Professional Issues

Good Practices and Common Goals: The Conference on Part-Time and Adjunct Faculty

Barbara N. Ramusack | Jan 1, 1998

In January 1994 the AHA Council established a task force on part-time and adjunct faculty on the recommendation of the Professional Division then chaired by Drew Gilpin Faust. Elizabeth Perry, an adjunct faculty member at UCLA and also a member of the Council and the Professional Division, was equally active in shaping this initiative. Discussion about the most effective format and process for considering this topic continued for the next two years. Eventually the Division decided to involve other professional associations that shared our concerns about the growing use of part-time and adjunct faculty. In January 1996 I replaced Professor Perry as the Council member on the Professional Division with responsibility for this project.

The representatives of 11 professional associations participated in our first planning meeting on April 28, 1996, in Washington, D.C. Eventually there would be four more meetings and three lengthy conference calls that delineated the issues, established the goals, and outlined a conference. In order to focus our discussion, we reluctantly agreed not to include those graduate assistants who teach independent courses within our purview. The three principal outcomes sought from the proposed conference were the enunciation of a set of common understandings, the development of guidelines for good practices in the employment of part-time and adjunct faculty, and the compilation of an action agenda through which we could achieve good practices for our various constituencies: students, scholar-teachers, academic institutions, and professional associations. During this planning process some of the original participants withdrew and new groups joined. Ten associations eventually agreed to cosponsor and financially support our Conference on the Growing Use of Part-Time and Adjunct Faculty, which was held September 26--28, 1997, in Washington, D.C. On page 4 of this issue of Perspectives, Robert Townsend provides a summary of that conference. Here I reflect more broadly on the issues which emerged at the conference and what we hope to accomplish in the future.

First, it was a major achievement to bring together eight disciplinary associations and two multidisciplinary associations on a topic with which each is engaged but on which each has agendas that vary widely. More so than appears from the outside, the world of part-time and adjunct faculty is complex and highly differentiated across and within disciplines and educational institutions. In disciplines such as English, foreign languages, and mathematics, part-time and adjunct faculty are used extensively because core, required courses are deemed best taught when class size is limited to 15 to 25 students. Consequently, full-time faculty will never be sufficient to teach such large numbers of low enrollment courses. In history, part-time and adjunct faculty teach in small introductory survey classes in community colleges, and in large survey courses taught in a lecture format at four-year and research institutions. They also staff specialized upper-division courses when departments do not have full time faculty trained in those geographical areas or such faculty are on leave.

Second, part-time and adjunct faculty vary widely in their motivation, goals, and job satisfaction. David Leslie (author of several books and articles on part-time faculty), reporting the results of a survey in a paper presented at the conference, noted that 52 percent of those teaching part-time indicate that they prefer to teach part-time and that many of them have other full-time employment. These responses reflect many factors, including the extensive use of practicing professionals as part-time faculty in professional colleges such as business, law, music, and visual arts, where the professional experiences of part- time faculty have particular value. Many seek part-time employment because of personal decisions to assume primary responsibility for child care or to remain in a geographical area because of a spouse's or partner's careers. Substantial numbers of individuals (the numbers vary widely among the disciplines) in all disciplines, accept part-time and adjunct employment because they wish to be professors and are unable to obtain full time, tenure- track positions. Good practices and action agendas must be flexible to include this diversity but coherent enough to serve as a basis for common action.

Third, in the sciences as well as the humanities, there are significant gender issues since the majority of part-time and adjunct faculty are women. In a paper presented at the conference, Charlotte Kuh of the National Research Council noted that two prime examples are in English, where women constitute 53 percent of the part-time labor force and in psychology, where women are 74 percent of that cohort. In history, by contrast, women held 26 percent of part-time positions which represents a notable decline from the 41 percent they held in 1993. Statistics from 1997 need to be collected before it can be established if 1995 was a temporary dip or the start of a longer term trend for women in history. Still, the numbers of women in part-time and adjunct employment reflect the marginal position of women in the ranks of academic employment as well as the social pressures that continue to lead women to place the demands of family life before career considerations.

Fourth, the availability and use of part-time and adjunct faculty possibly unintentionally exacerbate divisions within the history professoriate. Faculty who are tenured or in tenure- track positions are frequently under pressure to obtain grants for research and to publish. These activities are perceived as enhancing and maintaining the reputations of departments and institutions. Full-time faculty, therefore, seek sabbaticals and other forms of academic leave, which are frequently made possible by the extensive use of part-time and adjunct faculty to teach their courses. Consequently, there is a growing disparity in the research and publication achievements of these two segments of the professoriate. Then tenured and tenure-track faculty are perceived to be more selective in the types of courses they teach while part-time faculty as well as graduate assistants being utilized to teach less 'desirable' offerings such as survey courses. Finally, there is a significant disparity based on age, particularly in history which has one of the highest ratios of full time faculty over 55 with 41 percent compared to only 4 percent of the faculty under 35. Age does necessarily produce differences but it is perceived as doing so at times. The high proportion of older faculty might give junior faculty hope of future employment. However, the current trend toward downsizing faculty and programs in departments of history does not promote optimism.

Fifth, community colleges, which have the largest percentage of part-time faculty, provide higher education not only for students seeking associate degrees but also for those who aspire to baccalaureate and graduate degrees. As one conference participant remarked, four- year colleges and universities increasingly have established a parasitic relationship with community colleges, expecting them to provide instruction in required, labor intensive courses. Thus colleges and universities may focus on courses which can be taught with larger class sizes or more specialized ones. Historians are only beginning to consider broad guidelines on the content and intellectual skills to be developed in survey courses and how best to foster a successful transition between two-year colleges and four-year institutions.

Tags: Resources for Contingent Faculty Contingent


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