02 April 2014

How Many Adjuncts Does it Take to Alter Student Learning Conditions Beyond Recognition?

A recent post in Small-Pond Science walks readers through the problem from the department administrator's angle at a small institution:
Next semester we will, collectively, have more reassigned time for service and student mentorship that we have had in recent memory. This is great for a number of reasons, but it also means that for some courses that we normally teach ourselves, we’ll have to use non-tenure-track instructors. 
Which kinds of courses are we supposed to give up ourselves and assign to adjuncts?
The options: intro classes for majors, advanced classes for majors, graduate classes (it emerges that adjuncts are already teaching the intro for non-majors).

A further wrinkle emerges in the comment thread (prompted, admittedly, by my own response):
[our] adjuncts aren’t just in the GE salt mines (or the underground sugar caves, as in The Simpsons), we actually have them doing majors labs and upper division courses already. But our adjuncts don’t have active research programs in which the students can be involved. If we are working to increase undergraduate research, then the earlier and more that students can interact with our tenure-track faculty the more likely this can happen. Our non-tenure-track instructors could, in theory, also help promote research opportunities, but that’s only actively happening with one of them. Our NTT instructors are here to teach, but otherwise are busy and committed to other things and we can’t expect more than just being in the classroom. It’d be great for our students to know the faculty who are here more and doing more than teaching.

The catchphrase of adjunct solidarity, "Adjunct Teaching Conditions are Student Learning Conditions" only partly captures the problem.  The disciplinary format of biology (the writer's field) lays the problem particularly bare: effective student learning requires hands-on research. Adjuncts who either lack research programs (or whose research the institution can't support) can't supply that learning.

There's not really an equivalent to original bench science in most undergraduate humanities education, and whether or not research (as its understood in STEM fields) is even desirable at that level is the subject for another post.  Even in the humanities, though, "student learning conditions" are a complex category.  Students may well learn better from adjuncts than from tenure-stream faculty, but that's not the point.  Student learning takes place beyond the classroom and beyond graded assessments, in ways that are not easily enhanced by salary bumps and reasonable teaching loads (as necessary as those are). Students need advice, direction, and recommendation letters.  They need confidence that the academic discipline they are working (whether in their major or not) in is a thing of substance and significance.  They need continuity between their classes, between their classes and their majors, between their majors and the world they'll confront when they graduate.

Those learning conditions deteriorate when the faculty positioned to deliver them are not recognized as a stable, important component of the department and institution.  When the faculty delivering instruction are not to be found outside of class meeting times or once the course has ended, when they have no collegial relationships with the "real" faculty in the department, and when they lack the institutional grounding to draw students to further study in the discipline, student learning suffers--or never has the chance to flourish beyond the requirements of the course.

Rebecca Schumann makes the point in apocalyptic terms
Your part-time faculty, your non-tenure-track faculty, your disposable faculty, your faculty that shouldn’t get “the wrong idea” about its place in the department? To the vast majority of people who ever come into contact with your department, they are the only representative of your discipline people will ever, ever get. They are the reputation of your department. 
And if they’re treated as “less-than”? They’re going to act as less-than. And if they act as less-than? Your students will get a less-than experience, but they’ll get straight As so they won’t care. Meanwhile, your administration will be trolling message boards and listening to word-of-mouth about your department and learn, either, that it’s shitty, or that your adjuncts have decided to pull some heroics and are doing such a great job that there’s no reason to open up any more tenure lines. 
Either way, your department will die, and it’s your own fucking fault. When the whole stinking ship goes down, it will be cold comfort, but comfort nonetheless, to watch you drown.
Dwindling resources for higher ed have taken the obvious solution, more tenure-stream lines, off the table.   The equally obvious workaround, beefing up the role of adjuncts, has the dangers of (a) making working conditions even more exploitative and (b) eroding academic freedom.

Academic unionizing, though a limited strategy and one that's not even available at a lot of institutions, looks better and better.

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