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How Do Course Evaluations Affect Adjunct Teaching?

by Joseph Fruscione
George Washington University

I’ve been an adjunct for 13 years and counting, and as another semester is winding down I find myself wondering about two related things:

1) Despite experience, service, and research productivity, is the long-time adjunct akin to an old car–i.e., reliable but not sexy compared to the new models? How can we express ourselves on our CVs, cover letters, and overall professional engagement to make headway in such a poor job market?

I have a PhD in English and have been out of graduate school since 2005 but teaching since 1999, so I’m no longer ‘fresh’ in certain committees’ eyes. I’ve known of several

advertised Assistant Professorship positions that prefer a younger candidate fresh out of a PhD program. (Some, a little awkwardly, recently spelled out such preferences in the job ad itself.)

2) I stress to my students early that I’m fair but challenging, and that I think constructive challenge is the cornerstone of a university education–i.e., writing different kinds of papers, writing and researching in new ways, unlearning old methods, and/or understanding that working hard for a B+ should trump an easy A.

Some students embrace this challenge, but I worry about the others who resist it and turn any frustration/resentment into a poor–if also unfair–course evaluation. I haven’t been directly affected by this, but I worry sometimes that fickle, grade-obsessed undergraduates might not see the big educational picture.

Given our contingent status, where is the balance between challenging undergraduates appropriately but trying to ensure fair evaluations (…and a realistic chance for a FT job)? Has anyone been directly affected by a similar issue?

I suppose this is more of discussion-starter than informative post or anecdote, but I’ve been wondering about these issues often this year. I’m lucky to be surrounded by supportive, empathetic FT faculty, but there’s simply a point where some might not ‘feel’ these issues in the same ways.

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23 thoughts on “How Do Course Evaluations Affect Adjunct Teaching?

  1. You, Joe, already know this, I’m sure, but I would like to offer an observation about learning and collegiality, the important of effective learning strategies and assessment-driven curricula over and above, but not at the exclusion of, vital research and grant writing, etc.

    Across my time as an adjunct, I noticed a bias against effective, student-centererd teaching. It was universal across the disciplines, public or private. I found it odd, mostly because I never knew a single mentor in America or Europe who taught well but couldn’t complete research or write effective scholarship. The best of the best were able to do it all. Yet, when an adjunct tries to do it all, s/he is viewed as a threat.

    This “fear factor” actually provided me with some strength, knowing that effective teaching or impressive published work or other professional development had rattled the cages of colleagues who were riding the dissertation train into the tenure station or playing it safe with trendy scholarship. This means, in some kind of disfunctional way, teaching and scholarship did, in fact, matter to the full-time faculty, the chairs, the deans, etc.

    With this in mind, I am working overtime to construct a transparent set of guidelines or requirements for a position the way you would a tenure candidate; allow the different applicants to compete on the merits; and take it forward from there. Teaching, at Dartmouth, for example, is one of the major factors in tenure. Same for Harvard, same for other “elite” institutions. Yet, effective teaching oftentimes does not seem as much a factor in employment at the colleges and universities that need even more creative, effective teaching to meet the changing needs of traditional and non-traditional students.

    We have to tell a better story, change the narrative in a way that includes social science but also the best Liberal Arts has to offer. What we do, how we do what we do, has great value to our student’s lives and the institutional health of our homes away from home. If a college professor cannot meet the needs of the students, I don’t understand how that person is considered a more valuable asset, full time or part time or contingent. Maybe in the days of large granting projects. Maybe when articles, books, and editing was respected by the readership and the tenure committees. (Something is out of whack there as well.)

    But, now the terms of how we effectively run departments has shifted to a focus on teaching over research. At least for a little while.

    Lastly, I don’t know a single presentation, article, book project, theatre piece, grant, etc. that didn’t emerge from within my classroom experience, especially upcoming projects in American Literature (Chopin, Faulkner, Bowles). It is downright ignorant to think you can so easily separate teaching and learning, research and writing/editing. Only someone who’s never taught or written a book or served students with extraordinary cognitive and mechanical needs in a College Composition course could ever think the adjunct or full-time teaching life can be so easily partitioned.

