So The Atlantic, via a reporter from The Hechinger Report, has decided that “remedial” students “are often faced with the least-qualified instructors.” This is a slam against not only adjuncts, but tenured and tenure-track faculty who teach developmental courses, and as the following letter sent to the editor at The Atlantic outlines, we adjuncts beg to differ:
Dear Atlantic Editors and Meredith Kolodner,
We are writing in response to the truly egregious article on “remedial” education in colleges, “Why Remedial College Classes Need Better Teachers.” First of all, you left out a crucial word in the title. It should have been called “Why Remedial College Classes Need Better Supported Teachers.” To say anything else lays the blame at the wrong feet. The corporatization of higher education and the corporate “deformation” of K-12 education have put students in the position of needing much more preparation for college work than ever before and crippled both secondary and post-secondary educators in providing it.
But your claim that students who need the most help are often “faced with the least qualified instructors” is utter bollocks. While it may be true that some community colleges do not demand more than a bachelor’s degree to teach in that subject, that is usually predicated on the teacher being a graduate student in that field. And at a university or four-year college, one must have an advanced degree and teaching experience, unless one is a Teaching Assistant. Even then, TA’s are chosen and supervised carefully, as are new teachers everywhere. But the vast majority of us already have both advanced degrees and teaching experience. There’s nothing “least qualified” about us or our colleagues. Perhaps if Ms. Kolodner had spoken to more of us who are in the trenches, instead of the program directors of training centers, that would have been more evident.
Developmental courses are by far the hardest to teach well, and the fact that faculty who get such weak support are able to do even as well as we do is nearly miraculous. Although blaming teachers for institutional and cultural shortcomings is a popular sport these days, especially in this case, the argument is utterly backwards. If anything, most of us work those minor miracles with next to no support: no offices, no time or place to meet privately with students outside of class, no access to copy machines or computers, no professional development, and very often a syllabus that’s prepackaged and handed down a few days before class, or—worse—no syllabus or books designated at all as we walk into class after our last-minute hiring. Plus, as the article points out, our instructional time is stretched between multiple institutions. To avoid ACA regulations, many colleges deny adjunct faculty the number of classes we need to earn a living wage, so we have no true “home” institution that offers support to us so we can, in turn, support our students.
Worse, adjuncts often are assigned developmental courses because these courses are undesirable to the full-time faculty due to the time commitment required and the high failure rates, which lower their year-end teaching evaluation numbers, as they do for adjuncts (which, in turn allows people like you to assume we are poor teachers). So you have enthusiastic and dedicated adjuncts ready to teach for the first time, wondering what they are doing “wrong” when their students are at the same failure rate as everyone else’s. However, in this case, there is rarely a seasoned, tenured faculty member willing to mentor new adjuncts or glean any information about the classroom experience from them. Perhaps the phrase “this is a tough class to teach” may have been spoken before the semester began. Maybe the adjuncts teach one more semester and quit, or maybe the adjuncts persevere. Either way, there is precious little communication between the people teaching the class and the people choosing the text and creating the curriculum.
Who is responsible for this scenario? Not the adjuncts. But this scenario sums up what is wrong with higher education. There are myriad studies about the short- and long-term costs of employee turnover, yet, here in a sector where success is tied to the future of our society, these costs are wholly ignored because another adjunct, another body with an advanced degree, can easily be found to keep the machine going. This is not in step with the goal of educating. This is in step with the goal of fleecing. The student who is in one of these classes will take it, on average, three times. Either the student will pay for the class three times or maybe financial aid will pay for the class three times. The institution will reap the benefits of being paid three times, probably while having raised tuition and given the administration a hefty raise (while paying the teacher only what one student’s tuition for that course would be), all the while being able to mediate the outcome and choosing not to do so.
The poor state of developmental education exists because someone with administrative power chose not to follow faculty or division recommendations. Instead of providing the best supported teachers for struggling incoming students, we have administration treating students merely as “customers” who will fail and leave their money behind, or repeat courses over and over to leave even more tuition dollars behind (cf. the recent departure of Simon Newman from Mount St. Mary’s). If there is a lack or erosion of standards, it is due to the intrusion of non-teaching administrators into academic, curricular, and pedagogical matters.
Student success is very easily addressed by the following:
1) supported instruction
2) fully funded and staffed instructional services
3) recurrent skill building (versus purely remedial)
4) universal design (e.g., writing across the curriculum)
5) interdisciplinary team-taught courses
6) getting the testing, placement and advising process in order so students are correctly placed. In mathematics especially this is a recurring problem very damaging to students.
