An Adjunct's View

Brian Taylor

February 01, 2011

The more I teach, the better I like it. I look forward to the start of class, I'm energized by my discussions with students, and—I know this is going to sound corny—sometimes I revel in an almost luxuriant sense of accomplishment at the end of class.

That's one good thing, many people say, about those of us in the adjunct pool: We often teach simply because we like teaching, and our enthusiasm creates an upbeat, and therefore effective, classroom.

I didn't set out to teach. In fact, as an undergraduate majoring in English, when I was invariably asked which grade or subject I wanted to teach, I would glare contemptuously and snarl, "I do not intend to teach."

But six years ago, after a decades-long and varied career in technology and corporate management, I decided I did, in fact, want to teach. At last, I had something to say in a classroom—experience to share, guidance to offer. At the time, I was an information-technology director for a major utility company in the Pacific Northwest, and I liked my job quite well. But after a milestone birthday, I realized that if I wanted to try my hand at teaching, I had better get at it.

I quit my job, said goodbye to my comfortable six-figure income, and set to work trying to understand what I could bring to a classroom that would be useful, unusual, and worthy of someone's time and attention. I studied adult learning and instructional design. I learned the difference between "training" and "education," as well as a few things about assessment and a bit about how to market one's services. I also tried to figure out how universities work (I never really made much progress on that one).

Today, I'm teaching about as much as I want to—two or three courses a quarter, some credit and some noncredit. Occasionally, I do on-site corporate instruction. Not only is it true that the more I teach, the better I like it, but it's also true that the more I teach, the better I want to be at it.

That's where we adjuncts hit the wall. How do we get better at it?

If I were back in the business of technology management, I would know just what to do: I'd go to conferences, join associations, attend training and networking events—all of which would help me become better at my job. But now that I'm a freelance instructor, on the fringes of the education business, those opportunities are not in easy reach. Besides unguided self-study, what can I do? What courses, memberships, conferences, and associations will help me know whether my students are getting the most out of the time we spend together, and what more I should be doing to make sure they do?

Clearly, those of us in academe's adjunct army will be better at our jobs if we're encouraged to develop as teachers, if we're sent to conferences, sponsored for memberships in professional organizations, and invited to participate in the professional-development activities our employers sponsor.

I realize the push to hire adjuncts is because we're cheap and disposable, and if cost savings is the only driver, then investing money in our development may seem counterintuitive. But the longer I supplement the ranks of full-time faculty members, the more important it is that I do a better job every semester. Or in five or 10 years, will I still be on the periphery, hunting and pecking my way through online-learning systems I haven't been taught how to use?

It's not just the theories and practices of education that we could use help with, but also what's going on in the departments in which we teach. One of the departments I teach in invites me to everything—from graduate seminars to potluck suppers. I'm lucky, and I know I better understand and represent the department thanks to those occasions. But should luck determine how well adjuncts know their departments?

New adjuncts are often hired and left to their own devices. Sign a contract, head to the classroom. How the university systems work (how to post grades and materials, develop coursework, get access to systems, and find keys to the office), what the department's expectations are (its standards, emergency procedures, culture, even meetings schedule)—all of that we often have to figure out on our own.

In my first foray into university teaching, I was lucky: The business college at Oregon State University assigned an associate professor to be my mentor. When I came up against a difficult student, I was glad I had someone to turn to for help.

But that sort of approach to mentoring adjuncts is the exception and not the rule. A couple of years later, when I started teaching at a different university, I had a more typical experience, slogging through the first semester without any guidance. While many people were willing to answer my questions, no one thought to anticipate them.

It's unlikely that universities would look to the business world as an operational model to emulate, but they should. One example to follow: Businesses orient new employees, including contract labor, because it's cost-effective to do so. Yes, in part, companies save salary dollars by making sure their people—employees and contractors alike—get the instruction they need to minimize "rework," as they say in business. That's not a direct concern in the business model for adjuncts, given that we are paid a fixed amount to teach, regardless of how much time we spend navigating byzantine university processes or working independently to be better instructors.

But here's a cost implication that is relevant: Business leaders don't want underprepared employees making costly mistakes, and such mistakes can be pre-empted when new employees know "how we do things around here." Training employees saves everyone time, grief, and, especially important in these lean times, expense.

Universities should want the same thing. The cost to Oregon State, both direct and indirect, would surely have been higher had I not had a mentor there to assist me when I encountered that difficult situation with a student. Time spent on damage control alone would have been higher. But thanks to my mentor, we were able to expedite discussions and plan our next steps pretty efficiently, much better than a floundering adjunct, new to the classroom, would ever have done alone.

You could say I'm simply making a case for what adjuncts want—professional development, better orientation to the institution, and closer connection to the department. But I'm also making a case for what universities should want for their ever-expanding legion of adjuncts—for us to perform better in the classroom, minimize start-up time, and maximize institutional knowledge. In business terms, it's a matter of improving product quality while reducing expenses, guiding principles that belong in higher education in the 21st century.

Susan de la Vergne is an adjunct instructor in Oregon who teaches leadership and communication courses.