MARCH 10, 2016
The Atlantic has fallen victim to the unwarranted and absurd notion that adjuncts’ limitations are caused by our unfortunate lack of corporate training in best teaching practices. As New Faculty Majority posted on their blog Majority Rule, where this letter was originally published, “So The Atlantic, via a reporter from The Hechinger Report, has decided that ‘remedial’ students ‘are often faced with the least-qualified instructors.'”
This letter aims to show how this perception perpetuates a false ideology of bootstraps and meritocracy while serving to divide and conquer the professoriate. Our work at PrecariCorps serves to unite and connect the struggles of students who go into debt for higher education, faculty who either aren’t paid a living wage or are denied due process, and staff who are undersupported against administrations who are corporatizing a public good: education. So, without further ado:
Dear Atlantic Editors and Meredith Kolodner,
We are writing in response to the truly egregious article on “remedial” education in colleges, “Why Remedial College Classes Need Better Teachers.” First of all, you left out a crucial word in the title. It should have been called “Why Remedial College Classes Need Better Supported Teachers.” To say anything else lays the blame at the wrong feet. The corporatization of higher education and the corporate “deformation” of K-12 education have put students in the position of needing much more preparation for college work than ever before, and crippled both secondary and post-secondary educators in providing it.
But your claim that students who need the most help are often “faced with the least qualified instructors” is utter bollocks. While it may be true that some isolated community colleges do not demand more than a bachelor’s degree to teach in that subject, that is extremely rare and usually predicated on the teacher being a graduate student in that field. And at a university or four-year college, one must have an advanced degree and teaching experience, unless one is a Teaching Assistant. Even then, TA’s are supervised carefully, as are new teachers everywhere. But the vast majority of us already have both advanced degrees and teaching experience.There’s nothing “least qualified” about us or our colleagues. Perhaps if your reporter had spoken to more of us who are in the trenches, instead of the program directors of training centers, that would have been more evident.
Developmental courses are by far the hardest to teach well, and the fact that faculty who get such weak support are able to do even as well as we do is nearly miraculous. Although blaming teachers for institutional and cultural shortcomings is a popular sport these days, especially in this case the argument is utterly backwards. If anything, most of us work minor miracles with next to no support: no offices, no time or place to meet privately with students outside of class, no access to copy machines or computers, no professional development, and very often a syllabus that’s prepackaged and handed down a few days before class, or—worse—no syllabus or books designated at all as we walk into class after our last-minute hiring. Plus, as the article points out, our instructional time is stretched between multiple institutions. To avoid ACA regulations, many colleges deny adjunct faculty the number of classes we need to earn a living wage, so we have no true “home” institution that offers support to us so we can, in turn, support our students.
Worse, adjuncts often are assigned developmental courses because these courses are undesirable to the full-time faculty due to the the high failure rates. In addition, full-time and tenured faculty prefer creating “specialty” classes in their fields of interest–often seminars and upper-level classes with fewer students. So you have enthusiastic and dedicated adjuncts ready to teach for the first time, wondering what they are doing “wrong” when their students are at the same failure rate as everyone else’s. However, in this case, there is no one willing to mentor the adjuncts or glean any information about the classroom experience from them. Perhaps the phrase “this is a tough class to teach” may have been spoken before the semester began. Maybe the adjuncts teach one more semester and quit, or maybe the adjuncts persevere. Either way, there is precious little communication between the people teaching the class and the people choosing the text and creating the curriculum.
Who is responsible for this scenario? Not the adjuncts. But this scenario sums up what is wrong with higher education. There are myriad studies about the short- and long-term costs of employee turnover yet, here in a sector where success is tied to the future of our society, these costs are wholly ignored because another adjunct, another body with an advanced degree, can easily be found to keep the machine going. This is not in step with the goal of educating. This is in step with the goal of fleecing. The student who is in one of these classes will take it, on average, three times. Either the student will pay for the class three times or maybe financial aid will pay for the class three times. The institution will reap the benefits of being paid three times, probably while having raised tuition and given the administration a hefty raise, all the while being able to mediate the outcome and choosing not to do so.
