March 11th, 2011

Adjunct by Choice: Getting Past the Stereotypes of Online Instructors

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We all are familiar with the stereotype of the professional adjunct: a harried and underpaid soul cobbling together a marginal income by racing from campus to campus, teaching a class here and a couple of classes there, using their car as a mobile office, and hoping for the day that someone offers them a “real” tenure-track job on a single campus.

While this might be the reality for some instructors, online learning has given birth to a new kind of full-time adjunct professor. This “professional adjunct” has very often chosen a life that includes a variety of adjunct appointments with a number of institutions, managing this workload from a location of their choice.

Laurie A. Bedford, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor in the school of education at Capella University. In an article in the Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration titled “The Professional Adjunct: An Emerging Trend in Online Instruction,” she details results of her qualitative study of adjuncts who have chosen this path for themselves.

The growth of professional adjuncts

The reliance on professional adjuncts is born of simple demand. Bedford writes: “Expanding enrollment in online programs has concurrently created a demand for qualified faculty to assume the increasing workload. As tenured or full-time faculty have been unable to fulfill these roles due to workload or resistance, organizations are more frequently turning to adjuncts to meet the needs of their online learners. (Carnevale, 2004).”

This need for adjunct instruction has sparked a great deal of debate, much of it surrounding the quality of instruction delivered by these adjuncts. “Much of the dialogue has focused on the organizational structure of the institutions that rely on adjuncts as well as the ability of part-time employees to deliver high-quality instruction (Shakeshaft, 2002),” Bedford writes.

However, these debates often overlook a new class of instructor: the professional adjunct. Bedford explains: “These full-time part-timers, as described by Schnitzer & Crosby (2003), make up a portion of individuals who seek online, adjunct work and, according to Carnevale (2004), are finding that they can build a network of opportunities with an entrepreneurial spirit. They capitalize on the need for organizations to hire competent, part-time professors who have significant expertise in their discipline as well as the demonstrated skills necessary to successfully mentor online learners. They are also finding that they have negotiating power as organizations struggle to fill their teaching vacancies and full-time, tenured faculty resist. Furthermore, as more online programs emerge, adjuncts are not bound by scheduling or geography to fill their employment needs (Carnevale). They are finding that, as they build their competencies, they are situated to capitalize on a growing market for their skills that involves multiple opportunities for part-time positions with diverse organizations.”

Professional adjuncts respond
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Bedford conducted a qualitative study that sought to understand the perspectives and motivations of these professional adjuncts. Some of the most interesting findings include:

All of the adjuncts surveyed considered online positions to be their primary employment. One participant explained, “This makes sense because of the logistical challenges associated with teaching on multiple campuses.” Bedford also found that her respondents felt this arrangement better suited their own teaching style and work preferences, which might also include short-term consulting.

  • Far from the stereotype of adjuncts eager for the pay, benefits, and stability of a traditional faculty appointment, Bedford found that many respondents thought of themselves as entrepreneurs who could design their own work. One respondent explained: “I am self-employed. That means I don’t get benefits. I understand that and that’s okay. Self-employed people can successfully plan for retirement, budget for vacations, and organize health insurance coverage through sources such as professional affiliations. I have been able to do that, too.” Another said, “Perhaps as adjuncts, we can redefine ourselves as entrepreneurs who can take charge of our own needs rather than plead with organizations for added benefits and more appropriate compensation. … This might mean seeking employment elsewhere.”
  • Professional adjuncts reject the notion that they are less prepared than their full-time counterparts. “Some people believe that my part-time status somehow makes me less qualified. This I don’t understand. I have the same degree and much more experience in the online classroom than many of the full-timers,” said one respondent. Another maintained that a professional adjunct may be uniquely qualified to occupy these positions: “Since most of the faculty I know are more comfortable in traditional classrooms, I have found a niche for myself in the online world. I feel like I have the skills and the temperament better suited for online learning so when schools are in need of online faculty, I am a good fit.”
  • Most respondents included reasons such as flexibility and ability to work from home as motivations for choosing to become a professional adjunct, but only a few took this to the extreme of noting the benefits of working in one’s pajamas. “I wish they would stop with the ‘teach in your pajamas’ crap,” one adjunct commented. “Who cares what you’re wearing. It’s about serving students and my discipline. This kind of garbage gets in the way of the advancement of all online teachers.”
  • Finally, professional adjuncts identified the ability to determine their own scholarly engagement as a benefit. These adjuncts did not want to avoid scholarly involvement, but rather celebrated their independence as scholars. “I engage in all of the scholarly activities that I would if I was vying for a tenure role—research, publishing, service, etc. The only difference is that I engage in the activities that I enjoy and interest me with no pressure from an organization to find something that will benefit them,” one said.

Overall, the professional adjunct appears to be a permanent faculty type that universities will need to work with. Bedford concludes that institutions should “acknowledge the full-time professional adjunct as a legitimate career path. In this way, efforts can be made to understand the characteristics associated with those professional adjuncts that can bring quality, rigor, and unique expertise to the instructional staff….Rather than consider all adjuncts a homogenous group, they need to be seen as entrepreneurial consultants in command of their own work environment and professional growth. Through this perspective, they can be seen as collaborative partners in the educational process and be treated as unique individuals with diverse needs and assets.”

Reference: Bedford, L., (2009) The Professional Adjunct: An Emerging Trend in Online Instruction. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, v12 n3.

Excerpted from Understanding the Professional Online Adjunct. Distance Education Report, 14.1 (2010): 3, 6.