Earlier this semester, Betsy Smith asked students in her intermediate ESL course at Cape Cod Community College to read Bridge to Terabithia, the children’s-lit classic. The request came with an assignment: Everyone in the class was to hold a presentation exploring one cultural aspect of the book.
One student, a guitar player from Brazil, wanted to present on Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which figures briefly in the novel. At the start of a class session—the course is held every Wednesday night from 6:30 to 9:30—he told Smith he could use some help with the musical portion of his presentation. He asked the professor: Can we meet during your office hours to go over some ideas?
For many professors, that’d be a standard request. But Smith is an adjunct, and she shares her office with as many as 18 other part-time professors.
“I don’t have office hours,” she told the student. He gave her a puzzled look.
Students still tend to assume that there are set hours each week when they can count on finding their professors seated at their desks, ready to help all comers. But the push and pull over office hours is a daily challenge for adjuncts, who make up the majority of faculty in academe. For one thing, there’s the fact that most part-time faculty, like Smith, don’t have their own private office spaces. Adjuncts are also often pressed for time, especially if they’re cobbling together multiple gigs at different institutions to make ends meet. On top of that, there’s the money issue: Most adjuncts are not compensated for the hours they put in helping students outside the classroom.
For Smith, compensation (or lack thereof) is the key factor. She would be happy to meet with her students during set office hours, she says, if her college agreed to pay her for holding them.
“Some of my colleagues post office hours, but I refuse to,” Smith says. “I’m a second-tier faculty member and those in my classes are second-tier students. That’s a situation that needs to be changed, but it won’t ever change if I give away for free what my full-time, first-tier colleagues get paid for.”
Many adjuncts don’t have the luxury of following Smith’s lead, though. Most academic departments either require or strongly encourage adjuncts to have office hours, no matter the difficulties.
That can put part-time professors in an awkward position. “Adjuncts have a conflicted relationship to our professional instinct to make ourselves available to our students,” says Maria Maisto, president of the adjunct-advocacy group The New Faculty Majority. “This is part of our ethos. But on the other hand, when you’re not being paid for those hours, you feel like you’re being exploited.”
An Office? What’s That?
At Cape Cod, Smith and her student were able to work out an solution easily enough: She told him to come to the next class session 30 minutes earlier to get help. Smith says she regularly extends help beyond classroom time by meeting with students during the class break or for a few minutes after class, and she’ll write comments on their journals if they ask questions.
What do her peers at other institutions do? We conducted an informal (and admittedly unscientific) online survey in real time to get a better read on the reality for adjuncts on the ground. Of the 333 professors who responded, 82 percent said they do in fact hold office hours. Of that group, 70 percent schedule their hours at set times every week; the other 30 percent make themselves available by appointment only.
Holding office hours can be tricky, though, when you don’t have an office. Just 17 percent of the adjuncts we surveyed said they have offices of their own. More than half end up holding their hours in shared office or cubicle space.
That number squares with the results of a much larger survey about faculty working conditions conducted in 2010 by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce. The CAW survey showed that almost 60 percent of part-time professors had access to shared offices. In some cases, when it comes to office hours, a shared office is as good as no office at all. Shared spaces can resemble noisy bullpens, with dozens of adjuncts ducking in and out, not to mention insufficient Internet access and phone lines.
When shared space isn’t acceptable, adjuncts in our survey indicated, a number of other locations—including campus cafeterias and libraries—serve as fallbacks. Another option: digital office hours. 40 percent of respondents said they’ve held digital hours at least once, and about one in six cited online correspondence—through email, Skype, chat tools, or learning-management systems—as a regular occurrence.
Of course, many professors say that the very notion of office hours is evolving in the digital age. Students now expect immediate and constant contact with their professors outside of the classroom.
Smith sums up one frequently-expressed frustration. “It’s not only that I’m not paid and don’t have an office,” she says. “Now I have to be accessible online. Any teacher who is a good teacher is going to feel the professional responsibility.”
Most professors say they’re being required to put some kind of statement about office hours on course syllabi, regardless of the employment status of the instructor. 68 percent of the adjuncts who responded to our survey said that their institution requires them to state their office hours on their syllabus.
There are sensible reasons for doing so, beginning with the value to students. One adjunct wrote recently on the Contingent Academics listserv: “Recently, at an adjunct orientation, an administrator made a presentation on making course syllabi more student-centered. One example was a paragraph on office hours. A statement such as ‘by appointment’ was not student-friendly and instead, faculty should express their interest in meeting with students and set specific hours.”
When institutions or departments ramp up their efforts to get office hours more widely publicized and observed, they could be doing so as a concerted effort to bring adjuncts into the fold, says John Curtis, director of research and public policy at the American Association of University Professors. But they could just be redoubling their efforts for other reasons. “It could result from an upcoming accreditation review, or from an administrative-led ‘student-centered’ emphasis,” Curtis says.
“You have accreditors asking questions about quality and whether faculty are available to their students,” says Adrianna Kezar, a professor at the School of Education at the University of Southern California. “You have institutions saying ‘We don’t know if we want to pay adjuncts for office hours, but let’s make them include them on their syllabus.’”
