Being Professional in an Unprofessional Climate

October 05, 2001

Adjuncts across the country have contacted me in recent months and commented about the lack of professional treatment they receive in their respective academic communities. They complain that their colleagues do not regard part-timers as professionals in day-to-day interactions. Furthermore, the low pay, lack of office space, absence of benefits, and so on, indicate that the hiring institutions themselves do not view adjuncts as full professionals.

Some angry adjuncts suggest that the lack of professional regard on the part of hiring institutions justifies less-than-professional conduct and job performance. If we're not paid as professionals, the logic goes, we shouldn't feel obligated to act and work professionally. If they want professionals, these adjuncts argue, they should pay us more.

To me, that logic doesn't hold up.

What does it mean to be a professional, or to act professionally? Narrowly speaking, being a professional means earning a living in an occupation that requires education, like law, the ministry, teaching, or medicine. To even teach introductory-level courses in a college or university requires postgraduate education, often a doctorate. So, on that score, adjuncts are certainly "in." Generally, however, when we talk about acting professionally, we are referring to how we handle ourselves in the workplace. Professionalism implies doing your job conscientiously. It means fulfilling the duties of your contract or job description to the best of your ability. It means showing up to work on time and maintaining a certain businesslike attitude and demeanor. And it means holding yourself to the highest possible standards of character and behavior proper to your field.

Adjuncts, as educated instructors, are not exempt from the requirements of professionalism, even if their full-time colleagues or hiring institutions don't treat them with much.

Any person or group who has ever faced discrimination will tell you that you have to maintain your self-esteem despite what the discriminators say or do. You must not let them define you; you must define yourself regardless of their treatment of you. Adjuncts, then, must continue to think of themselves as professionals despite contrary treatment because to do otherwise would play into the hands of the discriminators and exploiters. Keep your professional pride, integrity, and self-esteem no matter how you're treated. You are a highly educated professional, and the ones who don't recognize it are fools.

Besides, no good excuse exists for consistent failure to do your job. This is both an issue of professional ethics and personal integrity. The adjunct job, like every other position, has a specific job description. It includes teaching and the tasks directly related to teaching, like class preparation, grading, meeting with students, and certain administrative duties like ordering books and submitting grades. Not fulfilling these duties -- or at least not trying to the best of your ability to fulfill them -- is unprofessional. And hiring entities have every right to fire people who don't do their jobs.

But they don't pay me enough for the job I do, you might say. Or you might argue, as a California adjunct did, that the formula the state uses to calculate adjunct pay doesn't figure in the time to meet with students outside class, so adjuncts should just send all their students to the full-time faculty members who are paid more to deal with students.

Hogwash. If the adjunct pay that our institutions offer is an insult and grossly unfair then we shouldn't sign the contract. We should walk away to greener pastures. But, if we sign a contract that says we take full responsibility for teaching a course, we must do that job to the best of our ability. And that includes fulfilling all the common duties that come with teaching a university course, including meeting with students. Full-time faculty members are certainly not paid to meet with our students. The moment we sign the contract, it no longer matters if we are, or are not, paid enough: You signed the contract and you have obligated yourself to its conditions, including the low pay. Professionals live up to their contract expectations, both explicit and implicit. To do otherwise is a breach of contract and a breach in personal integrity.

At any rate, adjuncts should maintain professionalism because it is in our self-interest to do so. Nobody likes to work with people who are consistently unprofessional. Most of us have suffered through the inappropriate comments, the sloppy work, and slack attitudes of unprofessional people. Adjuncts are hired on a term-by-term basis, and a prolonged pattern of bad behavior or job performance could result in being fired, or at least not being rehired.

I know of an adjunct who was recently "let go" because she continually took up class time lamenting the sorry plight of adjuncts nationwide, and her plight in particular. According to her students, she took 15 to 20 minutes out of most classes recounting that week's particular slights, blow by blow. Even the most compassionate and indulging students eventually complained and, despite a few warnings, the adjunct continued in this conduct and was not rehired. That's too bad, but such behavior is unacceptable. Students don't pay tuition to sit in class and hear us gripe about our jobs.

Finally, professionalism serves adjuncts in one very powerful way: If and when the large university systems consider listening to adjunct complaints about their working conditions, they will listen most readily to those adjuncts who have performed professionally and consistently, despite bad conditions. They will not consider affording professional treatment to adjuncts who have never acted professionally. Indeed, why would they? To be treated as a professional, you must act like one. It's still not a given that you'll be treated as one; anyone in the adjunct business knows that. But you certainly won't get professional treatment if you don't show you deserve it by your consistent conduct on the job.

So be a professional. You are one anyway, regardless of your own feelings or others' treatment of you, simply on the basis of your education and occupation. Professionalism tends to reap rewards eventually, one way or another. Even if the rewards are slow in coming, the punishments for lacking it can be swift. Don't let a lack of professionalism wipe out all the other good things you do in your work.


Jill Carroll, an adjunct lecturer in Texas, will be writing a monthly column for Career Network on adjunct life and work. She is author of a self-published book, "How to Survive as an Adjunct Lecturer: An Entrepreneurial Strategy Manual." Her Web site is and her e-mail address is