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With ever more attention focused on the plight of adjuncts – their burdensome and under-compensated teaching, their outsized role in undergraduate instruction, their cheapened existence in a neoliberal university – I wanted to think out loud about how to treat contingent and temporary teachers.

Obviously, I’m trying to think of a productive middle ground between the hardline stance of prominent critics, who simply say “don’t hire adjuncts,” and the sometimes willful ignorance of those already safely and luckily tucked into the tenure stream at this moment of great transformation.  And more to the point, since temporary teaching appointments are typically made by chairs (in my limited experience at three different institutions), this is something I can actually do.

For those who haven’t been following the news: adjunct faculty, teaching without benefits, with generally pathetic wages, and often marginalized in their departments and institutions, now comprise roughly 70% of the teaching capacity of the American university. Some institutions are worse and some are better, and some specializations are hard hit and others aren’t, but this “adjunctification” is getting worse, as universities look to have a nimbler work force, easily trimmed in moments of crisis or expanded in moments of need, with less exposure to ever-escalating health care costs.  When you hear people talking about universities and colleges as the new “Wal-Mart,” this is what they’re referring to; and when you hear people discuss the unionization of adjuncts, this disturbing process is why.

It can be daunting to imagine making a real change.  And some issues – extending benefits, for instance – are going to be very, very difficult.  But, for any willing chair, there are areas directly under your control that can addressed in fairly short order, I think.

1. As the controller of space in my department, I can guarantee temporary teaching faculty space – an office of their own, either borrowed from someone else on leave or simply assigned out of available rooms. And I can limit the number of these appointments so that they match available space. No office hours at Au Bon Pan, please.  An office is not only for meetings with students, after all.

2. As chief budget officer, I can provide support for research and travel to match that given to tenure stream faculty.  I have to pay for it differently, because some pots of money come from outside the department.  But it can be done, especially if we limit the number of appointments.

3. I can ensure that their teaching is valued by investing in it.  I can ask them to attend workshops on teaching at our local pedagogy center, ask tenured faculty to watch them teach and to place constructive evaluations in their files. If I have a department teaching award under my control, I can include them in the pool of meritorious candidates. I can be prepared, then, to write a letter of recommendation for them if they need it, with a fulsome reference to their work in the classroom.

4. I can take their research seriously, which means giving them an opportunity to share it with our faculty and graduate students and, again, giving them a fair pool of resources.  But it also means that I should care about where they are going as writers, and get them good readers to help them along.

5. I can include them in our faculty meetings as active discussants.  They couldn’t participate in personnel discussions, because their voices and votes wouldn’t be legible to the outside world.  But for the rest, they could help to shape department policy and practice, but only if they were willing and able to do so.

6. I can ensure that they are represented on our website as members of our core faculty.  This means, simply, that they should be mixed up in the alphabetical list of faculty, given a full description of their research and teaching, a picture, a useful title, etc.

7. I can make sure they are paid the best wage possible.  That I take evaluations of their teaching into account when I make decisions about reappointment.  That I meet with them every semester to discuss their work for the department.  And that, when someone asks me, “hey, do you have anyone who does X,Y, or Z,” that I consider these folks as people who represent the department.

8. I can appoint fewer of them, because I’d like to imagine what they can contribute to the department beyond merely generating student credit hours.  I can provide them with a diversity of teaching options.

9. I can be totally candid with them about the chances of their getting a tenure stream job in the department. Those chances aren’t quite zero, but they also aren’t 50/50. And the longer they work off the tenure stream, the less likely they are to match what we’re going to be looking for whenever a search opens up.

10. I can remind myself over and over again that these are not full-time, tenure stream faculty.  And as a consequence, they can’t do more and they have to do less.  In much the same way that we are supposed to attend to the teaching and service of jointly-appointed folks, I need to make sure they perform service that matches their compensation.

11. I can vociferously defend their right to academic freedom.

12. I can ask myself – repeatedly – why my department needs any adjuncts at all.  If the answer is that core faculty aren’t willing to teach some classes, or that adjuncts alone can teach the classes that generate credit hours, then something has gone wrong.  That something doesn’t have anything to do with adjuncts at all.  It has to do with the exploitation of cheap labor for the benefit of a few. And it should be addressed.

Not all of these are possible everywhere, but most of them are.