The Adjunct’s dilemma – how much do you tell your students? #adjunctchat

I’m looking for advice from both adjuncts and those who are in permanent faculty positions. I teach and have teaching experience at several universities. I’m fresh off of a great Virtually Connecting session, where there was a brief discussion about the working conditions of Adjuncts, which has me thinking even more about this.

All the courses I teach are online courses. Sometimes I’m asked to teach (or facilitate) online classes with limited flexibility. In some cases, it is that I’m handed a class at the last minute without the time to redesign. In other cases, I’m teaching one section of many and am required to follow the curriculum (to the point of being locked out of making updates). These things would not be an issue if the courses were well designed and developed. The courses may have great frameworks, so the concepts are great, but the implementation of those concepts in the LMS is not always the greatest / most student friendly or instructor friendly.

Where I run into the question and challenge is, how much do I tell my students about the constraints I’m under when teaching? I get especially worried when these things make me look like a bad instructor and could potential affect my ratings! I really don’t want my students to confuse what I’m doing as an instructor/facilitator with the design decisions or implementation that I had little or no control over. I also run into the issue of my good teaching/facilitation making the content look poor. I’m highly aware that I bring a very unique skill-set to the table when I teach – especially when I’m teaching courses about technology and the use of technology. It is a mixed blessing. I’m good at what I do, but also, sometimes being good makes others look not-so-good and that isn’t ideal either.

I may have asked this question before. In some cases, I think I’m obligated to tell my students about the working conditions of an adjunct. In part because some of my classes involve teaching students who are potentially looking at careers in higher education.

As a full time faculty member, you have some obligation to the universities you work in. You want your students to have a positive experience in all their classes. You also do not want to undermine your colleagues. That being said, you also often get a lot more notice of which courses you will be teaching when, and you typically have a large amount of freedom over how your courses are structured / designed / taught.

As an adjunct, this is hit and miss. Some schools really want to capitalize on the experience you bring to the table. They have some flexibility in how the courses are taught. You get to decide the assignments, due dates, etc. Others, not so much. Others want your skills as a facilitator, but not as a designer. Which I suppose might be more acceptable in fields other than education. In education everyone should be good at designing instruction.

But issues with the whole adjunct process aside, the question still needs to be answered. How much should you tell your students about the constraints/environment you are operating under when you are teaching? What do you think?

 

14 Comments on The Adjunct’s dilemma – how much do you tell your students? #adjunctchat

  1. I have extensive experience with this question (17 years as an adjunct at three colleges then 8 years full time contracted, now semi retired adjunct again). If I think any outside constraints such as those you list will be a factor, I work on boiling down a very brief, very clear statement that goes in a sidebar box on the syllabus. No discussion.

    I often solicit student feedback on how the site (LMS) is working for them and immediately take action to correct anything I can. If it is an imposed limitation, I tell them clearly and unprejudicially, thank them and move on. I find that I have enough experience to make just about anything thrown at me work, so I just do that.

    If education majors in my field talk to me about the career, I am very careful to shown both sides of the equation, letting them draw the conclusion that is right for them.

    But if I had known what my career trajectory was going to look like back in my wide-eyed beginning, I would have made a very different choice.

    • Thanks Sandy. I am an adjunct by choice. I’m trying to figure out if this will work as a career, but alas, need to think about healthcare as well and how all that is going to work out. But for now, I’m enjoying the teaching that I’m doing (for the most part), I just don’t like it when things aren’t great and I cannot do anything about it. I don’t want that to be a reflection on my teaching. I will definitely adopt the “add something to the syllabus” for next semester. I think it is important.

  2. Thanks everyone, I think this has been and continues to be an interesting discussion, here, on twitter, and on Facebook. I should highlight that I teach in what I believe are very good programs. I’m generally encouraged by how things are done. But there are definitely some aspects that need improvement. I also do not accept exploitive contracts – so I am teaching for what I believe is fair compensation. Sure I’d love more. Sure I’d love the option of teaching enough to qualify for benefits, but alas, that isn’t currently an option. But as far as adjunct teaching contracts go, I have it pretty good.

