How to Screw an Adjunct Part III: Creative Scheduling

Good Adjuncts,

So now that you’ve got “priority of assignment” and a degree of seniority, think you’re safe? Well, get on the wrong side of a dean and or scheduler and you might find there’s yet another way to screw an adjunct—call it “creative” scheduling.

Now any adjunct who has worked at an institution for more than five years is no stranger to the odd schedule or two. What I’m talking about is when the schedule is used against you like a weapon.

Perhaps the most venal example of this I’ve seen of late was the case of a few adjuncts who their dean, as I have mentioned before, had unsuccessfully tried to remove by effectively questioning their equivalency status. As it turned out, the dean had previously scheduled them for classes that would have worked with their schedule, which like most adjuncts, is an interesting patchwork of classes all over the place.

When their equivalency status was put into question, they were pulled from those classes. Resolving the equivalency issue with these adjuncts actually took over a month. During this time, some of the teachers’ classes were re-assigned, while another, fearing the loss of income, took classes in her previously scheduled time slot.
The union managed to prevail on the equivalency issue, but by this time, the damage was done, and two of these adjuncts were given offerings at times that were either highly inconvenient, or simply impossible to take due to a scheduling conflict. One adjunct was able to make it work, the other had to refuse the assignment, which along with the lost classes meant the loss of her hiring priority. In the end, the dean got her wish—this adjunct wasn’t going to be working at the college anymore.

All of the adjuncts I mentioned here had “Priority of Assignment.” In theory, they have a guarantee for work. Still, contrary to popular notion, “Priority of Assignment,” which is sometimes also called “Vesting” at some colleges, is not, as some deans, department chairs, and VP’s of Instruction try to define it, “tenure for adjuncts.” A full-timer with tenure is more or less guaranteed a job for which they are evaluated once every three years, and then must be absolutely appalling in order to get fired. And when I say appalling, I could speak of such teachers who taught strictly from books, would go months without returning any student work, and were either confusing or extremely condescending to their students.

An adjunct with “priority of assignment” is a teacher that is only promised a certain number of classes in a following term provided there is a need for the classes. There’s nothing which says that dean can’t effectively offer you classes at a different time or location. This means the dean, should he or she have the notion to, can schedule an adjunct where they will because a guarantee of load is not the same as a guarantee of specific classes.

Before I go further, I don’t want to make all deans or schedulers (usually department chairs) out to be devious, agenda-driven people. In fact, this is generally a very small number of deans and schedulers. Most dean and schedulers, quite frankly, are very busy and have other things to do, and prefer consistency when scheduling, and so they want to keep as many people in predictable and preferred places as possible.

Still, this doesn’t mean that they can’t or won’t use the schedule as a weapon.

In many ways, the bigger problem with a schedule is that once a scheduler has put you in a certain place with certain classes, you can be sure that you will always get those classes, or have to tread very lightly in requesting changes. This is how people who are qualified to teach a variety of classes may get forced to languish with a certain class or classes with no real hope of change.

What can be even worse is if you’re put into an off-campus assignment, you may find yourself effectively removed from departmental culture for years, particularly if the department chooses to schedule its meetings midday and midweek. And without that departmental connection, one can get hurt in the evaluations process, or lack the information to present oneself as a credible candidate for a full-time position.

Perhaps worst of all in this regard is if you’re teaching a lower level basic skills class that gets converted to self-study or is simply eliminated. This is in fact when deans begin to get devious as they realize they may not have the classes they want you to take, and realize that they must displace less senior teachers in order to absorb you into classes you have never taught.

As I’ve said here, even with priority of assignment, a union’s hands can be tied. What’s a solution? Well, to a degree having priority of assignment with senior adjuncts getting their load before less senior adjuncts helps. What’s more important is for an adjunct to keep connected with their deans and schedulers, and by this, I don’t mean, kiss their ass. Check in with them now and again. Be friendly, and stay connected with the department. Let them know when you can be flexible, and when you can, be so, without being a doormat (i.e. taking that five week-class taught at a hog plant for five hours a meeting on Saturday afternoons.)

Sometimes Good Adjuncts, the only weapon we really have is to be proactive.

Geoff Johnson
A “Good” Adjunct


Many Roads to Plow: My Speech at SD Mesa College

Let me start by stating that nothing of what you’ll hear is any kind of personal complaint. In fact, I told myself a while ago that no one had expected me here and that the life with liberty and adjuncts for all was ultimately my choice.

So, what should I tell you about part-time professors, these critical thinkers in critical state, freeway flyers navigating neo-liberal detours?

