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Beyond "Roads Scholars": Perspectives from the AHA Committee on Non-Tenure- Track Faculty

Lynn Y. Weiner and Philip Suchma, April 2016

The AHA has wrestled with the issue of non-tenure-track faculty for over 20 years, producing several reports, collaborating with other professional associations, and endorsing a variety of policies, from salary recommendations and course-assignment strategies to the provision of work resources. According to a study sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, as of 2012, 28 percent of history faculty at four-year colleges and universities were non-tenure-track, and nearly three-fourths of these were employed part time. Since this study relied on department reports, which are likely to underestimate the number of adjuncts, and did not include community colleges, it is possible that the percentage of non-tenure-track history faculty is even higher. We simply don’t have sufficient data to know precisely what the landscape of non-tenure-track history faculty looks like today.

We do know, however, that there are fewer history tenure-track job opportunities, in part because of diminished undergraduate interest in the humanities, and an increasing reliance on non-tenure-track instructors. That over one in four history professors might be non-tenure-track raises questions not only about student learning but also about departmental work culture and the treatment, sometimes exploitative, of faculty hired in various contingent categories.

In 2014, the AHA and its Teaching Division convened the Committee on Non-Tenure-Track Faculty to examine the current situation of non-tenure-track teachers in history departments. The committee included five historians—all past or current adjuncts, two of whom had eventually become deans responsible for hiring. The committee was charged with examining faculty data, surveying working conditions, offering cost-conscious recommendations, considering collaboration with other scholarly societies, and proposing future research.

With these objectives in mind, the committee conducted a survey among non-­tenure-track faculty, department chairs, and history students. Responses came from 667 faculty, 172 department chairs, and 500 students, representing community colleges, private colleges, state universities, and Research 1 institutions. Importantly, although we refer to non-tenure-track faculty as a group, the responses revealed that the category is much more complex than in the past. It does include course-by-course adjuncts—or “roads scholars” long assumed to be the majority of faculty off the tenure track—but it also comprises a growing number of historians in half-time and full-time annual or multi-year appointments. This difficulty in determining the exact nature of non-tenure-track employment is one of the most important reasons we need to design better studies and gather precise data on this rapidly changing population of historians.

The report was introduced at a session titled “Off the Tenure Track but in the Classroom: Are There Short Term Reforms That Can Make a Difference for Faculty and Students?” at the 2016 AHA annual meeting in Atlanta. The audience discussed the report as well as the diverse teaching experiences and career paths of the committee members. Graduate students made up the majority of this audience and told us that they were concerned about the stability of the profession as they entered the job market. There were no full-time faculty or department chairs present in the audience, reinforcing the perception that they lack interest in the issue. One participant urged the AHA to join forces with the Organization of American Historians (OAH) to improve the condition of faculty off the tenure track.

The non-tenure-track faculty survey highlighted issues of income, course assignments, treatment by institutional colleagues, and impact on students. Not surprisingly, non-tenure-track faculty voiced concerns about the lack of economic stability (teaching for as little as $1,400 per course). Many also mentioned the uncertainty of course assignments, as they were often hired with little advance notice or laid off because of last-minute class cancellations. Non-­tenure-track faculty also reported feeling like second-class citizens, having few opportunities for interaction with tenured and tenure-track colleagues, and being excluded from meetings, decision making, and social events. Finally, there was consistent discontent about the dearth of basic resources needed to teach effectively and the lack of opportunity for meeting students outside of class—a practice crucial to encouraging student success. At the same time, almost 93 percent of non-tenure-track faculty surveyed agreed that their teaching met or exceeded the pedagogical standards of their departments.

The department chair survey had some surprises—about three-fourths of the chairs had at one time in their careers worked as non-tenure-track faculty (excluding graduate assistantships). In contrast to non-tenure-track faculty, the chairs, almost 88 percent of whom worked in four-year institutions, presented a more positive perception of working conditions. It is possible that these results would have been different had the survey yielded greater responses from chairs in community colleges and two-year institutions.

Students confirmed our understanding that they were largely indifferent to the hiring status of their professors. When asked whether they knew the difference between tenured/tenure-track faculty and non-tenure-track faculty, the results were divided almost equally. Some students rated the quality of non-tenure-track faculty highly, reporting them to be passionate and rigorous, but also raising concerns about their limited availability outside of class.

Based on these responses, the committee made several recommendations to the AHA Council, which approved them in January 2016. These recommendations include:

  • Improving nomenclature to describe the variety of historians teaching off the tenure track. These include part-time, half-time, and full-time professors hired by the course, by the semester or year, and on multi-year contracts.
  • Cooperating with other scholarly societies, including re-­establishing collaboration with the OAH.
  • Issuing guidelines for a more inclusive, equitable, and respectful work culture to enhance the success of non-tenure-track colleagues in the classroom. These include clearly stating evaluation procedures, including non-­tenure-track teachers in department and university events, acknowledging teaching and research achievements, and providing access to such basic working tools as mailboxes, e-mail accounts, computers and copy machines, parking, office space, teaching development workshops, and, when possible, to benefits and conference funds.

Above all, we learned how much we don’t know, and recommend that the AHA initiate a more sophisticated survey that can better incorporate and analyze the qualitative experiences of non-tenure-track faculty in the history discipline. And while not a subject of the report, we also urge the AHA to continue to explore ways to promote career development for historians teaching off the tenure track.

The economic and workplace exploitation of non-tenure-track faculty is not a problem unique to historians. Non-tenure-track faculty and their supporters from many disciplines have formed such organizations as the New Faculty Majority and the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor to explore methods for direct advocacy. But this challenge is one that historians can and must confront. While about a third of our non-tenure-track faculty work in institutions with adjunct unions that set minimum standards for employment, the majority teach in environments subject to wildly varying institutional cultures. While the AHA has endorsed most of our recommendations time and again, they have not yet become standard practice in history departments. At the least, a policy of inclusion and respect could begin the process of improving both the working conditions of one-fourth of our faculty and the classroom experiences of our students.

We thank the Teagle Foundation for its financial support, and Emily Swafford of the AHA for overseeing the survey logistics.

Lynn Y. Weiner is university historian and dean emerita of the College of Arts and Sciences at Roosevelt University in Chicago. Philip Suchma has been working as an adjunct professor in the city of New York since 2006. He teaches in the history departments at St. John’s University and at Lehman College, CUNY, and also instructs American studies courses at the School of Professional and Continuing Studies at Fordham University.


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