Part Time Teaching and Ideology


Part Time Teaching and Ideology

Since I was an adjunct (part time) college professor from 1991-1998, I have a great (and personal) interest in how academia staffs itself. The life of an adjunct is, to say the least, an interesting one...full of peaks and valleys. It is also full of a myrid of beliefs and myths...most of which are passed off as "truths" without question. The following commentary addresses and critically analyzes three such "truths." I originally wrote this column for another purpose and I include it here as a matter of general interest to those who already teach or may in the future entertain thoughts of doing so. Thus, its also a WARNING...beware of ideological claims.

I'd like to address three topics or issues that permeate the discussions about part time or adjunct teaching in American colleges and universities. These topics are most often stated and repeated without if they are self-evident truths in need of no further analysis. They are taken-for-granted and become the foundation for further observations, as well as strategy. I'd suggest that we need to take an unconventional look at some of these "conventional" assumptions and this is what I propose to do in this column. The treatment here will necessarily be short, but hopefully suggestive of further analysis and fuller research. Each, alone, could suffice as a columm topic, but for now I'll hit just the highlights.

These are the topics I will address: Are adjuncts exploited? Is there an over-reliance on adjuncts in higher education? Is the use of adjuncts damaging higher education? I believe that each of these is an ideological topic...the first one from the adjunct's point of view and the second and third from full time faculty and/or administration point of view. Regardless, the essential nature of ideological thought is an "inverted" quality...the idea expressed is an inversion of the actual reality. Lets examine each with this in mind.

To some the question whether adjuncts are exploited is just plain silly. Of course they are...some people would say...and that's that. What's this guy doing asking such an obvious question? Well, on one level I can agree with them. I know I was exploited every single minute I taught as an adjunct...especially on the issue of salary inequity. I did the same work as the associate professor on campus and got much less money for it...a no-brainer there. Likewise, in numerous other areas and ways adjuncts are objectively exploited...but this isn't the place to provide a laundry list of these matters...I think most of us know them very well. It's on another level I'd like to suggest that this "exploitation" isn't what it seems to be. What I'm getting at is...exploitation is a rather relative term, not quite so abolute as it appears. While I would agree that one can be exploited without knowing it, that's not my point here. Rather, since most adjuncts like to teach and be in the environment of a college campus, an assessment of what happens to us while doing so is relative to our wants and needs...and just how much crap we're willing to put up with in order to teach college. Yes, a certain minimum level of money is needed to survive, but that's true in any job in capitalist america. There are lots of people doing the same thing. While this doesn't excuse the objective exploitation adjuncts endure, we're also not the "lone ranger" when it comes to this. Sure, countless adjuncts need their jobs and income, but their subjective level of exploitation varies according to their own situations. I personally put up with certain kinds of exploitation because frankly, I didn't care...I was teaching and that's where my satisfaction was met...period. In short, I think it is ideological of adjuncts to simply and categorically say they are exploited. Without an examination of the fuller picture which includes the needs and wants and benefits derived from being an adjunct, the claim of exploitation is very one-sided and inverted. I know my stance and conclusions won't be very popular with some, but I'm asking even those who would initially disagree to assess their entire situation along these lines before judging my overall point.

The second issue that permeates discussions of adjuncts is that there is an over-reliance on adjuncts in colleges today. This is couched in terms of a "growing" over-reliance (i.e. its getting worse) and in terms of a sacrificing of full time faculty positions. But...why is it always presented in terms of an OVER reliance? Yes, there's no doubt that many schools rely on adjucnts, especially at the community college level...but its not only there. I recently taught for a major university and by its own reckoning and record-keeping, 1 of every 4 teachers in its system were part time teachers. Without these adjuncts at this school, its main campus and its branches would have been hard pressed to offer the range of courses and at the varying times that they did. Why is this? Is this an over-reliance or a NECESSARY reliance? Why are so many adjuncts hired to teach at so-called undesirable times...not to mention undesirable courses...not to mention in undesirable locations? Is it merely because it may be cheaper to pay an adjunct rather than hire full time faculty? I think not. I'd suggest that it is caused primarily by those who do the most "yelling" about the "over-reliance" in the first place...the full time faculty who...the higher you go in their rankings...don't have to teach early morning or evening off-campus sites they don't like...and survey courses full of unmotivated undergraduaes fulfilling general college requirements...if they don't want to. When you add in the reality that many full time faculty don't have the expertise to teach certain needed courses, this makes the argument here even more compelling. No, its not an over-reliance, its a necessary reliance...given the need of schools to meet the demands of students for certain particular times...and often in particular places. Is it really a bulletin to anyone that full time faculty (especially at the Associate level and above) call most of their own "shots?" The reason I taught early morning classes, evening classes, Saturday classes, and prison classes was the full time sociology faculty member on campus REFUSED to do so. I averaged over 25 students in each of the classes I taught! There was a need and I met it...the full time faculty member wouldn't. Bluntly foot!!

