The Adjunct Model of Teaching is Stupid and Broken

I teach web development at the college level, but I’m not a professor. Well, I am a certain breed of professor called an adjunct professor, but you’re unlikely to ever hear my colleagues refer to me as anything but an instructor.

That’s because I don’t have a Ph.D. in my area of speciality. You see, in order to even be considered for a purebred professorial position, you need the highest degree possible. It makes the school look better, which fuels research funding, which attracts top-notch students, which… it’s economics, really. Hiring anyone without a Ph.D. decreases the value of an academic program, and likely the demand for it.

It’s worth calling out that this isn’t the case for all colleges. You can indeed be hired as a professor at a community college without first obtaining a Ph.D. That’s likely because community colleges typically do not offer graduate degrees beyond a two-year Associate’s Degree or a four-year Bachelor’s degree. As long as you have a Master’s Degree, there’s no chance of finding yourself in a position where the students you’re teaching have a more advanced degree than yours.

But even community colleges are beholden to the adjunct model of teaching. At one of the schools where I teach, adjunct professors make up 70% of the faculty. And they still won’t exactly refer to an adjunct as “faculty” in casual conversation because adjuncts are part-time employees. Yes, we get a W-2 each year and are allowed to participate in things like medical insurance and retirement programs… but we’re not really part of the faculty. I don’t have an office for holding office hours, although I am required to offer appointments to students, for example.

If you think this is already starting to sound like a messy situation, consider that an adjunct is not guaranteed to teach, even as a part-time employee. I may receive an assignment to teach a class in the Spring term, but have to go dormant for the Winter term depending on a number of factors, such as the number of class registrations, available funding, and overall school enrollments. That is the case for me this year; I taught at one school during Winter and am now teaching at another in the current Spring semester. The reason? The first school has multiple campuses and my class was too popular and “stealing” students from other campuses, resulting in their numbers looking bad. It’s economics, really.

Oh, and an adjunct professor instructor person is only paid for the number of course credits a class is worth. Most college classes are equal to three credits, so that’s sort of like saying I work three hours per week. But that’s never the case because those hours do not include the time I spend grading, holding office hours, participating in mandatory trainings, and updating my curriculum. So, if I’m officially paid, let’s say $50 an hour (not far off the mark, really) for three hours, it’s more like I’m working 10 hours per week, or $15 an hour — just barely over the $14.42 minimum wage in Colorado, where I live.

The reason I share this is not to simply bash on a system that is designed to grossly underpay and under-employ the people that provide the school’s primary product — knowledge! — but describe the real-world impact it has on students at the end of the day.

It goes like this.

There’s no way I can make a sustainable living as an adjunct professor. For one, I would have to be hired as a part-time employee at several colleges and hope the number of assignments is enough to keep me going and, again, there’s no guarantee of that happening. Even if it was, I’d be driving all around Colorado (and commuting to other states) to teach in person which is a personally and financially taxing situation, particularly for someone with a young family.

Secondly, there’s absolutely no chance for advancement. An adjunct is an adjunct is an adjunct, is an adjunct. That is, until they trade-up their Master’s Degree for a Ph.D.

So, naturally, this means I need additional work to complement teaching. And that work has to be more predictable to help support my teaching. And since that job is vital to keep things going, I have to make a firm commitment to it to make sure I don’t lose it as that would likely mean the end of teaching, too.

You see where this is going? I will never have enough hours in a day to do my best work for students. I generally teach three classes at a time on top of my freelance work and what little time I have left is spent staying on top of the front-end space. So many things change so quickly on the web to the extent that I undoubtedly need to update lessons at the end of each term to make sure my curriculum provides the latest and best practices; it’s my job to prepare students for working in the real world, afterall. It’s not like someone teaching, say, Classical Literature needs to keep up with a rush of new Shakespeare releases each year.

It’s expected that I am up to speed with new front-end features. Fortunately, my work with Smashing Magazine accomplishes that as a by-product of the technical writing and editing I do.

The end result is that many, if not most, adjuncts have a net total of about zero incentive to be at the forefront of our respective fields and focus on delivering delightful learning experiences — for all studentrs, as we know that diversity, equity, and inclusion has become a mantra in education at all levels. We’re simply bogged down, and by design.

I’m not proposing any fixes for this. Education is a huge field and there are people who are well-versed at guiding change at the institutional level. There is one thing, however, that I’ve found encouraging. One of the colleges I work for is doing a trial on a new teaching title, Professor of Practicum, that could make a huge difference for folks like me. Rather than emphasizing academic merit, a Professor of Practicum is reserved for those with deep real-world experience in their field but may not have a Ph.D. because, well, why would you need one if you’re already have a well-established career? You’ve proven your worth by means of demonstration and the idea is that the experience is worth every bit as much as the time spent in acadmia. You can bet I’ll drop my name in that hat the moment it’s an available option!

This is all about students. I realize that it takes a lot of talking about myself to get there, but that’s only because I am the product at the end of the day. And if the school isn’t investing in the product, students lose just as much as the instructors who facilitate their learning.

✏️ Handwritten by Geoff Graham on February 22, 2024(Updated on 2/29/2024)


  1. # February 23, 2024

    @geoff So much here echoes my experience. I was an adjunct professor off and on for a few years. It was emotionally rewarding work but I stopped after doing the math… it takes so many extra hours to do well.

  2. # March 15, 2024

    I got promoted to adjunct professor when I wrote a source code “gait matrix” and submitted it to my MIT professor. Other students learned from it and went on to found a company called Boston Dynamics.



  • 💬 Jeff Bridgforth

Leave a Reply

Markdown supported