    Consider this a first workshop draft of a more focused discussion on effective teaching and the “value” of said teaching for colleges and universities. Students deserve to receive the best education; and at this point in our history, the best teachers are the ones who should be considered as standing on the forefront of how to move everyone from austerity to prosperity.

    Now I’m hitting a talking point.
    My apologies.

    -Robert (Migrant Intellectual)

  2. At school after school, I have seen the rare FT positions filled not by anyone from the large, experienced “pool” of adjuncts but by a freshly minted MA or PhD, often with little or no teaching experience. The general opinion is that once someone has been an adjunct for an extended period of time, they MUST be substandard. And, also, that the longer they remain in “the minor leagues,” the less likely they will be called up to the majors. To many FT professors and deans, adjuncts are perceived as “the other,” or less than. It’s an unwritten rule that “slumming it” during grad school or for a year or so until you find a “real” job, is acceptable, but the longer you remain “under employed” and in the lower classes, the less and less likely you are to be promoted.

    @TopangaHippie (twitter)

    • Thank you, Millicent. It’s definitely been rough–I teach a de facto 4-4 across two different schools. Like a lot of us, I’ve actually out-performed a few (younger) FT faculty with a book, book essays, conference work, and now editing an essay collection on approaches to teaching Hemingway and modernism.

      I was an internal candidate–applicant, really–for a position a few years ago that went to a freshly-minted PhD from an Ivy. I’m not sure if someone with 10+ years of teaching experience automatically has to get paid more for an Assistant Professorship; that could be a reason for preferring the newbie over the more experienced ‘oldie’. Not a fair reason, but a reason.

      As I’ve said, I’m very lucky to be a contingent faculty member in a program with almost no tenure and with FT faculty who are supportive and pedagogically energetic.

      Pretty soon, the minors will have to become the majors.

  3. Joe, I assure you that your perceptions are not unique to yourself. The problem is that you are too polite about it all.

    Upon reading your post,the following reference came immediately to mind:

    Eric L. Wee, “Professor of Desperation,” WASHINGTON POST, July 21, 2002, Magazine, p. W24 (“When they get 375 applicants for a single job, they need some way to weed people out. If someone’s been an adjunct for a while, a search committee starts wondering what’s wrong with them. It may not be fair, but it’s how things work.”).

    But to answer your question of “How Do Course Evaluations Affect Adjunct Teaching?”

    It depends upon who does the evaluations, and how your particular departmental and administrative powers-that-be regard the evaluations. If your evaluations are done by the students you teach and your superior officers look primarily at the ranking numbers, then you will have a stronger current against which to swim upstream.

    – Ken Ryesky

    • from the Washington Post article just shared:

      //a search committee starts wondering what’s wrong with them. //

      How do we educate search committees, especially when they perpetuate such inanity?
      There is little to no truth to that statement.
      It’s pure propaganda.

      We do ranking and qualitative/quantitative evaluation of all applicants.

      I remember when contact hours (which still don’t accurately measure “work”) were important factors in committee decisions.

      I do not understand how a College Composition teacher pushing three to five sections as an adjunct is LESS valuable than a full time Rhetoric and Composition Assistant Professor pushing three to five sections. If the committee is so worried about whether someone can serve students as an effective teacher carrying a five course load, perhaps they should look at the other committees they serve where the five course load was normalized as a labor saving decision.

      Thanks for posting the response and giving us one more resource to best narrative the entire historiography of our struggles.


  4. It doesn’t cost me anything to give students higher grades than they deserve.

    And no student ever complained to an administrator that they got a grade that was too high.

    Draw your own conclusions.

    If you are too hard a grader and lose your job over poor evaluations, you have only yourself to blame. You’re also a schmuck. A well-meaning schmuck with high standards, but in the end, still a schmuck.