Curtis says that failure to hold hours might conceivably be used as a rationale for dismissing or not rehiring an adjunct. But it’s a mistake to believe that institutions are always operating with a cogent plan on office hours. In fact, some professors and union representatives say, there’s a great deal of variation in whether syllabus requirements are actually reviewed or enforced.
Alyssa Picard, assistant director of the American Federation of Teachers’ Higher Education department, which represents over 200,000 faculty, staff, and graduate employees in higher education, says the landscape for office hours is complicated because policies vary across institutions, and even department by department within individual colleges.
“It’s amazing how frequently different levels of the academic employment don’t know what’s happening in one institution,” Picard said. “It’s unbelievable how frequently I sit across the table from administrators and human resources reps who tell us, ‘we don’t require adjuncts to hold office hours,’ not knowing that the English department is sending out employment letters say their adjuncts must keep three office hours per week.”
Where It Gets Complicated
Picard brings up the negotiating table for a reason: It’s the place where institution-wide policies on office hours often get sorted out. In our survey, just over half of the respondents said that their union contracts require them to hold office hours at set times.
For part-time faculty, Are we required to hold office hours? is only the first question a contract can solve. The second, arguably bigger one: Will we get paid for this stuff? For the moment, Curtis says, the answer is most likely “no.” Most part-time faculty pay is per course, he points out, and contracts typically do not include provisions for any additional office hours.
In our survey, only 15 percent of respondents said that their contract specifies how much they are to be paid for office hours. And in the CAW survey from 2010, just 8 percent of the 10,000 adjuncts who responded said they were compensated for their office hours. 60 percent said they were not.
At Cape Cod, for example, Smith’s contract stipulates that on top of class prep, teaching, and grading, she is obligated “to be available to students by appointment when mutually convenient.” But the document makes no mention of payment.
Part-time faculty members at some colleges have successfully bargained to be paid for office hours. But there’s generally no separate line in their contracts that specifies what that hourly dollar amount is. Instead, it’s rolled into their overall pay.
Picard provided examples of language from AFT-brokered contracts that speaks to part-time faculty members’ office hours and availability of office space. At City College of San Francisco, where full- and part-time faculty are members of AFT 2121, adjuncts are paid for a scaled number of office hours based on credit hours taught. But they are not assured offices or telephones.
At the City University of New York, adjuncts teaching six hours or more are paid for one office hour a week. Their contract actually does wade into the specifics of compensation: It states that they will “be paid at 100 percent of their teaching rate for one additional hour weekly for work such as office hours and professional development.”
When adjuncts at the University of Michigan are required to hold office hours, they are included as part of the overall “percent of effort” at which an individual faculty member is appointed.
Matthew Reed, who a few years ago started the popular blog Confessions of a Community College Dean, was an adjunct back in the 1990s. Back then, he says, he didn’t hold set office hours. “Mine were catch-as-catch-can,” he says. He met with students before and after classes, sometimes in the food court, “at a big table with a big thing of Coke.”
Today Reed is vice president of academic affairs at Holyoke Community College. Adjuncts at his institution are unionized, and there’s a set rate of pay for classroom teaching. But since Holyoke doesn’t pay adjuncts for office hours, there’s no expectation that those professors will hold them. If departments contract with adjuncts to perform tasks such as advising, the professors are paid an hourly rate, he says.
“The position we’ve taken is that if we require something, then we pay for it,” Reed says.
Some adjuncts say that’s all they want out of a contract—a consistency between the importance placed on office hours and the money allotted to them. Picard says that when she’s sitting at the bargaining table with administrators, she hears two standard lines that are “mutually contradictory.” The first: “We don’t require you to hold office hours, so how can you be complaining that we’re not paying you for them?”
The second: “Holding office hours is such an integral part of the job that what we pay you already accounts for it.”
These days, the topic of office hours has extra urgency attached to it. That’s because the Affordable Care Act is forcing many part-time professors to confront hard questions about the length of their work weeks.
The ACA stipulates that anyone who works a minimum of 30 hours per week is a full-time worker eligible for employer-funded health insurance. Businesses with 50 or more workers, including higher education institutions, are required either to provide health insurance to employees who meet this threshold or to pay a fine.
So will office hours count toward the hours adjuncts are credited for? At this point, it is not clear. In January, the Internal Revenue Service issued new rules that require colleges to use a “reasonable method” of calculating the work hours adjuncts rack up outside the classroom. “Educational organizations generally do not track the full hours of service of adjunct faculty, but instead compensate adjunct faculty on the basis of credit hours taught,” the IRS noted in the Federal Register.
Maisto says that new regulation “represents a huge opportunity for adjuncts to put institutions on the spot.” As adjuncts try to figure out how to meet that 30-hour threshold, some have come to worry that their institutions are cutting their hours and limiting the number of courses they can teach. It’s conceivable, Maisto says, that clearly codified office hours could help them make the case that they are, in fact, full-time employees.
“Who gets to decide what is required in order for faculty to fulfill their responsibility to students?” she asks. “Traditionally, it’s been the faculty.”