Alice Umber

adjunct professor of human development at a university in California

I Used to Be a Good Teacher


Original image: Norman Rockwell's "Happy Birthday, Miss Jones."

Alice Umber is the pseudonym of an adjunct professor of human development at a university in California.

I spent five years on the tenure track. Now I’m an adjunct, and the move has affected my teaching in ways I didn’t anticipate. I’m not the teacher I once was, largely thanks to the lack of support I receive as an adjunct. Sadly, my students suffer the loss.

I was an excellent teacher on the tenure track, and my evaluations—both from students and colleagues—consistently said so. When I began the job, I had a heavy 4/4 undergraduate teaching load and little classroom experience. But thanks, in part, to my departmental colleagues, who generously gave me their time, advice, and encouragement and shared ideas and materials with me, I quickly improved. In those early years, the countless conversations I had with them about pedagogy, students, and classroom content inspired and helped me to hone my teaching skills. Meanwhile, I dedicated myself to revising old courses and developing new ones. I guest-lectured in my colleagues’ classes and later co-taught with them too.

I also got university support—in the form of course buyouts, seminar funding, professional-development workshops, service-learning resources, etc.—that allowed me to take my teaching to the next level. I designed community service-learning courses and collaborative research seminars. I took students to conferences to present their original research. I helped run internship fairs for students and mentored them throughout their required senior practicum. I got to know them and the university well, and was therefore able to mentor themin their studies and help them navigate campus life. I served as the department’s undergraduate advisor and gladly supervised students’ honors theses, wrote them recommendation letters, and helped them complete graduate-school applications.

I did all this with the backing of my department, which was invested in building my teaching skills. And I did it through hard work—spurred by the enticement of tenure and paid for partly in a lopsided work-life balance.

In hindsight, I probably did too much: I willingly let teaching eat up my time, and when I tried to dedicate more time for research, I couldn’t seem to find a path that would also allow me to have a home life. I searched for successful academic mothers, and what I saw were models I couldn’t imitate. I convinced myself that I didn’t really have the drive for the tenure track, even at this somewhat small-time state university. Teaching was all I really wanted to do and I thought I could focus on it in a different kind of position. So I quit before going up for tenure.

I had other reasons for walking away: worry and stress from campus politics; financial anxiety from the high cost of living and my low assistant-professor salary, made worse by the fact that my husband hadn’t secured permanent work locally and by my family’s dislike for the region where we were living. I relinquished a tenure-track job so that my family could move back to the city my husband and I still considered home, and so he could take a job there. (Yes, I know. Volumes could be said about that choice, including its gendered nature. Suffice it to say that thanks to the economic downturn, I soon realized what a dumb mistake I’d made. And lest I forget, my father—himself a Ph.D. who worked his entire career for the same national lab—kept reminding me that I’d “thrown away my career.”)

After we moved, I had a second child and then started teaching as an adjunct at an institution similar to the one I left. I’ve now been an adjunct for almost as long as I was an assistant professor, and feel like I’ve been regressing, slowly negating the strides I’d made on the tenure track. The experience students have in my courses is a weak approximation of what I once provided. That pains me, as teaching is important to me, even more so now that I’ve lost the other assets of my tenure-track job (prestige, career advancement, stability, and a pension), and the pride I derive from my mission as an educator is all that’s left.

I’m not suggesting that adjuncts are poorer teachers than tenure-track professors (except in the fiscal sense), only that the very limited institutional support so many of us receive undermines our teaching; at least it has mine. No matter how dedicated I am to my teaching or how hard I work, I simply can’t do for students as an adjunct what I could when I was an integral part of a department and a university.

For starters, I teach in a vacuum. While I’m assigned classes and (sometimes) given course outlines or sample syllabi, after that initial exchange of information, I teach my courses in almost total isolation. In my previous job, one of the first things I learned was how the sequence of required courses in the major fit together to create a foundation, continuity, and a discipline-specific education for our majors. That I ever possessed such knowledge now seems like such a luxury to me.

These days I focus on the courses I teach without any sense of how they relate to the overall curriculum, the hoped-for outcomes for majors, or the sequence of skills or knowledge being developed. The unfortunate side effect of this is that I’m less aware of any prior training and experience students might bring to my classes. And the less I know about them, the less able I’m able to tailor my classes to their needs.

