Publication Date

October 1, 1997

Perspectives Section

From the President

Historians aren't used to identifying themselves personally with labor unrest, but the Teamsters' strike of the United Parcel Service hit a sensitive nerve because it pushed part-time employment to the forefront of public attention. A letter in the August 11 New York Times noted that the strike could shed some light on the problems at the City University of New York (CUNY), which had earlier been featured in a Times story. “More than half of CUNY teachers are part-time, living on about $10,000,” Daniel Mozes wrote, adding that the percentage of part-timers at community colleges could rise to 80 percent. In the Los Angeles Times, a writer from Bakersfield made the problem concrete: “As a part-time teacher in the state university system for seven years, I was laid off three times, had classes canceled at the last minute and was regarded by the administration and some faculty as chattel to be used and discarded.”

I have heard of a nearby college where a single permanent member of the history department does all the hiring and supervising of a staff of part-time teachers who sustain the instructional program. It's certainly not unusual for someone with a PhD in history to be paid $1,500 for a 14-week semester course meeting three times weekly. There is no way that a living wage can be put together at such rates, even in the unlikely situation that part- time instructors could get all the teaching that they desired.

The present plight of part-timers is a tale of flexibility and vulnerability. American companies have become more profitable by closely matching labor costs to profit-generating tasks. Getting out from under commitments to 40-hour weeks has created the leaner industries heralded on our newspapers' business pages. Were it not for the vulnerability of those seeking work, businesses would have to pay more for this valuable flexibility. As customers, we certainly pay for flexibility. Think of the cost of a plane ticket purchased at the last minute. Enter here the role of vulnerability; the vulnerability of those who need work or, more to the point, those among us who have become professional historians and want to teach what they have so patiently learned.

We know firsthand that the adjunct professors being hired today have excellent potential, because they have been our graduate students. We have participated in their development as scholars while helping to nurture their love of history and teaching. We also know, if we reflect upon our own experience, that their potential is slowly drained, year by year, without the support for their scholarly development that we have written into our own working conditions.

Experts say that the percentage of involuntary part-time employment generally has risen only slightly in the last two decades. This seems not to be the case in higher education where the downturn in public financing of five years ago has put a crimp in full-time hiring, even though there has been an apparent 5 percent increase in regular jobs. We tend to think that adjuncts fill in for absent colleagues when in fact—in terms of the number of students in their classrooms—they teach close to 50 percent of all college students.

The volatility of public funding and enrollment patterns dictates the prudent use of some part- timers or temporary instructors in our colleges and universities. But it is only their vulnerability that accounts for the disrespect of last minute cancellations, failure to provide office space, neglect of their academic needs, and pay rates that approach those for unskilled workers.

As all of us with permanent teaching positions know, a good part of our paid-for time is spent thinking about teaching, reading in the fields we teach, discussing approaches or assignments with fellow teachers, or rummaging through slide files or books for new course material. Our teaching loads are set to accommodate these activities that underpin good performances in the classroom. Without this support, intellectually and morally, we would all soon be running on empty.

In higher education, as with the UPS workers, the issue isn't so much the number of hours worked, but the status of being temporary, less than full members of the unit, with scaled- back benefits and insufficient respect. These undermining factors adversely affect the quality of history teaching. The use of part-timers may not change the way that packages are loaded onto UPS trucks, but in history instruction, students are shortchanged if they can't meet their teachers outside of class to get guidance and feedback on assignments because the instructor has no office space and is not paid to do anything besides deliver the required lectures.

In September the AHA organized a conference in cooperation with the Modern Language Association, the American Mathematical Society, the American Association of University Professors, the American Philosophical Association, the American Political Science Association, the American Sociological Association, the Community College Humanities Association, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the Organization of American Historians, specifically to discuss the problems facing adjunct and part-time teachers as well as institutions. There will be more about it in next month's Perspectives. This initiative in careful deliberation and concerted action is important to all of us who care about the quality of history teaching and the respect given to history teachers.

It may sound naive, but I think that we, working with others, can effect changes. We need to bring our message to the people with power over hiring decisions—legislators and community college boards—and those with a stake in the outcome—parents and students and those who recognize the value of superior teaching. Where there are universities and four- year and community colleges in the same area, we could work together to publicize the situation most adjuncts face. The Teamsters got the public's attention; now let's take advantage of it.

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