10 Courses and Counting

College administrators rend their garments and wail about student retention. Turns out, though, fretting over student retention is much like fretting about fried food: No matter the depth of concern over the problem, at the end of the day no one wants to believe that gorging on French fries is unhealthy. I just finished reading the ubiquitous piece from the ubiquitous adjunct on “how to teach 10 classes.” The author, a blogger, uses the moniker “Piss Poor Adjunct.” A few years ago, the ubiquitous adjunct was Jill Carroll. She wrote “How to Survive as an Adjunct Lecturer: An Entrepreneurial Strategy Manual.” Jill, who holds a Ph.D. from Rice University, also wrote a monthly column for The Chronicle called “The Adjunct Track.” Interestingly, unlike Piss Poor Prof, Jill Carroll encouraged her adjunct readers that the time saved by following her handy tips could be used to squeeze in time to research and write.

 Jill never did find that tenure-line job she talked to me about when we spoke, and she left teaching. To add further irony to what happens to adjuncts who leave academe, all of the links to her columns printed in The Chronicle of Higher Education go to a page with a message that reads: “Page Not Found.” The titles of Jill Carroll’s pieces, however, should give you a good idea about what her message was:

 “Avoiding Adjunct Burnout”

“Don’t Go the Extra Mile, Except . . .”

How to Be One of the Gang When You’re Not

“Being a Professional in an Unprofessional Climate” (my favorite).

 Carroll wrote that one could make a living wage as an adjunct by teaching a large number of courses each semester; Piss Poor Prof suggests the same thing. The latter adds the twist of making use of technology, such as online grading programs and course web sites, in order to be able to burn through, say, 250 assignments that need grading. I actually think the organizational suggestions made by Piss Poor Prof and Jill Carroll border on the brilliant. For instance, Piss Poor Prof suggests accepting papers only in electronic format and then grading them in electronic format, as well. It’s a new world, Goldie. The days of sitting down over a mountain of essays with your favorite fountain pen has gone the way of arranged marriages in Anatevka.

 Much as I like and admire the moxie of Jill Carroll and Piss Poor Prof, I am stopped by student retention. I can’t get past my belief that it’s impossible to teach 10 courses in a single semester as well as teaching a total of two or three courses. Put another way, simply because someone devises a strategy to squeeze in 10 courses in a semester doesn’t mean it should be done. In fact, I am of the opinion that college administrators’ blithe ignorance about the teaching loads of the non-tenured faculty whom they employ borders on the criminal. Airlines have to document pilot readiness, and the FAA says pilots of large aircraft cannot fly more than 100 hours per month. Shouldn’t colleges be required to vouch for their faculty readiness?

 You might say that my analogy is flawed: crashing an aircraft with 200 people aboard is very different than teaching 10 courses with 200 students enrolled and losing the certain percentage of them who drop out. College drop-outs don’t drop dead, right? Wrong. Lack of an undergraduate degree condemns one to a lower socio-economic class, statistically. Drop-outs face lower lifetime earnings prospects coupled with whatever debt ($11,000 per year, on average) they’ve accumulated during their college “experience.” Finally, college graduates enjoy better long-term health and, as a result,  a longer life expectancy, according to a 2008 piece written by Phil Rockrohr for the Chicago Booth School of Business (http://www.chicagobooth.edu/news/2008-05-14_beckerbrownbag.aspx).

Losing a student is serious business. That’s why oodles of college administrators get paid six-figure salaries to fret about student retention at higher education conferences held in winter in such dismal locales as San Diego and Phoenix. Is there a way we can fret a little less about how to retain low-income and minority students, whom studies tell us need mentoring and individual attention from faculty in order to thrive? Should we do another study? Get a grant for a mentoring program? Give tenured faculty release time to advise? Sure. And while we’re at it, we might think also staff courses with non-tenured faculty whose total teaching load is (gasp) equal to that of the tenure-line faculty on campus, and pay them (gasp) pro-rata salaries and benefits so that they’re not forced to be “entrepreneurs” or piss poor adjuncts.


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  1. I like the pilot hours analogy. Your comment about the damages of bad teaching reminded me of a grad school incident.

    I taught riding before going back to school (come late 40s you want to work indoors come winter). Once at UC Davis a TA colleague tot (eg under 30) informed *that* was not teaching. I asked her when was the last time her bad teaching cause spinal injury. Stopped her in her tracks but when I recounted the incident to a non-tot colleague, my friend pointed out that this tot’s teaching could inflict worse on cognitive development.

    And then there are those fascinating but never detailed or example supported claims of making $100grand plus a year.

    @Jill (how to tell when someone has the social media habit) ~ are your columns archived anywhere? If you have the column URL, it could be findable on the Wayback Machine. The Invisible Adjunct’s are there.

  2. Hi – Jill Carroll here, the one you reference above. I’m interested to hear what Piss Poor adjunct has to offer all the struggling adjuncts out there. It remains such a dire situation, as everyone knows.

    An update: The Chronicle of Higher Ed phased out “The Adjunct Track” – it started with just me writing it, then they wanted to bring in more perspectives so they invited others to write from or about the adjunct perspective, then it sort of fizzled, editors came and went, and the column went away.

    Also, I’ve never actively sought a tenure-track job, so……but I did leave adjunct teaching about 5 years ago when I took a combo faculty/administrative job directing the Boniuk Center for Religious Tolerance at Rice. Let’s just say that 10 years of long adjunct work hours prepared me well for the “beyond-corporate” hours of administrative university work. I managed to write another book, which has done very well, and I left that administrative position and all university teaching last summer.

    I now work as a public scholar, writer and speaker on issues of religion in public life, religion and world politics and other such things. I retain a complimentary affiliation at Rice as adjunct associate professor in religious studies. My blog “Talking Tolerance” is carried by the Houston Chronicle.

    I continue to think that being entrepreneurial about things can be very helpful, even in an academic career. My sole intention in writing the adjunct stuff was to create a context in which people who worked so hard to get their credentials could make some sort of living doing what they love. I hope some were helped by what I wrote and have been able to do that.

    Jill Carroll

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