The Rise of Adjunctification: From Surviving to Thriving

Adjunct Professor
Image credit: Izbela Habur/iStockphoto

Adjunctification is on the rise in institutions of higher education across the United States. This is not a new phenomenon; colleges and universities have been steadily relying more and more on the underpaid labor of part-time, nonbenefited faculty. As tenured faculty positions become more scarce and full-time positions disappear from departments, departments around the country are starting to worry about the future of their programs. In addition, the very part-time faculty that help to keep departments afloat fear for the future.

Credit-bearing ESL programs, programs that offer academic credit for ESL coursework, at community colleges and 4-year institutions are not exempt from this phenomenon. As ESL educators retire, departments are left wondering about how they will continue to support their programs with fewer long-term faculty members. Many departments have become saturated with adjunct faculty members who have taken over some or most of the teaching load within the department. These part-time faculty members often work at multiple institutions, lack job security, and lack a pipeline to full-time employment.

This begs the questions:

  1. How is the higher education landscape changing?
  2. How has the rise in adjunctification impacted ESL programs?
  3. What is the future of credit-bearing ESL programs?

What Is Adjunctification?

The term adjunctification is relatively new and still somewhat unknown by many in higher education. Though someone may not use the term adjunctification, they are more likely than not familiar with the phenomenon. Adjunctification is the push for institutions of higher learning to hire as many adjuncts (part-time, nonbenefited employees) as possible to teach courses at a lower rate and without job security. (Adjunct can also be used as a verb or adjective: “to adjunct part time” or an “adjunct professor,” respectively.)

If you are graduating from college, the majority of your professors were probably part-time, adjunct faculty members teaching at one or multiple institutions to string together a somewhat livable paycheck. Some of these faculty members might adjunct as their sole employment, while others might only adjunct to supplement their main job. Regardless, adjunct professors can be employed one semester with multiple classes or go semesters at a time with no classes at all. If you are an adjunct, you are probably familiar with the constant fear of not getting assigned coursework. Even when given classes at the beginning of one semester, there is still a feeling of dread when thinking about what will happen in 16 weeks when the semester is over.

The Moving Tectonic Plates of Higher Education

Like moving tectonic plates, shifts in higher education run deep and impact many. The landscape in higher education has been changing for some time, even before COVID-19. Many institutions were not prepared to support the rise in part-time, first-generation, and nontraditional students. Traditional models used in 4-year institutions are starting to crack as many realize that they do not support their current student audience. This has pushed institutions of higher education to try and adapt quickly for fear that they may become one of many small colleges to permanently close their doors.

In many cases, the Band-Aid solution to many issues and changes in higher education is to increase adjunctification on campus and across all disciplines and departments. Adjunctification allows a campus to easily offer a course at a cheaper price. Instead of having to offer benefits, reassigned time, prep-time, and assured work every semester, adjuncts professors can be teaching one semester and gone the next. There is no permanency. If a full-time faculty member retires, it is far cheaper for a college or university to hire multiple adjunct faculty members to complete the work. Sometimes, a college will hire fewer adjuncts and give them more work. However, many will hire many adjuncts and give them only one or two courses. It is also important to note that many adjunct faculty contracts state that someone could get paid more if they teach more courses. This reality can sometimes shape the decisions that colleges make when they decide how many people to hire and how many classes to offer. In many ways, this feels like a game of “Chutes and Ladders” to adjunct faculty who desperately want to teach and want consistent employment within their field.

The Value of Adjunct Faculty

Adjunct faculty have been around for a long time, but it was not until more recently that this shift in adjunctification has taken place. Adjunct faculty serve an important role in many departments. They offer quality instruction to students and help to support departments with a variety of projects. Adjunct faculty members are part of the academic community, skilled educators, and are professionals within their discipline.

However, the current shifts in adjunctification have presented new obstacles for adjunct faculty members. Previously, it might have been common for an adjunct faculty member to adjunct a few classes or a few semesters before a full-time, benefited position opened up. Having been in the department already, adjunct faculty are perfectly positioned to take on a bigger role within that department. Hence, they had a pipeline to full-time employment, and departments had a pipeline to future programmatic security. Unfortunately, this is just not the case anymore. Full-time teaching positions are harder to find, and departments are working harder than ever to try to encourage their institutions to fill vacancies when someone retires. Depending on the economy, campus enrollment, and campus leadership, this can be harder at some campuses than others. Therefore, adjunct educators are left to pick up the pieces within not only one department but often multiple programs at multiple institutions. This can make it hard financially and mentally for adjunct educators who want to teach and are desperately needed by their departments.

So, Where Does This Leave Credit-Bearing ESL Programs?

