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

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2 thoughts on “How to Screw an Adjunct Part II: That Awkward, Off-Campus Assignment

  1. Pingback: How to Screw an Adjunct Part III: Creative Scheduling | The Adjunct Crisis

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