One semester, when I was teaching as an adjunct professor, a student came to class early, and while everyone was filtering into the classroom and getting comfortable, they asked me, “So, do you teach anywhere else?”
I was startled, because freshmen so rarely ask personal questions – or take an interest in their professor's lives.
“Yes, I do,” I answered. Then, I asked, “Why?”
“It just seems to be a trend, ” the student said. “A lot of my professors seem to teach at two or three different places.”
“Do you know why?” I asked. The student shrugged. Before I could explain it, class needed to begin. I had a duty to teach the course material that day. It's what I was paid to do by the university.
But it's not like they were checking.
The only time in three years that anyone came to evaluate my teaching skills was when I asked for it. And I did. Twice. That's how professors get professional references. Otherwise, no one came to evaluate my skills or offer advice on how to improve the classroom experience. If I had been full-time faculty at that particular institution, however, I would have needed peer reviews in order to advance in my position.
As part-time, contingent faculty, there's not a lot of room for advancement. Sometimes, that impacts the students. It's not talked about often enough, but with student debt rising, and the value of college education always being questioned, it's time to take a look at how your professor's employment status affects you and your educational goals.
What are those educational goals? Most millennial students want to learn the information they need to succeed. They want mentors. They want to be heard. They want to play an active part in their own learning.
So, how does your professor's employment status affect you as a student as you pursue each goal?
It depends on what you want in a professor.
Do you want to be able to see them on campus? Do you want to be able to drop by their office and ask questions about the material? Do you want them to spend time reading your assignments and offering feedback? Do you want them to stay on top of the latest research and create presentations that keep you up to date on new knowledge in your chosen field?
Certainly, you want a professor who is a subject matter expert, and who can impart knowledge through reading lists, discussions, lectures, and exams. You want a professor who can become a mentor or guide, giving you advice as you advance through your coursework, and maybe even your career. In order to ask that of professors, though, we need to be aware of their employment status. It's worth learning more about what that employment status means, not to judge them or their professional ability – because employment status is often far from something they can control – but to understand how they'll be able to help you achieve your goals.
Adjunct, Part-Time & Contingent Professors
An adjunct professor (which is a part-time, contingent faculty member) has no job security from semester to semester. They are often dedicated educators, but they enjoy no benefits and endure low pay. They can be cut at any time. It's hard for an adjunct professor to develop company loyalty when the company (in this case, the university) doesn't offer it either. When you think you might not have a job in four months, it's hard to fully commit to the institution and its mission. Often, a sense of loyalty helps students and faculty bond. They share a college culture. But, that culture is hard to cultivate if the adjunct is teaching across two or more schools – each with their own mission, traditions and ways. Because an adjunct exists in the margins of several different schools at once, they also may not know all the resources available for students at each of the institutions.
Adjuncts do not typically have their own offices, which means there is no private spaces in which to meet with students or to have students drop in to ask questions. Because adjuncts are busy commuting between teaching jobs, they have little time to hold student conferences. That means time and space for mentoring is extremely limited.
And, resources for professional development are slim. They do exist, but not with the same consistency that exists for full-time faculty. Therefore, adjuncts may not attend as many conferences or have as many networking opportunities. Although this is not always the case, the general feeling is that adjuncts are busy teaching several classes across several institutions, and don't have time to dedicate to proposing and presenting papers.
A lot of adjunct professors will tell you they teach for the love of it. These faculty members often extend themselves above and beyond to help their students succeed. They do what they can. Adjuncts are typically loyal to the students, but can be spread really thin.
Administration & Professionals Acting As Part-Time Faculty
Not all adjuncts are created equal, though. Some adjuncts have full-time jobs in the community and teach part-time to satisfy a love of teaching or a desire to give back to their professions. Examples include lawyers who moonlight as professors at law schools or marketing executives who teach business classes. These types of part-time faculty members can create connections for students within their chosen professions.
Administrators, such as certain types of academic deans or directors of different university centers, sometimes teach a course in their areas of expertise. For instance, a Director of Diversity Initiatives may teach one course on women in the media for their institution. They already understand the university's culture and the student profile. They work within the subject that they're teaching, therefore becoming both a professional connection for students, and immersing themselves in the very topics that may come up in the classroom.
That's not to say that professional development opportunities are abundant. Administrators often attend different conferences than they're faculty colleagues.
The administrators who teach part-time will probably know more about university resources than the professional who comes to campus after work.
Term instructors work on year-to-year contracts. There's a little more job security, but a Board of Trustees can terminate their employment more easily than they can more established full-time or tenured professors. Many universities are implementing these types of positions. At one private institution, in 2015, adjuncts made up 23% of the teaching staff, and term instructors made up 25%. As tenured faculty retire, term instructors increasingly replace them in order to keep instructional costs low.
These instructors exist somewhere between adjunct and tenure. They're more likely to know the resources available at their university. They're also more likely to undergo some type of teaching evaluation.
Visiting Professors come to a university on a temporary contract for any length of time between one semester and one year. Think of the Visiting Professor role as that of a Guest Lecturer. These can be professors who are just starting their careers, or professors who have been invited to come teach a particular subject for a concentrated time.
Students can benefit from Visiting Professors because it exposes them to writers, researchers, performers, etc. who are producing new work -whether it be a fresh dissertation or a new collection of poems.
They'll have an office, so students can go ask questions. They may not know all the resources available to students, but they'll have been given a point person who they can ask.
Tenure Track Faculty
Tenure is the end all be all in the academic world. It means job security. It means academic freedom (to some degree.) It means better pay and sometimes fewer courses to teach. When responsible for fewer students, tenured faculty can more easily mentor the students who are in their classes. They can provide more personalized attention. They can also dedicate more time to their research.
By pursuing their scholarship, they deepen their knowledge base, and can even create learning opportunities for student helpers as long as the university permits.
I have been almost all of these titles. I've been an adjunct, a term instructor, and a full-time professor at an institution that does not grant tenure. For years, I was curious to know whether or not my employment status mattered to my students. When I was spreading myself too thin as an adjunct at three universities, I felt terrible that it took me so long to grade papers. I was disappointed that I couldn't muster the energy to give more feedback.
Therefore, I was delighted when a student was curious enough to approach me later and ask where else I taught. I listed the other two universities I worked for as well. The student balked at one name, because it was a rival school. I told the student, “I'm glad you're noticing more about your professors' lives.” Students can benefit from knowing more about the people who are offering lessons and evaluating progress. Your professors are a few of the people working to make your college education a valuable one. Go ahead and ask them about their careers.