Advice for New Adjunct Professors

I’ve just finished my 2nd year working as an adjunct professor, so I thought it was time to pass on all of the advice that I wish someone had told me when I was hired.

Congratulations! You’ve been hired as an adjunct. This is an accomplishment, but if you quit your job, there are a dozen more people ready and qualified to take your place. This means that you can expect a few things:

  • Your employment contract can be discontinued at any time.
  • You may not have an opportunity for raises or benefits.
  • The classes you have can be taken from you at any moment.
  • You may be assigned to teach a new class on the day that it begins (this hasn’t happened to me, but I’ve known others who dealt with this).
  • If your college has multiple campuses, you will be expected to work at more than one campus. You will probably have to work at several in the same day.
  • You will share office space with anywhere from one to a hundred people.
  • Your job will probably not lead to full-time employment.

I don’t want to be overly negative or whiny, but I wish someone had told me these things when I started teaching. I knew that adjuncts were among the lowest-ranking university employees, but I did not anticipate being treated as a disposable employee. (I’m not implying that full-time professors and staff are treated regally—they have their own sets of issues to deal with.) Although I have never been treated poorly by any individual supervisor, the administration as a massive whole tends to give the impression that adjuncts are disposable. The trend in higher education is to hire many adjuncts instead of a fewer full-time professors so that universities don’t have to give them great wages and benefits. You can find plenty of articles about why this is a problem, but it doesn’t appear to be changing. My department consists of about 85% adjunct professors.

You Work in the Entertainment Industry

I bet you thought that you worked in the education industry. Yes, the most important part of teaching is to pass on knowledge, promote critical thinking, and empower students. All of that is far more effective if you amuse the students. Looking back at my own education, I learned the most from my entertaining professors because I paid more attention. I also felt more comfortable in their classrooms because the entertaining professors were both cheerful and approachable, and those aspects of their personalities made me feel that they cared for me. I learned poorly when professors taught by intimidation.

There are many different ways to make a class entertaining. When I teach grammar, I try to use humorous example sentences. The grammar worksheets have themes: superheroes, pirates, etc. I don’t often use jokes in class because those are unpredictable, but I’ll share funny stories from my past when they relate to assignments. When giving examples, I’ll use a few serious examples, then one ridiculous one that does not apply to a real-life situation, but shows the technique at hand in an obvious way.

I incorporate videos wherever possible. My students watch a small clip from Sherlock Holmes to practice inductive and deductive reasoning. They look at internet memes to examine forms of argumentation, writers’ assumptions, and organization of information. These would be terrible teaching tools on their own, but when they accompany traditional methods, it helps break up the monotony. No student is ever engaged by all of these methods. However, when a joke fails, the students still usually appreciate something outside of the ordinary routine.

Barbarians Don’t Attend Class

I don’t require attendance in my class. I take attendance for my own reference, but attendance and participation are not part of a student’s grade. This means that students who would show up and be distracting don’t bother showing up at all. This also means that I don’t have to deal with excuses for missed classes. I’ve not been teaching long, but I’ve never had something that even resembles a behavior problem in class. The students who attend regularly tend to do well, those who never attend do poorly, and there are no complaints from either type. Students have also told me that having no attendance grade makes them feel they are not being treated like children, and if they are faced with a true crisis during the semester, it makes it easier for them to work out their problems.

Show Mercy

I don’t require attendance, but I do have penalties for assignments that are turned in late. However, one lesson I learned from Arthurian literature is that mercy should be shown to those who ask for it—even (especially!) those who don’t deserve it. I’ll usually give each student one opportunity to receive leeway on these rules, but only if that student is willing to explain to me why he deserves an exception to the rules. Usually, it’s for a real emergency that can’t be documented—cars breaking down, family problems, etc. Students who deserve leeway are always willing to talk to me, while those who are trying to cheat me usually have nothing to say. Honest students appreciate it and make sure the situation is not repeated. I have a feeling that this system will come back to bite me someday, but for now, it’s working. Students have told me that they appreciate compassion, and since they appreciate it, they work to not take advantage of it.

Use Online Systems

Most colleges and universities provide faculty with some sort of online system where they can post grades, syllabi, assignments, and other class materials. These often include essay submission systems and online testing services. Use them. Post copies of all class assignments and grades. That way, you will never be bothered by students who can’t find the essay topic the day before it’s due or are constantly worried about their averages. My students have consistent online access to their assignments, and they can see a running total of their averages at any point in the semester. The dedicated ones will even preview all of the assignments at the beginning of the year. Using these systems drastically reduces my photocopying time, the number of papers I have to haul around, and the number of e-mails I have to answer.

The one caveat may be students who do not have computer access or who are computer illiterate. As my college has a computer lab staffed with techs who can help students, this is not a concern for me.

It’s Important to Be Liked

No, it’s not actually important to be liked. However, when it’s possible, it helps. Being in class with professors who taught by intimidation showed me that intimidation a terrible way to teach. When I was terrified of my professor, I hated going to class and feared that every mistake on my homework was seen as a personal insult. 7 years after leaving a certain professor who taught that way, those feelings still come back in every situation where I am being evaluated.

I want my students to like me not because I’m easy or too lax, but because they feel comfortable in my classroom and know that I am genuinely concerned about them. This is the reason for most of the above information—particularly concerning “Show Mercy.” So far, results are good. My students have told me that even if they hate studying English, they enjoy being in my classroom, which makes an unbearable subject tolerable. They’re willing to ask questions and persist through difficult material because they know they will not be belittled. This may come back to bite me someday. I have to consistently review my conduct to make sure that I’m not becoming too lax.

No, not everyone will like me. It is not possible to make everyone like me and should not be expected. Perhaps the title of this section should be “It’s Important to Not Be Hated.” About 1/3 of the class seems indifferent in the way they regard me, but with those students, the goal has still been met—they are comfortable in the classroom.


Advice for New Adjunct Professors — 2 Comments

  1. My university almost lost their accreditation because of a bad adjunct/professor ratio. Not sure how to do it, but you might want to check out accreditation standards and see how your school measures up. One other point, though, is that accreditation is not an annual thing, so it might be a while before it becomes an issue for your school.

    • I know that my school recently had its accreditation renewed/approved (don’t know which is the correct term), so things must be operating within acceptable limits. I’ve also heard that adjuncts are treated far better at my school than at many others–I was surprised to learn that many have no access to copiers and the like. I may not like the hiring trend, but many adjuncts have it worse than I do…

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