Saturday, August 30, 2008

Same Old, Same Old

Let's put this in non-English terms.

We have a deepwater basketweaving specialty area within our underwater basketweaving department. Deepwater basketweaving has recently (within the past 20 years) become way more developed as a specialty; before that, interested underwater folks used to teach the class. Or maybe deepwater basketweaving used to be a bigger area, but student interest in other areas has led us to drop our faculty coverage down.

At any rate, it's a specialized area, but any basketweaver knows a little about it, so when we can't cover the intro classes with our TT faculty, the chair calls an adjunct at the last minute and says, basically, hey, want an extra course? And the adjunct, happy for the course and usually eager to please, says sure. The chair breathes a sigh of relief and moves on to other explosive problems.

And because the adjunct is eager to please, s/he gets good student evaluations for the course. And the next time, well, the adjunct is experienced in the field, and so teaches it again, and again, and again. Each time, the adjunct puts in a good effort (because adjuncts work their tails off), coming to deepwater basketweaving from his/her specialization in brackish water basketweaving, or reed preparation.

And eventually, maybe we hire a new deepwater specialist. Or maybe the students feed into the open water basketweaving courses. But at any rate, someone begins to notice and then, after a while, to complain sotto voce that the students really aren't getting what they should be getting in that introductory level course. It's not being taught as a true deepwater course.

Or maybe we realize that we need a TT line in deepwater basketweaving, and our beloved adjunct applies.

In whatever way, we come up against the hard fact that an adjunct we really like, one who has worked his/her tail off for us in all sorts of ways, really isn't doing the job with the deepwater class, but expects to teach it again, or to be looked at seriously for the TT position. And the adjunct has pals. Or the adjunct's spouse teaches in the department (or is an administrator). Or the adjunct got his/her BA or MA here and is geographically limited. So there are people who really want to go to bat for the adjunct. (And always, in my experience, the adjunct is a straight, married, white person who's deeply connected to our area, who looks and talks just like our students, makes jokes about having gone to the local high schools.)

We've been depending on this person we shouldn't have depended on in the first place for this course because it was easy at the time. And a lot of people remember when deepwater wasn't even a specialty, and people from all over covered that course.

So we have a conflict between being jerks to the adjunct, who we've been exploiting all along, or doing a disservice to another colleague (who has to deal with inadequately prepared students) and doing a disservice to our students, who don't even realize they're being cheated.

If you're friends with the adjunct but think we need a real deepwater specialist, what do you do? And what if deepwater specialists aren't too common, and we're going to have a hard time recruiting one because we pay poorly and are far from deepwater research opportunities?


  1. Oh, hell, you just wrote my life. My husband is the adjunct who's been teaching deepwater basketweaving for several years in our department, even though he's trained in brackish water crafts. In our case, though, he's developed a real teaching interest in that area, and does a fantastic job of it. (yeah, I'm biased, but really, he's demonstrably competent in teaching in that area.)

    Still, the department is currently debating how to define a new tenure-track line, and for years we've been talking about filling that need in deepwater weaving (which is why Spouse has had dependable work as an adjunct). Half the dept. thinks he's fantastic and wants to ask for an instructor line to keep him on (so we can use the tenure-track line for river basketweaving, which we also need); the other half has been buried in their own research and hasn't really noticed that he's been teaching all our deepwater courses. If we define the tenure-track line as deepwater, he's out of a job, since his background is just different enough to make him not the picture-perfect candidate.

    So the result of the discussion about this position will pretty much either make us or break us. It's tough to watch.

    So all I'm doing is rephrasing your question, really. I know that the dept. has no particular obligation to make our personal lives easier, but all of those repercussions are still real. I'm intrigued to see others' responses.

  2. P/H's situation is a little different--in that I think it makes institutional sense to think about ways to use the talents available to make sure that the dept's mission is furthered AND that good colleagues are inclined to want to stay. Partner hires are complicated issues, of course, and I understand that no department's needs are served by hiring plans that depend on the random collection of partner talents that may arise--but still, it makes sense for institutions to embrace partner hires given the bizarre realities of the tenure-track job market.

    But onto your question: another angle I'd pull out to look at is the rationale for the *TT* deepwater line. Is your institution a teaching-focused one? I'd argue that TT lines bring an active research speciality to the department that nonTT usually don't. And in moving a subfield from one staffed by nonTT to TT faculty, the dept is upping its investment in research in that area.

    I don't think it does the adjunct any favors to be moved along in a TT search that they aren't qualified for. In my last dept, we had a colleague (with PhD, which not all nonTT faculty had there), in a nonTT line, who repeatedly applied for a TT position in his subfield. Each time, and then repeatedly in annual performance reviews, he would assert that he had an active research agenda, with absolutely no evidence of that. In the first search, he ended up with a campus interview just b/c he was an adjunct, although his CV was so far out of the running for the position as to make the campus visit a total waste of everyone's time. I don't think that does anyone any favors.

    I also don't think it doest anyone any favors to mask the teaching problems you mention building up...which I realize doesn't get to your question about what to do now, but it does make me mad (in general) about the harm created by letting things slide.

  3. The other thing to consider is whether the adjunct is trying to (or is willing to) move towards a deepwater basket-weaving specialty. I know that most people define their research interests (and are defined by) their PhD topic, but there are also people who successfully move into new areas of research and do a great job of it.

    If the dept said to the adjunct, we want to open a tt position that would involve teaching this class, but we want to refocus this course and take it into more central deepwater basketweaving theory/whatever dwbw people do - would you still be interested and what sort of changes would you make to the course? - maybe the adjunct would come up with something really worthwhile.

    We had a partner hire a while back for someone who did something totally different from the two courses she was then asked to take over, but she threw herself into those two new areas to the extent that most of her research is now on those topics because it's what she immerses herself in day and night for teaching purposes. And we are now a strong dept for those two areas in terms of teaching. So the same person has gone from 'someone teaching outside their area' to 'a specialist teaching their own research'.

    Of course, that can only happen if the adjunct wants it.

  4. Thanks for the comments, all.

    P/H, I hope things work out well for you. It sounds like your partner has moved far more into this field than in our situation.

    Susan, Thanks for clarifying some things and making me think harder about the partner issues.

    Styley Geek, Interesting suggestion. In our case, the Deepwater Basketweaving is usually a totally different department at Phud granting universities, so the PhD is in a different field and adjuncts are really stretching. It's not as close as my made up example probably makes it seem.

  5. Ha! You teach at my university, don't you? We've been trying to hire deep-water basketweavers for three years now...except for the tiny fact that we don't offer tenure, and no dw basketweaver in her right mind would come to NW Arkansas, of course. (This gives our brackish adjuncts a better shot.)