Sunday, May 07, 2017

Thoughts on Not Hiring Local Adjuncts

I've been involved in a couple searches recently, from a variety of angles.  For each of them, some NWU adjuncts* applied.  And none of them were hired.  And now a couple are really angry. 

I know some adjuncts ask how it is that we're willing to keep them as adjuncts, but not hire them as tenure track faculty.  The answer is that there's much more competition for tenure track jobs.  Someone who applies for one of our newer adjunct positions is usually fresh out of a grad program, has some conference presentations, is abd or just finished, and has a good record of grad school teaching.  They write an application letter, do a phone interview, and are hired by the chair.  The job description says nothing about scholarly activity, so that's not something the chair can ask about.

In contrast, the folks who stood out in our tenure track searches generally had a publication or two, conference presentations, a good record of grad school teaching, good references, and what made them stand out to get the interview were stellar letters of application.  What makes the letters stellar always includes addressing the things we put in our job description, and says meaningful things about those.

From the stellar letters, we looked at CVs, and letters of recommendation, and then writing samples to narrow down the pool further.  We care about scholarly activity and teaching.  But no one got an interview that I know of unless they had a stellar letter.

What makes a stellar letter?

One of the candidates who isn't mad and I talked for a good while about their letter.  They sent me a letter of application for a different job, and a job description for that job.  So I used different colored highlighters to highlight the things the job description said were important, and prioritized those.  And then I used the same colors to highlight in the candidate's letter where they addressed those things.  That made the lack of addressing the job description really visible.

For example, this job description said it valued candidates who could contribute to diversity.  On first glance, a white candidate might think that means only a candidate who's a person of color.  But what it means is that everyone needs to learn about diversity, and especially about working well with diverse students and colleagues, and about contributing to diversity efforts on campus.  So, for example, this adjunct mentioned in their letter that they worked with a diverse student body.  And that was it.  But in reality, when I asked the candidate, they'd made at least some effort to learn about effective teaching for a diverse student body.  But they hadn't talked about it in their letter and it didn't show on the CV, so how was the search committee to know?

I did suggest to the candidate that they could do more, start a reading group for the adjuncts across campus, maybe, to take on some leadership in contributing to diversity.

The thing is, unless a letter tells the search committee that you actually can contribute in the required and valued areas of the description, the search committee won't know.  And they don't have time to go look you up on the web to learn more because someone else's letter did tell them that information, and made it sound meaningful and committed.

So, let's hear: why do your schools hire or not hire adjuncts?

*When I use "adjuncts" in this post, I mean any teaching staff who aren't on a tenure-track contract.  These may be full time or part time, and may have a variety of different names, even on one campus.


  1. We have hired many former adjuncts on our campus---those who are competitive in a national search (where we get 120-200 applicants), and who have shown that they are willing and able to engage as a colleague (by attending dept. meetings, even though they don't "have" to; by continuing their scholarly work in some way, by engaging with the campus in some way, etc.). Basically, adjuncts who get hired on the tenure track get hired because they went beyond teaching their classes---despite not getting any pay for that "extra" work. So we effectively suggest that only those adjuncts who have the time and funding to voluntarily act like tenure track faculty have a shot at a tenure track opening.

    That extra work is probably why I got a tenure track job in English during the worst year for English PhD's, 1995 (though at a different college than the one where I adjuncted).

    So I agree with this. But, I also see that we are asking adults to do that extra work without compensation or reward, possibly for years, and that is just wrong.

    1. I have conflicted feelings about this response. On the one hand, I agree that adjuncts are under pressure to stand out as applicants, just like everyone else when a search brings in 120-200 applications. However, I strongly disagree with the notion that adjuncts should be expected to go "beyond teaching their classes." This is what they were hired, for a pittance most often, to do and are often doing at multiple institutions to guarantee some kind of a living. In my previous experience as an adjunct, if I had chosen to attend faculty meetings, it would have been under the banner of "do not speak unless spoken to" and in a purely non-voting, observer capacity. I'm not sure what benefit there would have been for either me or the department. I preferred to reserve my time for going above and beyond in the classroom, where it counted, considering the terms of my employment.

