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Innovation and Burnout: Perspectives on Open Pedagogy from an Adjunct

“If the structure does not permit dialogue the structure must be changed.” -Paulo Freire

Over the last decade, student enrollment at City University of New York (CUNY) has significantly increased. As the largest urban university in the United States, CUNY enrolls more than 500,000 (degree and non-degree) students each year across its 25 campuses. CUNY employs a significant number of first-time and repeat adjuncts to teach undergraduate and graduate courses in various disciplines. Many of these adjuncts are PhD students from the CUNY Graduate Center. Several adjuncts who are teaching across CUNY campuses are balancing their own doctoral course load, working full-time or part-time positions off campus, and navigating college level teaching positions for the first time. New adjuncts may struggle and face barriers as they balance multiple demands from teaching students while being a student themselves.

That said, research indicates students taught by adjunct faculty report greater engagement in coursework, learn more in introductory courses, and are more inclined to take additional advanced courses after instruction from an adjunct, regardless of the subject (Figlio, Schapiro, & Soter, 2015). This finding is not particularly surprising, since many adjuncts work hard to ensure that students enrolled in their class have the best possible learning experience. This is a good thing. After all, given that adjunct faculty teach greater than three-quarters of college courses, they have considerable influence over the learning environments and outcomes of students.

Many adjuncts employ creative methods to keep students engaged with critical pedagogy and the use of open educational resources (OER). Each semester, students enrolled in my class at Brooklyn College are shocked and happy to discover that there is no assigned textbook. This doesn’t mean there are no assigned readings. Rather, students are provided with resources from peer-reviewed journals, TEDTalks, news articles, documentaries, and many other resources that can offer the same ideas that are found in an over-priced textbook. For example, during our class discussion about great public health achievements, I show students images from the 1950s of medical doctors endorsing cigarettes, and ask students to reflect on the process that needed to occur for there to be a recognition that tobacco use is a health hazard.

In addition to there being no textbook, some students feel performance anxiety upon learning there is also no midterm or final exam for the class. While it is far easier on me to simply create a multiple choice exam that can be quickly graded, students are instead tasked with writing “reaction papers” that critique the ideas we discuss in class and facilitating teach backs to the class. In these presentations, students talk about the social determinants of health. They discuss the impact of housing, racism, transportation, education and many other factors that contribute to healthcare and health status. The idea for these assignments are that students are experts, too. There doesn’t have to be 100% reliance and acceptance of the ideas that are written by the “scholars.”

Often times, students share their ideas with each other through group discussions and think-pair-share activities. Some of my peers, who are also adjuncts and PhD students, have shared their experiences with letting students design parts of the syllabus, having students develop the final exam or encouraging students to use their smartphones and laptops during the class. Certainly, all of these methods don’t work for all subjects. When done right, many of these methods require extensive preparation and planning for the adjunct.

Further, considering that some colleges staff adjuncts at the last minute (days before a class is slated to start) or the fact that many adjuncts are teaching more than one course at multiple CUNY colleges, doing the research to incorporate OER materials or utilizing critical pedagogy can be a struggle. This can cause adjuncts to feel burned out. While doctoral students from the CUNY Graduate Center have access to the Teaching and Learning Center, many adjuncts require additional support and guidance from the academic departments of the schools where they instruct. As previously stated, new adjuncts may struggle and face barriers as they balance multiple demands from teaching students while being a student themselves. This may result in feelings of dissatisfaction with their teaching position, which may translate to the classroom and learning experiences of their undergraduate and graduate students who attend CUNY. It is of critical importance that adjuncts receive the support and encouragement to use OER materials and critical pedagogies in the classroom, but they must also have the support and courage for self-care outside of the classroom. This is no easy balance.

Déjà vu? This post also appears on the CUNY Graduate Center Library Blog:


Figlio, D. N., Schapiro, M. O., & Soter, K. B. (2015). Are tenure track professors better teachers?. Review of Economics and Statistics, 97(4), 715-724.

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