During National Adjunct Action Week, Feb. 23-27, union-represented adjuncts joined with actions that ranged from creative picketing to teach-ins to in-class explanations of adjunct issues. These were designed to call attention to and illustrate the stigma of being an adjunct and the commitment to changing adjuncts’ status from second-class workers to well-respected, well-trained, well-paid workers with benefits and supportive working conditions.
On a much quieter note, and with the expectation that over time adjunct working conditions can and will be improved through various union and institutional initiatives, is there something that we (the ed-tech-for-adjunct-faculty fan club) can do to reduce the thorny prick of chronic daily irritants affecting part-time adjuncts–and their part-time students?
Picture a Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot, perhaps at sunrise or dusk. Two drivers sitin two parked cars on opposite sides of the lot. The drivers happen to be part-time instructors at the same community college, where they teach different sections of the same course. It would be great if they knew they were both dealing with the same classroom challenge—but they don’t: They’re so pressed for time, they have to steal an hour in the parking lot to work undisturbed…even though talking to each other to resolve that common problem would help them get a lot more work done a lot more efficiently.
To me, this parking lot illustrates the challenges facing part-time students and part-time educators at community colleges: Commuters who travel back and forth between work, home, and school—in the case of adjuncts, between multiple campuses—and who often work in isolation from their peers.
National Adjunct Walkout Day, on Feb. 25, became Adjunct Action Week (Feb. 23-27 ). We heard activists demanding equal pay for equal work, decent benefits, job security, and supportive working conditions, including academic freedom, for contingent instructors. In the meantime, entrepreneurs and researchers have been quietly chipping away at smaller adjunct issues. Theirs isn’t the galvanizing fight over unionizing adjuncts, but rather, the workday struggles of adjuncts. With roughly 70% of community college instructors falling into the adjunct camp (and 70% of community college students attending school part-time), there are means at our disposable to start alleviating these everyday stresses now.
Where does the trouble start? On-demand access to teaching resources is one place.
Let’s look at technology. To do their jobs, contingent faculty rely primarily on learning management systems (LMS). But this technology often fails to meet instructor (and student) needs. For one thing, resources become confined within the LMS. Think of an adjunct who’s teaching a Political Science 101 course at multiple colleges. Our part-time adjunct (Prof. PT) has digital assets ready to go: syllabus, teaching resources, reference materials.
The problem is, each college has its own LMS, which means Prof. PT can’t easily transfer those materials between college ”walled gardens”…so our Prof. PT has to do the same prep work all over again, creating a new collection of materials and “courseware” for each college at which s/he teaches. Adjunct professors are freelance education professionals and need to protect their intellectual property. If they don’t, an institution can use or disseminate Prof. PT’s courseware without his/her consent—simply because it’s contained within the institution’s LMS.
Adjuncts also lack the resources that facilitate faculty-student interaction. Chances are that our part-time adjunct doesn’t have an on-campus office, which makes it pretty tough to schedule office hours with students. Yet the most important factor in student success, according to a 2013 report, is interaction with faculty. Limiting these opportunities hurts student performance.
In addition, adjuncts have limited access to two kinds of human resources: professional development support and peer communities. These are traditionally campus-based, but adjuncts are not based on campus—they’re on the go and largely on their own when it comes to professional development. The Coalition on the Academic Workforce considers this reality “another indicator that institutions are not investing in maintaining and improving the quality of instruction,” which—you guessed it—hits the neediest college students the hardest.
Researchers and startups such as Open Assembly are collaborating to figure out how technology can provide the greatest benefit and user experience for faculty and students. By sheer numbers the majority of these users are adjuncts and the non-traditional “new student majority.” These companies are exploring tech solutions that use existing LMS technology more effectively by extending its capabilities.
Campus technology that first and foremost serves its core users, the students and instructors, helps everyone work more efficiently. For adjuncts teaching on multiple campuses or multiple courses within the same subject, user-focused tech reduces duplication of tasks—no more reinventing the curriculum wheel all over again. Serving teachers first also means recognizing their intellectual property and giving them control of the IP that they have created on their own time and their own dime. This can give adjunct faculty more agency and perhaps eventually, more academic freedom.
Community colleges also need to do a better job of fostering greater interaction between learners and educators, and between the instructors themselves. Since colleges don’t provide enough private campus spaces for student-instructor conversations, how about creating private virtual spaces? Under the current professional, and even technological, structure of community colleges, adjuncts also have limited opportunities to connect and interact with colleagues. Since contingent faculty are not rooted on any one campus, they need an on-demand digital space in which they can share best practices with peers and colleagues, and social media isn’t going to cut it. They need adjunct-managed, adjunct-centered peer communities.
If an institution provides the flexible technology that can handle these suggested solutions, along with support from campus administrators, colleges can achieve a high ROE: return on education. What does high ROE look like? For starters, increased student engagement and success; improved efficiency of instructors and instruction; lower turnover rates among contingent faculty. All of which drive down costs for institutions.
Maria Maisto, English instructor at Cuyahoga Community College, member of the MLA Committee on Academic Freedom and Professional Rights and Responsibilities, and president of the New Faculty Majority, which advocates on behalf of contingent faculty, has said that “authentic learning cannot take place in isolation.” Teachers and students who participate in that learning must belong to a community.
When they don’t belong to a community, they end up like our lonely drivers at the beginning of our story, on opposite sides of that empty, sprawling parking lot: struggling to work in the in-between hours they have, with too little time, and no one to reach out to in a pinch.