I should probably tell you that being paid by the course at about one-third of the rate a full-time colleague would receive does not sound fair. In other words, college can get three professors for the price of one—no wonder, such a bargain of Wal-Mart proportions has turned 73% of the entire college faculty nationwide into adjuncts. And most of us are as qualified as the fortunate 27%. Worse still, there are only few courses that an adjunct is allowed to teach each semester at a certain school. And once the economy turns south, the precious few courses available for adjuncts to teach become even scarcer.

I should probably tell you that for most adjuncts, the end of a semester doesn’t give much relief, but rather stirs anxiety because adjuncts’ meager income tapers off fast and it’s never clear if jobs will be available next term. My recent winter break is a good example: I had looked forward to it, to the time it would free for writing. By the second week of January, though, two of my spring classes got on the brink of cancellation due to low enrollment. This discovery effectively deterred me from the projects so dear to me. Still, winter challenges for my adjunct self were not over just yet. In the middle of January, I got a note from Harvard that my son was selected for clinical trials. Of course, I could not deny him this life-improving opportunity, and soon we found ourselves sightseeing in the snowstorms on the Atlantic coast. . .

.              .              .              .              .              .              .              .              .              .              .

Hardly had we boarded the westbound jet at Logan Airport, our captain announced that the flight had to wait for crews to plow away the snow. A barely employed and nearly snowed-in freeway flyer, I just sat there—it was a Saturday, after all—peering through the impossible snowfall, pondering all that shoveling ahead.

Thank you for coming! We all need to work together to plow our roads clear!

How to Screw an Adjunct Part II: That Awkward, Off-Campus Assignment


Good Adjuncts:

While in the last essay I talked primarily about how older adjuncts are victimized by Deans, Department Chairs, and other faculty for being effectively “obsolete,” there is a practice which, whether intentionally or no, works as either a sort of “trial by fire” for new adjuncts, or a “we’re sending you to Australia” for any adjunct that runs afoul of the powers that be—that awkward off-campus assignment.

I recall my own experience with this. In May of 2002, I had just come back from living in Japan for nine years and was looking for a teaching position. Considering that it was already May and that the scheduling for Fall Semester classes had been done months prior, there had appeared to be no chance I would get any work at all. I stress this because the scheduler who gave me the class did and does in fact care about adjuncts and was in fact doing me a great kindness to give me anything at all. I will however say that this is often not the case. I will also say that the assignment I got was still a bit of a challenge.

Having taught English either at the college level, or for academic purposes abroad for some 15 years prior, I was a bit seasoned, but I wasn’t entirely prepared to be teaching a class at the MCRD, or Marine Corps Recruiting Depot, where I was to teach almost exclusively older military personnel from different branches of the service. Some were straight arrow career folks, others were “I joined the service, now get me outta here,” and I had one guy who had some interesting theories about the pyramids…, but I digress. The bigger issue is that I was encouraged to teach a theme-based English course based around the topic of “California” and save one person, none of the students was from California, or had in fact lived anywhere but in or around a military base in California for more than five years. One young woman in the class, born and bred in Alabama, was in the Navy and lived on the ship. Of California she knew of the San Diego Embarcadero and the MCRD.

To add to the fun, the room I taught in had a broken TV and VCR, a filthy whiteboard, no computers, and had stadium-style seating with 30+ year old furniture, and had the general cleanliness of a fraternity house. Further, because we were off campus, it made the research-writing component of the course difficult because no one had access to the library. For one class, I actually arranged a field trip to the local library so that students could go off and work there independently with my guidance. When we got to the library, just before the students went to their separate areas, I was informed by the head librarian that this is not how “things are done.” We all still stayed in the library and worked, under a watchful eye, with the librarian in the back of her head likely realizing, after I told her about the situation, that for me to have them write a research paper without guidance in how to do research was like making “bricks without straw.”

And no, because it was an evening class and the school didn’t have the facilities as yet, doing the generic library studies class wasn’t an option.

Anyway, I survived that class, in part because I was so used to dealing with curricular chaos and lack of planning in Japan where I learned you just have to make do. The problem is, many adjuncts don’t, especially new adjuncts, which too often means after just one semester the adjunct is not simply an ex-adjunct, but an ex-teacher.

I must confess that I quite often get complaints like these from other adjuncts, or ex-adjuncts who have lost classes with a particular school because of being put into a situation for which they were never ready.

First, let’s take a look generally at who new adjuncts are and where they have come from.

Most new adjuncts are people who have just finished up an MA or PhD, or are in the process of completing the latter. If they have had any teaching experience at all, it has most likely been with groups of college undergraduates, mostly around the ages of 18-20 who came to college directly out of high school, and who have been inculcated in college culture. I won’t even touch the socio-economic, cultural diversity issues here except say, life in urban community colleges means greater socio-economic and cultural diversity issues are more significant. These adjuncts are more likely to have a presumption that community college students have would the same level of preparedness or connectedness to education and the classroom environment, and as many of these new adjuncts must quickly learn, they do not.

