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.