Peer Review

Ethereality Check

Recently, when a Midwestern blizzard threatened to derail my participation in a conference, the organizers decided to hook me up via Skype. I dialed in and soon my face appeared on my colleague’s computer screen. I commented that it was appropriate that I, a so-called “part-time” faculty member, was present in a disembodied form, unable to be fully engaged in the conference. I noted that some publications on non-tenure-track faculty (NTTF) appropriately describe us as “Invisible Faculty” and “Ghosts in the Classroom.”

“Part-time” has taken on this existential meaning (also seen in expressions like “she’s a part-time person”) because higher education does not understand how to use that designation accurately. The current debate over how to count faculty work hours to determine eligibility for healthcare under the Affordable Care Act highlights this problem. Teaching even only two classes can (and does, if one is using high-impact practices) take full-time hours. Yet too many institutions disregard their obligation to compensate instructors for those hours, ignoring the physical and material resources (access to authentic professional support, healthcare, retirement benefits) that adjunct faculty—full-time persons—need in order to teach well.

Defining all NTTF work qualitatively, not quantitatively—as “just teaching” rather than as an appropriately reconstituted combination of teaching, research, and service—is an attempt to save costs by “unbundling” faculty work. Yet trying to disaggregate faculty work by function, rather than giving all faculty, whether full- or part-time, an appropriate balance of responsibilities and compensation, has compromised the integrity and effectiveness of that work. It has led to an ever-larger NTTF workforce and has had enormous, often hidden, costs.

Here’s how. Unbundling the activities necessary to education does not preclude the need for the expense of connecting those activities coherently. There are administrative costs to employing a much larger, more fluid number of people to serve in all of the stripped down, less supported, unbundled roles—and to ensuring that they all interact effectively. For example, advisors cannot counsel students about course selection without knowing the majority-transient faculty on their campuses. Tutors can’t reinforce what faculty teach if they can’t meet to discuss curriculum and pedagogy. Additionally, the economic insecurity of contingent employment has academic costs when faculty are intimidated into being less rigorous in the classroom; public health costs when adjuncts avoid having pay docked for absence by coming to work sick; environmental costs when faculty commute to several institutions to earn enough to survive; and even public safety costs when faculty must remember different emergency procedures for multiple schools simultaneously.

The harm done to faculty and their students as a result of the practices that have “unbundled” faculty into disembodied ghosts is documented through efforts like the Delphi Project. Students directly experience the effects of adjuncts’ institutional ethereality when they don’t know whether instructors will be on the course schedule, available to meet for mentoring or tutoring outside of class, involved in curriculum decisions, up-to-date on the latest research in the field, or able to write recommendations.

Unbundling faculty roles by creating a majority-contingent faculty has been misguided and destructive. It severely splinters the “three legs of the stool” representing faculty work—teaching, research, and service—without regard for the purpose of that work, which is the social contract of supporting both individual students and the common good. “Unbundling” weakens the faculty, and we all know what happens when people—in this case, students—sit or stand on stools with weakened legs. It is as precarious and unsettling as being a disembodied presence at a gathering in which everyone else is participating fully.


Maria Maisto is president of the New Faculty Majority.

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