Andrew Thaler

CEO at Blackbeard Biologic

Negotiating Your Way to a Fair Adjuncting Experience

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Image: "Glass plate negative, stage set of three men playing cards in an alcove, Australia, 1895 - 1905," possibly by Arthur Phillips

Is there a place in academe for competitive, well-negotiated adjunct appointments? For many aspiring academics, adjuncting may be the only path into the professoriate, but enough has been written about the plight of adjuncts that recent Ph.D.’s may find themselves questioning whether they should ever accept such a position. The answer depends on whether you’re willing to negotiate a fair contract.

Some readers may immediately wonder: Can you negotiate an adjunct contract? When confronted with an adjunct position, you can and should negotiate. But in order to do so, you have to be willing to walk away.

I have enjoyed every course that I’ve taught as an adjunct. I’ve been treated fairly because I’ve negotiated contracts that ensured that I wasn’t being exploited. But I’ve walked away from more adjunct contracts than I’ve accepted. When you’re a struggling academic who’s barely making poverty wages, walking away from work, even exploitative work, is the hardest thing to do, but you can only negotiate for a better deal if you're willing to say no to an offer that doesn’t sufficiently value your expertise.

How much you can negotiate depends on the expertise you’re offering. Of course if you’re jumping in to teach an introductory course that -- as far as the institution is concerned -- could be taught by anyone with a pulse, your negotiating options are limited. But you can still make sure you get the basic necessities to do the job.

The best way to negotiate a fair, rewarding adjunct gig is to design a course that your university wants to offer and that only you can teach. That puts you in a strong position to negotiate for five essential components of a rewarding adjunct position, which are:

1. Pay commensurate with your time and experience. Only you know what your time is worth. Decide going in what your hourly rate is and ensure that any adjunct contract meets at least your minimum requirements. After teaching several classes you should be able to estimate how much real time each course will require and then adjust your future contract negotiations accordingly.

2. A course-development fee. If you are designing a new course, or taking over one you’ve never taught before, the university should include a course-development fee to compensate you for time spent working on it before the semester starts. You’re doing a ton of work leading up to the first class; you shouldn’t have to do that pro bono. A fee equivalent to a third of your total compensation for teaching the course is generally appropriate. I requested -- and received -- such a fee for the two courses I developed from scratch and never received any pushback from the institution.

3. A student-enrollment cap or additional-student fee. Here’s a horror story: You agree to teach an intro writing course with 15 students, but on the first day of class, you discover that 45 have enrolled. Now you’re stuck with three times as much work for the same pay. Make sure -- before you sign on the dotted line -- that your contract includes a cap on student enrollment or some wording indicating that you’ll be paid extra for each student enrolled above a predetermined number. Asking for $100 for every student who enrolls above the preset cap in your contract is not unreasonable. If anything, it will at least encourage the university not to overwhelm you with students.

4. A clear chain of command. Consider another horror story: You’re halfway through the semester when you discover a student is cheating, or you realize that there’s a problem with the curriculum, or you have questions about an institutional policy. Who do you turn to for help or advice? In some cases, it may be a dean, a department head, or a tenured faculty member. In others, it might be a different administrator. Unfortunately, for many adjuncts, there’s no clear reporting structure. Their problems may get punted around the department, leaving the instructors in a state of limbo. Don’t let that happen to you. Make sure your contract explicitly states who you should go to with problems and who has ultimate decision-making power over your class.

5. Your copyright. When you design a course, build a curriculum, or produce new materials and activities, that’s your intellectual property. Many universities will argue that the course is a work-for-hire and that they own the copyright.When you negotiate your contract, you’ll need to ensure that it explicitly states that you retain the copyright on all new materials produced for the class. Don’t surrender your copyright to the university. As long as you retain the rights, you’ll have the power to take shop your class to other universities. Remember, your goal as an adjunct is to build your career.

Making these requests may seem impossible to many adjuncts. But as I mentioned, I have negotiated successfully in some cases and walked away in others. Remember: If you aren’t willing to say no, then the university gets to define the terms of your contract. Almost every other job in the United States pays higher hourly wages than an adjunct position, so if you don’t like the contract, don’t sign it. Departments that aren’t willing to negotiate are trying to exploit you. Don’t let them.

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