The “Real” Teachers of Online Literacy and Writing Courses

This portfolio artifact illustrates an attempt to inform local practices through research by exploring journals in your education and writing studies, summarizing the findings of your research process, and identifying gaps in the current scholarship.

A Call to Practically Address the Issues the New Majority Faces

According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the term “contingent faculty” is used to include any part-time faculty, non-tenure-track full-time faculty, and graduate teaching assistants. (American Association of University Professors, n.d.). While these categories of teachers certainly have a lot in common, namely no current opportunity for tenure, they often face different issues. Most full-time faculty, even those outside the tenure-track, are eligible for benefits, have office space on campus, a workload in one location, and even some expectation (though perhaps not guarantee) of continued employment. Even some graduate teaching assistants will have these working conditions as well. However, adjuncts do not. Adjuncts – sometimes called “Lecturers” or “Instructors” as if that elevates the role — are typically part-time at more than one institution, piecing together full-time employment, without the working conditions afforded to their designated-full-time counterparts. But adjuncts are primarily the ones teaching first-year composition/writing classes (FYC) and, thus, have become the ones most likely to teach online writing courses (OWC). 

The current literature relevant to adjuncts and online literacy or writing instruction (hereafter, online literacy instruction, or OLI) is sparse. Quite often, contingent faculty are included just to point out the prevalence of their existence while focusing on the experiences of tenure-track faculty. Indeed, much of the scholarship regarding online learning in general, or online literacy/writing instruction specifically, prior to the last few years seems to focus on the additional workload, or invisible labor, associated with online learning for all faculty, regardless of classification. This is likely partly due to the fact that until the early 2000s, the focus of academia seemed to be on protecting “tenure at all costs,” as evidenced by the position statements of numerous professional organizations, rather than considering labor conditions of faculty as a whole (Doe & Palmquist, 2013, p. 25). Once the profession as a whole came to accept that contingent faculty were becoming the new majority, especially in composition courses, the conversations shifted to better conditions, pay, and job security for all faculty (Doe & Palmquist, 2013). 

Certainly, these issues are relevant to all faculty, but contingency is, itself, an “aggravating factor,” meaning that being a contingent employee (of any kind) heightens those issues. Even the OLI scholarship that has attempted to address this aggravating factor has done so under the assumption or adoption of AAUP’s definition and, thus, not looked at the distinctions among types of contingent faculty. Only a very few specifically address the distinctions.

Borgman and McClure (2019) describe the challenges they faced as contingent OWIs while pursuing their PhDs. Neither were graduate teaching assistants, both served as adjunct faculty and decided to pursue PhDs to further their expertise, and presumably to make themselves more marketable for tenure-track or at least full-time positions. As someone who has considered pursuing a PhD for more than 20 years and not done so due to financial and locale limitations, I’m curious whether the authors’ pursuits landed them the “golden opportunities” contingent faculty often seek.

Howard (2017) addresses the working conditions specifically faced by online contingent faculty, particularly in the context of massive open online courses (MOOCs). The author explains how most FYC are taught by “adjuncts usually hired at the last minute” (p. 234). She specifically explains how the online writing instructor (OWI) can face different challenges from the face-to-face writing instructor, thus placing the online contingent faculty in an even more precarious position. Further, “Since staffing concerns usually trump adequate training, contingent OWIs may be assigned online courses despite their online course design and teaching experience” (Howard, 2017, p. 235).

While invisible labor/time is something of an issue for all teachers, it’s even more of a concern for the contract employee. Blair and Monske (2003) acknowledge that “[t]he workload associated with the creation of online courses is not usually compensated within the realm of tenure and promotion, and certainly not addressed with regard to contingent faculty–the adjuncts and graduate students who teach the bulk of online classes and for whom there are commonly no formal reviews or promotion structures” (p. 448). Accepting or acknowledging that adjuncts and graduate students “teach the bulk of online classes” does little to address the financial exploitation that comes along with the invisible labor of online teaching. As DeVoss et al. (2001) explain, “Recognizing that part-time and adjunct faculty and GTAs are more likely than conventionally educated tenure-track faculty to have experienced teaching with technology, chairs will ask these faculty inclined to take on the risk of such assignments given the precarious nature of their funding situation and their willingness to experiment to accept such courses” (p. 274-75). Josh Boldt (2013), who started the Adjunct Project (which has now become a part of the New Faculty Majority (NFM) Foundation), has spoken out about this financial exploitation of adjuncts, saying “Adjuncts–faculty–have become products for consumption in our new free market university economy that–like the free market business economy–stresses the bottom line above all else” (p. A2). 