    2. Thanks for your replies. I think one of the ways my department has changed for the better is that we're now very explicit about trying to balance welcoming our adjunct colleagues to participate as fully as they want (they can serve on committees, and can vote at meetings, except where there's an explicit requirement, so the personnel committee, which requires tenure, and the grad committee, which requires grad faculty status) while being very upfront that we cannot legally count anything they do in their evaluations.

      We're not perfect, but we talk openly about trying to balance these.

      We're also very explicit that in searches, we can only evaluate information submitted by candidates. That doesn't mean that we aren't rooting for an adjunct (I was), but it can't be considered legally (so I didn't). So we're explicit in saying that we can't call an old friend to get an inside scoop, too. Again, we're not perfect, but we're trying to treat every candidate fairly.

      (Our legal eagle is pretty clear about the legal requirements.)

  2. This is such a tricky issue, for reasons that both you and Stacey name. As a long-time full-time contingent faculty member (terminology does vary, but at least in my experience "contingent" seems like the best umbrella term for non-tenure-track faculty. Though it's rarely part of anyone's formal title, it describes the situation pretty well), I, too, have observed some of the patterns Stacey mentions, except that at my institution the most common way to move from NTT to TT is to be married to a TT faculty member and get dual outside offers.

    Otherwise, even if my department regularly hired contingent faculty members who are not married to other members of the department to TT slots, the numbers would work against any one contingent faculty member, since we've got about as many contingent faculty members as TT ones, and we're not about to replace the whole faculty of the department every few years. I believe the numbers work out in a similar way nationwide: most contingent faculty are not going to move onto the TT, however much they contribute to their departments, or their tailor their letters, unless contingent lines are converted to TT ones.

    The other issue, of course, is that TT jobs tend to be much much more narrowly defined when it comes to academic specialty than NTT ones. So one has to be a standout adjunct (on one's own time/dime) *and* happen to be in a department where a TT faculty member in one's particular specialty happens to retire, die, or move on for other reasons.

    1. The question of research and research potential is, I think, even trickier, and is too often seen from the perspective of a "normal" academic career (i.e. one where the faculty member moves into a TT job within a few years of graduation). All too often, I fear, the recent grad who's managed to publish several articles while teaching a relatively light load as a grad TA is viewed as having greater research potential than the experienced contingent faculty member who may have published only twice as much in 3-4x as many years, but has much greater and more varied teaching experience, not to mention a sustained record of successfully juggling teaching and research/writing (and, quite possibly, a substantial backlog of research ideas to draw on).

      Search committees often seem much more willing to gamble that a relatively inexperienced candidate can keep up or increase hir rate of writing and publishing while taking on much heavier and more varied teaching responsibilities than the candidate has faced before than they are to gamble that someone with extensive teaching experience and a slow-but-steady research record can significantly increase hir research productivity given a lighter teaching load and other supports for research that come along with a TT job. It's a gamble either way, but for some reason the longtime contingent looks like more of a gamble to many search committees than then new graduate (to the extent that many simply throw out applications from people who've gotten more than a few years beyond graduation without landing a TT job). That rankles a bit.

      Similarly, as a contingent faculty member, I notice not only my own department's willingness/unwillingness to hire its own contingent faculty members, but also its willingness to hire people who've amassed comparable experience in either contingent or teaching-focused TT positions elsewhere. If TT hires tend to be almost all new graduates, that tends to suggest not only a lack of imagination on the part of our TT colleagues, but also a certain degree of blindness to or even willful denial of the fact that longtime contingent faculty members can also be both effective teachers and productive scholars.

    2. Thanks, Contingent Cassandra,

      You're absolutely right about the numbers weighing against contingent folks ever getting on the tenure track.

      My department has, indeed, favored straight folks married to a TT faculty member. There's no denying that.

      But we've hired other contingent colleagues to the TT, just not in the latest searches I'm thinking of (which span more than my department).

      And we have a history of hiring people who've had a year or two of seasoning in various ways. But not always.

      I think the biggest factor is that there aren't as many TT jobs as there are qualified candidates. I don't know how to change that certainly not from within my position at this regional school with no PhD program.

  3. Boy, this is tough. I've seen it at both of my jobs, too, and there are so often hard feelings among the adjuncts, and it isn't always possible to talk frankly with them about why they aren't competitive--so kudos to your non-mad candidate for (I presume) asking how to improve, and to you for taking the time.

