Information for the parents of college students
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Does It Matter Who Is Teaching Your College Student?

Chances are good that your college student is being taught by, has been taught by, or will be taught by at least one, and probably several adjunct instructors.  Whether your student attends a local community college, a small liberal arts college, or a large public or private research university, adjunct instructors are the “new normal” in the world of higher education.

The work of adjunct instructors, part-time instructors, part-time lecturers, contingent instructors, or whatever other title is used, is an important and hotly debated topic in higher education today.  According to the Department of Education, over 70% of college instructors are adjunct professors (approximately 800,000 in the United States.)  This is up from 35% in 1975. Current issues of debate around the use of adjunct professors include working conditions, pay equity, student success, and the right to unionize.

The use of adjuncts in higher education is an important topic, and we urge parents and students to read some of the many articles available to understand the issues and to weigh in on the discussion.  Our concern in this article is how your student can get the most out of the classes that he will inevitably take with adjunct professors.

Who are today’s adjuncts and why do we have them?

Adjunct instructors are faculty members who are hired on a part-time or per-course basis.  These faculty members often have the same degrees as most full-time professors, although some may be graduate teaching assistants.  Some adjunct faculty members may be hired specifically because they have specialized expertise in their field.

Colleges turn to adjunct faculty for both budgetary and enrollment reasons.  They may be reluctant to make long-term commitments to faculty members who may be in less demand in subsequent years if enrollment dips.  Because adjuncts are paid less and do not receive benefits, they cost the institution less than full-time professors.

Adjuncts have contracts to teach classes, but they generally do not have many of the other responsibilities that full-time professors do.  Adjuncts are not expected to do research or publish; they usually do not serve on committees. advise, or attend college events.  Adjuncts focus on teaching.

What should my student do if he has an adjunct as an instructor?

The short answer to this question is that your student should focus on his learning just as he would in any class with a full-time, full Professor.  The instructor is there to teach your student no matter what his or her faculty rank may be. But here are a few things that your student might focus on to maximize his learning.

  • Do not make a snap judgment that because the instructor is an adjunct he will be less competent as a teacher. Most adjuncts are equally as qualified as many full-time professors. Most adjuncts like teaching and want their students to learn.  There are good and bad adjuncts and good and bad full professors as well.
  • Be proactive in arranging out-of-class appointments and be organized and diligent in keeping those appointments. Many adjuncts do not have ideal office space and students may need to meet with instructors in the library or available lounges, but individual meetings are important. Many adjuncts teach at multiple institutions and may have limited office hours because they need to get to another school.  Be respectful of your teacher’s availability and use his time productively.
  • Get to know your instructor so he’ll know you – for the right reasons. Your adjunct instructor may have a large number of students because he is teaching more sections than a full professor or because he is teaching at multiple institutions. You want him to remember who you are – and not because you’re the student who is always late or seldom prepared.
  • Ask the instructor about the best way to contact him outside of class. Does he prefer e-mail? Class discussion board? Phone? Does he use a college e-mail or a personal one? How quickly is it reasonable to expect a response?
  • If the instructor is wonderful, ask whether he will be teaching anything else that you can take. Although they are only part-time, some instructors teach multiple courses at an institution.
  • If you’ve been able to take multiple courses from someone and you’ve made a good connection, ask whether you can stay in touch for a possible future reference. Adjuncts, by the nature of their work, may be more temporary at an institution (although many remain at the same institution for many, many years).  Be sure you’ll be able to find him if you need a reference later.
  • When it comes time for end-of-term course evaluations, be honest. If the instructor was outstanding, be sure to say so.  It will increase the chances that he’ll be hired again another semester.  However, if your experience was not good, say that – and be specific. Departments consider this information as they decide on staffing for future semesters.

Of course, all of these suggestions are important in any class, with any professor.  But your student can make sure he gets the most possible from his experience with an adjunct by being proactive.

Part-time college instructors are part of the fabric of higher education and institutions cannot function without them. Students who recognize the value that these instructors can bring to the classroom and whose attitude is open to learning, will gain the most from all of their college experiences.

Disclaimer: I have served for many years as a part-time faculty member.

Related posts:

College Professors Are People, Too

Help Your Student Get Started Talking to Professors

When Your College Student Has a Problem with a Professor


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