Another piece of scholarship to discuss online course design and at least reference adjuncts and other contingent faculty (at least according to the Bedford Bibliography (2019)) is Denise Tillery and Ed Nagelhout’s chapter in the book Online Education 2.0: Evolving, Adapting, and Reinventing Online Technical Communication. However, this source raises another issue that adjuncts may regularly face: this book is not available in the institution libraries at which I teach and appears to only be available to purchase. On an adjunct salary, I cannot afford to buy every book that may have information relevant to my research.

In one of the few pieces of scholarship to focus on the issues specific to adjuncts teaching OWC, “Contingent Faculty and OWI,” Mahli Mechenbier (2015) notes that “Contemporary adjuncts–the contingent faculty who teach on semester-to-semester contracts–often are used as ‘fillers’ for undesirable courses such as FYW. They are the faceless many who teach (often) full-time loads for part-time pay, commuter professors who juggle course loads among multiple campuses, and the default faculty to which the administration goes at the eleventh hour to complete department schedules” (p. 233). However, Mechenbier’s piece essentially argued for the need for more research to identify the challenges faced by students as a result of underpaid and under-trained (in OWI specifically) adjuncts being placed in teaching roles days before a semester begins. While she acknowledged, “anecdotally,” that contingent faculty may be underpaid, lack access to institutional resources, and feel disempowered, her recommendation that departments include contingent faculty in department meetings and professional development opportunities ignores the additional invisible labor – and unpaid time – that such involvement creates.

Much of the scholarship to address contingent OWC faculty – even when specifically addressing adjuncts – focuses on professional development and support that may not be feasible for smaller institutions, those facing budget crisis, or even the adjuncts themselves who are “highway flyers,” busy piecing together employment across multiple schools. 

While Meloncon (2017) excluded graduate students from her study regarding professional development and content ownership related to OWC and contingent faculty, her recommendations focus on developing committees and implementing models. These recommendations take time and money that, in my experience, schools don’t want to invest – which is why they’re relying on adjuncts to primarily teach their FYC in the first place. 

Similarly, Mechenbier and Warnock (2019) argue for a collaborative approach of including faculty members with different ranks to evaluate contingent online writing teachers. The authors, though, focus on the problem of evaluations being conducted by faculty without online teaching experience, rather than on the issue of evaluations/assessments of contingent faculty members either not happening or being arbitrary (not used for renewal or promotion).

Beavers (2019) conducted research related to preparing contingent OWI for his dissertation. He conducted surveys and interviews and focused on the largest barriers – time and money – to supporting contingent OWI. However, he couched his research in how writing program administrators (WPAs) can provide this professional development and support and applauded WPAs for their “sustained commitment” to helping prepare faculty for the online environment (p. 111). Ultimately, he recognized and reinforced the need for support but acknowledged that more research was needed as to what support adjuncts actually want/need.

Of course, we (speaking as an adjunct) want departments and program directors to specifically consider the issues faced by adjuncts. I don’t mean to insinuate that these pieces are without merit or use. But I think the problem is the lack of scholarship looking at the issues from the perspective of the adjunct rather than from the perspective of the department, program, institution, or profession. As Babb (2017) explained: 

The conditions in which part-time instructors work fluctuate from one institution to another, but these conditions are consistent enough that WPAs and the field in general must remain attentive to concerns about further exploiting instructors by requiring them to dedicate significant amounts of time to building courses they had never taught before, at least not as online courses, especially if these courses come with no additional compensation. Further, the fact that part-time instructors have insufficient access to university resources, particularly in regards to technology, effectively mandates that instructors teaching online courses supply their own resources for conducting courses. While the conceit of the interstate-driving adjunct working at multiple institutions (literally interstate in my case, where many adjuncts teach at IU Southeast and at institutions in Kentucky) remains a compelling image for understanding the difficulties of adjuncting, we are also seeing the rise of the adjunct as remote worker, providing his or her own technology and space for completing the work of online writing instruction. Like drivers for companies like Uber and Lyft, these adjuncts must supply their own computers and steady online access to teach courses that do not pay that well. (p. 206).

