Which classes should tenure-track faculty deprioritize?


Academia has an adjunct problem. Most of the verbiage on this topic (that I see, at least) focuses on the plight of adjunct faculty.  I agree that this matters, a lot. But, this isn’t the bottom line for the people who are the designated focus of the teaching institutions: the students.

At the top of my list of worries about adjunctification are educational quality and making sure that we do the best for our students.

I am not suggesting that the quality of classroom instruction by adjuncts is better or worse than their tenure-track colleagues. The problem for students isn’t connected to quality in the classroom. It’s about what happens — or doesn’t happen — outside the classroom.

Take, for example:

There lots of explicit or implicit job expectations of tenure-track faculty, which are not expected of contingent faculty, including

  • Academic advising

  • Research with students

  • Mentorship

  • Career advising

  • Sponsorship of student organizations

  • Development of new curricula

Meanwhile, in some universities, adjuncts don’t even have a shared office space.

Nobody expects adjuncts to do the same kind of service, research and student mentorship activities that are part of the role of full-time tenure-track faculty. Tenure-track faculty are expected to interact with the same population of students throughout their undergraduate careers, especially in smaller institutions, which often sell themselves based on the close professional relationships betweens students and faculty.

In my own department, we have been dealing with one dilemma tied to the fact that we don’t have enough tenure-line faculty to teach our courses. Next semester we will, collectively, have more reassigned time for service and student mentorship that we have had in recent memory. This is great for a number of reasons, but it also means that for some courses that we normally teach ourselves, we’ll have to use non-tenure-track instructors.

Which kinds of courses are we supposed to give up ourselves and assign to adjuncts?

Here are the options:

  • Our introductory for-majors courses. We have a 3-semester intro sequence, and each of these is taught by a single tenure-track faculty member. This has been great because the all students get to know these faculty in the department by going through their course (aside from some transfer students). Though I don’t own any of these courses, I chat a lot with my colleagues who do teach these courses to identify students who could join my lab. These courses are foundational for the rest of the major, and we need to be sure that there is consistency in its instruction so that students are well prepared for the upper division. Having a rotating set of instructors in this course wouldn’t be good.

  • Upper-division speciality courses. We happen to have plenty of adjunct instructors who are qualified to teach most of these classes well. Would it be better to have the tenure-track faculty stay in the majors intro courses and leave some specialty courses to adjuncts?

  • Graduate courses. Our courses for the graduate program should, in theory, be taught by research-active faculty. However, there are so few of us that we are also needed for other parts of the curriculum. Teaching the graduate courses in a seminar format, with smaller class sizes, is lighter on the schedule than an introductory majors course, and keeping this course in the schedule can free up even more time for other activities. However, this would keep faculty from getting to know as many undergraduates.

  • Our non-majors courses lecture and labs. Like many other departments, we have pretty much already abandoned the hope of teaching these. I have taught a few sections of these courses in recent years. My rationale was that these courses which have a large proportion of Liberal Studies majors (those preparing become K-8 teachers), and teacher preparation is a priority of mine.

We aren’t punishing any of our students by having them work with our adjuncts, but when students are taught by our adjuncts that means we are less able to provide them with opportunities and interactions outside the classroom. These interactions are often what makes college valuable. So, which courses do we, as tenure-track faculty, give up?

This is a hard call. We have managed to make sure that all the lectures, if not the labs, of our introductory majors courses are taught by tenure-track faculty. This helps us build a community in our department, in which the faculty who run the department are personally familiar with the students going through the major. It would be a step backward if we divested ourselves from our majors at this early stage. On the other hand, it would be great if research-active faculty continue the speciality courses in the upper division and to graduate students. Moreover, this could be an important part of continuing to support students conducting research in our labs.

For example, I’ve been the instructor of the graduate biostatistics course for several years now. This means that, for better or worse (mostly worse), I’m the statistics guy who the students contact (and sometimes ignore) when they are designing experiments and analyzing their results. If our biostatistics course was taught by an adjunct, these students wouldn’t have that adjunct available around the department to discuss experimental design and analysis. While I don’t think I need to serve as a statistical consultant too often, I think being available for these kinds of conversation is a part of my job that I shouldn’t be giving up. If I didn’t teach this class, the students wouldn’t even be aware that I am available in this capacity.

There isn’t a good answer to this problem, but it’s one that we’re facing. I’m really curious about how other departments of different types of decided which classes are kept by tenure-track faculty, and which ones end up being taught by adjuncts on a long-term basis. When these decisions are made, what is the currency behind the decision? Faculty scheduling, available faculty expertise, student familiarity with faculty?





10 thoughts on “Which classes should tenure-track faculty deprioritize?

  1. In my department, I think almost all the courses are “kept” by tenure track faculty. Adjuncts (whom we call sessionals) are hired on a one-off basis to cover one-time needs, like sabbatical replacement. And even there, most sabbatical coverage is done by tenured and tenure-track faculty.

    The exceptions are the spring and summer-term sections of a few intro-level courses, for which I think we hire sessionals most years. We offer very few courses those terms, and I believe that professorial-stream faculty (faculty with research expectations) can’t be obliged to teach in those terms. Instructor-stream faculty (faculty with no research expectations) can be obliged to teach in those terms, but in practice they’re often assigned a full load of fall- and winter-term courses. So we end up hiring sessionals to teach a few spring- and summer-term courses.

