Part-Time Teachers: The AHA Survey

Robert B. Townsend, April 2000

A recent AHA survey asked part-time and adjunct faculty to air their concerns about their place in the academic workforce. Many responded that their experiences reflected common perceptions of part-time and temporary faculty as underpaid, living on the road, and ill-treated by their employers.

However, the results also highlighted significant variation in this overall picture. While many respondents expressed resentment at poor salaries, minimal benefits (including office space), and what they consider the callous indifference of departmental "colleagues," an equally large number identified tangible benefits to part-time employment—most notably, the satisfaction of being able to continue teaching history.

The survey, designed by the AHA's Professional Division and submitted through the H-Net lists and to part-time and adjunct members of the AHA, elicited 506 responses within the first 6 weeks. Interestingly enough, almost a third of the responses came from faculty now employed in full-time, tenure-track jobs—most of whom had spent at least a few years as part-time or adjunct faculty. A surprisingly large number of responses—almost 10 percent—came from folks who just wanted to tell us they went straight from the PhD to the tenure track. We received 40 responses that included no information or else offered some rather pointed comments about the survey, the profession, or the academy at large.

Of the 380 respondents who were currently employed in a part-time or temporary capacity, 63 percent were employed in a temporary part-time capacity, 12 percent were employed in a permanent part-time position, and 23 percent were employed in a temporary full-time position. Another five respondents reported they were unemployed, while five others described their situation as an indefinable quasi-part-time position.

Respondents represented a wide range of life experiences. The majority had been employed in a part-time or adjunct capacity for fewer than 3 years (a number of which included graduate school years), but some respondents had been employed this way "off and on" for more than 20 years. This was reflected in the years that many had received their degrees, with some respondents reporting they received their PhDs as far back as 1966. However, over 80 percent of the respondents with PhDs had received their degrees in the 1990s, with 42 percent reporting they received the PhD in the past three years.

Although the prevailing view of the part-time phenomenon focuses on faculty with PhDs, the responses highlighted the fact that this is also an important issue for ABDs. Almost 20 percent of the responses were from graduate students and history PhD candidates. As one graduate student conceded, "We often need to teach in order to finance/finish graduate school; we end up being adjuncts, but probably in a different way than people struggling to support families or are without hope of long-term employment due to geographical constraints."

A majority of respondents are employed in universities—27 percent in research universities, and 32 percent in four-year comprehensive universities. Twenty-five percent teach at four-year liberal arts colleges, while only 15.5 percent of the respondents were at two-year colleges.

The information on where respondents work challenges the common perception of the itinerant part-time faculty member. Only 20 percent of respondents reported working at more than one educational institution, averaging slightly more than two positions at the same time. Almost 20 percent reported they were employed in another department or area of the college or university where they teach, while an additional 31 percent reported employment outside the academy (typically as writers, editors, or consultants). Respondents in the latter categories represented a significant range of employment patterns. Some said they were employed full-time in their other job and taught part-time as a way of pursuing their avocation for history. Others described trying to piece together a livable income out of part-time teaching posts, and freelance research and editing jobs.

Not all of the responses were negative. Indeed a handful of respondents said they preferred the option to teach part time, either because they were beginning their careers and wanted the opportunity to raise families or because they were in the late stages of careers and reluctant to part with the pleasures of classroom teaching. With only one exception, the former were women, while all of the latter were men.

Similarly, the 112 respondents who made the transition from part-time employment to the tenure track noted some positive aspects of this type of employment. One respondent noted that part-time employment "enabled me to hold out for a good job, allowed me to remain at one of the three research libraries in the United States with significant holdings in my field, and allowed me to build my publications record." Another stated, "I now occupy a tenure-track position which I would not have obtained had I not held several successive visiting positions at a prestigious college, which gave me teaching experience and allowed me to develop some courses."

By contrast, many of those currently employed part-time voiced deep bitterness at the academy in general and the historical profession in particular. In the words of one respondent, "We go through the apprenticeship of graduate school, with the nominal promise of being able to practice our craft. Instead, universities phase out tenure-track jobs and can't get their own faculty to teach the courses for which they had been hired. Then, we remoras are permitted to nibble the scraps off the body of academia. We get poor money, no respect from schools or regular faculty, no job security. We do your job."

Employment conditions described by a large majority of the part-time and adjunct respondents were indeed dismal. Support for instructors was typically limited to photocopying services, with access to an e-mail account and the library. Only a dozen said they had an office of their own in which to meet students, and others reported they either were not allowed to keep a key to the office, or that full-time faculty used their desk as a drop-off point for syllabi and student papers. A small number reported access to a computer, typically a late-model discard left over from a recent upgrade for full-time faculty.

Respondents said institutional support for historical research, in the form of travel grants and research aid, was rare. Even at research universities, only 35 percent of the part-time adjunct faculty reported they had access to such support—only marginally higher than the 25 percent of two-year college respondents. A half-dozen asked if the question was a joke, while the same number said they had been penalized for attending a professional meeting.

And not surprisingly, very few had access to any form of merit pay increase or professional advancement. Community colleges, which employ the highest proportion of part-time faculty, ranked the best in such policies, with almost 40 percent reporting that they had some access to cost-of-living adjustments or merit increases. Only around 15 percent of faculty at research universities and liberal arts colleges had access to these limited forms of advancement.

Most of the respondents reported that they received some form of teaching evaluation, though many, if not most, were simply student evaluations. Once again, two-year colleges led the way, with 68 percent of respondents reporting some form of annual teaching evaluation, though most complained that the reviews were too cursory. In contrast, less than half of the respondents at research universities reported receiving any sort of feedback in the classroom, and the majority of those were student evaluations. Most of the rest reported that such evaluations required some form of request from the evaluee.

Just over half of the respondents said they were included in the intellectual life of the department(s) in which they were employed. This took widely varying forms, including limited participation in department meetings, and attending social events or departmental talks. However, this was viewed as a mixed blessing by a large number of respondents. A number complained that they felt slighted by full-time faculty members when they did attend meetings. In the words of one respondent, "Full-time faculty holds us at arm's length and treats us with disdain." Those employed in a full-time but nontenurable capacity said they felt the most welcomed in the department. In contrast, a significant number of those who felt excluded actually seemed pleased at the exclusion, commenting in the words of one respondent, "I am grateful about not having requirements for additional unpaid labor."

Less than a third said they had access to a grievance procedure. Almost 20 percent conceded that they simply "didn't know" whether they had access to such procedures. Even where they were aware of grievance procedures, a number of commentators noted that the lack of job security severely compromised their rights and academic freedom. As one commentator noted, "any complaints and you are NEVER fired. You are simply NEVER rehired."

The survey offers largely anecdotal information about the self-perceptions of those employed in part-time and adjunct capacities. A separate departmental survey is now being conducted in conjunction with five other professional associations to develop quantifiable information on their employment.