This leads to the third topic so fact, it is intricately related to the ideological claim of over-reliance. This topic is the taken-for-granted assumption that...primarily, again, maintained by full time faculty...but now along with some administrators...that not only over-reliance, but ANY reliance on part time teachers is "damaging higher education." I've even read more than once the same claim being made by adjuncts themselves. Damaging? How? Where? Let's see...if it is damaging higher education, doesn't that presuppose (call forth a prior condition) that there must have been a time it WASN'T damaged? When was that? Was that when it was mainly full time faculty teaching...when they offered a limited kind and amount of limited times? THAT was a "healthy" time? Gee...I thought that was the kind of reality that usage of adjuncts was designed to correct...silly me.

Moreover, the "damage" claim also includes the assumption that a large proportion of adjuncts are less than fully qualified to teach college courses. This appears to be premised...and MUST be premised...on the assumption that full time faculty are fully and always qualified to teach college. The "evidence" often given for this is the greater number of doctorates among full time faculty than adjuncts. This is further premised on the assumption that anyone with a finished doctorate is better qualified to teach than one who doesn't have one. This assumption covers discipline expertise as well as teaching ability. While I know there's a difference between a Masters degree and a PH.D, I also know that real people hold these degrees and people's abilities vary according to many standards...not just highest degree attained.

One other piece of "evidence" given is that if adjuncts were fully qualified then they'd have full time jobs already and wouldn't have to rely on part time positions. Of course, this claim is similar to the circular reasoning that the "poor" deserve to be poor because they aren't rich. Now lets see...there is again no doubt some kernel of truth to the claim that there are some adjuncts not fully qualified to teach college. I've known a few...observed them first hand. But I the proportion of them unqualified any higher than the incompetence of some full time faculty? I've observed a few of them, too. Or are we to simply assume that since they are already full time faculty that they must be qualified? Give me a break. Is there anyone reading this who has attended college somewhere along the line that hasn't had a dork for a college professor...a dork being someone who didn't know much but could easily repeat and re-repeat what they DID know...countless times? Or how about the ones that merely read out of books for an hour or two? In other words, despite the ideology that college professors are smart and can teach anyone at any time, many can't teach at all and aren't the least bit interested in learning how to do so. Adjuncts and the so-called over-reliance on them are damaging higher education?? Despite the presence of very qualified full time faculty and the presence of less-than-qualified adjuncts, I'd have to say we better turn over this ideological inversion...realizing that adjuncts have improved higher education immensely and in innumerable ways...the least of which is NOT the enthusiasm they bring to the college education table.

Okay, I know I've taken on a few of the "sacred cows" of the adjunct issue in higher education. It seems I've turned them on their head...but in actuality I've set them on their feet. The really slippery part of ideological thinking is that there is always that small kernel of "truth" at the core of the ideological belief. This enables ideological thinkers to say...ah ha...see...look at that, and then pretend that's all there is to observe and analyze. What gets rationalized is that self (and group)-interest is usually at the root of most ideological constructs.

Its sad to say, at least for me, that the self/group-interest of adjuncts is to maintain their victim-status as "categorically exploited" so they can rationalize their constant need for approval and acceptance. In other words, to "be like full timers." Ask yourself, why would any self-respecting adjunct WANT to be like them? Yes, the "kernel" of objective exploitation is real...but its a broader arena than just matter how serious that kernel is to many.

When it comes to the "over-reliance" issue, the self/group-interest of full time faculty blooms fully. That paragon of objectivity...the AAUP...mouths the right words about this over-reliance, but its more like code words for "lets get rid of them completely." The ASA also mouths the right words about treating adjuncts properly, but then does little or next to nothing to enforce it on the department level at various schools. The evidence is clear and compelling...very few (yes, there ARE some) full time faculty lift a finger to help adjuncts...their ideology is showing all the time.

Finally, this is no less true when it comes to the "damaging higher education" claim. No, my full and part time friends, its not adjuncts damaging higher education...its full timers and always has been. The ideological inversion is as plain as the intransigence displayed about the excellent job the great, great majority of adjunct simply can't or won't be given. Instead of working together to actually provide a worthwhile educational experience for our students, full time faculty blame adjuncts for "damage" and excuse their own shortcomings. Now THAT'S ideology.