The poor state of developmental education exists because someone with administrative power chose not to follow faculty or division recommendations. Instead of providing the best supported teachers for struggling incoming students, we have administration treating students merely as “customers” who will fail and leave their money behind, or repeat courses over and over to leave even more tuition dollars behind (cf. the recent departure of Simon Newman from Mount St. Mary’s). If there is a lack or erosion of standards, it is due to the intrusion of non-teaching administrators into academic, curricular, and pedagogical matters.
Student success is very easily addressed by the following:
1) Supported instruction
2) Fully funded and staffed instructional services
3) Recurrent skill building (versus purely remedial)
4) Universal design (e.g., writing across the curriculum)
5) Interdisciplinary team-taught courses
6) Getting the testing, placement and advising process in order so students are correctly placed. In mathematics especially this is a recurring problem very damaging to students.
7) Fully involving the adjuncts who are doing all this teaching in curriculum updates and design instead of handing them a textbook two hours before class begins and expecting a miracle.
8) Increasing the percentage of full-time professors and distributing classes fairly across all faculty.
9) Ensuring that the professors teaching the most vulnerable students are not themselves vulnerable.
Notably, the solution offered in this article is further, dubious, corporate-sponsored training—the same “solution” crippling K-12. Until the corporatization of education at all levels is halted and funding increased across the board for educators, providing them with stable jobs and livable wages, students will continue to get less than they should from all but the most elite institutions. Teacher and professor working conditions are student learning conditions.
Ann Kottner, M.A.
Adjunct Professor, English, New Jersey City University
AFT Local 1839 Executive Committee Member
New Faculty Majority Board Member
Robert Craig Baum, Ph.D.
Founder and Master Teacher, Wisdom1096
Faculty Fellow, European Graduate School
Adjunct Assistant Professor, Fordham University and St. John’s University
Brianne Bolin, M.A.
Cofounder & Managing Director, PrecariCorps
Adjunct Faculty, Columbia College Chicago, 2005-2016
Joseph Fruscione, Ph.D.
Cofounder & Communications Director, PrecariCorps
Adjunct Professor, 1999-2014
Laura PJ Larsen
Parent of an English/Education major, Portland State University
Payer of the college loans and expecting excellent, supported instructors for the cost
BA, Dartmouth College 1992
MA, University of Vermont 1998
PhD Candidate, University of Connecticut expected 2017
20 years of teaching experience and positive student evaluations
Adjunct Professor of History at Holyoke Community College
Karen Lentz Madison, Ph.D.
Adjunct Faculty, English, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
New Faculty Majority Board Member
Committee for Contingent Labor in the Profession (MLA’s CCLIP), Past Chair
College English Association, Past President
Robin Meade, M.B.A., PMP, CMP
Adjunct Professor of Business, Triton College
AAUP Committee A
Past President of the Moraine Valley Adjunct Faculty Organization
Lisa Robertson, M.A.
Adjunct Instructor of Art History, Cleveland State University, 2002-2016
Volunteer, Ohio Higher Education Coalition and New Faculty Majority
Lydia Snow, M.A.
Music Instructor, Northeastern Illinois University
Delegate, UPI 4100
City Colleges Contingent Labor Organizing Committee
City Colleges of Chicago’s Adjunct Labor Union
Cristián Gómez Olivares
Case Western Reserve University
[Please add further signatures here.]
Filing Unemployment for #AdjunctSummer: The Illinois Academic Personnel Questionnaire
by Brianne Bolin
Two weeks after filing for unemployment, I received it in my mailbox—a finely-wrought series of questions that seem to function as trip wires and booby traps designed to deny academics unemployment but which actually serve to help the state agency determine whether the reasonable assurance clause in federal law is applicable or not, as President of New Faculty Majority (NFM) Maria Maisto explained. The Illinois Academic Personnel Questionnaire was written with the K-12 instructor in mind, which is evident in question sequences about substitute teaching, and reveals a clear lack of knowledge about how higher education employment functions in the post-NAWD economy, evident in phrases like paid sabbatical.
