Opinion: The Place and Function of Adjunct Faculty

By Christopher Fee, Graeff Professor of English

There has been a lot of discussion lately on campus about the place and function of adjunct faculty. While I absolutely respect that various campus community members have different opinions on these issues based on differing perspectives and experiences, I was very disturbed to read a recent YikYak post that seemed particularly disparaging of this whole cohort of my colleagues, many of whom I know personally and hold in high esteem. If any student has had unsatisfactory experiences with any faculty member, that is a genuine point of concern and should be addressed. Please do not rush to blanket judgment, however, in this case or any other. Some of the adjunct members of the Gettysburg College faculty are amongst the greatest teachers I’ve ever encountered in my career, and I feel moved to speak in their defense.  

As chair of the English department for five years, I had ample personal opportunity and professional responsibility to observe such colleagues. I also have my office on the floor of my building that houses our adjunct faculty, so I have a good couple of decades of direct informal observation of my colleagues meeting with students, workshopping and conferencing. Part of the problem, however, is that we are deliberately encouraged to think of these colleagues as “contingent,” as “adjuncts,” in short, as abstractions, and thus not as concrete, flesh-and-blood colleagues, friends, neighbors and community members. Allow me to illustrate my position with specific reference to a dozen or so real-life examples.

Lani Lindeman was little short of the Platonic ideal of the dedicated, overworked and under-paid adjunct faculty member. For most of my life (I would have been a small child when she started), from shortly after her graduation from Gettysburg College until I had the honor to serve as her chair shortly before her death, Lani was in her office working with students all day, every day, well beyond any reasonable expectation of office hours. Lani quite literally lived her life for those students, and she is a standard to which I will hold myself to, and fail to achieve, for the rest of my days. 

Charlie Saltzman, on the other hand, spent his career as a teacher and head of school at places like Metairie Park Country Day and the Madeira School, and it was a lucky day for our students when Charlie retired to a farm in Upper Adams County and began to bring his old school style of writing instruction to Gettysburg College. He was a paragon of tough love and his students adored him for it—at least after the semester was over.

 I got to know Charlie well when he was the office-mate of my own lovely bride, Allison Singley, who taught two sections per term for eight years until she defended her dissertation and got a full-time job. Allison spent at least as much time on her students as I myself did, a fact to which a renowned expert in post-secondary education, Josh Eyler (GBC 2000; author of How Humans Learn and the forthcoming Scarlet Letters) would be pleased to attest. Josh was Allison’s peer learning associate in a composition class and cites her as a formative mentor. Doug Miller, rather like Charlie Saltzman, came to us after his retirement from Gallaudet University and was tireless in his devotion to our students. Sheila Mulligan and Stephanie Sellers, meanwhile, have been beloved campus fixtures for so long that some colleagues, in addition to students, might be forgiven for assuming that they are full-time, permanent staff; in any case, their dedication to their students is beyond question. Stephanie has essentially built the college’s Native American offerings all on her own, and was a long-time director for the Women’s Center. She also has won the college-wide award for community-based engagement, amongst many other honors. Sheila, meanwhile, has guided generations of Gettysburg writers in her thoughtful, gentle style. Sheila is so unassuming that one supposes few students—and perhaps fewer administrators—know that she won an NEA fellowship and a major arts grant, which is more than I can say for myself. She also has won a college-wide student teaching award, which is more than many full-time colleagues can say. 

Ian Clarke taught in the English Department for years before he ran away to Physics and Astronomy, and one might well argue that this is more his rightful home, as he brought the insight of a poet trained at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop to his writing classes. Ian, moreover, is quite literally a child of this department, given that his father was a beloved professor in it. I know few people who take the history and the future of this department more seriously than Ian.

 Matt Barrett is himself a product of this department, and since he and his spouse in another department have chosen to dedicate their careers to this place, I feel a certain affinity to them. Matt is a talented working writer who brings that insight to our students, publishing in important venues regularly, most recently, if memory serves, publishing a story called “Horns” in The Threepenny Review. Matt Greene is another working writer who publishes regularly in major venues, and is as adept at teaching film studies as he is teaching writing; I just saw him out in the hallway meeting individually with students today. Will Lane is yet one more great writer who has served this college in almost every capacity one could imagine, from teaching to administration to serving as director of composition, returning recently to teaching in retirement. Will is also an important and vocal leader in local politics, and has been a personal mentor to me, as well as to many generations of students. Chris Altieri and I have known each other for many years, since she first taught in this department around the time that I first did. Chris brings to our students a level of understanding, patience, and experience that few full-time colleagues could match.

 Rachel Glover is another kind—a thoughtful teacher of writing who is absolutely beloved by her students, who gush over her accessibility, her caring and her warm and thoughtful guidance. Tom Barstow is an old newshound with a wealth of experience that no one else at the college could claim, and without him we would have no faculty member with the chops to teach journalism. 

In short, these colleagues (and here I just touch upon only those of the English Department!) are much more committed to and passionate about their students than that YikYak comment seemed to imply, or than the current College administration seems to appreciate, especially given the general tone of the discussions about cutting back on “adjunct” positions. Could a previous administration have chosen decades ago to fund permanent positions instead of leaning upon this incredible pool of talent? Should the English Department have pushed for that? Of course they could have—and of course we did—but they did not—and our pleas fell upon deaf ears, for whatever set of reasons. Thus, the system we have, as flawed and unfair as it may be, is what allows us to offer just about enough sections of writing of various sorts and at various levels to squeak by. But we couldn’t do it at all without a fantastic group of teachers willing to shoulder more than their share of the load. 

Now I agree that all full-time faculty members should be at least as devoted to our students as this part-time cohort of amazing teachers has been for as long as I can remember. And if I had the resources, frankly, I’d see them much better compensated. The very least I can do as a decent human being, however, is to acknowledge them for their tireless efforts on behalf of our students and for being such incredible, stalwart members of our academic community. I will also defend them and fight to see that they are given the respect they are due. I hope that this more fully informs the broader campus community of the English department’s history concerning adjunct faculty and the circumstances of that department relative to such faculty. 

 

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Author: Gettysburgian Staff

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1 Comment

  1. It makes me truly sad that there has to be this “wall” between adjuncts and tenure track faculty. Matt Barrett is one of the best professors, educators and mentors that I’ve had, and this demonstrates the insane teaching power that our adjuncts hold. I understand the college is in financial troubles, but in the face of these we should not be cutting down on our strengths, instead we should double down on what makes Gettysburg great, such as our adjuncts.

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