    At both of my jobs, the issue has usually been that the adjuncts just don't have some material qualification, usually publications (but in one case, the candidate hadn't even finished his PhD and didn't have a defense date, etc., and was still outraged that he didn't get an interview). I think the adjuncts often think that we're being snobs, or that we don't value a bird in the hand, or something like that, and maybe that's true at some places but I don't think it has been with any of the situations I know about. It's not only that they aren't competitive in a national pool; it's that they often don't even meet minima for the posted job.

    I've also sometimes heard snobbish things from adjuncts themselves that make things worse. Some recent PhDs from a local private R1 (the kind of place that's a big deal locally but whose English PhD program is not a notable strength) are prone to making negative comparisons between their awesome alma mater and us unglamorous underfunded publics, implying that we'd be *lucky* to get someone of their caliber. Maybe that's a defense mechanism, but it comes across as a lack of respect for both our students and our faculty. I also hear about how they're the ones really in the trenches doing all the hard work, and we're just using up their cheap labor and so on. There's absolutely some truth to that--our adjuncts are scandalously ill-paid, and the university is now structured to depend too much on their labor. But to the extent that it implies that the rest of us don't teach well, or care about our students or go out of our way to mentor them--even while carrying an increasing service burden because we're losing full-time lines--it sits very poorly.

    1. Thanks, Flavia,

      The adjuncts who applied did have the minimal qualifications (so far as I know), but weren't as strong, mostly because their letters weren't as strong.

      Like your university, NWU is structured so that we depend deeply on adjunct labor, though we at least tend to employ them enough to get benefits, and often full time. (Our pay is low compared to peer institutions for pretty much every position, however, including adjunct positions.)

  4. I don't think we've ever been in the situation where we've had full-time contingent faculty who were qualified for the TT position we have open.

    Instead, we have had several adjunct faculty (mostly practitioners) move up the teaching track ladder, meaning while they don't have tenure, it is more difficult to fire them. I was just looking at the salary schedules, and our most senior person in this position is making 100K/year+, on top of her professional day job. She's worth every penny. Our lowest paid person in this position (a spousal hire whose spouse is in another department) is making 90K. These are not much different than what our TT faculty are making. So the only benefit to getting a TT job is that it's more impossible to fire them, but there are a lot of downsides that come with TT (research requirements, more committee responsibilities, etc.).

    1. Thanks, N&M,

      Holy cow, I really DID go into the wrong field. And I think field is really important in this discussion; English MFAs and PhDs are a dime a dozen compared to economists and such.

    2. Most of these are "and such", but high demand "and such" which means it is difficult to get people with phds and experience and research. So we hire people with 2/3, but not TT. (Think accountants and related fields.)

    3. /nod I understand that accountants, especially, are in high demand. Thanks, N&M!

    4. One of these guys (JD, 77K on top of his day job) just used our faculty list-serve to send out pro-Trump political propaganda. Maybe don't do that. (Or any political propaganda. There's a reason the rest of us haven't sent out emails to the faculty list-serve explaining why the ACHA is economically bad.)

  5. Thanks to the participants in this thread for expanding my experience as an adjunct to the other end of the academic scale. I taught at retirement in the community college located in the same area as NWU. At community colleges nationally 83 percent of the faculty are contingent, meaning part-time. There is no expectation that the full-time faculty there will do research or publish. My surveys of the adjunct faculty show that those who have such credentials are less likely to be hired as full-time. 100 percent of the administrative presentation of the college's work is claimed to be in the name of the students. Apparently anyone who is oriented to advance knowledge rather than repeat what is in the canned textbooks is not locally focused enough.
    The result is that the adjunct faculty is no different from the full-time faculty, except that the full-timers have more courses, five each semester. There is little time for them to do anything beyond teach, advise students, and attend meetings, so I don't envy the tenured. There is very little, if any, difference between the adjunct and full-time at this CC, except that newly hired full-time have little of the teaching experience of the adjuncts who are shut out. By the way, you get tenure after a 3 year probation, and do unless you commit some crime or insult the President. Meanwhile the adjunct faculty are treated as throwaway professors. They have to be "rehired" at the beginning of every semester, and assignments are capricious. Even after classes begin an adjunct can be removed and replaced by another with more seniority or any full-timer whose class didn't fill with students.
    Across the board, but most at the CC level, adjunct hours were cut below the level that would have required their employer to give them health insurance (Obamacare).
    What is shabby treatment at the university level looks not so bad after being slave labor at a CC.

