Having recently resigned from two adjunct university positions, I feel the urge to share some of my concerns about how such positions are administrated at many universities in the
The structure of the modern American university places an alarming percentage of the school’s teaching load on part-time, adjunct faculty. This is true at both small community colleges and at major research universities. The compensation for these positions is typically very low. A colleague of mine taught several classes at two major institutions in
This is an unfortunate situation and is infuriating to the person teaching these adjunct courses. Many people (myself included) are forced to take several part-time positions and try to cobble together a living wage, with no benefits, pension, salary schedule, mileage, tenure, or vacation.
Adjunct teaching, also commonly called “the basement of academia”, is a subject that would fill many articles. My focus in this article is the questionable (and very common) procedure of compensating adjunct instrumental faculty in what I like to call a pay-per-student system.
A university math or history course taught by an adjunct instructor pays a certain dollar amount for the term. This dollar amount is usually very low, but it is nevertheless a set amount for services rendered. The instructor creates a syllabus, teaches the course, and then grades according to the standards established in that syllabus. The instructor’s course for the following term will usually consist of a whole new group of students. He can be an “easy” or a “hard” instructor, give mostly As or mostly Cs, and will nevertheless be compensated a specific amount for the term. This instructor does not have to go out and recruit students to take his history or mathematics course, and his compensation is set at a certain level regardless of enrollment.
This set up a conflict between my financial concerns and the integrity of my teaching. What is in my financial best interest is not necessarily what is in the best interest of my students. When one drives hundreds of miles per day to get to and from a school (as I did and many of my colleagues currently do), one needs to maximize their earning potential for these trips. Adjunct instructors are therefore driven to accept everybody regardless of ability, to encourage them to be music majors specializing in the instrument that the adjunct instructor teaches, and to do everything possible to keep all students passing. This situation lowers the level of the program and the integrity of the instructor’s teaching, and it is unfair to the students as well.
This is even more unfortunate because the relationship between instrumental instructor and student is usually much more of a mentorship than the relationship between classroom instructor and student. The classroom instructor doesn’t have the time or the situation to develop a close, mentoring relationship with each student in their class, but the nature of one-on-one private instruction naturally fosters this kind of relationship. This close relationship should not be polluted with the financial motivations of the instructor, but the pay-per-student system makes it impossible for the instructor to offer untainted advice.
This situation makes the pay-per-student adjunct instructor tantamount to a salesman working on commission. When I walk into my local retail center I am beset by smiling salespeople giving me all sorts of advice on why a certain computer, hi-def television, or other such appliance is the right one for me. Are they telling me the truth? Do I REALLY need the 40 inch plasma TV? Maybe, but I have take what they say with a grain of salt, since they work on commission and are likely trying to upsell me. This makes sense for retail, but academia should not function like retail!
Using pay-per-student adjunct instructors is highly unfair to university students and detrimental to the integrity of an institution. An instructor paid in this fashion (maybe there are independently wealthy adjunct music instructors out there, but I have certainly never met one) has to compromise their standards and ethics to make their job financially viable, and the students therefore get tainted, dishonest advice from their instructors. Students attend universities to learn and rise to a particular standard, not to be upsold into that music performance degree.
Many students that seek advanced music degrees really should not be seeking those degrees, and they need instructors willing to be honest about their prospects and abilities. But, going back to the salesperson analogy, many people also don’t need plasma TVs. Do you think that the smiling, commission-earning employee is going to TELL anyone that?
The solution to this particular problem is simply to not pay adjunct music instructors on a pay-per-student basis. Many adjunct music instructors at various universities are paid a set fee for their services up to a certain number of students (studio cap). The instructor then has the motivation to not exceed that studio cap, thus keeping their standards high and only admitting and promoting students who really should be studying music. Failing a student in this situation does not result in a 20% decrease in the instructor’s pay check. This solves the ethical problem I have described, restores integrity to the program, and is fair to both students and instructors. Too often that compensation figure is still too low, but that is a subject for a future article.
Future music students–when applying for college, ask the administrators if you will be studying with a full-time or part-time instructor for your primary instrument. If the answer is part-time, then ask how the faculty member is compensated. If the answer is pay-per-student, think of all of those smiling salespeople.
Wanna be a music major, kid? C’mon, you know you do!