Last semester, a student of mine who is very bright but doing poorly in my class came in for conferences. She was having a hard time making that adjustment into full responsibility for herself (she’s a first-year) and clearly overwhelmed. We’d spoken a few times after class and in conferences and I offered to help her find some campus resources that could make the transition easier, or at least give her someone to talk to.
But the one thing she said that really struck me during our long talk was that I was the only professor who had taken time to really talk to her. I told her the truth: that it was probably because her other professors are also adjuncts and don’t have the luxury of teaching at one school full time, like I’ve had this semester, thanks to my parallel employment at the Writing Center there. And it was a pleasure to be able to give her that time, to try to make a difference in her life outside the classroom. When I mentioned this later to a tenured faculty member, she added that it could just as well have been her tenured colleagues, and explained that they are so protective of their time on campus because of research, committee and other service commitments that they often don’t have time for students either.
So who does, and why is that important?
I remember how hard my first semester in college was, and I didn’t have half the responsibilities or the worries about money (she’s paying her own tuition) that my student does. I was a first-generation college student who had found my way to a tough college on my own, without much help from parents (who had no experience), school counselors (who should have), or recruitment officers (who just weren’t there at my rural school). I remember crying over my grad level marine biology textbook (I’d placed out of 101/2) and thinking I wasn’t smart enough for this college stuff. And I remember how great it was to be able to go to my profs and confess those fears and have them disabuse me of them, sometimes gently, sometimes not. I always knew I could talk to them, and get help, and hang out, and learn more from them outside the classroom. They not only helped me navigate their classes, they helped me navigate that four years of growing up that I did. While I was probably never in danger of dropping out, I was certainly in danger of giving up and blowing that first semester, that first year. Without the mentoring of my profs, school would have looked very different.
This is what the adjunct system is depriving students of and why student retention is suddenly such an issue at so many colleges. When you deprive faculty—any faculty, but especially the contingent majority who teach incoming first-year students—of the ability to be mentors, especially to first-year, non-major students, you put them at risk for dropping out, especially at schools serving working class and minority students. The business model of expedience and convenience fails to take into account that as much learning goes on outside the classroom between professors and students as inside it. Real work happens outside the class, not just in preparation and grading, but in mentoring, when it’s supported.
Professional counselors are necessary, but not for every student. In fact, it’s a disservice to students to pawn them off on professional counselors instead of allowing faculty to do advising with non-majors. Instead of farming out those functions of advisement to administrative professionals, support the professors who know the whole picture and who can get to know the whole student. The non-major advisors and counselors have hundreds of students to deal with as opposed to having that burden spread among all the faculty and giving them a dozen or so students. When the majority of your faculty are adjuncts, this is obviously impossible though. So structured as it is, colleges are, in fact, creating the very problems of student retention that they hoped to head off.
Learning doesn’t just take place in the classroom. In class isn’t the only time that students should be able to see their professors. College administrators need to stop confusing teaching with lectures and classtime. The college experience—complete with full access to all your professors—is just as important to student success as class time. Nowhere does the phrase “adjunct working conditions are student learning conditions” become more critical than in the first year of students’ academic careers. Just where they need the most support they find the least. As my student and I agreed in our discussion, college is not just about academics. It’s about having time to grow up and figuring out how to. Our current market-based colleges don’t allow for that. They’re only interested in moving students from high school to the employer cubicle in the cheapest way possible.
That’s not education.