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The 5 Biggest Mistakes Adjuncts Must Avoid

Posted on Friday November 2, 2012 by Michael Keathley

Early this year, Anna Gross of Elmhurst College’s The Ledger succinctly described how the “Nation-wide trend towards adjuncts threatens higher education,” (21 February, 2012) and the difficult situation these talented professionals are placed into as they receive near poverty level wages while working double or triple the number of teaching hours as most full-time faculty.

Organizations such as the New Faculty Majority and Adjunct Nation seek to provide a remedy for part-time and contingent faculty in the short and long terms. Additionally, many of us who write about education regularly call for improved promotion and support of adjuncts.

As the larger war and battles are waged, my hope is that part-time and contingent faculty will help one another and consider my advice, given for those who wish to find full-time teaching positions (e.g., See my post: “Six Insider Secrets to Obtaining a Full-time Teaching Position,” 14 May, 2012).

It is with this goal in mind and with reflection on over two decades spent in higher education as an adjunct, full-time faculty member, administrator, and former faculty assembly president that I offer these tips on how to avoid the five biggest mistakes adjuncts may make.

Selling Themselves Short
One characteristic adjunct faculty tend to share is a propensity to sell themselves short. This is sometimes referred to as “teacher martyrdom,” or the attitude that in our profession—especially as adjuncts—we must make sacrifices. We must settle for less than minimum wage with no benefits. We must do so much work that we don’t have time for a personal life or to grow as professionals. We must pull that suitcase on wheels in and out of a building because we have so many assignments to grade and no office in which to store our materials. I remember feeling like a plough horse doing this in my adjunct days. Adjuncts may feel as if their only option is to teach a dozen classes at four or five different institutions as they “hope for the best” when it comes time to receive teaching assignments.

Certainly there may be some faculty who don’t mind or perhaps even enjoy this for reasons such as the flexibility it affords them. However, if you are not one of those faculty members, then perhaps you’re selling yourself short, and it’s time to stop the martyrdom.

As Money Crush’s Jackie Beck stated, if you’re willing to sell yourself short, others are willing to buy your services (“Don’t Sell Yourself Short,” 03 June, 2011). Granted, adjunct contracts and salaries are typically non-negotiable, but the balance of your life is largely under your control. For example, some adjuncts seeking full-time positions choose to work a full-time job with benefits in a closely related field while teaching at one or two choice institutions. I worked full-time in writing and publishing while teaching part-time and waiting for a full-time opportunity. This provides income and employment security while sending a clear message that your time and talents are valuable.

Extreme Misperceptions of Position
Along with the above is this admonition not to fall into extreme misperceptions of your position and role in an institution. Sadly, I once witnessed an adjunct shout at the vice-chancellor of a college that he had more academic credentials than all 500+ faculty at the institution combined, that we were lucky he bothered with the school at all, and that we “would not make it or ever be respected” without him.

On the other hand, I have also witnessed adjunct faculty derail their careers by surrendering to the belief that they are not appreciated or respected, when in fact, they were. For instance, one such individual received the opportunity to interview for a full-time position; then she showed up and began by telling us she was well aware that we didn’t respect her or want her for the job. To be clear, she was one of three candidates we set up interviews with because of the respect we held for them and their talents.

Neither one of these types of misperceptions will get adjunct faculty who seek a full-time position very far at an institution. Always maintain a professional, team-oriented attitude. Show everyone that you are one of them rather than creating distance between you and the other educators at your school with one of these two extreme attitudes.

Taking on Too Much
Understandably, the fear of not getting enough courses to pay the bills and other such concerns make some adjuncts want to take on too much. There are only so many hours in a day and ways to piece a schedule together. Teaching 16 courses at a half dozen schools, trying to lead a synchronous discussion live during your hours at another job, and other such approaches are not conducive to success. As a department chair, I have had faculty commit to a class, sign a contract pledging they are available, and then announce at the start of the semester that they can not make it to class on time or must miss days because of another job. These faculty members will ask, “Is that okay?”

The answer is “no.” The vast majority of faculty, part and full-time, take their professional responsibilities seriously. They do not accept assignments they know they can not complete. These are the ones who move forward in their careers. Be one of the professionals who know their limitations and do well in your job(s).

Being Too Visible or Invisible
Another area to find balance is in your visibility to the department and school. Most of the adjuncts described above made themselves egregiously visible. They caused themselves to be associated with a problem, such as requesting to miss work for another job. Adjuncts should avoid this, especially when it comes to problems that can be prevented.

On the other hand, adjuncts more commonly take on a role of invisibility. They may exhibit all three characteristics above, so they rush into a building to teach; then rush out. They engage with others as little as possible. They don’t participate in any opportunities to attend activities, speak to others in common areas (e.g., departmental offices), or share their achievements. As a department chair, for example, I often ask faculty and staff I supervise to let me know when they give a presentation, publish an article, conduct research about a topic, complete a new degree, or other such achievements. Rarely is there a response. This may in part be due to some of the above characteristics, such as taking on too much work or assuming no one cares.

Adjunct faculty who wish to advance their careers should make themselves visible in positive ways, especially by sharing their accomplishments.

Having a Part-time Attitude
Finally, it’s a common complaint that part-time faculty are not considered for full-time opportunities at colleges and universities. In fact, I have heard this complaint often at the dozen postsecondary institutions I have worked for. I also know that I was a part-timer who moved into a full-time role and successive promotions as did many of my full-time counterparts.

One of the explanations for this is that some adjuncts take a part-time attitude toward their current role. As a member of nearly one hundred hiring committees over the course of my career, I have seen this scenario played out quite a few times: An adjunct interviews well for a full-time position; however, when his/her class is reviewed, there are glaring weaknesses that cause concern. They may confuse the schools they work for and not meet the expectations at the institution where they hope to obtain a full-time position. They may have unprofessionally written documents posted in their online course, or display a less than enthusiastic attitude for the school.

An institution can not invest the rare full-time position in someone with a part-time attitude or a less than acceptable job performance. Take your adjunct role seriously and perform to the very best of your ability to show what you could do if offered a full-time job.

My hope is that by sharing these five common mistakes and some tips for overcoming them, adjuncts will be more empowered to improve their situation while the bigger picture of their status in postsecondary education is improved. I would welcome any additional tips readers may have as well. Please feel free to post them in the “Comments” area below.

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