Ultimately, what I think this literature review has revealed is that there are gaps in the existing scholarship related specifically to adjunct online writing instructors and professional support, financial exploitation, and invisible labor/time. These are issues I hope to explore in a research project in the Spring.

As I continue this research, I have a few more pieces (mainly from 2020) to review:

  1. Melonçon, Lisa; Mechenbier, Mahli Xuan; and Wilson, Laura (2020) “Special Issue: Volume 4, Issue 1,” Academic Labor: Research and Artistry: Vol. 4 , Article 1. Available at:
  2. Philbrook, Jes. (2019). From the Editorial Board: Contingency and Online Writing Instruction. College Composition and Communication 71.1 [Forum 23.1, Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty], A1-A2.
  3. Ramona Maile Cutri & Juanjo Mena (2020) A critical reconceptualization of faculty readiness for online teaching, Distance Education, 41:3, 361-380, DOI: 10.1080/01587919.2020.1763167
  4. Ramona Maile Cutri, Juanjo Mena & Erin Feinauer Whiting (2020) Faculty readiness for online crisis teaching: transitioning to online teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic, European Journal of Teacher Education, 43:4, 523-541, DOI: 10.1080/02619768.2020.1815702
  5. Culver, K.C., Young, R.L. & Barnhardt, C.L. Communicating Support: Examining Perceived Organizational Support among Faculty Members with Differing Appointment Types. Innov High Educ 45, 299–315 (2020).
  6. Graves, K. (2020). The Exploitation and Marginalization of Contingent and Adjunct Labor. Penumbra: An interdisciplinary journal of critical and creative inquiry, 7, 47-61.
  7. Barrone, J. T. (2020). Dissertation: The Proletariat in Higher Education: An Introduction of Contingent Faculty as the Precarious Class. Northern Arizona University and ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.
  8. Skurat Harris, Heidi, Lisa Meloncon, Beth Hewett, Mahli Xuan Mechenbier, and Diane Martinez. “A Call for Purposeful Pedagogy-Driven Course Design in Online Writing Instruction.” Research in Online Writing Instruction, vol. 2, no. 1, 2019, pp. 83–128.


American Association of University Professors. (n.d.). Background facts on contingent faculty positions. AAUP.

Babb, J. (2017). Reshaping institutional mission: OWI and writing program administration. In E. Monsky & K. Blair (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Writing and Composing in the Age of MOOCs (pp. 202-215). IGI Global. The Bedford Bibliography of Research in Online Writing Instruction (2019). MacMillan Learning.

Beavers, M. (2019). Preparing part-time contingent faculty to teach first-year writing online: Examining writing program administrator approaches (Publication No. 138591589) [Doctoral dissertation, University of Arkansas at Little Rock]. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.

Blair, K.L., & Monske, E.A. (2003). Cui bono?: Revisiting the promises and perils of online learning. Computers and Composition, 20(4), 441-53. 20th Anniversary Special Issue, Part 1. Science Direct, doi:10,1016/j.compcon.2003.08.016.

Boldt, J. (2014)  Introducing the free market educational economy.  Forum: Issues About Part-time and Contingent Faculty, 17(1), A2-A5.

Borgman, J., & McClure, C.I. (2019). The ultimate balancing act: Contingent online teaching and PhD coursework. Forum: Issues About Part-Time & Contingent Faculty, 23(1), A3-A8.

DeVoss, D., Hayden, D., Selfe, C.L., & Selfe, Jr., R.J. (2001). Distance education: Political and professional agency for adjunct and part-time faculty, and GTAs. In E. Schell & P. Stock (Eds.), Moving a mountain: Transforming the role of contingent faculty in composition studies and higher education (pp. 261-286). National Council of Teachers of English.

Doe, S. & Palmquist, M. (2013). An evolving discourse: The shifting uses of position statements on the contingent faculty. ADE Bulletin 153, 23-34. Modern Language Association.

Mechenbier, M., & Warnock, S. (2019). Evaluating/observing contingent online writing teachers and a proposal for a collaborative method of “reading” online writing courses. Forum: Issues About Part-Time & Contingent Faculty, 23(1), A8-A17.

Meloncon, L. (2017). Contingent faculty, online writing instruction, and professional development in technical communication. Technical Communication Quarterly, 26(3), 256-272.