I likewise know little about the goals of the department, and, frankly, I miss having a shared vision of departmental mission (or at least an open debate about it). In my current position, I decide how to portray my discipline in my courses. But I don’t know how that portrayal jibes with other courses in the department, or whether there’s any overlap. When I was on the tenure track, such disciplinary questions were regularly addressed in departmental meetings or planning retreats, and in conversations with colleagues down the hall.

My office is far removed from the rest of the department, and, as I share it with three other instructors, I spend no time there beyond designated office hours. The remoteness leaves me few, if any, opportunities to exchange information about students with my colleagues. That’s a shame, as knowing students and sharing that knowledge made me a better mentor in my previous job.

While I once used my involvement with the broader university community to help first-generation students successfully navigate the university, I now have only general advice to give, as I don’t know the players or the campus, and I’m not around much. I’ve tried, of course, to familiarize myself with this university on my own, but, from my place on the fringes of daily campus life, and sans any formal or informal support, it’s easier said than done.

What’s more, there’s scant support for offering professional development opportunities to adjuncts. Programs that once helped me create service-learning courses and interdepartmental research seminars, and learn new technologies aren’t as readily available to me now that I’m off the tenure track. While I understand why the university wouldn’t want to expend resources to enhance the skills of “temporary” employees, isn’t it troubling that so much teaching is done by workers who have so few opportunities to perfect their pedagogical skills?

Of course, the university doesn’t actually bar adjuncts from taking part in some of the professional-development opportunities on campus, but we must pursue these on our own uncompensated time. (To which I say: What time? If you’re teaching numerous courses just to make ends meet, these opportunities might as well be prohibited.) I try to take advantage of them when I can. But my sub-prof status sometimes makes me feel unwelcome at these events.

Here’s a case in point: Shortly after starting here, I received an email invitation to attend an instructional-technology presentation in the department about an important software update. I opted to go and while waiting for the presentation to begin, I was asked by a professor, who had interviewed me when I was hired, which department I taught for. I was taken aback by the question, as everyone in the room was from my department, and he was one of the few people in the room I had met. There was, I suddenly realized, no expectation that adjuncts would take advantage of this type of resource, so my presence was a surprise. These days, I understand why: Now that I usually teach a full load of four courses for the department, I have little time for such sessions.

Yet I’m still expected to learn new skills. So I’ve adopted a do-it-yourself approach. For example, in recent years the department asked me to teach courses online. When I was first offered these courses, no one seemed bothered in the least that I hadn’t taught online before. While my chair kindly suggested I talk with someone in the instructional-technology center, that was the extent of the departmental support I received. So over the winter break I met with the center’s helpful online-course-design maven, who showed me the ropes. I started teaching online two short weeks later. I’ve taught online every quarter since then, and am slowly improving, but it requires a whole new pedagogical approach and a lot of trial and error. I even took it upon myself to sign up for a MOOC about online teaching, but it imploded in the first week under the burden of high enrollment. (It’s probably a bad omen when a MOOC about online teaching crumbles under its own weight.)

I worry that my online teaching kind of sucks, but my department doesn’t seem concerned. Perhaps I should take that as a sign of its confidence in me, but I fear that it’s an indication that my chair doesn’t have time to worry much about the job I’m doing. I recently shared with her my concern about the quality of my online classes, only to have her encourage me to make less of an effort. “You don’t have to read all their writing,” she told me. “Sometimes you know before the final who is going to get an A or a B.”

The sad thing is, I really miss the conversations I used to have with colleagues about teaching -- the shared ideas and collaborative problem-solving. I miss, too, the expectation that I should be a skilled teacher who is regularly evaluated and who works to improve. I worry that I’m slipping into stasis, that I’ll find myself making less and less effort to up my teaching game, as there’s no long-term benefit to adding to my already overburdened schedule, and zero opportunity for professional advancement.

I doubt most students know which of their professors are adjuncts or even what an “adjunct” is, but my status as one surely affects their experience. Instructor well-being and student-learning outcomes are linked, as labor activists say. But, as my experience shows, it’s not just a slogan. Poor labor conditions affect the product of that labor, and I’m a poorer teacher partly because I’m poorer. Without recognition, backing, career prospects, or job stability, I’m less than I could be if I were better supported. Even if I had an indomitable spirit and deep pockets, my teaching would be diminished by my detachment from the department, the university, and the students. I think students should be bothered by the fact that I am a one-off. I think students deserve the teacher I was and not the teacher I’ve become.

