While checking my university email several weeks after being hired, I beamed with excitement as I read the invitation for my first faculty welcome week brunch and address hosted by the provost and president. I eagerly accepted the invite and two weeks later hesitantly entered the auditorium. As I listened to the provost and president speak, the only person I knew was the dean I interviewed with a month earlier. Seated alone, I introduced myself and chatted with faculty members sitting closest to me from a different department. After the presentations, these veteran faculty graciously escorted me to brunch and introduced me to colleagues outside my own department. After answering questions about my new role, a presumably tenured-tracked faculty looked shocked to see me and quietly told me that adjunct faculty do not belong at these events—I had inadvertently crossed an unmarked boundary. Little did I know at the time that being an adjunct instructor was seen as “second-class” in the teaching community.
Adjunct teaching connotates the stereotype of an instructor rushing from one university to another, barely making ends meet, potentially sacrificing quality of courses over quantity. This is in direct contrast to several published studies acknowledging that adjunct faculty’s teaching is consistently rated as equal to or higher than tenured-tracked faculty (Lowenthal et al., 2015). Potentially due to the flexibility in scheduling and the ability to select their classes, adjunct faculty report high job satisfaction despite lower compensation. One of the strongest predictors of job satisfaction in adjunct faculty is the connection and sense of belonging that faculty can have to the university community (Rich, 2015).
Like an outsider looking in, feelings of isolation and disconnectedness from their university community are common amongst adjunct instructors. Studies have reported more egregious instances of ostracism from their department and even cases of bullying by tenured-tracked members toward adjunct faculty (Reigle, 2016). If the sense of community is strengthened—leading to higher job satisfaction in adjuncts—then potentially student outcomes and student retention rates could improve as well. The desire for connection to the university community and opportunities outside of the classroom to learn from peers’ knowledge and experience not only allows for a sense of belonging and alleviation of isolation, but also provides students with higher quality education.
Based on the studies available, reasons for not fully incorporating the adjunct faculty into the university community remain unclear. One assumption that could be made is adjunct instructors are viewed as temporary employees filling a short-term gap, despite that 65% of adjunct faculty report they’ve taught for 10 or more years (An Army of Temps, 2020). Several published studies and reports contain recommendations for universities to improve communication with adjunct faculty (Wallin, 2007), but little information exists about the role adjunct faculty can take to further integrate themselves into their university community. In order for adjunct faculty to develop a sense of community and belonging for their own job satisfaction and to further student development, both the institution and employee must play a contributing role.
Although these recommendations are not meant to be all-encompassing, an adjunct instructor beginning their journey at a university or an established adjunct who would like to develop a deeper sense of community can begin by employing the following strategies. Many adjunct faculty members might be familiar with colleagues inside of their department, but connecting with other supporting departments (i.e., writing center, career center, counseling center) can be initiated by inviting guest speakers. This can also lead to greater awareness of university resources that benefit students. If unfamiliar with faculty within the department, reach out for collaboration on projects, peer-to-peer review of classes, or sharing of materials and ideas. If desired, speak to the dean of the department for additional opportunities for adjuncts.
Research has demonstrated that the relationship between students and adjuncts does not differ between the relationships between full-time faculty and students. Adjuncts typically find satisfaction in collaborating directly with the students. Consider holding weekly (if possible) in-person office hours at the university. Getting to know students outside of the class strengthens the bond with the student population, and ultimately, the university. If virtual office hours are the only possibility due to COVID-19 protocols or time constraints, the Calendly website can be useful to schedule phone calls or virtual office hours through Zoom or Google Meets. Although not usually a requirement or condition of employment, consider mentoring students through honors projects or research opportunities. Finally, advocate for opportunities for increased recognition of adjunct faculty who are often not eligible for traditional teaching awards at the university, similar to The Society for the Teaching of Psychology, which includes a specific designation for adjunct faculty annually.
My first welcome breakfast three years ago feels like a lifetime ago in a pre-COVID era. Small steps each year have been made to inch my way through the unmarked boundary that I discovered walking into the auditorium for the first time. For both myself and the university, there is more to be done, but next year I won’t be sitting alone.
Lauren Mathieu-Frasier is an adjunct faculty member in psychology, by choice, at two universities, teaching research methods, cognitive psychology, and writing and professional development.
“An Army of Temps: AFT 2020 Adjunct Faculty Quality of Work/Life Report.” AFT Fund Our Future. Accessed October 03, 2021. https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/adjuncts_qualityworklife2020.pdf
Lowenthal, Patrick, Christine Bauer, and Ken-Zen Chen. “Student Perceptions of Online Learning: An Analysis of Online Course Evaluations.” American Journal of Distance Education29, no. 2 (2015): 85-97. doi:10.1080/08923647.2015.1023621.
Rich, Telvis. “A Worthy Asset: The Adjunct Faculty and the Influences on Their Job Satisfaction.” To Improve the Academy 34, no. 1-2 (June 27, 2015): 156-70. doi:10.3998/tia.17063888.0034.101.
Reigle, Rosemary. “Bullying of Adjunct Faculty at Community Colleges and Steps toward Resolution”, PhD diss., 2016.
Wallin, Desna L. “Part-time Faculty and Professional Development: Notes from the Field.” New Directions for Community Colleges2007, no. 140 (2007): 67-73. doi:10.1002/cc.306.