    Someone highlighted that the evaluations that we use for adjuncts are the same as those used for full time faculty, however, they are written/designed by the full time faculty for their context. That is part of the issue. Why should adjuncts which are typically paid by the “credit hour” be measured using the same criteria as those who are paid a salary – but more importantly get their course assignments a lot earlier and typically have free reign over what they teach.

    I really like the suggestion of putting things in the syllabus. I was taught early in my academic career that the syllabus is the contract you make with your students. It is where you tell them what will be covered in the course, what your expectations of them are, how they will be evaluated, and what they can expect from you. I like the idea of disclosing in the syllabus (which I typically have control over, even if I don’t have control over other parts of the course), that the course design and “content” is complements of . In some ways, I think that serves to both credit the person who has done the work but also to make it clear that it isn’t me. So my students are not equating my facilitation with me designing/creating the course materials (unless I did both).

    True be told, I have a very strong preference for teaching classes where I’m given the overall course objectives and then given free reign over how I teach. In many ways this recognized the skills that I’m bringing to the table. It is also a heck of a lot more fun to teach when I’m teaching to my design.

  3. I don’t have an opinion about sharing the details of how the specific course-sausage is made.

    But I definitely feel anyone teaching students who intend to go into education has a responsibility to expose them to the statistical realities of the market. (I believe this is true for professors in other fields, too.) (And I think high school teachers should have some perspective on the paths they’re nudging their students on, also, though that’s probably unrealistic given the narrow experience of those teachers.)

  4. We looked at this very question on CASA last week, based on some really great videos made by adjuncts about their working conditions (https://actualcasuals.wordpress.com/2016/01/17/casa-news-0116/).

    Something I think is often overlooked in this discussion is to ask students how it affects them to know. Does it make a difference?

    I had this conversation with a student recently, when she said she tries to avoid classes taken by someone who’s casually hired. I asked why, and she said it’s because the extra stress on her of waiting for replies to emails (she has a significant disability). But the thing is that although Australian academic casuals are hourly paid (by the contact hour) and have no obligation to reply quickly to students, most that I know do it anyway. And this is exactly how universities run — on freely gifted labour. It’s also exactly how universities get to cover up the scale of casual hiring, which is completely at odds with the marketing brochure.

    The obligation of permanent faculty to think more carefully about their adjunct colleagues is critical here. Faculty should be really engaged in changing the scholarly culture of volunteerism as it’s bad enough that we set it as a standard for ourselves; it’s really terrible that when we do this we normalise uncompensated work for our adjunct/casual colleagues.

    And it’s truly irresponsible for educational institutions to expose adjunct professionals to feedback and surveys that are based the expectations students have of full-time permanent academics. Uninformed feedback: how does that help anyone?

    • I do think that it is a sad statement when students feel that adjuncts don’t teach to the same level/standard as non-adjuncts. Interestingly, in the programs that I’m teaching, there are few if any tenured/permanent professors in the program. The entire program is taught by adjuncts.

      • Most stereotyping is based on something. There are instances where adjuncts do not commit as well as fulltimers and where the process of hiring them is not as strict. Having said that, lots of fulltimers are hired based on their research and it says nothing of the quality of their teaching whereas many adjuncts are teaching-focused. In other cases, adjuncts have more field experience than fulltime academics and bring even more to the table. But in ALL cases, the glaring inequality is one Giroux mentioned (can’t remember which article):
        Students pay the same money whether they r taught by an adjunct or a fulltimer
        Universities pay adjuncts way less in money/benefits than fulltimers.

        I recognize adjuncts don’t do research or service for the University but even offering them partial benefits (so 1/3 health coverage of what a fulltimer gets) could go a long way. Or would make universities re-think this.

        There is an instance where a univ asked ALL fulltime faculty in a dept to ACCEPT (by force-ish) to add a course load to the typical load because it costs them less to pay for course overload than to hire new fulltimers on yearly contracts (these aren’t tenured profs in this dept). Ugh. And then they want the faculty to remain dedicated to their students and make time for them. When literally they physically have much less time and brainspace to offer anyone. So it’s not just adjuncts that get exploited. Non-tenured full timers face threats of contracts not getting renewed unless they do course overloads. How is that good for students?
        Neoliberalism at work all around.