      • Hahahahahahahahaha.

        I don’t have a soul. Sold it to a guy many years ago to get through a summer between working semesters.

        I sleep like a baby now, and so do my students who get undeserved A’s.

          • Migrant,
            Clicked on your WP link but it is private. Seems you may be in the same position as a lot of us (I have a few blogs like that myself).

            However, there is not much point in posting it in reparte if it is not accessible.

    • I read this too late. I am not only a schmuck, I am an idiot. I am also done teaching at a community college where I tried to engage my young and naive students in critical thinking. I went outside the book. I made my own notes. I brought in props. I wrote my own tests that included essay, thought-provoking questions. And they slaughtered me in my evals. and now the dept has informed me I may not get hired again. Not only that, but my students have picked up on my situation and have become unbearable in class–children empowered by the department to act out; they have become even more obnoxious and demanding, cruel. I have told the dept and the dept smiles. “Please go away,” they all say.

      Everyone else in the department gives them “A’s–the boiler plate multiple choice tests, knows they cheat and pass around older tests still in use, lets them out early. Cancels class…

      “Why aren’t you like them?” They whine.

      I tried to teach. All for $800/month.

      And I’m out of a job.

      • Ms. B: You have my sympathy. You have tried hard to engage your students, and it sounds as if you did the right thing. I believe you have received a blessing in disguise (being out of a job).

  5. Cheap labor is the probable all time goal with HRs. That is why experienced and excellent teachers are not chosen for FT. If you can get a fresh graduate, you can hire them at the bottom of the scale, if there is one. Experience, credentials, degrees, abilities to teach, abilities to cause bad PR, all good reasons not to hire that adjunct. They may challenge the dept or HR themselves or God forbid, the college administration. The goal is not what is good for the students. The goal is to balance the budget while FT and admin get raises, and sports programs and new buildings get funded, all for the President’s resume and college PR.

    So, as I am “told,” don’t take it personally when you are overlooked for FT. It’s just the way things are now and have been for a while. Adjuncts everywhere need to organize and Boycott the downgrading of higher ed for what I would call immoral purposes.

    • @ Jane Doe — I know of a Full Time Program Director position in New Hampshire that targeted PhD holding applicants with broad Liberal Arts experience. It was handed to a MFA with zero interdisciplinary experience. Fine. Cronyism lives. Bravo. Wanna know what made it even jucier? The person who took the job is presently getting paid approximately $37.5K of NH taxpayer money. The market rate for this position is $45-$53K in NH, higher elsewhere, slightly lower in midwest. They couldn’t even play the “free market” game with honesty.

      Is it just me or is Human Resources at many of the colleges basically a collaborating governor in the new academic fascism, looming over everything and lurking behind every major decision like an incomprehensible Kafka-styled bureaucrat?

  6. I am one of those “tough” teachers as well. I actually expect them to be able to read, write, and think critically. This is my 10th year as an adjunct and I’m 61, which means I will never get a full time teaching job. I have excellent evaluations from my students, but they do think I am too hard. Can you believe how terrible I am? I expect them to come to class having read their assigned readings and get their writing assignments in on time. Poor students. I guess they want to have anonymous as their instructor–give them an A for showing up.

    • Thank you, Mary. It’s definitely a tricky balance between being pedagogically challenging and being simply pragmatic about how *some* students respond to challenge. I, too, am one of those “mean” professors who expects students to read, bring their books with them, unlearn poor writing habits (e.g., the ‘night before’ approach), show up to class on time, etc. An evaluation from last fall criticized me for–gasp–giving 2+ months for a multi-step final project. To her mind, 2+ months gave her more time to procrastinate.

      I tell the students on the first or second day that I’m tough but fair, that I can be a tough grader, that I’ll encourage them if they show effort but hold them accountable if they make avoidable mistakes, and that they’re not in an Easy A environment. (I teach a required, writing-intensive course for freshmen, so there’s a lot of learning and unlearning.) I feel I at least owe it to them to be honest and forthcoming: some take this information as a challenge to excel, others as a means to self-select out of the class.

