To follow up on my last post about adjunct-labor issues, I would like to propose a simple taxonomy of the ways in which institutions use adjunct faculty members. Each of those ways has its own particular ethical and educational implications:
Adjunct faculty as foundational to the institution’s operations: This category includes using adjuncts to staff a first-year composition program and to teach general-education courses in areas such as math, history, speech/rhetoric, and basic sciences — in other words, essentially the areas that are staffed by TA’s at research universities. This category is the most ripe for exploitation and abuse of adjunct faculty members. It is also the likeliest to have a large negative impact on undergraduate educational quality, because these courses are pervasive and lay the groundwork for undergraduates’ later academic success. Students prosper from having more extensive mentoring relationships with faculty members than adjuncts can or should be expected to supply. And it is much harder to hire 25 part-time instructors for a composition program, for example, than to hire one adjunct to teach a particular course. Adjunct faculty to plug holes in the curriculum: This category is both broader and more complex than the first one. It includes such uses of adjunct faculty members as sabbatical replacements and late additions to meet unexpected surges in enrollment or to cover courses left open by resignations, illnesses, or deaths. One caveat: Institutions that support a portion of a program through the use of adjuncts (for example, an art program that is only able to provide metalsmithing through an adjunct) need to consider carefully whether they should offer that portion of the program. In particular, if such a program requires regular employment of an adjunct on something like a three-fourths’ time contract, it’s quite likely that that position should be full time. Adjunct faculty for enrichment or special expertise: This is the category that is the least academically and ethically challenging use of adjunct faculty members. Examples would range from Fulbright visiting faculty members to local educational experts, distinguished visiting instructors from professional fields in the arts, politics, and cultural institutions, and other similar instances. I would argue that this category encompasses the highest and best use of adjunct faculty members, and should not be included in any negative discussion of how adjuncts are employed in higher education.
There is nothing simple about the employment of adjunct faculty members. Some uses are unambiguously positive, while others are almost certain to involve significant abuse of individual instructors and a fairly high cost in educational quality. In discussing the plight of adjunct faculty, and the way a particular institution employs them, it’s always important to sort out both the rationale and the consequences of each specific situation.