Publication Date

April 1, 2003

Perspectives Section


Having been a part-time history professor for most of the past 17 years (with the exception of a few spells as a full-time leave replacement) and having had many advantages, I believe that I have been happier in that capacity than I might have been in a full-time position. Of course, I had fully expected, as a graduate student in the 1960s, to obtain a full-time job, but the vagaries of the history "market" have dictated otherwise.

Some people may view my experience as atypical, perhaps even somewhat "privileged." Certainly my wife's being a well-paid, tenured French professor has been an important advantage. I well realize that for many people part-time teaching involves a desperate struggle to survive financially and professionally. I certainly do not want to exonerate a system of "marketplace education" and its tragic waste of talent over the past 30 years. These are some personal reflections, nothing more.

As a part-timer (and occasional full-timer), I have been able to teach in an array of colleges and universities, from small, historically black colleges in the South to major state universities to small elite schools. I have engaged students from various socioeconomic and ethnic groups, of varying ages, and different religious and political persuasions. And I have taught a great variety of interesting courses. Almost all department heads have been helpful and encouraging, most full-time faculty friendly and sometimes collegial, and the administrative staffs quite supportive, often crucially so (as they are the ones most aware of student reactions).

I have enjoyed teaching at almost all the schools at which I have worked. At each school, the students have exhibited different qualities. Sometimes students have taken my courses two, three, or four times. The three or four very best students I have ever had were at Bishop College (Texas), the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), and Rutgers University at Camden.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I was a teaching assistant, the students were probably the most politically sophisticated as well as very talented. Those at Swarthmore College, the College of New Jersey, Villanova University, and the University of Pennsylvania generally were the most competent and demonstrated the finest analytical and writing abilities. Students at Swarthmore exhibited an unusual capacity and eagerness for work. With students at Rhode Island College and Villanova University, I developed a special rapport due to a shared Roman Catholic, big-city, immigrant heritage. Particularly gratifying has been working with first-generation college students, such as those at Rutgers-Camden, who are also often struggling with full-time jobs and familial responsibilities.

Older adult students have been the most interesting to teach, and we learned a great deal from each other. They are more mature and better time managers, and their life experiences have added significantly to the courses. And they are scared. They might not have been in school for many years, and they might not have done very well previously. So they do everything I ask them. Most 18-year-olds know better than that!

Perhaps my favorite place was RISD, where the students were extremely thirsty for historical and political knowledge (probably because they were so immersed in their art studios), and exhibited much skill, creativity, and individuality. We really hit it off. Innovative course offerings such as "The French Revolution Dramatized" were encouraged, and part-timers were included in all departmental affairs.

The most exciting academic program in which I ever taught involved the Thirteen Colleges Curriculum Program (TCCP) for historically black colleges in the late 1960s. Instructors in the program would gather in Boston, under some first-rate mentors, for eight weeks every summer to plan very innovative interdisciplinary social science curricula and pedagogy. With the TCCP I first learned that I could teach subjects such as families in various cultures, comparative slavery, or black political leadership that I had not formally studied in school. I acquired many of my most effective teaching skills and, of course, had the opportunity to view American society and culture from a privileged perspective. The TCCP had ample funds-federal as well as private foundation-for books, films, and various cultural activities, and the students had full scholarships. At the end, the program provided me with a generous three-year grant to finish my doctorate. For the most part the students responded extremely well, and the most gifted probably could have succeeded in any academic institution in the country.

As a part-timer I have had the opportunity of teaching many different topics in European, American, and world history. More than half the courses have been at advanced levels, including senior seminars, and a graduate colloquium. I was able to cope with these varied demands, perhaps because my teachers in high school and college instilled in me an unquenchable thirst to learn, keep on learning, and develop a well-rounded education.

I have thus engaged a broader spectrum of history than I might have had I been ensconced in a specialty. I think I have taught every course I have ever wanted to teach, plus many I am glad I learned to teach. Interestingly, students have sometimes not been as keen about French history, my main specialty, as they have been about other courses I have taught.

As a part-timer I have been exempt from most committee work and academic advising and mostly immune to departmental politics, benefits many full-timers might envy me for. Being a part-timer has encouraged me to be more sensitive to student reactions, to return graded papers and exams quickly, and to devise better ways to help students improve their performance.

I have also been able to do research and publish as much as I wanted and to do so without the pressures of “publish or perish.” Indeed, some of my most productive scholarly years were those I worked as an administrator in international education at the University of North Texas. I strongly believed that what I had researched was important to disseminate through conference papers, articles, and books. In later years projects have mostly come to me, and I have not had to search them out.

I do very much appreciate the recognition I have received through my scholarly writing, but I look forward as much to reading my teaching evaluations at the end of the semester as I do to seeing my writings in print. Certainly preparing, revamping, and teaching a variety of courses and working with interesting students have consumed most of my time and have been my main pleasures. Of course, I have not earned as much money nor have I had the job security or the acceptance that goes along with a full-time position. Not knowing what and where I am going to teach or even if I am going to teach, not being given much advance notice or having courses cancelled at the last minute are the most difficult aspects. I also don't like to have to turn down opportunities, either because of prior commitments or the lack of time to prepare.

I have made enough money to travel and study abroad (learning other languages is my main hobby), as well as save up for my retirement. Often my part-time salaries have simply not been worth spending; they have been better put aside. Had I been full-time with a house mortgage to pay, I might be deeply in debt. My father always told me that I could be rich or I could be happy, but I couldn't be both. Having grown up in a wealthy suburb of Chicago, he knew a lot of very unhappy people. Part-time teaching, in contrast, can yield much happiness.

Incidentally, part-time pay ranged from very poor at a community college to very good at elite schools. A couple of colleges actually pegged their part-time compensation to a regular faculty salary scale, i.e., the principle of "equal pay for equal work" endorsed by professional organizations. A couple of others had varying part-time salary levels, depending upon experience and highest degrees. Several schools allowed for periodic pay increases and even merit raises. Two provided travel funds to conferences; one allowed participation in the health insurance program; and Rutgers, where I taught the longest, fortunately included me in the state pension program.

Finally, it has been nice being something of an "outsider" in the historical profession, although I have contributed my fair share to professional conferences and journals, produced two major works, and collaborated on several others. Also some of the people, who have been the most humanly inspiring and possessed impressive moral sensibilities, have been historians, notably Harvey Goldberg at Wisconsin. As a lawyer once told a group of us instructors, "a good teacher is a good person." And that implies a lot. At the same time, since the moment I first set foot in graduate school, I have often been put off by certain aspects of the historical profession as well as by certain kinds of historians. (I kept a Peace Corps application in my pocket.) This would be true of most academic disciplines, and I don't think I need to elaborate. I remember, after one history conference, telling this to a friend, himself a very respected historian, who patted me on the back and said that that showed I had "good taste." Doing history for me is a true vocation with a moral purpose.

— graduated from Loyola University in 1963, began his teaching career in 1967, and received a doctorate in modern European history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1974. His publications notably include Accommodation and Resistance: The French Left, Indochina, and the Cold War, 1944–1954 (Greenwood, 1986) and, with Paul Buhle, William Appleman Williams: The Tragedy of Empire (Routledge, 1995).

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