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From the Editor

Three Myths about the Academic Workforce: Let’s Get Real

Reprinted from the Spring 2010 MLA Newsletter

The MLA has taken a forward-looking and forceful stance on what the academic workforce should look like (see the Executive Council’s recommended standards and guidelines in the MLA issue brief “One Faculty Serving All Students”). While some people think it’s unrealistic to expect that faculty members be paid a living wage or that faculty members with long-term commitments teach the majority of courses, we at the MLA believe that the minimal standards we have endorsed are worth fighting for. But to fight together, we must engage in some myth busting concerning the academic workforce. Clinging to these myths is getting in the way of our creating “one faculty serving all students.” Here, from my perspective, are the top myths:

Myth 1: Nothing has really changed over the decades.

The academic workforce has always had members who are not on the tenure track or employed full-time, so what’s different now? Put simply, we’ve passed the tipping point of an acceptable and functional proportion of full-time permanent faculty members to all others. Ironically, the academic workforce has grown significantly over the last several decades. But as the data in our Academic Workforce Advocacy Kit show, that growth has occurred almost entirely off the tenure track. Our academic workforce needs to be rebalanced, and long-term, appropriately compensated employment should be the hallmark of academic appointments.

Myth 2: All contingent labor is alike.

Say “contingent,” “adjunct,” “part-time,” or “temporary,” and we often conjure up the image of the freeway flier, eligible for food stamps and stringing together four or more courses per term at a rate of pay far below the MLA recommended minimum. But these terms signal a hundred different things: the “professor of the practice” who receives a salary commensurate with his or her qualifications and experience, who has job security and benefits, and who is fully integrated into the life of the department; the full-time, non-tenure- track, three-year visiting professor hired to teach Chinese as a college determines student interest and program sustainability; the senior editor from a major newspaper who teaches an occasional course on journalism; the part-time English instructor who is not seeking a full-time job and whose annual household income exceeds $100,000. Of course there are too many contingent faculty members who are inadequately compensated and who would prefer full-time work, as data in the advocacy kit show. We would be wise to remember that there is an appropriate role for all these faculty members. The keys are balance in the workforce and appropriate working conditions for all. We must ensure that the majority of courses are taught by faculty members who have long-term, full-time commitments from the institutions that hire them and who receive appropriate pay and benefits; and we must also ensure that contingent faculty members receive fair treatment in all ways. It’s really that simple.

Myth 3: The interests of tenure-track faculty members are in opposition to the interests of other faculty members.

Often it is said that adjunct faculty members are the backs on which tenure-track faculty members place their teaching loads. Or that the full-time faculty members, their ranks thinning, have to pick up the work that adjuncts are not compensated to do (serve on university committees, advise majors, and so forth). The truth is that in the current structure all faculty members are stretched, but the problems of one group are not the fault of the other. How is it the fault of a tenure-track faculty member, who must produce a book and several articles in the first six years on the job, that adjunct faculty members covering the research leave only receive $2,500 per course? Should this faculty member have refused that tenure-track job, knowing that most of the instructional staff in the department do not have full-time tenure-track appointments? Does anyone think the current situation provides optimal learning and employment conditions for students and faculty members? It is a myth that tenure-track faculty members are content with the status quo and are indifferent to the lack of tenure-track jobs for those who aspire to them, to the poor pay for those who are not adequately compensated, or to the lack of institutional belonging to which all faculty members have a right. Most tenure-track faculty members suffer from a form of survivor’s guilt, and they’d like nothing better than to see the system change. But the problem seems overwhelming, and that’s where the leadership of department chairs, deans, provosts, and presidents—as well as scholarly and professional associations—comes into play. Call me simplistic, but it all starts with having the information we need to call things by their name, then working to make things how they ought to be.

I’ve said it before: the problem isn’t the performance of individual adjunct or contingent or part-time faculty members. I’m not calling them out—quite the opposite. They are helping keep higher education as good as it can be under the circumstances and deserve respect. The problem is that we have an academic workforce in which virtually all the job growth is off the tenure track, that the majority of courses in many institutions are taught by faculty members off the tenure track, and that the future is drying up for those who aspire to make a career in teaching and research in the humanities. Is this a future any of us can embrace? The academy has changed beyond recognition. Time to give up the myths, get real, come together, and make sure our institutions face facts and take action.

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Rosemary Feal
MLA Executive Director Rosemary G. Feal
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© 2015 Modern Language Association. Last updated 02/12/2014.