7) Fully involving the adjuncts who are doing all this teaching in curriculum updates and design instead of handing them a textbook two hours before class begins and expecting a miracle.
8) Increasing the percentage of full-time professors and distributing classes fairly across all faculty.
9) Ensuring that the professors teaching the most vulnerable students are not themselves vulnerable.
Notably, the solution offered in this article is further dubious, corporate-sponsored training—the same “solution” crippling K-12. Until the corporatization of education at all levels is halted and funding increased across the board for educators, providing them with stable jobs and livable wages, students will continue to get less than they should from all but the most elite institutions. And when their teachers have little support and are often earning what students can make by sticking with their fast-food jobs, to pretend that economic situations will be improved through education is disingenuous. Teacher and professor working conditions are student learning conditions.
Lee Kottner, M.A.
Adjunct Professor, English, New Jersey City University
AFT Local 1839 Executive Committee Member
New Faculty Majority Board Member
Rebecca G. Agee, M.A.
Adjunct Professor of English
Ivy Tech Community College
Jjenna Hupp Andrews, MFA, Ph.D.
Lecturer II, Art Appreciation & Studio Art – University of Michigan – Flint
Adjunct, Art History & Studio Art – Delta College
Sabrina Alcorn Baron, PhD
Assistant Research Professor of History, Professional Track
University of Maryland
Robert Craig Baum, Ph.D.
Founder and Master Teacher, Wisdom1096
Faculty Fellow, European Graduate School
Adjunct Assistant Professor, Fordham University and St. John’s University
Brianne Bolin, M.A.
Cofounder & Managing Director, PrecariCorps
Adjunct Faculty, Columbia College Chicago, 2005-2016
Shannon LC Cate PhD
Adjunct Instructor, Media and Cinema Studies
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
City Colleges Contingent Labor Organizing Committee
City Colleges of Chicago’s Adjunct Labor Union
Alyssa Colton, PhD English
Lisa Coniglio PhD
Adjunct Biology Instructor
Adjunct World Comics
Nora Femenia, PhD.,
Florida International University’s Labor Center
Adjunct since 2002, teaching Conflict Resolution Methods
Fulbright Expert in Conflict Resolution
Joseph Fruscione, Ph.D.
Cofounder & Communications Director, PrecariCorps
Adjunct Professor, 1999-2014
MG Gainer, PhD
Assistant Professor, non-permanent
Lock Haven University of PA
Cristián Gómez Olivares
Case Western Reserve University
Pacific Lutheran Universit
John R. Hoskins
Adjunct English Professor
San Diego Mesa College
AFT local 1931
Laura PJ Larsen
Parent of an English/Education major, Portland State University
Payer of the college loans and expecting excellent, supported instructors for the cost
BA, Dartmouth College 1992
MA, University of Vermont 1998
PhD Candidate, University of Connecticut expected 2017
20 years of teaching experience and positive student evaluations
Adjunct Professor of History at Holyoke Community College
Maria Maisto, President and Executive Director
New Faculty Majority & New Faculty Majority Foundation
Michael Gerhard Martin, MFA
Babson College First Year Rhetoric Program
Award-Winning Author of Easiest If I Had A Gun
Full-time part-time since Fall 1998
Karen Lentz Madison, Ph.D.
Adjunct Faculty, English, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
New Faculty Majority Board Member
Committee for Contingent Labor in the Profession (MLA’s CCLIP), Past Chair
College English Association, Past President
Robin Meade, M.B.A., PMP, CMP
Adjunct Professor of Business, Triton College
AAUP Committee A
Past President of the Moraine Valley Adjunct Faculty Organization
John D. Rall
Adjunct English Faculty
Lisa Robertson, M.A.
Adjunct Instructor of Art History, Cleveland State University, 2002-2016
Volunteer, Ohio Higher Education Coalition and New Faculty Majority
Lydia Snow, M.A.
Music Instructor, Northeastern Illinois University
Delegate, UPI 4100
Lana Sumpter, PhD
Adjunct Writing Instructor
Katherine Ward, PhD
Adjunct Instructor, Anthropology
AFT Part-Time Faculty United
I would also add that this sounds a lot like the first step in the neoliberal tactic of defunding a public sector service until it breaks, then telling the public it doesn’t work, and then wrapping that sector up in a bow for privatization. What do you think, U. of Wisconsin, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Mount St. Mary’s, etc.?
Feel free to sign with us Troublemakers in the comments below, and watch this space for an official follow-up from NFM.