  7. I have so, so, so many problems with student evaluations.

    I, too, am an adjunct, so I come at your titular question from that perspective.

    My biggest–and perhaps most significant–criticism of the end-of-the-semester evaluation process is the immediacy of the whole thing, the sense that students are capable, right then and there–right now!–of offering nuanced perspectives on the quality of the course that they probably haven’t even finished yet. I teach composition; as such, my curriculum is always forward-looking, anticipating writing challenges that, having spent a lot of time in higher education, I know my students will eventually face. The problem is that the students themselves don’t know that they will face these challenges. Therefore, I sincerely question, without meaning to be patronizing, how well students can gauge what they’ve learned when they haven’t yet had the opportunity to apply their new knowledge in contexts outside of the classroom that they are evaluating.

    My background is in American literature, and I’ve, on occasion, taught literary surveys. As a result, I’ve received handfuls of evaluations stating that “I’ve taught too much of [X] author” or that “[Y] novel was boring.” These statements are quite likely to be true, particularly in the moment. (For now, we’ll set aside the question of whether or not these comments are constructive.)

    Thinking back to my own undergraduate experience, I remember loathing Hawthorne–and, if given the opportunity, I might have even said quite formally that time would be better spent not reading him. However, as I’ve grown–as I’ve read more–I’ve come to see him as an important American writer. Sure, he can be dry. But he can also be quite brilliant. Those opinions are ones that are informed by time–by consistent studious attention. End-of-the semester evaluations don’t allow for those kinds of perspectives to emerge.

    Last, don’t even get me started on online evaluations. Perhaps to my detriment, I don’t mince words about them. Usually, students don’t bother with them unless they are goaded with “extra credit” or chocolate or something. Once we start goading students, I don’t see how we can trust what they say.

  8. This post reminded me of my real estate agent who advised me to be very careful with pricing the house. He said that if you couldn’t sell the house quickly, people would assume that there was something wrong with the house. So, people who have been adjuncts for years are assumed to have something wrong with them … just like houses that sit on the market.

  9. Joe, I find it interesting that I found this post this evening because I was just looking over some of the course evaluations I have received from fall. It is becoming more apparent to me that there are some students who realize by the end of the semester they did not put the effort required to pass the course, therefore they use the course evaluation as a tool to crucify the professor. I have been teaching as an adjunct for several years at several different universities. I have always been very direct with my students at the beginning of the semester as to what was expected of them and I have always made it a point to be in my office during office hours and I respond to emails immediately. Do the students take advantage of this resource? NO! They wait until the last couple of weeks of the semester and then inundate me with emails, office visits begging, pleading, making excuses for their performance and will I please, please, please change their grade? I find the biggest problem is with online evaluations which most of the universities I am an adjunct at are beginning to use. Let’s say you have 30 students in a section and only 5 complete the online evaluation and the only reason why they fill it out is to fabricate information about how the professor has no business being in a classroom, the professor graded too hard, the professor said inappropriate things, etc. etc. While you know you maintained a professional atmosphere throughout the course of the semester and the majority of your students appreciated your class, they don’t either have the time or care to complete the evaluation, therefore, your overall scores are horrible. How do you manage convincing a department that you are an effective teacher if students have the opportunity to scrutinize you so unfairly? Are we putting too much emphasis on evaluations when in fact there really is no merit to them? This is a major concern for me because I am searching for a full time faculty position and my concern is that I will not be considered for a position because of inaccurate course evaluations. I know that there are other faculty who are dealing with the same issues themselves. I wish I knew what to say or what to do to change the way we evaluate faculty. I find more and more faculty are taking the easy way out and just giving A’s and B’s to students who really don’t deserve them because they want those positive evaluations for tenure. It’s a catch 22!

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