A Sobering Statistic for Aspiring Academics

The New York Times reports on “The Case of the Vanishing Full-Time Professor“:

In 1960, 75 percent of college instructors were full-time tenured or tenure-track professors; today only 27 percent are. The rest are graduate students or adjunct and contingent faculty — instructors employed on a per-course or yearly contract basis, usually without benefits and earning a third or less of what their tenured colleagues make. The recession means their numbers are growing.

6 thoughts on “A Sobering Statistic for Aspiring Academics

  1. I’m always a little suspicious of these numbers, especially their relevance to anthropology departments. Such figures often do not distinguish between adjunct appointments – which may be courtesy appointments for parking/library/email privileges – and adjunct teaching. The figures also do not distinguish between highly qualified adjuncts (the last paragraph in the NYT article alludes to this) and the first year grad student who teaches a freshman composition course. The economic crunch has led my university to move in the opposite direction suggested by the NYT: as long as the university is already paying full-time faculty salaries, having adjuncts teach is an additional expense, so we are jettisoning adjuncts teachers.

  2. @B. Piper: “The figures also do not distinguish between highly qualified adjuncts (the last paragraph in the NYT article alludes to this) and the first year grad student who teaches a freshman composition course.”

    I’m not sure that this makes any difference in the description of the general trend. If less-qualified teachers, such as early grad students, are doing the work that used to be done by professors, that is very relevant not only for highly-qualified people seeking academic jobs, but also for undergraduate students seeking a high quality education.

  3. I thought that my point was that these figures need to be parsed better – it is not at all clear that in anthropology “less-qualified teachers, such as early grad students, are doing the work that used to be done by professors,” since we have no good analysis of the numbers. “Early grad students” have always taught freshman comp – they did 40 years ago when I was in college; that’s a good thing, since it provides teaching assistantships for grad students, and has not displaced full-time faculty.

    The NYT article dresses up an old fear in new clothing, about the possibility that 75% of teaching is now done by unqualified people. Not in the anthropology departments that I know. There is no doubt that full-time academic positions are on the decline in the current economic situation, but it is not at all obvious that the greater use of adjuncts is the cause or the effect, let alone a real trend in anthropology, one that people need to be worried about. Maybe, but I’d like to see better numbers.

    Moreover, and with full acknowledgment that I sympathize with what new PhDs are facing today, I am curious about whether, on balance, adjunct teaching positions, with all of their insecurity, low pay, lack of benefits, etc, are still an attractive short-term option for people who are committed to the discipline and have hopes of landing a tenure-track job in a few years.

  4. As a PhD candidate and an adjunct (different universities), I think that when an adjunct position is all you can get, that’s what you take, if you’re committed to the discipline and want to teach. I am one of the lucky ones – the UUP offers us the opportunity to have benefits as an adjunct if you teach more than one course a semester. The downside is that I am teaching only the intro classes, lots of sections of lots of students with no opportunity for real interaction or no chance to teach upper level courses in subject areas I work in. I have found ways to include participatory learning in large lecture classes. It takes a lot of effort and many sleepless nights, but it works and the students seem to like it. However, with our state’s budget crisis, it appears that many of the universities in the system will not be using adjuncts next year, further tightening our possibilities for teaching. Hopes for a tenure track job? We shall see.

  5. I’m with Barbara on this one, although I’m sure that the tight budget situation of many universities has led to great casualization of the teaching staff. I recently put together a *complete* list of all the people connected to our department, and I was shocked to see just how many adjunct people there were. Most were grad students who did a tutorial or two, a few were emeritus staff members who still kept offices and privileges of various sorts, a few were special cases of people who do limited jobs for us, sometimes for very long periods of time in irregular arrangements that benefit both (such as a person who helps with editing ESL theses and seems to like the privileges but is otherwise semi-retired).

    In only two cases would I say that the position was genuinely exploitative, and in both it was exactly the sort of transitional exploitation that we usually suffer as we start out. I did two years of similar indentured servitude at Chicago while I was writing up, delivering way more advising and teaching that should have been justified by my salary.

    In other words, the increasing number of adjuncts may be a confluence of several demographic trends, one of which might be the long awaited retirement of senior people who are moving out of their regular positions in slow motion, taking on a few years of ‘adjunct’ status on the way out the door.

    Certainly, anyone stuck involuntarily in an adjunct position, trying to get a permanent job, is going to suffer immensely, but the numbers from the study seem outrageous to me. Even with the horror stories I hear at times from colleagues in the US, 75-27% sounds a bit fishy to me. Even the 75% sounds a bit high to me, but apparently, like most Gen Xers, I’m condemned to constantly achieving certain demographic landmarks immediately after their ‘Golden Age.’ Damn you, Boomers!

  6. Greg Downey, I know how you feel but you can relax: as soon as the boomers retire, there’ll be a new golden age in which Gen X will take over the world (evil cackle…)

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