In April 2013 there was an adjunct crisis at my institution. An email was sent across campus that said, effective immediately, adjunct instructors would be limited to teaching 18 credit hours per calendar year. The news was devastating to the many adjunct instructors who counted on teaching 12 credit hours in the fall to maintain their standard of living (since many were already teaching 12 that spring). After several difficult weeks, administration re-examined the IRS guidelines and determined that 18 credit hours per calendar year rule was too restrictive. The crisis subsided; the adjunct instructors who were counting on teaching more hours were able to do so, but only following weeks of panic. The residual emotional trauma highlighted the plight of the university adjunct instructor.
As a result of this crisis, my colleagues, Dr. Rozilyn Miller and Dr. Christy Vincent, and I decided to conduct focus groups with female adjunct instructors from our institution. We wanted to better understand the career paths of adjuncts and talk about their experiences as adjunct instructors on our campus. Most of the adjunct instructors at the University of Central Oklahoma are female and face important issues as women. Each of us had been an adjunct at one point or another in our careers, so we knew about many of the challenges. The question, now, was how we might be able do something in our administrative roles to make their lives better.
Not surprisingly we found common themes in the narratives of these women. There were stories of caretaking, guilt, and fear used to justify their choices. The women often felt overburdened as they took on the challenge of the second shift As caretakers, women were trying to bring home some income, but family responsibilities made fulltime work seemingly impossible. One instructor spoke of the “imposed inferiority” of not quite reaching the dream she once had for where she would be at this point in her life. There are advantages to part time work, but it is not exactly the goal of most women who enter graduate school. Narratives of fear and guilt combined to produce an overarching sense of powerlessness. These women were at the mercy of the institutions for which they work and the families that rely upon them. Little wonder that one woman described running on the “hamster wheel” of life.
As we listened to these stories of frustration, one feeling dominated. Surely there was something we could do to make their situation at least a bit more bearable. What actions might we take – as fulltime faculty and administrators – to improve the lived experiences of women adjunct instructors? Here are a few of our thoughts.
- We must acknowledge that change is needed. The status quo allowing adjunct instructors to teach multiple classes each semester for low salaries without health care and benefits is unconscionable.
- We must advocate for additional full-time faculty positions and for increased salaries and benefits for adjunct instructors.
- We should create a culture of “nurturing reality” regarding potential for full-time employment in an attempt to prevent unrealistic expectations and to provide appropriate suggestions – while not guaranteeing success.
- We must advocate for adjunct instructors to have access to employee assistance programs available to full-time employees, for example, providing free access to sessions with a mental health counselor or emergency loan programs to assist employees when unexpected financial emergencies occur.
- We must build support systems for adjunct instructors. This step is the least expensive and the most attainable. It should not be difficult provide online resources, offer workshops at varied times to meet availability constraints, and provide the opportunity to meet with other adjunct instructors to share ideas and concerns. And it is incumbent on administration to be sure adjunct instructors know how to access all support services.
Perhaps we are idealistic as we hear about the continuing economic struggles of higher education. But if our institutions are turning increasingly to adjunct professors, it will take advocacy like this to make a difference in the lived experience of women adjunct faculty.