what “adjunct faculty” means

This summer I took a seven-week break from teaching for my main institution, and I’m finally getting around to writing a blog post about it, largely as a way to reflectively journal about the experience. But as I thought about what I wanted to say, I realized that, since other people will be reading this journal entry, it might be productive for me to spend some time explaining how I was able to take a seven-week break (not normal in most industries!) and, more broadly, how I get compensated for my work. I hope some of you will find this information interesting in its own right, but also–full disclosure–I have a point I want to make at the end of the post.

Let me start by evoking what many people likely picture when they hear the job title “college professor.” I live near an old and prestigious university, and there’s a part of town I sometimes drive through where, I’m told, a lot of the professors live–and where there are some truly palatial homes. I won’t make a blanket statement about all faculty at this university, but I think it’s safe to assume that some of them are being compensated very generously. This makes sense–the university has been there for a long time, and it has a lot of donors. The professors who live in these homes have earned advanced degrees; many of them have probably published books and articles in prestigious publications, and they likely spend a lot of time producing and supervising important research. This is probably the kind of person most people picture when they hear the phrase “college professor.” (And I want to be clear that those professors work hard for their paychecks! Even those who have graders or teaching assistants do a lot of behind-the-scenes work that most people don’t think about–lesson planning, keeping up with new research in their field, serving on committees, answering emails, and perhaps doing administrative work for the university. College professors work hard, just like people in any industry.)

The professors I’ve just been describing are generally on a full-time contract with their university, meaning that they know ahead of time how much they’ll be paid each year, and they receive benefits (health insurance, retirement plan matching, etc.) from their employer. (Many of them may also benefit from the academic job security mechanism known as tenure, but I won’t get into that in this post–it’s a complicated system, and I’m no expert on it.) But there’s a whole category of college faculty, known as adjuncts, who aren’t on full-time contracts. Instead of receiving a salary, adjuncts get paid per class. This means that their compensation can vary from semester to semester (or term to term), depending on the courses that are available for them to teach. While they may be doing forty hours (or more) of work per week, adjuncts usually do not receive full-time employment benefits.

Every college has different ways of assigning classes to adjuncts, and the adjunct experience can vary widely from school to school. For example, at some institutions (like the ones I serve at), adjuncts–at least on-campus ones, and many universities are doing more to include online adjuncts–are invited to events like faculty orientation, can request supplies from the department budget, and can even serve on committees (which allows them to give input that may affect their working conditions and teaching satisfaction), while at other institutions, adjuncts struggle to receive any kind of professional support. The pay scale can also vary widely for adjuncts, depending on factors like number of students in a class, the adjunct’s level of education, and the institution’s budget.

Until summer 2020, I taught on a university campus on a full-time faculty contract. Since then, I have been teaching online as an adjunct for two different universities. (Side note 1: It was marriage and moving, not the pandemic, that caused this shift. Moving to online adjunct work was a free choice I gladly made. I point this out because some adjuncts are in their position because it’s the only one their school can offer them, or because they’ve been demoted from full-time positions due to budget cuts or other factors. Side note 2: While adjuncts can teach either online or in person–some people do both–the number of people employed as adjunct faculty has risen dramatically with the growing popularity of online education.) Let me briefly describe what my adjunct experience has been, being careful to clarify that this is just my experience. I would be interested to hear from other adjuncts about their own work!

I teach a graduate and an undergraduate course at each of my two universities, for a total of four courses I teach regularly (four “preps” to use a common teacher expression). At any given time, I’m usually teaching two to five classes total. (Side note: One of my schools has eight-week terms, while the other has six-week terms for grad classes and five-week terms for undergrad. I find it confusing to keep track of what week each of my classes is on, so I have to use my planner carefully, and occasionally I turn down teaching offers because I don’t want to deal with all the overlap!) For two of the classes, I’m the “subject matter expert,” or SME. A SME is the person responsible for maintaining and updating the course content (and sometimes, creating it in the first place, which was my experience–meaning that students get to see my face in the video lectures and therefore get to know me better than a lot of online students get to know their faculty) and providing support and advice to other faculty teaching the course. Each term that I teach one of the courses I’m SME of (which is almost every term for me), I get a SME stipend, which is a pretty significant amount. I make more money from my grad classes than my undergrad ones, since teaching them requires more specialized knowledge (but is not necessarily harder!), and I get paid more than someone who does not have a terminal degree–a PhD in my case. I’m not going to tell you my total pay, but when you combine all my classes and add other income sources like serving on master’s thesis committees (not very lucrative, but one of the most rewarding parts of my work), I make roughly the equivalent of what my husband makes as an engineer with a full-time salaried position. But while he gets paid every week, I get paid every five to eight weeks, making it really hard to incorporate my pay into our budget!*

This is turning into an incredibly long post, so I’ll wrap it up with a couple of things I hope people will learn from this post. First, if you’re considering an academic career (as I know many of my students are), keep adjuncting in mind as a possibility, but also be aware of the potential challenges of this type of work. And remember that the description I’ve given here is just one person’s experience! Second, in our busy, hyper-connected culture, the stereotype of the leisured professor is not true anymore, if it ever was. Despite what some politicians may want you to think, universities are not paying faculty big bucks to do nothing. The work of teaching at the college level can be rewarding and delightful, but it is hard work—and important work. Yes, we all have all the information in the world at our fingertips, but the job of professors (and of teachers at all levels) is not merely to convey information but to help students learn how to interpret that information, to think deeply, to have meaningful and respectful discussions with others, and to love learning. I’m grateful to be able to do that work and to be compensated well for it, and I hope universities will continue to see adjuncts as a crucial partners in that work and give them the support they need and deserve.

One thought on “what “adjunct faculty” means

  1. Thanks for this well-written, informative blog, Tess! It helps me understand your work a bit more.

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