  5. So since your students are educators too, I think it’s helpful to discuss what it means when an instructor:
    A. Has to work w someone else’s design (and brainstorm how to take stuff OUTSIDE the LMS to do stuff they may like)
    B. Has to design a course at last minute. Some ppl are more comfy w that than others (i modify my design and class plan regularly so getting a course last minute doesn’t bother me as long as I know the topic; getting a pre-designed course should theoretically help w that but is more burdensome for someone like me)
    C. Is in a precarious position

    I wouldn’t call someone else’s design good or bad but i could say i disagree with it and that’s ok. Quality is not straightforward, nor is pedagogy. But ea each of us have different philosophies and pedagogical preferences and knowledge expertise and it’s not gonna be equivalent to the person who designed the course for you

    If they are educators they will likely find themselves in similar positions in future. Even fulltime ppl sometimes have to do last minute pre-designed if a colleague falls sick or dies!

  6. Thanks for pinging me on twitter about your question, and its been bouncing around for a while. My adjunct experience is much less extensive and has always been at places where I had free reign. I have never taught a course using someone else’s materials or even in an LMS.

    I wonder too if the differences we know and make between adjunct and (?non-adjunct) is less apparent or even visible to students. It’s been a long time since I was one, but I pretty much saw all my teachers being more or less the same as far as occupation. So then there is somewhat of an opportunity to help students appreciate the differences and what it means for the person in the teacher role.

    Yet it’s one thing to let students know that you either work another job and the teaching i done on top of this, or that to juggle multiple teaching roles maybe at multiple places. But I do not know I would tip my hat at the offset and allude to the fact that I as a teacher was limited because of technology or organizational constraints. If you suggest that the system you are teaching in some how limits you as a teacher, its almost suggesting there is a problem before one appears.

    Because at the start, that’s really *your* problem, not your students. But if the constraints are severe somewhere down the course there can be outfall for students; so I would not bring it up until something happens because if this situation.

    This all feels theoretical! and there is so much that is contextual to the situations and institutions that I am not feeling like I could have a single suggestion for an approach.

    I’m curious to hear what you come up with. Thanks for a provocative question.

  7. Yes, Rebecca, a great session — packed with items that I’ll be digesting for some time and coming back to. I’ve got a collection of posts bookmarked to Diigo about what to tell students ~ and actually remembered the tag! Now I’ll be adding yours to the collection

    https://www.diigo.com/user/vcvaile/%22talking%20to%20students%22

    Laura Gibbs’ post is probably my favorite http://ouclassannouncements.blogspot.com/2013/01/call-me-laura-really.html

  8. I think transparency is a good policy. If there is something students want or need and you can’t provide it, I think you should tell them why. But how you describe the why really matters:

    Suppose you can’t change the order of the topics. You could say you’re an adjunct and therefore, you’re not given the power/agency to make changes. Or you could say there are multiple sections with multiple instructors and, to keep the exams fair or labs in sync or whatever, every section needs to proceed the same way.

    Hey, wait, is the former explanation instructor-centered and latter student-centered? Hmm. Gotta think about that one! Thanks for asking :)

    Peter

    • more like both explanations situates both instructors and students as without the voice or power to have agency ~ in the same boat. not all situations /conditions are the same: some have more flexibility

    • Interesting interpretation as instructor-centered versus student-centered. I actual cringe at the “student-centered” idea because it is very much a sign of a market approach to education. I think we spend too much time designing for “student-centered” without taking into account the instructor. It serves to devalue what the instructor brings to the table.

      I actually like a hybrid of what you have suggested, as I think both items are true. There are multiple sections and the program wants to ensure that the same material is covered in both. The “exam” is not necessarily relevant unless it is a program that has exams. More to the point, there is a desire to keep sections the same/similar to ensure a consistent student experience. With that, comes a lack of agency for the course instructors. Hopefully there isn’t a power imbalance – in that all instructors are teaching to the same constraints – but that is a different issue all together.

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