scheduling tools to find Professor Staff or TBA is racking up the introductory credit hours.  The names listed as professor of record for higher courses may have one, if any, sections of these vital first classes.

I agree with Jaschik, and even Bettinger and Long mention in their conclusion, that retaining and gathering more majors is extremely important.  Yet, these introductory courses are the ones that are given to adjuncts.  Adjuncts are often hired last minute, given little to no orientation and/or resources, and sometimes little collegiality.  What incentive, other than the personal satisfaction of a job well done, does the adjunct have to contribute significantly to a department that has made their disposable status very clear?  Why worry about the well-being of a department or school that may or may not ever offer work again?  These are very real questions that savvy department heads need to be asking themselves.  If adjunct faculty is the answer for current teaching needs and budget trends, should they be treated as the gravity of this position deserves, or should they continue to be viewed at many places like the rabble outside the gates of the ivory tower, only fit to teach the "lowliest" classes?  

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