Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Why It's Important to Include Adjunct Faculty

It's common knowledge that adjunct faculty members teach more than half of the courses at community colleges in America, and in developmental education that number is at about 75% and growing. Developmental education programs are often the place where new faculty are "tried out," so to speak. If an instructor is new to the college, and especially if s/he is new to teaching, s/he is assigned a developmental course. The first courses I ever taught were developmental English courses, in fact.

There are a number of reasons for this. One is that there aren't enough full-time faculty members to go around. Budgets are shrinking, and adjuncts are simply more affordable. Another is that the number of students placing into developmental programs has grown significantly over the past several years, which has led to rapid growth in the number of developmental courses offered, sometimes at the last minute if there is a sudden influx of new students. Also, in developmental programs, the full-time faculty frequently teach at least one college-level course, and many teach more, especially if developmental programs are not housed in a separate department. This phenomenon is less common in degree programs. The practice is not bad, and should be encouraged, but the result is that more developmental sections need to be staffed with part-time faculty.

High turnover rates have an effect on the number of new and/or inexperienced faculty who teach in developmental programs. It's rare to get a part-time instructor who is a developmental education specialist. Most have degrees in the content areas (literature, mathematics), and if given the opportunity to teach higher-level courses, they take it. Many times, part-time faculty in developmental education programs "work their way up" to teaching college-level classes. Those who do specialize in developmental education are snapped up quickly for full-time positions.

With all of that being said, implied in this pairing is that both groups -- students taking developmental courses and part-time faculty -- are somehow inferior. Developmental programs become a stepping stone, a place for people to get their feet wet and see if they're any good at teaching. In fact, I have heard colleagues at my own and other institutions say that they thought so-and-so (adjunct faculty member) wasn't a good teacher, so they assigned him/her a "basic" course or sent him/her to teach in the developmental department. At first I was shocked and appalled. Now I'm still appalled, but shock has been replaced with frustration at the number of times I've heard comments like this.

We are in need of a massive cultural shift. If the trend continues, and I see no reason why it will not, the percentage of part-time faculty teaching classes at community colleges is only going to grow. If colleges and especially developmental programs are going to survive on the backs of adjuncts, this contribution needs to be recognized and appreciated. Lip service is not enough.

One shift to make is in hiring practices. We need our best teachers in developmental courses. They should be seasoned, trained instructors who know not only about content but also the college in which they work. Their students are at risk for more than just academic reasons, and the students' first experiences in college are likely to determine the path of the rest of their college careers, including whether they even stay in college. Colleges need to do everything they can to make sure those first experiences are positive, and that includes assigning the best and brightest to developmental courses.

They should be informed and trained on more than teaching and content. In order to be of best service to students, they need to know how a college operates and its major policies. They need to know where to find answers when they do not know something, and they need to be given access to information, including student records. They need technology support, administrative support, and teaching materials.

Additionally, part-time faculty should be recognized as experts with something to offer. They should be included in decisions made in and by colleges. Their opinions should be sought out and listened to. They should be encouraged to showcase their best practices and asked to be a part of an intellectual community.

Even the word "adjunct" is problematic. defines "adjunct" as "something added to another thing but not essential to it; a person associated with lesser status, rank, authority, etc., in some duty or service; assistant" before it gives the definition, "a person working at an institution, as a college or university, without having full or permanent status," which is still unflattering. As an adjective, "adjunct" means "joined or associated, especially in an auxiliary or subordinate relationship; attached or belonging without full or permanent status." (All emphasis is mine.) At this point, I don't think there is a college in America who would say that part-time faculty are not essential to its operations. Colleges need to support part-time faculty as much as the part-time faculty support them.