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The Worst of Times amid the Best of Times?

As we began to formulate our report in the summer of 1997, the best of times at large contrasted eerily with the worst of times in academia. A dispirited letter that one out-of-work PhD sent this year to the MLA's membership-services manager eloquently dramatizes the mournful mood that has settled over all too many job seekers in the fields our organization represents: "I have been unemployed for a few years now and have no steady income, so the [MLA membership] fee is just beyond my current capacities," the writer explained, adding that "I was one of the multitudes who prepared for an academic career but did not achieve one, and now that dream is over. I have to move on, if I am to survive" (Marusiak). Yet within months of the receipt of this letter (and others like it) at MLA headquarters, most traditional indicators suggested that the American economy was booming: the dollar was strong, inflation minimal, and unemployment (according to government figures) notably low, while the Dow kept surging ever higher. As one financial analyst put it in a cheerful comment that formed an ironic context for the sorrows of so many unemployed or underemployed PhDs in our discipline, "The rise of the dollar speaks volumes about the strength of the American economy, which remains blessed by robust growth, low levels of unemployment and low inflation."3

To be sure, in the fields of language and literature professional tidings have been dismal for some time. Across the nation, graduate enrollments have grown, although the MLA's latest job-placement surveys suggest that if present employment patterns continue fewer than half the seven or eight thousand graduate students likely to earn PhDs in English and foreign languages between 1996 and 2000 can expect to obtain full-time tenure-track positions within a year of receiving their degrees.4 At the same time, the slow growth of permanent faculties in English and foreign language departments has been counterpointed by an increasing reliance on part-time lecturers--many of them "freeway flyers" who can only achieve a living wage by putting together jobs at different institutions--and on often equally undercompensated cadres of graduate student teachers.

More specifically, MLA data indicate that between 1990 and 1995, 4,727 graduate students earned PhDs in English and 2,871 earned them in foreign languages, while placement surveys suggest that in the same period only 2,175 PhDs in English found full-time tenure-track positions in the year the degree was awarded and only 1,235 PhDs in foreign languages were equally fortunate. Thus the data imply that of the 7,598 PhDs who emerged from our graduate programs in the first half of the nineties, 4,188--55%--failed in the year the degree was awarded to find the kind of employment for which they had presumably been trained.

Of these unsuccessful job seekers, a significant percentage (e.g., 60% in English and 58% in foreign languages in 1993-94) accepted stopgap part-time or full-time lectureships at universities, four-year colleges, and--especially--rapidly expanding two-year community colleges, most of which rely heavily on such positions to meet staffing needs. For during 1991-93, when the number of full-time positions advertised in the MLA's Job Information List declined by 29% in English and 14% in foreign languages, part-time and temporary positions across higher education grew by 17% in four-year institutions and 40% in two-year colleges. In 1970, 22% of the faculty nationwide consisted of part-timers, but by 1993 the face of higher education had changed so drastically that part-timers constituted 40% of the faculty (Cahalan et al. 24-25). A study prepared for our committee by Bettina Huber and based on data published by the United States Department of Education reveals that reliance on part-timers is especially pronounced in two-year colleges, where they "accounted for almost two-thirds of the foreign language faculty members ... in fall 1992 and half of the English faculty members," while "the comparable figures for four-year institutions are one-quarter and one-third."

In English and foreign language departments, for example--and especially in PhD-granting departments--first-year courses are often taught almost entirely by part- or full-time non-tenure-track faculty members and (where they are available) graduate student instructors. Data recently gathered by the MLA show the following staffing patterns in a sample of departments in 1996-97.

English Departments

  • In the PhD-granting departments, graduate student instructors taught 63% of the first-year writing sections, part-timers 19%, and full-time non-tenure-track faculty members 14%, on average.
  • In the departments where the MA was the highest degree granted, graduate student instructors taught 11% of the first-year writing sections, part-timers 42%, and full-time non-tenure-track faculty members 11%, on average.
  • In the departments where the BA was the highest degree granted, part-time faculty members taught 38% of the first-year writing sections and full-time non-tenure-track faculty members 12%, on average.

Foreign Language Departments

  • In the PhD-granting departments, graduate student instructors taught 68% of the introductory language sections, part-time faculty members 7%, and full-time non-tenure-track faculty members 15%, on average.
  • In the departments where the MA was the highest degree granted, graduate student instructors taught 30% of the introductory language sections, part-timers 36%, and full-time non-tenure-track faculty members 11%, on average.
  • In the departments where the BA was the highest degree granted, part-timers taught 30% of the introductory language sections and full-time non-tenure-track faculty members 15%, on average.

The moral and pedagogical double bind that this situation represents for our profession was succinctly summarized in a thoughtful memo from Philip Smith (English, Univ. of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh), chair of an ad hoc committee of the Association of Departments of English on staffing practices: "It appears that in at least some institutions fiscal circumstances or priorities have produced conditions in which an introductory required course like freshman composition cannot be taught in the small class sections our community values unless departments resort to using an adjunct teaching staff in a manner our community has long and strongly opposed." For as Larry Mitchell, one of our committee members, also put it, "in the face of declining support from state legislatures and public resistance to the higher tuition that is a consequence of the decline in state support, many, if not most, institutions have chosen"--or have been obliged--"to replace full-time tenure-track faculty members with part-time or full-time non-tenure-track faculty members."

Given this situation, Mitchell goes on to observe, "we have, albeit unwittingly, become complicit in an economic system that does not serve our own best interests or those of our students." While some of our colleagues subsist precariously as "freeway flyers"--lacking not only the economic security but also the professional support and intellectual stimulation that institutional continuity provides--ever-growing numbers of undergraduates, often lower-division students who are in many ways our neediest and most vulnerable constituency, find themselves in classrooms overseen by teachers who cannot give them the kind of outside-the-classroom guidance that has traditionally been considered good pedagogical practice. As Jane Harper, another member of our committee, has pointed out, "With no responsibility or remuneration for activities other than their teaching, part-timers are not available ... for advising and mentoring students, answering questions about programs, committee work, curriculum development, materials review and selection, test-bank development, and other necessary professional functions that maintain the integrity of a department and its curriculum." Besides the obvious shortchanging of students implied by this massive absence of part-timers from the campus community, Harper notes, there is another, subtler consequence: "all these responsibilities fall to the full-time faculty (fewer in number as a result of the hiring of the part-timers), thus decreasing their effectiveness also"--and thereby "exerting additional pressure on educational quality."

Ultimately, moreover, since "security of employment" is rarely granted to part-time faculty members, the widespread replacement of courses taught by full-timers with classes assigned to instructors who are by definition transient--and often, indeed, uncertain from semester to semester or quarter to quarter whether (and where) they will be employed--endangers the health of the structure that has long been most crucial in safeguarding academic freedom and professional integrity, not just for our discipline but across all campuses: tenure. As April Knutson, a committee member and herself a part-timer, comments, "academic freedom, creative, innovative research, and intellectual honesty are seriously threatened" by the kind of climate that has fostered such extensive dependency on stopgap measures. What many dismayed observers have called a multitier job system seems to have evolved because economic expediency dictated increasingly convenient modes of exploitation. But in the end, institutions engaging in such exploitation will inevitably be as damaged by problematic hiring practices as the students they enroll, the part-timers and adjuncts they exploit, and the full-time tenure-track professionals who are their key teachers.

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© 2014 Modern Language Association. Last updated 10/29/00.