I'm an Adjunct, Not a Volunteer

Brian Taylor

June 24, 2013

A master's student comes up to me after class: "Professor, you know a lot of people in the field. The department must have money to bring some of them to campus."

The student is correct in the first statement; I am not sure about the second. Our urban location means that sooner or later, many professors swing through town to see the sights or on academic junkets, and it's not a stretch to think I could persuade a few of them to stop by the campus to talk with a few bright, motivated graduate students.

But I'm not going to do that. That was not the first time that a student had asked me to do something I would be paid to do as a full-time faculty member but that I am not compensated to do as an adjunct. In another case, it was students concerned about finding internships, and, eventually, jobs, who asked me to use my contacts. Yes, I know a lot of people in the field. Some of them were students not so long ago, and I imagine the right inducement could get them onto campus or at least into a Skype chat.

On other occasions it's been students asking for more electives, more summer courses, letters of recommendation. The last request—coming from a good student who could use the scholarship funds—I was happy to comply with, even after spending 15 minutes wrangling the department copier into printing the letter in the proper direction on university letterhead. It's after 5 p.m., and there is no one around whom I can ask for a quick technology primer.

Most of the time, however, I direct such student inquiries to someone else: Talk to the program chair, the dean, the graduate-student association. While I could go to the dean myself and ask about bringing speakers to the campus, I don't. And I don't know how to explain to my students that, as an adjunct, I never will.

I'm an adjunct of the old school. I'm not cobbling together a slim living off a half-dozen teaching gigs; I'm a full-time academic who chooses to moonlight elsewhere for idiosyncratic reasons of my own. At my full-time job, I do my fair share of service. When students come to me with questions, I try to help them out: If they wanted a speakers' series, they would get it.

But not in my adjunct role. These students are a pleasure to teach, and I want to see them succeed, but there is no reward beyond personal satisfaction for me in doing unpaid service beyond the terms of my contract. I'm not alone in this regard: In this program, adjuncts overwhelmingly outnumber full-timers. Most of them, like me, have full-time jobs that require their attention. Any service to the department is essentially volunteer work.

It's also a trap. The university won't pay us to do it, and unremunerated departmental service has never landed anyone a faculty position. At best, anything I develop would outlive me as a credit to someone else. That might be fair to me: I'm paid to teach, and that's all. It's not fair to the students. The service that only full-time faculty members—whether on the tenure track or not—can provide is almost nonexistent in this program. Its few full-time faculty members do their best, and the department has been asking the administration for more full-time positions for some time now, without success.

The result is a graduate program that consists of core courses taught by adjuncts, electives farmed out to other departments, administrative functions handled by staff members whose main concern is other programs, and a graduate-student association that tries to make up for everything else that is missing. No one person in the system is to blame, and yet I can't help but think the students are getting shortchanged.

I remember from my own college years that students are always hungry for more: more electives, more financial aid, more guest speakers, more networking opportunities. No matter how many resources we had, there were always gaps, perceived or real.

We are starting to see the repercussions of unbundling faculty work. In this new world, adjuncts do most of the teaching, while tenure-track professors (and, in some disciplines, research staff members) do the research, and administrators do most of the service. Scholars and laypeople alike have fretted about the effect of a primarily adjunct professoriate, both on faculty members and on students. We don't hear much about how research has been affected by the unbundling faculty roles, and journals are not yet complaining about a dearth of submissions.

But we've heard much debate in recent years about "administrative bloat." What those gripes often fail to take into account is that many people in the supposedly swollen pool of campus administrators are doing tasks that used to fall to the faculty. Adjunctification drives administrative job creation.

Is it possible that unbundling service from the faculty is harmful to our students? I believe it is. Some of these service tasks fall to highly competent administrators, but others are simply not being done at all. Those are the things my students are asking me and other adjuncts for.

What students are missing most are chances to build their cultural and social capital. Students who can afford to pay a little bit more, or who are poor enough to receive financial aid, go to elite colleges that offer a rich array of electives, more placement opportunities, and a strong network of peers, faculty, and alumni. But in the program where I am an adjunct, students miss out on those choices and opportunities because they are constrained by money or geography. They graduate at a disadvantage. There are many other programs across the country like ours, in many different fields, where students are being hurt by an overreliance on adjunct faculty members.

The drive to adjunctification isn't sustainable on the long term: Sooner or later, students are going to realize what they're missing, and they're going to opt out.

Sascha Flanders is the pseudonym of a faculty member who teaches in a full-time position and in a part-time job at two educational institutions.