After five decades of concern about the swelling ranks, low pay, and exploitation of non-tenure-track faculty members, it may seem obtuse to suggest that we still need better data about these instructors. But the reality is: To advocate effectively on their behalf, we need much better data.
That’s not an excuse to do nothing. Getting the specific, detailed, and accurate data we need is both feasible and actionable. With up-to-date, reliable data in hand, we could empower adjunct faculty members and their allies to make headway on a problem that has dogged higher education for 50 years.
What’s wrong with the data we have?
Let’s start with the oft-cited statistic that roughly 70 percent of faculty members at American colleges and universities work off the tenure track. The trouble with this number is that it’s both true and meaningless. The capacious category of “non-tenure-track faculty members” contains a multitude of different career realities across different disciplines, institutions, departments, and positions.
Yet the term tends to conjure a very specific image of “freeway fliers” and “subway fliers” who teach 10 courses a semester to make rent, or part-time adjuncts who live on food stamps. On some campuses, the terms “adjunct” and “contingent faculty” also encompass faculty members teaching full time on short-term contracts without job security or predictability. There are many, many people who — locked out of a stagnant tenure-track job market — live and work under these professionally stressful conditions. Their situations deserve our action and attention.
Past surveys indicate that, in the absence of support from a spouse or partner, non-tenure-track faculty members who rely on college teaching as their primary source of income are likely to suffer from a lack of job security, money, health insurance, or all three. Many also face working conditions that make it difficult for them to perform up to their own standards. One of us was a non-tenure-track instructor for three years and can testify to these realities firsthand.
However, the people who fall into that category comprise far less than 70 percent of the professoriate. The existence of many other categories of non-tenure-track faculty members complicates the adjunct data and makes it difficult to target reforms where they could be most effective. Consider just a few of the other groups who fall within the 70 percent:
- People who hold full-time jobs outside of academe and teach a college class or two as an avocation, or to supplement their incomes.
- Retirees who teach part time for similar reasons.
- Successful practitioners in a vocation (such as the arts, law, or medicine) who are hired to train students in particular skills.
- And finally, teaching assistants, graduate-student instructors, and postdoctoral fellows who teach part time to gain essential professional experience.
All of them have their own reasons for taking adjunct positions, and most receive the same meager pay and limited workplace support and protections as their peers. But the true measure of their exploitation varies substantially depending on how much a classroom paycheck means for their standard of living.
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