On Campus

Adjuncts are people too

Part-time teachers deserve respect, job security and benefits - but how do they compare to the "real thing?"

There’s a new study out concerning the increasing reliance on adjunct instructors in post-secondary education. For those uninitiated to this topic here’s the summary. There are university “professors” in the true sense – those with full-time jobs and a fair measure of job security – and then there are adjuncts. These are supplementary faculty with little or no job security and often without full-time employment. They are, effectively, academic temps.

Now as this study observes, there are any number of ways that adjunct instructors may be employed. The jobs titles in use and the specific terms of employment are subject to endless variation. So I hope you’ll excuse me if I don’t define things exactly. But anyone with a passing familiarity with the job market should be able to fill in the blanks. Adjunct instructors are employed as they are for all the same reasons that part-time and casual labour is used anywhere. It’s cheaper. It’s flexible – meaning they can be got rid of easily. And it avoids a lot of those hang ups that full-time employees seem to expect such as benefits, vacation, and the like.

I find this particular study interesting for one and one reason only. It reveals that this move towards an increasingly casual workforce in academia isn’t necessarily a deliberate one. And this is very believable. Individual departments and academic units tend to operate with a fair degree of independence and this is where employment decisions get made. Sometimes these units respond to general institutional plans but most often they just do their own thing. So this may simply be a case where a trend of behaviour, across units, contributes to an overall change that was never quite intended by anyone. And that’s very interesting.

What I find profoundly boring about this report is that it repeats the same old claim that adjunct instructors are every bit as good as tenured professors (if not better) and it backs this claim with evidence that students seem to like them more. The logic there is so shaky it barely needs a solid whack to see it fall apart. First, as a recent student, I would never claim that students are qualified to be the sole judges of quality education. I love student feedback and contribution. I think the student voice is very important. But I don’t for a moment think it is decisive. I know as well as anyone that students respond well to easy classes, to lax grading, to charisma and personality. Hell, if nothing else students definitely respond well to younger instructors, and naturally these are in the majority among adjuncts. The mere fact that students like someone is not evidence of their effectiveness.

More importantly, this study willfully ignores something that every academic knows full well and yet might shock most students and their parents. The controls on who gets hired as an adjunct are often almost non-existent. Before the university hires a full-time professor they conduct an international job search that may last a year or more and involves an entire screening committee. When it comes time to hire an adjunct it may come down to simply picking a resume out of a pile on a desk. And I am not exaggerating in the slightest. Considering the relative controls on one hiring process vs. the other, it seems incredible to claim that adjuncts are as well or better qualified than full-time faculty. In order to make any sense of that claim one would have to believe that the hiring policies in place, even at their best, barely achieve a better result than pulling names out of a hat. And I refuse to believe that. I am sure that universities sometimes make the wrong choices and sometimes have their priorities in the wrong order. But I still believe that when a full committee of professors put a year of their time into hiring someone the outcome is going to be better, on average, than a resume out of a pile.

So why the discrepancy? Well, it’s exactly because the university isn’t hiring their full-time faculty only to teach students. No matter whether students think that’s what professors are there for, they are in fact hired on the basis of their research qualifications and academic achievements as well as their ability to simply teach. And for better or for worse universities seem to operate on the assumption that teaching is a skill that can be learned (perhaps true) whereas research achievements cannot be manufactured where they do not already exist (definitely true, at least not with any certainty). So in fact it tends to be the case that full-time faculty are hired with an eye primarily towards their research and only tangentially towards their teaching ability. And it turns out that students like the part-time variety more – who are likely younger, more superficial in their approach to the material, and are focused (of necessity) only on teaching. Is that really so surprising?

The last thing I wanted to do when I started this article is to slag adjuncts. They are hard-working people, generally with academic aspirations, who are caught in a bad position by a very unkind employment market. I could go on. There are many issues at work here. But there’s no use perpetuating some myth about how they are all fantastic academics and instructors who aren’t receiving their due. What they may not be getting is their fair chance. But that doesn’t change the fact that they’ve all yet to jump over some significant hurdles that their full-time counterparts long ago cleared.

The problems associated with adjunct instructors are similar to those that occur throughout the workforce when there is a casualization of employment. Whether they are up to the same standard as full-time faculty is irrelevant. They are highly qualified working people who deserve some respect and consideration. We need to figure out how to properly protect and compensate these employees. We need to ensure this does not become simply a new way to erode all the rights and protections that employees have gained over the years. And for students’ sake, certainly, we need to protect the quality of the education they receive. No matter that students tend to like adjunct instructors more, that doesn’t mean they are receiving the same quality of education.

But are adjunct instructors owed full-time academic positions? No. And certainly not just because their students like them. They are owed a chance. And there is definitely something tragically wrong with the system as a whole that we are churning out far more PhDs every year than there is any hope of employing in the jobs they aspire to. But that is a subject for another article.

Questions are welcome at jeff.rybak@utoronto.ca. Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.

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