Like other disciplines and departments, credit-bearing ESL programs have been caught in the crossfire when it comes to securing their programs and filling full-time vacancies within their programs. As many of the educators decide to retire, it is becoming harder and harder to build and sustain credit-bearing ESL programs. As seasoned educators and ESL program developers/founders retire, departments are left at a loss. They lose a quality educator, a campus member with instructional memory, and in many cases the glue that holds the department together. The full-time faculty, if any, who remain have to take on even more work to both teach their courses and sustain the program. The additional hours and work fall on their shoulders, but the fear of losing their program entirely keeps them doing the best that they can. This model is often unsustainable.

Programs that have somewhat consistent enrollment are then often able to hire new adjunct faculty to help carry the teaching load. These faculty members could teach for one semester or 19 years; however, the opportunities to move into a full-time position are few and far between. This can push educators to leave the profession, leave teaching, or try and find employment elsewhere on the campus. Again, this causes additional changes within the department and therefore additional pressure on the department to survive. The constant change and adjustment can feel like a perpetual “Groundhog Day.”

Looking to the Future

The reality is that credit-bearing ESL programs at 2- and 4-year institutions are facing an uphill battle. Adjunctification and lack of full-time faculty positions only touch the surface of what is going on in these programs today. This draws one to question, what can we do about this? Educators, near and far from retirement, are questioning what they can do to move from this defensive position to a proactive position both for their department and for the field of TESOL overall. Unfortunately, there is no one right answer that will magically solve everything. I believe that change is possible; however, significant collaborative work is needed to move beyond change management and to a new future for credit-bearing ESL.

Though the answer might not be fully formulated at this moment, I do think that there are a few things we can do to help bring about the positive change that we and our departments so desperately need.

  1. We need to collaborate and connect with one another. Credit-bearing ESL program members, faculty and staff, need to gather on a larger scale. They need to meet with their TESOL affiliates within their states and meet on a countrywide scale through TESOL. We need to communicate with each other about what is going on, our successes, and our challenges. There is much that we can do to support each other and learn from each other.
  2. We need to publish. We need to document what is going on within our credit-bearing ESL programs. We need to document successes and challenges. We need to talk about our teaching, our pedagogy, and our program structures. This ties in with the first suggestion about connecting and collaborating. We need to be able to share what is going on within credit-bearing ESL programs on a larger scale and as evidence when we strengthen our programs.
  3. We need to embrace our adjuncts and strengthen our departments. As the dynamics in credit-bearing ESL programs change, we need to embrace this change. We need to invite adjunct faculty members to the table to discuss what is happening within the department. We need to collaborate. We need all program members to actively want to support and develop their program.
  4. We need to do a better job of marketing ourselves. Credit-bearing ESL can often run under the radar on many college campuses. Some people might know who is in the department or who the students are, but they might not necessarily understand our work for the profession. We need to do a better job of marketing who we are and what we do. This needs to take place during campus meetings and through campus marketing. We need to brand and market our programs on the college website. We need to also gain support from others on campus and within the community.
  5. We need allies! This aligns nicely with the point about marketing; we need to find our allies and hold them tight. We need them to also market our programs, support our programs, and help us as we maintain and build our credit-bearing ESL programs. Having allies on campus and within the community cannot be understated.
  6. We need adjunct solidarity. Whether you know an adjunct who is teaching in a credit-bearing ESL program or another department on campus, adjuncts need solidarity. They are often a light of hope for departments that need quality educators to teach in and contribute to their departments. Within TESOL, TESOL affiliates, and across college campuses, we need to find ways to support adjuncts. Whether there is an adjunct health care bill floating around your statehouse or not, we need to look to ways to support the growing community of adjuncts who for many will carry the future of our credit-bearing ESL programs.
  7. We need to demystify our profession. For those who are not part of the TESOL profession, it may be unclear who we are and what we do. We are more than grammar teachers. We are trained in both education and trained in teaching English. We carry pedagogy, teaching strategies, quality lessons, community drive, and more. The more we demystify our profession, the more we will be able to demystify our departments.

Though changes in the tectonic plates of higher education and the increase in adjunctification do not appear to be diminishing anytime soon, there is still hope for the future of our academic programs and adjunct faculty members. The more that we can come together as a profession, come together as a campus, and come together as departments, the brighter our future looks. Even if changes in our programs might feel like they are inevitable, there is still more work. It is time that we move our credit-bearing ESL programs from the position of surviving to the future of thriving.

If you are interested in learning more about adjunctification and the current state of higher education, check out these great articles:

  1. The Death of an Adjunct,” The Atlantic
  2. Straight Talk About Adjunctification,” The Chronicle of Higher Education
  3. The Adjunct Underclass,” Inside Higher Ed
  4. The Gig Academy,” Inside Higher Ed
  5. The Corner That State Universities Have Backed Themselves Into,” The Atlantic

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