    1. Thanks, Keith,

      Yes, I think Community Colleges are a whole other thing, because TT faculty are teaching a massive load and doing service/advising. Do full time adjuncts teach an even larger load? (Or does your school not have full time adjuncts?)

      Most adjuncts in my department teach enough to get benefits (and most full time), and that's the result of concerted efforts by current and previous chairs.

    2. In general there are no full-time adjuncts at community colleges. However, the contract negotiated in 2013 between the Adjunct Faculty Association (AFA)and Oakton CC, allows up to 60 previously employed adjunct faculty to be hired temporarily for a full year with health benefits. They teach the same load as regular full-time faculty at their previous part-time pay under the title "Affiliated Adjunct" or Affiliates. They also agreed to take on full-time meeting, committee, and advising responsibilities without extra pay in return for health insurance coverage. Ten courses in a year would bring the average adjunct around $30,000 in the community college world.

      There are several types of adjuncts, ranging from students completing their degree at a university while teaching part-time at a college, to a retiree continuing to teach a course or two. The most publicized adjunct is the starting or midcareer academic who wants a full-time position and cobbles together different teaching posts at two or more campuses. This is the type with a large teaching load; I had a colleague with 10 courses at four different colleges in the Chicago area.

      I have studied adjunct faculty through local surveys at Oakton (in conjunction with the AFA) and through secondary analysis of national surveys and studies. I would be happy to answer any questions.

    3. Thanks, Keith, That totally make sense.

      I'm guessing union representation makes a world of difference, no?

  6. As you briefly mention in your post, it's simply a different applicant pool altogether. Many of the best applicants for the tenure track position never applied for the adjunct positions, because they weren't local and wouldn't have moved to your university for a part-time job with no likelihood of a future.

    Generally, adjuncts are hired from the best available nearby, and tenure track people are hired from a bigger pool than that.

    And of course the standards are different for hiring an adjunct. That's not to say an adjunct can't meet *both* standards, but they are different standards.

    1. Thanks, Mark,

      I mostly agree with you about the applicant pools, though I'm often surprised at the folks who are willing to come from far away to teach as adjuncts for us through this one program. Our adjunct applicants are by and large impressive candidates, even if not the top candidates for TT jobs. (I think that speaks to just how miserably hard the job market is.)

  7. Obviously you're right, Bardiac, in that a national pool is different. The ugly truth of academia is that there are TWO heart-breaking and inhumane job systems. There's adjunct employment, and then there's the national job market, and both are terrible. We shouldn't let the miseries of the one we're experiencing keep us from recognizing the miseries of the other.

    On some level, the angry adjuncts want to be able to job the queue of desperate overqualified applicants in that national pool. They don't think of it that way, but that's also part of the truth. It isn't just that an outsider got the job and the locals didn't. The hard truth is that there are other outsiders who also deserved that job, in terms of being amply qualified for it, and didn't get it.

    And if a hot-shot Ivy PhD-grad decided to limit a job search to just one location, announcing that they'd like to stay in Boston/Philadelphia/The Bay Area, that would strike a lot of people as entitled (unless there were overwhelming family reasons) and probably self-defeating (no matter the reasons).

    I think any adjunct or contingent faculty member looking for a secure or tenure-track job should apply as widely as possible, instead of limiting the job search to the place where they are at the moment. And good tenured/secure colleagues should encourage and help them in that search, as it sounds like you've helped the non-angry adjunct.

    Applying for other jobs gets you in touch with what the employment market demands for those jobs, and in touch with the differences between those jobs and the one you have now. (Most tenureable jobs are different from contingent jobs, in that there are expectations beyond teaching.) And applying for outside jobs is the best way to get a job, period.

    It's also healthy, I think, for adjuncts (etc.) to ask their tenured colleagues to observe their teaching in order to provide a teaching letter. How will the local hiring committee know what a great teacher you are if none of them have seen you?

    1. Thanks, Dr. Cleveland,

      You're so very right about the difficult situation for adjuncts and TT folks; we should be cognizant of the difficulties of others' situations, for sure.

