Part-Time Teaching: A Many-Faceted Challenge

Arnita A. Jones, April 2000

Readers of Perspectives have good reason to observe that the American Historical Association has lately focused substantial attention on the issue of part-time teaching. A recent presidential column, letters to the editor in this issue, reports on survey returns just in (see page 3), and news articles over several years provide evidence enough. Now the formal appointment of a new committee on part-time employment (see box page 4) underscores this concern. What is all the fuss about?

The AHA's concern about part-time teaching is not simply that it exists. The traditional part-time professoriate—teachers with heavy personal or nonacademic career commitments—has provided enrichment and flexibility to many a department's course offerings over the years. The problem is that the alarming growth in part-time appointments has been driven not by the opportunity for providing a wider range of course offerings or introducing students to the perspectives of practitioners in other kinds of institutions, but by cost factors. The 1997 AHA-convened Conference on the Growing Use of Part-Time and Adjunct Faculty (see the January 1998 Perspectives or visit http://www.theaha.org/perspectives/issues/1998/9801/9801new.cfm) documented and analyzed this trend and at least for me added a human dimension to the abstract data. I remember querying part-timers who attended about salaries and heard more than a few report earnings as low as $1,000 per course—a sobering figure to someone who earned nearly that much even back in 1965 teaching one course at a small, not particularly affluent liberal arts college while working on a dissertation.

Most news reports on part-time teaching—including some in the national press—have focused on the poor working conditions of the faculty, the lack of job security and health benefits, for example, as well as the low pay. Disturbing as these stories about the problems of part-timers are, they reflect a concern with but one facet of the problem. The report that emerged from the 1997 conference argued that the "cost-driven reliance on part-time faculty and adjunct, nontenure-track teaching faculty" poisons the larger academic enterprise as well, when it occurs on such a large scale, as the "contractual and time commitments of part-time employment means that temporary faculty members do their work apart from the structures through which the curriculum, the department, and institutions are sustained and renewed." If a large and growing number of higher education faculty do not have access to the resources they need to do their work, what will be the impact on their ability to carry out their obligations as faculty? And if this situation becomes a permanent part of departmental life—as it seems to have in many places—what will be the impact on higher education as a whole?

Several associations that participated in the 1997 conference have continued to meet in an informal group that we have called the "Coalition on the Academic Work Force." It is an effort to go on gathering information about part-time teaching and the impact it is having on history and other humanities and some social science fields. We also hope to identify institutions that have found creative and successful ways to combat this trend and to publicize models of good practice.

One part of this effort has been to begin a conversation with accrediting associations, which routinely monitor not only faculty qualifications and workloads at higher education institutions but also the relationship between full-time and part-time faculty. Meetings we have had so far with officials of these groups have turned up some interesting information. Most important, we have learned that part-time teaching is an area of concern for them as well and that they would welcome information and advice from us. "What is the proper ratio of full-time to part-time teachers in a department in your field?" was a question posed by one accrediting association executive. He assured us that if the AHA and similar professional associations could provide a recommended percentage, his association's governing body would be eager to consider it. Could, or should, the AHA formulate such a recommendation? Do we have sufficient information to allow us to calculate an optimal percentage? One thing is sure; we cannot dismiss the questions as simply a rhetorical challenge, for if the disciplinary associations decline to formulate an appropriate full-time/part-time ratio, others will impose their own solutions.

We have also learned that we are at a very important moment in the development of accreditation standards. It appears that virtually all of the regional accrediting associations in the United States are in the process of reviewing their standards and developing new ones they believe would be more appropriate to the needs of today's higher education institutions and students. They tell us that a major part of the framework that has guided the development of these standards over the past several decades—a focus on faculty qualifications—is likely to be replaced with one based on student outcomes. How this is done, and with what goals, is a process historians and the AHA can ill afford to ignore.

—Arnita Jones is executive director of the AHA.