Adjusting to Emergency Online Instruction Poses Extra Challenges For Adjunct Faculty

Mar 17, 2020

Like many others teaching college classes across the country, Sharyn Hardy spent the last few days figuring out how to translate her carefully crafted classroom lectures into lessons that her students can learn online.

Yet she has had to do double the adapting of most full-time faculty. Hardy is an adjunct instructor who teaches at two institutions in the greater Boston area, which means she’s had to follow two sets of instructions for dealing with the coronavirus, adhere to two timelines for preparing for distance teaching and hastily learn two separate technology systems for delivering lectures virtually.

“As I’m comparing the two tools, they just have different features,” Hardy says. “That’s what makes it really hard, is to remember what I can do and can’t do in each tool.”

Suddenly shifting college courses online demands a lot of effort from everyone involved. But the burden may be especially heavy for adjunct instructors like Hardy. These contract faculty often cobble together patchwork teaching schedules across multiple colleges each semester. Already paid less than their full-time colleagues, adjuncts are now facing directives to move their classes online and spend what some adjuncts say is extra labor for which they aren’t being compensated.

Adjuncts may also be at a disadvantage when it comes to technology access and support. Some colleges don’t provide adjunct faculty with computers or IT help, says Maria Andersen, an adjunct professor based in Salt Lake City.

“You’re asking part-time instructors to shift midterm to new methodologies, and they’re not really getting paid to do that prep,” Andersen says. “Do you provide an additional supplement to your instructors for doing their own tech support and installing their own programs?”

Andersen, who has been teaching remotely for a decade, sees a certain irony in the sudden demand that adjuncts pick up distance education skills on the fly. Under normal circumstances, she’s found that full-time instructors tend to lay first claim to online courses, leaving few for adjuncts to take. That can make colleges reluctant to invest in training adjuncts to teach online, she says.

Even adjuncts who do have experience teaching online at one institution may find themselves asked to participate in more training at another—professional development time that may or may not be compensated.

“We accept transfer credit for students, why don’t we accept transfer courses for adjuncts?” Andersen says. “I wish there was more equity around it. I wish adjuncts had the same access to teaching online as full-time faculty. We would better off in this crisis right now if they did.”

I wish adjuncts had the same access to teaching online as full-time faculty. We would better off in this crisis right now if they did.”
—Maria Andersen, adjunct professor

Some of these concerns are addressed in the COVID-19 response principles that the American Federation of Teachers and the American Association of University Professors issued on March 13 to guide colleges.

The document advocates that college employees—“specifically, fixed-term employees (like adjuncts and graduate assistants)”—receive all of their promised pay regardless of dislocations caused by the virus. The statement of principles calls for all staff to receive appropriate equipment and supplies to support telework and teaching online. It argues that faculty who are required to transition to distance instruction “should be compensated at a reasonable hourly rate for transitioning.”

And it stresses that staff should be protected against “the punitive use of negative teaching evaluations during the period of the disruption.”

That’s a serious concern, Hardy explains, because "for many adjuncts, they are judged solely on student course evaluations.”

Adjuncts’ current worries aren’t limited to professional matters, of course. While fears about getting sick are on many people’s minds, adjunct faculty may be grappling with extra concern about their health, since many don’t qualify for health care benefits from the colleges where they teach. Additionally, some institutions have policies that penalize adjuncts who miss class, Andersen says.

“If you’re sick, you don’t get a paycheck,” she says. “There’s a lot of uncertainty. I work for a really decent college, but I was sick two weeks ago, and I thought, I better not miss another day of class. I’m an adjunct and I'm not really allowed to be sick.”

Hardy is making the transition as best she can for now. After her institutions announced their shift to online teaching, she had less than 12 hours to convert her first course into a virtual format, she says. (She thinks it went pretty well.) For future class sessions, Hardy is checking whether scheduled guest speakers can still participate via video call, and she’s making use of extra resources that textbook publishers have recently made free in response to the virus.

In the back of Hardy’s mind are worries about what might happen to adjunct jobs if COVID-19 affects enrollments during future semesters.

“They won’t need as many faculty. They’ll cut back on the number of courses that they run,” Hardy says. “Eventually, this could be a real problem for me.”

But for now, despite the challenges of shifting her materials online, she’s glad that class is still in session.

“When I look at waiters and waitresses, and people that have no choice but not to work and not to get paid,” Hardy says, “I’m honestly grateful we are able to continue to finish the courses with the students.”


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