      Tenured faculty (personnel committee members) do observe our adjuncts teaching at least every fall semester, and do write up a report. Our chair is especially generous in offering help and support for those on the market, and writes letters (and does observations, application letter reviews, practice interviews, and so forth). We've actually been pretty successful at helping adjuncts in one program get TT jobs. But not totally successful, alas.

  8. richard2:50 PM

    Another issue is the budget practices for higher ed tenure-track lines. When times are bad, there are very few (if any) new lines, and any openings in existing lines are likely to be forfeited, or at least warehoused for better times. So adjuncts remain adjuncts. When times are good, the emphasis in hiring tends to be on expansion, getting new areas of teaching and/or research covered with the tenure-track lines--and again, adjuncts remain adjuncts, in part because they are in known areas, not in exciting new areas for expansion. This isn't some impersonal law of economics; it's the result of decision made by both administrators and tenure-track faculty. And it also undervalues what adjunct faculty bring to the university. But it is something I have observed at several universities now.

    1. Thanks, Richard,

      In my experience, we've been steadily losing lines, with very few opportunities to replace, even. I think my department opened up a line in one new area in the 15+ years I've been here, and it isn't really a very new area. Otherwise, it's pretty much a matter of putting forward three or four positions we really need, and counting ourselves lucky to be allowed to search for one of them. The same holds for other departments (and my search experience includes at least one other department here).

  9. Anonymous12:11 PM

    I think the argument about the quality of the cover letter is certainly a valid point, particularly when an adjunct is applying, as a stranger, to another institution. But if the department members of a particular institution are only learning about one of their adjuncts for the first time by a cover letter for a TT job, shame on them! These adjuncts are people you've hired, people you should consider your colleagues, and people whose underpaid work make your own tenure track jobs possible. You already ought to know so much more about them than they can ever express in a cover letter.

    1. And yet, we're required to evaluate candidates based on the materials they submit. And to be honest, I don't always know about all the training my colleagues did in grad school, or about all their publications, conference presentations, interests.

    2. The rule Bardiac is talking about is part of a crazy thing called "the law," and is designed to prevent buddy hires. Go to the Job Wiki and read the paranoid fears about inside candidates and "fake searches."

      That said, one of the most disastrous cover letters I've ever read was from a candidate who wrote, "I believe that you are familiar with my accomplishments here." That, merits aside, signaled that the candidate was resentful of the search and of the department. In any case, it was a flat refusal to make hir case for hirself, as all of the outside applicants were doing. If you won't advocate for yourself, you make it hard for anyone else to do.

    3. Thanks for your comment, Dr. Cleveland.

      I hate hearing about fake searches.

      That cover letter sounds like a nightmare!

  10. Anonymous3:22 PM

    I was contingent for two years at my community college and at our local regional university. I realized I preferred teaching my CC students, who were facing many more barriers to success, which made their successes much more meaningful vis a vis my work as a teacher. After two years as a contingent faculty member, I applied for and was selected for a tenure track position (in English) and last year I was awarded tenure. At my institution, 70 percent of our English classes, mostly freshman composition, are taught by full timers, and we have full time lecturer positions for the best adjuncts. I am also a coordinator for an area in my discipline, so I stay on top of student evaluations and classroom evaluations for our adjuncts. Our adjuncts are overall very good, and, with one exception, all our TT hires for the past five years came from the adjunct pool.
    I think that some people let themselves down because they do not consider community college teaching, which is very rewarding. Yes, the workload is crazy, but on the plus side, there are so many opportunities to make a valued contribution. I admit that when we are evaluating job applicants, one of our most important evaluation criterion is how each person would fit our mission and institutional profile (95% minority). Those who apply who are obviously not really committed to teaching our students don't stand a chance. One type of applicant we may not take seriously is the person who is blunt that they want a university job and are only applying here out of desperation. We have high expectations for both a teaching commitment and a service commitment, and the dedication to working with our students. A surprising number of applicants are not committed to our mission as a minority serving CC. We don't want anyone who doesn't want to be here, or looks at CCs as a disappointing or desperate career move.
    Maybe that is why our faculty moral is high, despite our lower than average pay.

  11. Thanks for your comment, Anonymous. Congrats on tenure! I'm glad to hear you've been able to hire from your adjuncts.