The Chronicle Review

If Colleges Valued Students, They'd Value Adjuncts

October 20, 2009

I walk down the noisy hallway, where the students push and shove their way into the narrow stairway they use between classes. I break from the crowd and glance to my right. Through the half-closed blinds on the glass doors, I see most of my colleagues gathered in the conference room. They look serious, intently listening to the one in the corner, who seems to be giving the speech of his life. I am witnessing important business, I think to myself.

I am an adjunct instructor in an innovative writing department in Virginia. It doesn't take long for me to realize that I'm looking into a conference room of full-time faculty members. Then I remember that it's the second Wednesday of the month and time for the faculty meeting. Adjunct faculty members are invited, too, in my department, but it just so happens that the meeting is always on Wednesdays at 11:15 a.m., when most of the adjuncts are scheduled to teach so that the full-time faculty members can have this meeting.

Such is the life of the adjunct, and this outside-looking-in method of inclusion has been going on for far too long.

I am not bitter about my low salary, my lack of benefits, the uncertainty of a job next semester, or the terrible summers, when a lack of available classes means a lack of income. I'm actually thankful. I realize I don't have a Ph.D., nor do I have mounds of teaching experience. It was almost a gift, I sometimes think, that I was hired at all.

Before working here, I was a newspaper editor who had taught only one class for one semester at a nearby community college. I fell in love with teaching during that semester and decided I wanted to pursue it as a career. Entering the land of the four-year university was an amazing experience. I was full of adrenaline and nerves. My colleagues and department were supportive: Both full- and part-time faculty members were always available to answer my questions and give me the advice I needed to become a better instructor. In conversing with part-time faculty members in other departments, I heard horror stories about how they were treated with far less respect.

That was two years ago, and as time has passed, I have come to realize that my department is still top-notch when it comes to adjuncts. At least we are invited to meetings and get departmentwide e-mails. Unfortunately, I have also come to realize that this university—like many around the nation—fosters an inherent disregard for all adjunct faculty members. The university benefits by cutting costs; the full-time faculty members and departments benefit by being able to focus more on specialty classes, service assignments, and research; and the students benefit by … oh wait. It's the students who lose out.


In the classroom, I exude confidence. I walk tall, tell jokes, and keep students' attention. I can lead discussion like nobody's business, and I can wing it if I need to. And that's a good thing, because I am often not prepared for class. Sometimes, I admit, I haven't even read my own assigned reading for the day. It's not that I don't want to; it's just that I had to take on those extra two courses at the community college and finish up the freelance article so I could pay the mortgage for the month. Winging it usually works OK. But sometimes it doesn't.

My not being prepared for class is only one way in which the students suffer. More and more, I find myself completely drained by the end of the day. In the middle of a great discussion, a student directs a comment to me. To the detriment of the discussion, I stopped listening a few comments ago, thinking instead about my decreasing checkbook balance or the dishes that have been piling up as I have been grading papers. Or I stopped listening just because I have had similar discussions four times already today, and I am, frankly, bored and/or exhausted. At least once, I stopped listening because of the loud construction across the street, where the university is building a new performance center. And I couldn't help but remember the news a week earlier that budget cuts had put my job in jeopardy.

In the end, how much does it matter to my department, and to my university, if I do a good job? It's not like I can share this information in any formal setting.

When I leave the classroom, I know I could have done better. That isn't an empty thought; I try to do better every day, every semester, every school year. And maybe my efforts succeed—maybe I do a little better. But I can't help but wonder: Is it enough? If some of these distractions that come with being an adjunct were taken away, wouldn't my students benefit? If I could talk about teaching and listen to others talk about teaching in that conference room, wouldn't my students benefit?

Again, I am not bitter about the money (or lack thereof). I chose to enter this profession this way, and I can choose to leave anytime I want. What makes me uneasy is that cheap labor seems more important to academe than quality instruction. Colleges and universities seem to value football stadiums, basketball teams, new performance centers, unnecessary renovations, and whatever project gets supported with money that could go to adjunct faculty members more than the learning of students who are taught by adjuncts. It's not a money issue; it's a priority issue.

Adjunct faculty members can never fully teach to their potential unless colleges rethink their priorities. If institutions value their students' educations as much as they claim, they need to better embrace adjuncts. Perhaps it is about offering adjuncts a fair wage and more job security. But maybe just valuing their input or asking for their opinions would be a good start.

Again, I am in a top-notch department when it comes to adjuncts. But it seems that the other adjuncts and I should be in that conference room somehow; that's where it starts. We may not have the appropriate titles underneath our names. We may not have been through the rigors that terminal degrees require (though some of us have). We may not have the proper publications to our credit. All those things are important, no doubt.

What we do have, though, is a lot of students. Does it get more important than that?

Isaac Sweeney teaches writing at James Madison University and Blue Ridge Community College.