COVID-19: How adjuncts are impacted

And what higher ed institutions can do to ensure their success—and the success of their students—now that classroom buildings are closing for the semester
Paula M. Krebs is the executive director of the Modern Language Association.
Paula M. Krebs is the executive director of the Modern Language Association.

As colleges and universities move from face-to-face instruction to online teaching and learning, students have been sent home from residence halls, classroom buildings are closed, and professors are scrambling to find out how they can help their students learn for the rest of the semester. But not all students are in the same situation. And not all instructors are either.

With decreased state funding for higher education in recent years, public colleges and universities, and especially community colleges, have come to rely more heavily on low-paid instructors with little to no job security from semester to semester. Institutions of all sorts, including the most exclusive private universities, have embraced the flexibility that comes with hiring temporary instructors instead of committing to tenured positions.

Read: How pass/fail grading may impact equity beyond coronavirus

The results are predictable: more undercompensated casual labor and fewer permanent faculty members, and, so, a smaller group of folks responsible for designing courses and majors, advising students, and generally taking the responsibility of getting students through to graduation.

Never has academia’s labor problem been more visible than now when higher education finds itself having to turn on a dime to make sure students can finish courses that can no longer be taught on campus in classrooms.

My organization serves the English and the world languages departments where up to two-thirds of the students are taught by faculty members who are paid a piecework rate as if they were Victorian seamstresses instead of professionals with years of training and experience. No health insurance. No pension. No guarantee of employment from one semester to the next.

Never has academia’s labor problem been more visible than now when higher education finds itself having to turn on a dime to make sure students can finish courses that can no longer be taught on campus in classrooms.

Reexamining employment practices

We can keep this moment from reinforcing the divide between elite and nonelite in higher education by reexamining our employment practices. The kind of pastoral work necessitated by the pivot to online instruction highlights the need for full-time faculty positions. If we give all faculty members the training and working conditions that enable them to develop a fuller understanding of their students’ needs, they will be able to adjust their teaching to the conditions under which their students are learning.

Built into full-time employment is the assumption that faculty members have the time and energy to tailor their course development to the students they will teach and the whole curriculum into which the individual course fits. Tenure-track faculty members are paid to see the big picture—the course in the major, the major in the whole curriculum, the student’s coursework in the context of the student’s aspirations for the future.

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Most departments and colleges have canceled events and faculty travel this semester. Why not use those funds instead to compensate part-time faculty members for their increased workloads and to help each to become a bigger part of the university? Let’s pay part-time faculty members for participating in the professional development that will enable them to understand and serve their students’ needs better. Professional development helps faculty members to see student needs beyond the syllabus. Training that gives part-time faculty members a better sense of the whole student and, indeed, the whole university will help the institution as well as the instructor.

Helping students—and institutions—succeed

This moment of adjustment in teaching method can allow us to reshape the relationship between students’ coursework and their post-graduation aspirations by making it possible for all of their instructors to focus on their needs. “Going online” with one’s course means adjusting the course to fit the conditions of the moment—the conditions of each student the course is supposed to reach. If an instructor creates an online delivery method that cannot be accessed by one-third of the students, then the class is a failure.

A university’s success in this semester of COVID-19 will come only with deep understanding of and engagement with all students—the students in different time zones, the ones with only cell phones, the ones with access to vast online resources, and the ones working at home at a crowded kitchen table.

Read: How to transition (quickly) to online instruction

Moving online successfully involves considering synchronous vs. asynchronous assignments, individual tutorial and small group work, and the possibility, or not, of whole-group interaction. It is not a matter of putting readings into an LMS and grading essays or quizzes, especially if students have, until two weeks ago, been meeting in person, working in a library, and sitting down together for group assignments.

We should be investing in (paying for the labor of) part-time instructors who have to learn new teaching methods, upload teaching materials, record lectures and scan texts, often on different systems for different colleges. Then, if we expect them to do this training and learn these new methods, we must find ways to guarantee their continued employment with multiyear contracts (including healthcare) that will enable them to continue to advise and work with the students they teach this semester. The next step would be to consolidate part-time positions into full-time, long-term positions.

Read: How one institution supports adjunct faculty

If all the adjunct instructors in the U.S. stopped working right now, refusing to put their courses online unless they were fully compensated for that work and guaranteed that they would be rehired in the fall, many of our students would be left with no credits at all this semester.

We do not ask people to teach our 13-year-olds for less than a living wage, yet we participate in the impoverishment of the professionals who teach those over 18. This moment of crisis brings into stark focus the need for instructors to understand their institutions, their curricula and their resources so they can meet the needs of their students. This can only be done if our institutions give all faculty members the tools, and working conditions, they need.

Paula M. Krebs is the executive director of the Modern Language Association, whose 25,000 members are scholars and faculty members in languages, literature, writing and cultural studies. She previously served as the dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts.

Paula M. Krebs
Paula M. Krebs
Paula M. Krebs is the executive director of the Modern Language Association

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