We're Not Your Colleagues

July 21, 2008

After working in higher education for 23 years, first as a faculty member and then as an administrator, I retired a year ago. I loved my administrative life but found I didn't miss it. What I did miss was being a faculty member and interacting with students.

I wanted to get back into the classroom but not on a full-time basis, so I applied for adjunct positions at several universities near my home and was fortunate to find a part-time slot at one of them, in the university's well-respected business school.

The first semester I was hired to replace another adjunct who had backed out at the last minute. Obviously that put the university in a tough spot, but its handling of the situation only made it worse.

I agreed to teach the course three weeks before the term started. The business school ordered the textbook it wanted me to use, but the book didn't arrive from the publisher until a week before classes started. When I asked for the course objectives, the school sent me syllabi from three instructors. Two of them had different sets of course objectives, and one had no objectives listed at all.

Then, arriving at the university for a scheduled meeting with the department chairman to complete my paperwork and ask him questions, I found that he had to attend a division meeting. I was left with the secretary to fill out the forms and was on my own to find my classroom and figure out the technology.

With no course objectives, no orientation, no faculty handbook, and a late-arriving textbook, I did my best to prepare for the fall semester. That is always a busy time for faculty members, so I was willing to concede that more important things probably got in the way of any departmental effort to make me feel welcome and included.

In the weeks that followed, I made friends with the office staff members, found the copier, got keys to the adjunct-faculty office, got my university e-mail account set up, figured out how to use some Web enhancements so I could communicate with my class, posted grades online, found student-support services for two students, and generally made my way through the semester.

Thank goodness for the staff members because I had exactly two communications with my department chairman, both of which I had initiated and both of which received only marginally helpful responses.

Everything was a struggle, and I felt isolated on most days, but the students were wonderful. They did much more to help me find the resources I needed than anyone who worked at the university.

Late in the fall, I received an e-mail message from my department chairman asking if I would like to teach in the spring. At that point, he had yet to set foot in my classroom or see any student evaluations of my teaching, so he had no way of knowing whether I was doing a good job. No students had complained, I guess, so that was reason enough to offer me a second semester.

We discussed what courses he would like me to teach, and I thought I knew what I was supposed to do. I even asked the secretary to order my books.

But when the spring course schedule was posted, I wasn't on it. Good thing I checked because no one had alerted me to any change in plans. I e-mailed the chairman and, indeed, things had changed. He had assigned me to teach a different course. Unfortunately, it wasn't offered in the spring schedule, either. Long story short, after about four weeks, we finally came to a decision about what I would teach in the spring. I understand the domino effect of schedule changes and faculty preferences, but that was a little outside of my comfort zone.

In mid-December I started trying to get the textbooks for my new course. I knew I would be in trouble if I didn't have the books by winter break. After many e-mail messages and phone calls to my department, the texts finally arrived from the publisher a week before classes started in January. So much for being well prepared.

Did anyone care whether I had the resources I needed to do a good job?

In January, when I arrived at the university early on the first day of class, I was hoping to get myself together in the adjunct-faculty office and review my notes. But my key no longer opened the office door. As my class was at night, no one was around to assist. I ended up working in the hallway until my classroom was available.

Several e-mail messages later, I found out that the adjunct-faculty office had been moved. Good to know. I wondered if the department had mentioned that fact to any other adjuncts.

Here, then, is what I have learned about being an adjunct faculty member:

The classroom experience is wonderful. Students are still interested in learning, and some are truly remarkable people. My interaction with them has been everything I had hoped for and more. Students have a wealth of information on how the university runs and whom to get in touch with, and they are willing to share that information in a professional and supportive way.

Various staff members throughout the university still carry the burden of assisting adjunct faculty members — assuming we can find our way to them. It definitely helped me to have had years of experience on a college campus. I don't know how an adjunct with little experience would know where to begin to get help.

Adjunct faculty members are not really part of the academic division — not at this university and not, I suspect, at many others. A lot of us certainly want to be, but the tenured and tenure-track faculty members don't see us as colleagues. So far, after a year at the university, I have had only limited contact with my chairman, and I have yet to meet any of the full-time faculty members. I have not been included in any meetings, activities, surveys, discussions, or social events — except those invitations that got the mass-mailing treatment from the president's office.

It is apparent that my job is to teach a class and not cause problems or take up anyone's time.

As adjuncts, we must find our intrinsic value in the classroom, and universities continue to count on that to be enough to keep us coming back semester after semester. And if not, oh well — my own situation proves that adjuncts are replaceable on short notice.

Deborah Foreman is the pseudonym of a former senior administrator who retired in 2007 from a community college in the East. She is now an adjunct instructor at a large urban university.