  2. We rely pretty heavily on adjuncts, for most of the same reasons other places do: not enough tenure-track faculty to cover needs. The whole adjunct thing is terrible, and quite a bit immoral, in my opinion. I’d lean towards having adjuncts teach upper-divisional courses in their specialty (if they have one, and are qualified). As someone who teaches upper-level biology majors, I’m learning how important those intro classes are. Without a solid foundation, many students fall apart in the upper level classes. Why “let” adjuncts teach upper-level courses? Because teaching intro level classes (major or non) is actually difficult to do well, and it takes time to develop those skills as an instructor. So having a constantly rotating roster of people teaching those course for the first time does nobody any good (although I guess it does allow the instructor some more teaching experience, which may be the only real benefit other than complete unemployment that some adjuncts will get).

  3. Looking forward to hearing what others have to say. Have been thinking a lot about this issue but haven’t come to any useful conclusions. With earth sciences, the importance of having somebody good/experienced teaching intro courses is heightened because, as a discovery major (few take earth science in high school), we have to recruit majors out of those classes. That said, in Geology, we’ve been lucky the last few years in that we have been able to minimize adjuncts and increase lecturers. At least the full-time lecturers are likely to be around for longer (and are paid somewhat better and have benefits) than the adjuncts.

  4. I’m concerned about the increase in adjuncts instead of tenure-track faculty lines, for reasons that have been covered in this blog and elsewhere. That said, I think that in cases where a department needs to rely on adjuncts (e.g., for sabbatical replacements), it seems like a good idea to have adjuncts teach upper-level classes in their own specialty. You are more likely to get an enthusiastic, enjoyable, up-to-date course from someone who is teaching what s/he knows and loves, and it gives students an opportunity to learn something that the regular professors in the department may not be as familiar with.

  5. Will this be a permanent arrangement? The answer is different if this is a one-semester fluke than if it reflects a long-term shift in the staffing of classes. The sentence that sticks out to me in this post is “This helps us build a community in our department.” Establishing good working relationships with undergraduates, sustaining continuity across the major and the department, drawing effectively and creatively on the resources of the faculty–all these elements of community are threaded through the post. The real question here seems to be less “what courses should adjuncts teach” than “how can we keep the adjuncts from diluting the quality and coherence of our community?”

    Given that there’s already (it sounds like) a pool of adjuncts in place to teach the non-major gen eds, perhaps the issue to explore is how your department can best draw on the strengths of your adjunct faculty and make them a meaningful part of that community without exploiting them. The answer, I suspect, depends more on the particular personalities in the department and the available adjunct talent than it does on the specific kinds of courses you can offer them.

    I’m not sure what creative solutions to the issue would look like in the sciences. Some random and possibly irrelevant possibilities given that this is unfamiliar territory to me: Could a particular adjunct teach/coordinate/administrate/advise an upper-level multidisciplinary seminar for independent research that would draw on the expertise of tt faculty while easing some of the administrative/pedagogical burdens of undergrad research? Or perhaps you could establish a procedure whereby after X semesters of laboring in the salt mines of nonmajor gen eds and getting good evaluations, an adjunct can get a semester of teaching a smaller-scale dream-class to majors in their specialty–that can be a low-cost way of giving adjunct faculty professional validation and weaving them into the life of the department. If such a systematic plan will interfere with the desire of tenure-stream faculty to teach upper-level majors, maybe you could to commit to hiring adjuncts with solid teaching chops on a three-year contracts (if such a thing is possible) to teach ONLY the major intro courses but to build up some continuity and instructional consistency while doing so.


    • Great points and ideas. We do have many non-tenure-track faculty who may or may not have long term contracts, but are entitled through the union for continued employment as long as NTT sections are available (which is obviously going to be the case). So consistency of instructors isn’t a big problem, per se. And, anybody who teaches a half-time load or more gets benefits. (We’re far less evil than the system overall, thanks to a robust union.)

      It’s not that NTT instructors ‘dilute the quality and coherence’ of the community, but they would result in a different community, but it would be of a different nature. Unlike lots of other places, are adjuncts aren’t just in the GE salt mines (or the underground sugar caves, as in The Simpsons), we actually have them doing majors labs and upper division courses already. But our adjuncts don’t have active research programs in which the students can be involved. If we are working to increase undergraduate research, then the earlier and more that students can interact with our tenure-track faculty the more likely this can happen. Our non-tenure-track instructors could, in theory, also help promote research opportunities, but that’s only actively happening with one of them. Our NTT instructors are here to teach, but otherwise are busy and committed to other things and we can’t expect more than just being in the classroom. It’d be great for our students to know the faculty who are here more and doing more than teaching. The bottom line is that you’re right, it depends on individual personalities and what happens on a person-to-person and course-by-course basis. We’ll figure it out. (Meanwhile, I haven’t taught a majors lecture course since I arrived, only labs or grad courses or non-majors. So I am, arguably, part of the problem.)

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