Now add to this problem that a class off campus, often with poor local resources, taking place at night or on a weekend, and you may have an idea that the new, and relatively untrained instructor can quickly be in trouble.

Why does this happen? The reason is two-fold–One dealing with administrators, the other with full-timer culture.

Most Vice Presidents of Instruction at California Community Colleges, and you can assume it applies nationwide, are constantly chasing funding. They’re after getting those would-be students in classes (provided they can pack the classes as much as possible), and so, to put it mildly, they will often great “creative” with class offerings.

Now don’t get me wrong, as community colleges, by their very mission are there to educate the community, they should be reaching out to students by having classes in evenings, on weekends, and at times, at schools or centers, where they can better serve their communities. However, this idea has led to some very dubious sorts of situations. Having classes at places like military centers is great, but too often, when it comes to resources, neither the military or the community college district will care about providing the proper resources, each assuming it’s the other party’s responsibility. Having classes at high schools to provide students with that “college” experience (why not just let them take a college class directly?), really only works if the students are actually college ready.

I knew of one poor adjunct who taught a Math class at a high school where many of the students had chosen the class simply because their buddies, boyfriends, or girlfriends were in it. If he left the room, he had to worry about students drawing a penis on the board. Being as he was fresh out of graduate school, he found himself flummoxed and angry. Further, the department chair who gave him the class never visited the site. At the end of the day, the teacher did OK on his peer evaluation (by a teacher other than the department head), but as he didn’t build rapport with the students, the high school principal of the program wanted him gone, and so he was. Now he could have been given an on-campus Math class with a more mature student body the next semester, but he was simply not re-hired.

The problem I have with this, more than anything else, is that I have the impression this was a person who could have been a good teacher in time and an asset to his department. I also think that, in light of the situation, that a seasoned full-time instructor would have been a better fit.

Well now why doesn’t that happen?

Now we have to talk about full-time culture. As full-timers are effectively the anointed ones, they get first choice in classes. Now clearly, full-timers need to get the numbers of classes they are required to, and in that sense they should have priority, but at the same time, if you are working for a single institution which has more or less guaranteed lifetime employment barring some really egregious teaching or behavior, that should obligate you to serve the best interests of the institution by on regular occasion teaching an occasional off-campus assignment, or at least trading off on it with some of your other full-time colleagues. In truth, most full-timers try to schedule their classes to start after 9:00 AM and finish around 3:00 PM, and if they can swing it, not get scheduled for any classes on Friday.

To be fair, I know many a full-timer who don’t do this, but I sadly know even more who do.

This means adjuncts having to teach on the margins, often by what can best be called the old “horseshoe” schedule, where he/she will teach a class at 7:00 AM or 8:00 AM, perhaps go teach on another campus, if they can get the work, then show up in the evening for that special 7:00-10:00 PM class. It is these classes, at the far ends of the schedule, which are more likely off campus, and in the realm of the adjunct.

And understand why adjuncts do this—it’s a case of desperation and that extremely misplaced notion that if I “take one for the team” that they (a hiring committee) will think highly of you come full-time job opening time.

And I know this because this is why I took those classes.

When I came back from Japan, I was so desperate to find work to support my family that I would have taught English from 12:00-4:00 AM in a broom closet in a liquor store, and I not so jokingly told my scheduler this. If teaching such a class like this is the pedagogical equivalent of selling a kidney, let’s just say there’s been an active organ market in academia for some time now.

I also had some strange notion that the full-time faculty appreciated me, and I suppose the scheduler may have, but mostly to the extent that he didn’t have to pull his hair out finding an another adjunct ready to fall on his/her own sword.

In the end though, all I did, besides support my family, was insure the practice of that “awkward off- campus” assignment could persist.

Administrators and full-time faculty need to sit down at a big table and really start thinking about how their behavior in regard to first offering, then staffing these classes does not serve the best interests of the institution. If you’re going to offer these classes at off-campus sites, ensure that the proper resources will be there for a teacher to do his/her job. Second, think seriously about the student population that’s going to be served and whether they are actually ready for such coursework, or if it’s really necessary for the community college to be involved away from its main domain. Third, staff more of these classes with veteran full-timers who know these populations and are more ready for the job. And finally, if you’re going to put a young adjunct out there, MENTOR HIM OR HER. Don’t just assign and forget and hope that things will turn out alright.

The adjunct you help might just become the full-time employee that will shine for you.

Geoff Johnson

A “Good” Adjunct