Reflections of an Adjunct

This week we welcome guest blogger Dr. Jeremiah Nelson. Dr. Jeremiah Nelson teaches Entrepreneurial Thinking and Innovative Practice in Higher Education in Bay Path’s Higher Education Leadership and Organizational Studies (HELOS) doctoral program. He serves as Director of MBA Enrollment Management at Wake Forest University School of Business and President of NAGAP, the Association for Graduate Enrollment Management.

This pandemic has forced everyone to make uncomfortable changes and has caused heartbreak for too many. Adjunct professors at many colleges and universities have been hit especially hard as the disruptive forces of 2020 amplified a problem that has been looming on the horizon for decades. Part-time faculty have delivered a growing proportion of the teaching at colleges since the 1970s. Adjuncts became the largest category of labor in the late 1980s and has topped 50 percent of academic labor force since 2010 (AAUP, 2020).

(AAUP, 2020)

A Revolving Door Benefits No One 

I have taught part-time for 20 years because I love it. I have observed many adjunct colleagues throughout my career in higher education somehow piece together a living teaching for multiple universities. These were all passionate educators, but more often than not they eventually took a full-time job doing something else. The lucky ones have found positions in corporate, government, and nonprofit organizations that leverage their graduate education and offer work they enjoy. Like me, some have also found joy working full-time in aspects of university administration. 

There are undeniable benefits of consistency to both the college and the adjunct. From experience, the second time I teach a course is always better than the first. Incorporating what I’ve learned helps me improve the student experience and learning outcomes by revising in-class or online synchronous activities that fall flat, replacing test questions that were confusing, modifying assignments or readings that were unnecessarily cumbersome, and reinforcing points in the lecture or asynchronous recording that students found challenging. 

Obviously, the school benefits when students have a better experience and improved learning outcomes. The department benefits from a vetted and proven cadre of adjuncts who they know well and trust. Department chairs and program directors don’t need to waste time with the cumbersome task of recruiting, vetting, and training new adjuncts who might not last more than a semester or two. An ongoing relationship also creates opportunities to engage adjuncts beyond their classrooms and involve them in some aspects of department or program decision-making. 

The Pandemic Has Not Helped

The amount of work required to reimagine an in-class course for virtual or hybrid delivery is extraordinary. Learning new tools, identifying new activities, and physically recording lectures can take hundreds of hours. When an adjunct teaches at multiple schools, this likely means they’ll have different platforms and tools to master. Typically there is no compensation provided for all the time needed to prepare your shift to a virtual course.  

Additionally, the pandemic exposed the dramatic power disadvantage frequently experienced adjunct instructors. Many part-time faculty have to take the schedule they’re given if they want to continue being offered courses. For some this has meant teaching on-campus classes, risking their personal health for a job that typically does not provide health insurance. Even those teaching online classes are doing so atop a full workday online working remotely and simultaneously supporting their children learning virtually.  Everyone is burned out. 

Recommendations for Leaders

Given the many challenges that adjuncts are navigating – especially during the pandemic – here are a few simple reminders for leaders responsible for adjuncts. 

Gratitude – Thank your adjuncts for their fortitude in this very challenging time. Let them know that they are appreciated for the significant contributions they make to the university and in the lives and learning of their students. An email is nice, but a hand-written card or note might be even better. 

Acknowledgement – Recognize that what they are experiencing is hard and that you know how much work they are putting in to deliver a good experience to students. 

Connect – Check in on your part-time faculty. Don’t assume their silence means they are doing okay. Help them connect so they can learn from and collaborate with each other. Share news and changes on the horizon with them before it is publicly available on the university website. Invite them to department meetings and engage them in planning conversations whenever possible. Even if they can’t make it, they’ll appreciate the invitation. 

Support – Make sure your adjuncts are aware of resources available to make their lives easier or their classes better. They are used to being self-sufficient, so proactively introducing ideas, tools, and people on campus who can help them will be welcomed. 

Reassure – Let your adjuncts know that there will be grace during this challenging season and that a brighter future is ahead. 


American Association of University Professors (2020, May). The annual report on the economics status of the profession, 2019-20. AAUP Policies & Reports.

Krantz, L. (2020, September 20). In higher education, the pandemic has been especially cruel to adjunct professors. Metro. Boston Globe.

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