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  • Adjuncts provide an enormous boon to college finances. Being paid as little as $1500 per course, they fill the instructional blanks while giving the administration time to hire full-time faculty. Is the adjunct merely a temporary filler, or a permanent method of saving a good deal of money?

    Most of us know the answer to that question.

    Richard Marchesani Richard Marchesani
  • Adjuncts are simply profit mules. 40 years ago American schools faced a shortage of PhDs, invented adjuncts to cover the gap, and then discovered a gold mine---disposable faculty paid minimum wage with no benefits, rights or voice. It was a businessman's fantasy come true, and schools are not going to let that go without a horrendous fight. Heck, if a school like mine pulls in $176,000 for every 20-student gut course and can get away with paying the professor (who IS THE VALUE OF THAT COURSE) only $5000, who can be surprised that administrators' self-stuffing greed and carelessness about education itself just goes on and on?

    Jack Dempsey Jack Dempsey
  • As a former tenured associate professor who now only teaches part-time online as an adjunct, I completely understand your point here, which is that without that sense of belonging and community one gets from having a real office in a real place with colleagues to talk with - it's lonely. And clearly, one does not put as much conceptual effort into one's teaching without others to bounce ideas off of, borrow materials from, dream up new courses or collaborations, and without the departmental support to further develop new courses or ideas for teaching. Online teaching presents the added oddity of teaching pre-fab syllabi created entirely by unseen others. When I teach for Huge Online U., I get a 100% populated online platform with all the materials needed (other than a textbook)...and my input is more like that of a traditional TA - I grade the assignments and answer questions for about $15 an hour.

    Kathryn Adams Kathryn Adams
  • I have been an adjunct, I have been tenured. Now I am unemployed--but I have decided, for the good of my profession, not to adjunct. I am hoping others will join me. Here's my article:

    Michelle Kassorla Michelle Kassorla
  • This is probably the most frustrating part of my current teaching job. Since I'm not only an adjunct, but the only person from my entire department at this campus (the main campus is about 2 hours away), I just don't ever see anyone and have the opportunity to share notes. Requests for sample syllabi yielded very generic syllabi, no real sample assignments. I can tell the department is trying, but I suspect that all the good exchange comes in the way I always got it when I was in a vibrant place-- those conversations at lunch, or in the hallways while holding office hours, or meetings. And there's just no way I'm able to drive the 2 hours to the main campus. So I have NO idea if what I do actually "norms" with the rest of the department. Add that to the fact that I teach at a campus that is very science/tech oriented and my students are very unlikely to ever take any courses past the required in my major field and it's all frustrating. I try, and scour pedagogy websites for good info. But I just have no frame of reference any more. And I suspect this is the case for most adjuncts in very small schools.

    Kimberly Wells Kimberly Wells
  • I'm willing to bet that the increasing dependence on low-paid adjuncts correlates directly to the numbers of women graduating with PhDs (and in the fields that these women graduate from). Just saying.

    Laura Dodge Laura Dodge
  • Being an adjunct is not excuse for medocrity. I've been adjuncting for going on 5 years now and although I totally understand the lack of support, lack resources, not being connected to the campus, etc. there are ways to over come these obstacles and still do your job to the best of your ability. Of course, you won't ever be paid enough for your work (I make between $850 and $1167 a credit hour) but the teaching is the bottom line and being an adjunct isn't an excuse for being a mediocre teacher.

    Ricci Fuentes Ricci Fuentes
  • I align with most comments from the Alice Umber piece. As an adjunct for a local state college system, my angst is with higher education inflating enrollment through online courses leading to compromised student and teaching outcomes for the sake of revenue. The absence of human interface with students and academic cohorts alike profoundly deludes the entire academic process.

    David Wills David Wills
  • Great piece that sounds familiar in many ways; very glad it was shared.

    Jeffrey Keefer Jeffrey Keefer
  • Your article is definitely addresses some of the core challenges in higher education. However, teachers whether they are adjunct or full time are always agents of change hence their value can never be denied. In addition, consistent reflection and professional development is part of each profession now which helps improve teaching practices and methodology time and again.

