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Asking the Right Questions about Adjuncts

Who teaches better, adjuncts or tenure-track faculty? A spate of stories this fall has renewed a debate over contract status and quality of teaching.  Dan Berrett’s “Adjuncts Are Better Teachers” launched the latest round. Edward Kazarian offered a rejoinder, and Jordan Weissmann followed with “Are Tenured Professors Really Worse Teachers? A Lit Review” in The Atlantic Monthly.   Colleen Flaherty came back with “Net Zero.”

Like many false dichotomies, this one muddies the issue it is supposed to clear. For starters, it’s the wrong question. Attempting to answer it will get us nowhere.  There are far better and more productive questions to ask about support for faculty and the qualities of student learning.  But since the controversy has drawn attention, let’s call it an invitation to offer better questions.

The LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes serve as a handy framework. Understanding the changing faculty and acting responsibly for student success requires knowledge, critical thinking, and compassionate leadership—personal and social responsibility on the part of campus communities. What are better integrative and applied questions that academic leaders might ask about the changing faculty and student success?

I am going to recommend an evidence-based process, a series of questions for serious investigation.

To start, I would recommend this pair:

How well are your students learning to write? How well are your students learning to work with numbers?

Chances are, you are less than satisfied with the answers.  In that event, please move on to the next pair of questions:

Who is teaching your students to write?  Are they faculty on full-time or part-time contracts?

Who is teaching your students to work with numbers? Are they faculty on full-time or part-time contracts?

Once you’ve reached this point, here is the critically important next question:  How much support are you offering to the faculty who are working on part-time contracts in your writing and quantitative reasoning programs?  This is the critical question to ask.

If you work in a broad access institution, you should consider this additional question: What support are you offering to those who are teaching your least well-prepared students to write and reason with numbers? Ask this question about precollegiate courses and collegiate courses—both.

Do you provide the faculty, whoever they are, whatever their contracts, with necessary and sufficient support to do their work?  Do they have necessary and sufficient resources to help students learn written communication and quantitative reasoning? Do they have access to professional development, access to your center for teaching and learning, access to tenure-track faculty in the departments and programs in which they teach, access to participation in your most innovative grant-funded activities for general and liberal education?  Access to workshops on the VALUE rubrics and LEAP?

If you do not know, it would be helpful to find out. Hiding in plain sight, within the complex academic work landscape, there is a discernible pattern. When about half the faculty are working on part-time contracts, you can predict that the lower-status teaching assignments will go to part-timers. The most vulnerable students are being taught by the most vulnerable faculty. The poorest students are being taught by the least-supported faculty. The least well-prepared for college are being taught by the lowest-paid faculty.

This isn’t news.  Deans of arts and sciences and department chairs in English and mathematics are well aware of these particular patterns. Many of us, English professors and former deans, myself included, have taught English composition part time. I recall a windowless office with nothing in it except a desk and a campus phone. I remember driving madly between campuses and teaching upwards of 120 basic writers in a semester. It is hard to teach well when you have to deal with conditions like these. I did teach well, but it nearly ended my academic career. Years later, as a dean, I was troubled by the size of my adjunct budget for English composition and began to ask questions of other deans. I learned fast that I was by no means alone. As Adrianna Kezar and Sean Gehrke have illustrated through their survey of academic leaders, principally deans [“Creating a High-Quality Place to Teach, Learn, and Work,” Peer Review 15 (3), Summer 2013], we have much work ahead if we intend to offer sufficient support to part-time faculty off the tenure track. But it absolutely is possible to achieve such a goal.

Waking up to this reality and facing it is a matter of commitment and hope. There are resources to share and good ideas to nurture.  Having cosponsored the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success, AAC&U recognizes the complexity of the academic work landscape and the challenges presented by the diversity of faculty roles, responsibilities, and contracts.  We have made a commitment in our strategic plan to investigate the relationship between the changing faculty and student success, particularly within the realm of liberal education. But within this broader complexity, we see an urgent need to address the working conditions of faculty employed as adjuncts on part-time contracts and the learning of their students. By that we mean all students, and especially the students struggling the most in college.  Nor are we alone in making recommendations. American Educational Research Assocation has issued Non-Tenure-Track-Faculty in U.S. Universities, a statement that describes the complex, changing faculty; offers action steps to campuses; and includes a listing of example statements and resolutions by disciplinary associations that have issued recommendations concerning non-tenure-track faculty.

AAC&U has spoken urgently for equity as a value within liberal education.  We have urged colleges and universities to ask questions about equity, to collect useful evidence, to disaggregate the data in relation to students’ achievement of Essential Learning Outcomes. The same equity-minded approach can help academic leaders understand working conditions on campus. The questions suggested here could prompt useful thinking and could help you to make decisions concerning faculty contracts and support of faculty that will lead to better outcomes for everyone on your campus.