Friday, March 3, 2017

Adjunct Faculty & Catholic Identity: the hidden connections

American higher education's adjunct dilemma is well-known.  Colleges and universities, facing the very real financial bottom-line, hire adjunct faculty to expand instruction.  Thus more courses are available to students. What could be wrong with that?

Well, lots, actually.

There's a justice issue:  adjunct faculty provide more than fifty percent of all instruction in American higher education yet receive exponentially less pay and benefits.  The increased profit margin--get the same instruction for far less money--insures institutions will not break their reliance on adjuncts easily or willingly.  See, for example, this satire here. Let's be clear: sometimes the line dividing full-time from adjunct faculty does involve ability.  Faculty searches are structured, supposedly, to return the best qualified candidate given the institution's parameters.  So, even when institutions seek to fill faculty lines according to categories like race/class/gender, the faculty search is supposed to result in the hiring of the best-qualified person fitting those parameters.  That is an important issue.  It is also important, I think, to acknowledge that institutional bias--where'd you get your degree?--and perspective bias--do you think like us?--exert real influence on faculty searches.  Not every single one, obviously, but those factors do exist.

Students do not benefit, either.  As reliance on adjunct increases, first-year students take increasingly more courses with adjunct faculty. Full-time faculty--the ones who've made it through the extended hiring process--actually teach fewer students.   More and more, adjunct faculty are the first "teachers" students see, and this experience occurs precisely in the foundational courses institutions and major-granting department insist are so important.  In other words, precisely where and when students need quality instruction, they are least likely to obtain it. The result of all this is that student retention sags.
Why keep taking classes when they're all like this?

source:  Giphy

I have taught long enough to know that could be anybody, full-time tenure-track or adjunct faculty.  But the student array--all jammed into an anonymous lecture hall, wondering what the point is--is quite accurate.

The Spiritual Diabetes angle:  nobody talks about how this same situation complicates discussions of Catholic higher education.  In other words,

Adjuncting Catholic theology corrodes "Catholic higher education."

And guess what:  that is precisely what many Catholic colleges and universities are doing. Theology requirements contribute to every other major, but few students actually major in Theology itself.  Thus, from a purely financial perspective, the question becomes: Why not adjunct them all?

Further,  the vast majority of faculty--full-time or adjunct, regardless of subject--think Catholic theology in the classroom results in this:
mrw everyone priest
source:  Giphy -- and can I get a +1 for the Martin Sheen inclusion?

In other words, the stereotype of "taking a Theology course" is: sit there and get damned. Or at least get bored.

Obviously, I disagree.  Theological studies, when they're done well, liberate--spiritually, intellectually, and ethically.  Not that students become politically more liberal, but rather in the "liberal arts" sense of being able to think for themselves.  In the Catholic context, this means thinking with and through the Church.

Catholic social justice, if it is to mean anything, must be recognized--by institutions as well as individuals, and in fact the former needs to move first.  The need for adjunct faculty will not disappear overnight.  Institutions will need to hire them--but they should do so with restraint, which better serves their students, and with justice--which serves the adjuncts themselves.  The pay will never be equal, but it should be humane and could, when possible, include incentives.  This includes, though, the recognition that maybe some classes can never be adjuncted.  If an institution wants to advance a particular identity--of values, "personality," and accomplishments--then some courses which contribute specifically and uniquely to that mission, whatever it is, should be handled by full-time faculty whose primary responsibility is upholding institutional mission.  This works regardless of an institution's religious identity;  I've used Catholic identity here, but the same could be argued for Mormon, evangelical Protestant, Jewish, and even mainline Protestant institutions.  If the identity actually matters, then the courses addressing that identity matter, too.

Of course, the erudite reader might wonder "Don't almost all the courses address institutional mission and identity?"  And they are not wrong for asking this, and yes that too holds implications for how institutions hire faculty. But answering that requires another blog post.

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