The Potential of Adjuncts to Enhance Student Education
Re-conceptualizing the role of adjuncts in higher education can fill an important gap in student's learning in the classroom
You’ve heard professionals lament that what students are learning in the classroom has little connection to the knowledge they actually need on the job. You’ve heard college presidents promise to align their curricula and programs to “meet market demands”. But neither professionals nor presidents are in the classroom teaching students. Faculty are. How can we leverage the faculty to build bridges between the classroom and the workplace?
Now, hear me out.
This semester is my first in the classroom as a doctor and adjunct with a full-time research job outside the formal academy. My role as a research scientist at a university affiliated research and development hub focused on edtech gives me firsthand experience in applied research in the “real world” working with a dozen institutions, edtech executives, and professionals with varied expertise and education. Just a few weeks into the semester, I’ve realized that what I can offer to my students is different – in a positive way – than what I could offer when I was still in the academic bubble.
In my nearly two years in a non-tenure track professional role, I’ve learned a lot – most of which I did not learn as an academic siloed in a single academic department. And this is precisely my point: students who are taught and trained within the academy by tenure-track professors (or full-time lecturers) might be missing out on useful education by those who are outside the ivory tower – a place that the vast majority of the students in our classrooms will end up.
The academic professoriate is absurd in the sense that real world experience is viewed as a negative in tenure-track hiring. This is, in part, because (1) publications are the number one criterion on which tenure-track candidates are considered for positions, and (2) no other profession outside the academy has as their primary goal publications. Therefore, any time spent outside the typical academic environment means little, if any, publishing and decreased likelihood of being hired.
I, for example, have had a full-time research role for nearly two years and have published not a single journal article in that time, despite the extensive list of other diverse research outputs that I could show as demonstration of my skills and expertise in the education space. But, If I were to apply for a tenure-track research role now, my application is actually far less competitive than it was two years ago as a PhD student on the market simply because I haven’t been publishing in journals.
The academy is conservative in the sense that they are unlikely to change the publication counting and impact factor analyzing of their tenure-track candidate’s CV anytime soon. Instead, departments could effectively leverage their adjunct army budget to add significant value to the education of their students to help them be more prepared and have a clearer idea of what professionals in their field actually do for work.
To do this effectively, the adjunct professor role must be re-conceptualized to comprise of full-time professionals working in diverse roles who are enthusiastic to teach one course per semester. (This type of adjunct is already more common in professional practice roles like health and business than in the sciences.) Whereas the tenure-track faculty would teach much of the core curriculum and specialty topic courses, professional adjunct professors could be employed to teach applied courses and facilitate events within departments for students to be exposed to professionals outside the academy. Adjunct faculty would no longer be comprised of PhDs “waiting out” the job market and would rather being intentionally hired to benefit students’ holistic education in their field.
This re-conceived role of the adjunct professor would help balance the constant battle of liberalization vs. professionalization of education as described by David Labaree in A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education. As fields become more established, professional education becomes increasingly theoretical and more aligned with traditional liberal education perspectives on teaching and knowledge. An outcome of this is inevitable: the more theoretical education becomes, the less aligned with real world professions student’s education becomes.
Leveraging the part-time nature of adjunct professors can have a positive impact on students’ education and department curricula. Intentional hiring of adjuncts can ensure greater diversity of knowledge that students are exposed to in the classroom. Adjuncts can propose elective courses that are built around their expertise and add value to ensure a well-rounded, and applied education for students that is connected to local job markets. Finally, adjuncts can field important career development questions of students and diversify students’ professional networks outside the faculty.
Re-conceptualizing the role of adjunct faculty as professional allies of university departments could have other positive effects on the faculty system, too. In alignment with the progressive ethos of Arizona State University, adjuncts can help build a cooperative bridge with local companies that lead directly into the classroom. Moreover, the role of the adjunct professor becomes positively construed and plays an integral role in student education and curricula development, which will hopefully replace the negative perception of the “adjunct underclass” that has proliferated in recent decades.
Transforming the role of the adjunct professor from a career trap career for PhDs trying to “make it” on the tenure-track job market to a professional ally of university departments does not fix all the issues that still surround the modern faculty. Pay equity for teaching labor, clearly articulated by John Warner in Sustainable. Resilient. Free.: The Future of Public Higher Education is still an independent issue to be resolved. My pay for the 3-credit hour course I teach, for example, should not be ~50% of the pay per class that tenure-track faculty at my institution make.
Second, the lack of funding for faculty lines at institutions that is causing hyper-competition among job applicants must also be addressed. This issue falls largely on graduate programs that groom trainees for non-existent tenure-track roles only and have little capacity to advise and prepare graduate students for other professional roles. A transformed adjunct role, however, could contribute to a solution by having active, professional role models in the department as a bridge to industry knowledge that current tenure-track faculty do not have. This may, hopefully, even serve to decrease the number of students who suffer on the tenure-track market for years – because they don’t have the knowledge or advisement to do otherwise – by showing the benefits and opportunities in other professional research roles. And those who enjoy teaching can still meaningfully participate in the classroom as an adjunct professor.
The ‘adjunctification’ of the academy in recent decades has been strong cause for concern, as most people, unless independently wealthy or with a high-enough earning spouse, cannot afford to adjunct or, in some cases, even teach full time as a non-tenure track lecturer. I have been vocal about the pitfalls of adjunctification, too, and still hold firm that adjuncts specifically, and teaching labor broadly, is underpaid and undervalued at our nation’s universities.
However, entering the classroom as a post-PhD professional has given me perspective about the value I add to students’ education, including professional development, demonstrating how rigid concepts like The Scientific Method are actually applied in research not groomed for publication, and a more flexible and creative mentality to what constitutes knowledge learned in the classroom. Both liberal and professional education within students’ field of choice has significant value to student education – it doesn’t have to be one or the other. Let’s use the system we have to better deliver education to students and not limit their exposure to only professional academics.
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