    Begum Ayesha Kalim Begum Ayesha Kalim
  • A very well written commentary. Sadly, the economic equation rules the day; supply vs. demand. Many more teacher than jobs. Hence, a field day for employers. The industrialization of education has reduced many schools to components parts that are often disconnected. Very alarmingly, the faculty is disconnected when so many are p/t. The systemic nature of p/t and f/t labor greatly affects the collaboration between a faculty contingent. Not all schools subscribe to the adjunct model. Look to Ivy League schools that sparingly use p/t instructors. A full time faculty that is immersed and connected all of the time is a cornerstone of the quality programs. The reality is that beyond the Ivy's, most schools are financially driven to keep costs low, and offer programs that are good enough to attract x number of students. Hence, the p/t paradigm. In my opinion, this should be an issue for accrediting bodies. A strong faculty should be mostly full time educators who are engaged comprehensively, consistently, continually, [fill in the blank here]. It's an interesting issue that is like the elephant in the room. No school wants to admit there is any compromise in educational quality. It's just simply, 'good enough', or rhetoric about no significant difference. If there was no difference in quality between f/t and p/t, why would the top schools not also take advantage of a great cost advantage? The answer is axiomatic.

    I would also like to state that although many adjuncts are qualified, hard working, talented, and excellent teachers, it's the system that inhibits the overall quality of the faculty. It is not the fault of an adjunct for being marginalized, hence often less effective. It's the systemic makeup that is the root cause. Let's not cast adjuncts as any less professional or qualified. One step further, what if all k-12 teachers were treated like higher ed? Would that be a neutral factor in delivering quality education? It surely would not be the fault of the teachers, they would just show up, teach their subject, and there's that. Sounds crazy, and it is. To deliver the best quality educational programs, teaching requires a connected faculty, no matter the level of education.

    Dr. Mark Taormino Dr. Mark Taormino
  • You have barely scratched the surface. I've been an adjunct my whole teaching career and I've not only seen it steadily decline, my own life has suffered.
    Where I was actively involved in course design and text selection, now neither us available. Online teaching pays less so my income has dropped and the ABILITY to actually teach is a joke. At Southern New Hampshire adjuncts are simply baby sitters trying to keep overwhelmed students from dropping out. The actual ability to facilitate learning is diminished by the students active resistance to doing work or reading feedback. We are paying an awful price for paying more attention to $ over education. Adjuncts are a means if enslaving people with a passion to teach. Poor salaries and no benefits means only those who are desperate financially continue. I can no longer afford to teach. With no retirement I've been forced to look else where to add value.

    Kathryn Alexander Kathryn Alexander
  • As I've commented elsewhere, the original adjunct model, whereby skilled professionals were brought in occasionally to teach the courses that brought a practical emphasis in professional fields like law, medicine, and accounting, made considerable sense. Most of these people taught because they enjoyed and were good at it,not for the money, which was more like a gratuity than a salary. But starting to escalate around 2000, clever university officials developed a logic whereby a tight employment market created by recessions allowed them to hire a lot more contingent faculty to take over for those who might have been hired on the more expensive tenure track, thus both saving money and disempowering the full-time faculty.

    Hence, the explosion of adjunct faculty and the almost complete disappearance of tenure-track entry slots in academia, to the point where approaching 70% of classes are now being taught by such contingent faculty. This situation is both inadequate and unstable; no one is happy with it, and it isn't even saving the universities money any more, even as it impoverishes both the adjuncts and the students. And the disdain for faculty that this transition implies has translated into a more general societal disdain for both academics and the value of education. Since "you get what you pay for", when faculty salaries fall below those of sanitation workers their social standing does also.

    There is a certain element of karma associated with my current position in adjunctville, since at my former all-online university I was a major employer and user of adjuncts. Although I tried to treat them well, I now realize the degree to which institutional structures and policies were deliberately disempowering. The current full-time faculty manager of adjuncts has considerably more in common with a first-line supervisor at Wal-Mart than he does with Mr. Chips.

    JD Eveland JD Eveland
  • And another one tries to make a "lateral move" (from tenure track to non-tenure track) in order to accommodate family demands, only to sadly discover that means landing in a land of talented but wasted academic mothers.

    Denise Cummins Denise Cummins