As a grad student instructor, I usually spent weeks designing courses about subjects I was passionate about. One semester, however, I was asked — with just a single day’s notice — to teach an introduction to ancient literature. The textbook (a Norton Anthology) had already been ordered. With limited control over the content (which was outside my area of expertise) and little time to develop innovative lesson plans, I worked as hard as I could to make the class engaging. Despite my best efforts, I got the worst student evaluations I’ve ever received. I didn’t have the opportunity to be the teacher I could be (and otherwise am) because of the circumstances surrounding the class I was given — circumstances that are increasingly common at college campuses across the country.
In 1975, 30 percent of college faculty were part-time. By 2011, 51 percent of college faculty were part-time, and another 19 percent were non–tenure track, full-time employees. In other words, 70 percent were contingent faculty, a broad classification that includes all non–tenure track faculty (NTTF), whether they work full-time or part-time.
Rising Tuition and Falling Job Security
The rapid growth in contingent faculty (often referred to as adjuncts, though other non–tenure track faculty are included in this broader classification) comes as college prices continue to rise at roughly twice the rate of inflation.
If you are paying for a college education today, you are paying comparatively more money than previous generations have paid — nearly $70,000 in annual tuition, room and board, and fees at America’s most expensive schools — to be educated by a more poorly-resourced, poorly paid, and potentially poorly-motivated group of educators.
Poor Teaching Conditions
The shift to NTTF has affected the quality of education on multiple levels. First, it makes the process of hiring and retaining faculty more difficult. The low wages and lack of job security that come with the contingent faculty often lead to schools (and, ultimately, higher education) losing out on high quality candidates. Ian Campbell, Associate Professor of Arabic at Georgia State University, explains: “Arabic is particularly problematic in this regard. Unlike most other branches of the humanities, where the oversupply of Ph.D.’s enables universities to hire very competent people for starvation wages, there is a real shortage of qualified Arabic teachers. We therefore have a huge difficulty hiring and retaining competent instructors, many of whom will go through the hiring process right up until they find out about the salary, then turn us down. The most recent of these was a really dynamic young woman who really wanted to teach her native language to college students, but made 50 percent more money teaching middle school English.”
Even when a school manages to hire high-quality candidates, they are rarely afforded the right conditions for optimal teaching. Many adjuncts have to work multiple jobs in order to make enough money to subsist — and even then, more than half of them make less than $35,000 a year (and many of those who make more do so only because they have second job outside of academia). Only 22.6 percent of adjuncts receive any kind of health coverage from academic employers.