The Massachusetts Medievalist on adjunct faculty and home renovation

The Massachusetts Medievalist has been thinking a lot about the vicious relationship between university reliance on adjunct faculty and the abysmal academic job market in this anxiety-producing season: the always terrible market for academic English jobs is now “cratering,” one of many apocalyptic yet appropriate adjectives I’ve seen on social media.

Like many universities across the country, my own institution uses an uncomfortably high number of adjunct faculty, especially in general education “service courses” like English Composition or Intro Psych. In this fall term 2019, for example, core faculty taught only 12% of our first-year writing courses (2 of 17 sections)(n.b.: since our unionized faculty does not have tenure, Lesley uses the term “core” rather than the more usual “tenured or tenure-track”). All parties involved- administrators, adjunct faculty, core faculty, pundit columnists in various media outlets, and the students themselves – agree that this is not an ideal situation. Financial exigency trumps idealism every time, however, and we continue to take advantage of the high number of under-employed academics in metro Boston to staff an uncomfortable number of our undergraduate class sections.

At the same time, the university is rolling out and investing in new programs: a Masters in Social Work, an all-online MBA, a Masters in Mindfulness, and others.  One announcement used the verb “build” to describe these programs and a home improvement analogy immediately occurred to me.

A new academic program is like the spiffy addition to the house: we’ve always wanted to turn that deck into an all-season “solarium” where we can have parties and scout meetings and quiet reading space.  It’ll be shiny and new and fun and we can invite all the neighbors over to admire it. Look at our new all-online MBA!!

Investing in core faculty to teach crucial undergraduate general education classes is like a window replacement project: it’s extremely expensive and at first glance there’s no noticeable difference. Sure, the old windows are single-pane items with no insulation; the casings would probably start to crack from overuse in the next few years. But the new ones look pretty much the same, even though they’re energy efficient: no parties for the neighbors to admire the windows, no shiny new solarium. Look at our first year writing classes that meet the same program requirements and have the same catalog descriptions as in past years!

The difference, however, is that eventually the heating bills go down. The house is less drafty. The faculty can invest in multi-year curriculum development projects, since they know they have a long-term stake in the enterprise.  First year students see their general education faculty in other courses in their majors and elsewhere. A favorite freshman English professor is around campus and easily found for academic and career advice in later years.  At Lesley, we would need to hire 2.5 core faculty to teach just this semester’s adjunct load in first year writing. I don’t think that’s going to happen, but it should.

In an ideal world, we’d replace the windows AND get the new solarium. We don’t live in ideal world, and my university just bought the solarium. But for those playing a long game, the windows are the smarter choice.

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