You should know two things: 1) NFM, AFT, NEA, and SEIU have been in conversations with the Department of Labor to issue new guidance to state agencies about the inapplicability of a key clause in federal law to the situation of contingent faculty, and 2) We should share all unemployment information and stories with NFM so they can present them as further evidence to the DOL and to state agencies of the ways in which contingent faculty are being denied their right to unemployment compensation.
Before the series of questions begins, the state warns us that we are ineligible if we are in a break between terms/years or have “reasonable assurance” that we will work next term/year, but neither apply. We aren’t often given summer classes, although our schools are still in session, so we aren’t in fact in a break between terms. Due to the precarious nature of our jobs and “contracts,” a word that must always be put in quotes if we use it at all, we never have “reasonable assurance” of work.
So, what are the questions, and how should we answer them so the state can understand this as we do?
First, it asks basics like name of employer and dates of employment.
Second: Did your employment end with the end of an academic year or term, or at the start of a vacation period or holiday recess? Yes/No. In my case, the answer is yes, as my assignment was complete after May 15th, and I was not given any summer classes.
Third: What is the reason for your unemployment? (Select One):
☐Customary vacation period
☐Other:____________ (Please explain)
As none of the above euphemisms describe a typical #AdjunctSummer and the reasons behind it, “Other” is the only appropriate answer. My explanation was simple: although my school has a summer term, I was not offered any courses or additional work.
Maisto gave me this advice: “You can make the case that the next academic term is the summer and that you have no assignment for the summer term. Some people have been successful with this argument, especially since more and more schools are offering more and more summer classes. If they come back with a claim that summer is not an academic term, then the next move is to say that even if the next term is fall, you do not have reasonable assurance. As a contingent faculty member, by definition, you do not have reasonable assurance for any future work.”
The next question that requires closer attention has to do with our “contracts” for fall semester: Do you have written, verbal or implied agreement to work for an academic institution in the next academic year, term or the period immediately following the vacation period or holiday recess? Yes/No. Maisto advises us to answer No: “Be ready to supply any documentation from your employment documents that has the inevitable language that asserts the institution’s ‘right’ to rescind the course assignment for any reason including funding and enrollment.” At Columbia College Chicago, this document is called an Adjunct Faculty Teaching Assignment Form, and it includes four sentences that admit to the precarity of our work:
As always the final decision of who teaches each course is the sole prerogative of the department chair. No teaching assignment can be considered final until student registration is completed [underlining in the original]. In the event that one or all of the classes listed below are cancelled, you will receive the $250 cancellation fee per course as defined in the PFAC [Part-Time Faculty Union at Columbia] agreement. In the event your teaching assignment changes during the semester, your department will complete a teaching re-assignment form, send a copy to the Provost’s Office, and give you a copy for your records.
Whatever the rationale, be it budgetary restrictions, underenrollment, your department or administration failing to follow your union’s collective bargaining agreement, a full-time or tenure-track instructor’s course not filling, or a graduate student needing a course for practicum, it’s more likely that we won’t have the same schedule we were originally offered when the semester begins. Keep in mind the adjunct truth that it’s more likely for us to lose classes than to maintain them. We all have stories about that, even those of us with a union. That’s what unfair labor practices (ULPs) are for.
So when you answer the next yes/no question, Do you have reason to believe that you will be rehired to work for the next academic year or term?, answer No. Maisto advises us to be prepared to provide evidence of our own or other adjuncts’ courses being withdrawn after the initial offer, so save those emails, talk to your colleagues and unions if you have them, collect documentation, and be ready to defend your right to stable, predictable employment.
Here we share personal posts, experiences and messages from the PrecariCorps crew. For more about PrecariCorps, who we are and what we do, feel free to peruse our site. For more from adjuncts nationwide, check out our True Stories page.