CUNY Abused Dictionary: “Adjunct Faculty”

Language used by Academics is never casual. Language is a tool, pure and simple — commonly, a weapon.

Nowhere does this become more apparent than among the various classes of teachers employed in the Academy. In the City University of New York, two-thirds of the teaching is done by people who are labeled “adjunct” and “part-time”. They are compared — negatively — to “full-time” teachers.

Time for a reality check.

First, the City University of New York has no full-time instructional staff. No university does; I doubt one could find a rural college that has a full-time faculty.

Full-time employment is widely defined (by statute in some cases) as working 40 hours a week. Let’s be generous and allow for four weeks’ vacation; we can say reasonably, people employed full time work 40 hours a week, 48 weeks a year.

No CUNY salaried instructional-staff employee — even those at the near-six-figure top of the scale — would dream of putting in more than 30 hours a week, for more than 30 weeks a year. [In fact, it seems likely, were the senior dons where I hang my mortarboard clocked, they’d never show more than 20 hours a week, and some of ‘em would skip out even for a conference or two, or some other sort of junket, during the week on the college’s nickel.]

Well, of course they do — but only at their convenience, and if given a $75+ per contact hour sweetener. The old scam was to get “release time” from classroom teaching, to carry out some other chore, then get hired back as a part-timer to fill the class assignment thus left vacant. That abuse has stopped. The new wrinkle is to allow folks employed at one college of the university to moonlight at another college of the university — for an additional fee beyond that covered by their “full-time” salaries.

In short, the “full-time” instructional staff is not overburdened with work under their usual conditions, and have both the time and energy to teach lots more — so long as they can guzzle a bit more at the public trough. Apparently Head Trustee Benno Schmidt and Chancellor Matt Goldstein think this is just dandy; they appear to be encouraging it.

The only real difference between the 30 percent of CUNY’s instructional staff that is salaried, and the 70 percent that is paid by the hour is the way they are compensated for their work. The 70 percent get paid by the hour, and the salaried 30 percent connives with the Benno-&-Matt crew to limit the amount of work these folks can take on.

The result is interesting: The vastly larger group of hourly-wage part-time teachers do most of the teaching. Since most of them have other roles outside the constraining walls of the city colleges, they bring their wider range of experience into the classroom. Since university teaching is about experts in their field bringing their latest experience and insight into that field to the classroom discourse, one can rightly infer the hourly-wage not only teach most of the classes, but they do a measurably better job than their salaried colleagues who rarely have to deal with a larger extramural world.

Some of us find this frustrating: In the CUNY college where I teach, expository writing — the kind of writing required for college study and damn near everything else — is taught to lower-division college students only after one or more semesters of remedial writing and a semester and a half of Freshman English. They write one, short, barely researched paper in the second semester of that year-long course. I was shocked to learn this from a long-time member of that department. What are they writing the rest of the time? Apparently one senior don, chap name of Lapides, has ‘em writing about their deep inner feelings; he announced this with great pride in a union newsletter.

This pattern is not unique to New York’s city colleges. It is commonly the case at other schools in the area. And it is perfectly clear: The folks who operate this system — those salaried but part-time teachers, the deans and presidents promoted from their ranks and the system-wide administration — realize that what they have on offer, claimed as a superior educational experience, is tragically flawed for many students.  They cover for this, and the concomitant cognitive dissonance, by derogating the hourly wage staff as merely “adjunct”.

How flawed is the CUNY offering? CUNY appears to be large enough that its particular performance system-wide is not different from that of public university systems taken altogether. Some reports have suggested that 1st-degreee (BA) failure-to-complete rates for such institutions is 65 percent after four years, 35 percent (perhaps more) after six years. Comparable failure rates are reported for two-year school programs. These failure rates are consistent with what can be seen in the classroom. CUNY’s chancellor has announced programs aimed at fixing the problems in certain target groups; this appears to mean passing out notes about the importance of retention, followed by other notes stressing uncompromising standards.

To call the substantial majority of the instructional staff — the only class which, as a class, has ongoing experience outside the hothouse walls of the city colleges, which can then be brought to the classroom — “adjunct” is plainly absurd.

“Adjunct” is a term suggesting superfluity. Arguably, it is the salaried (but still part-time) instructional staff that could readily be dispensed with. [On the other hand, “casual labor” is entirely accurate; us and the grape-pickers, but we haven't got a Cesar Chavez working on our behalf.]

Of course, it would be more fun to make those salaried folks who claim to be full-time really work full time. The squeals of outrage would make a pig-farm seem peaceful.