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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Guest Blog: Who Is Teaching Your Students and How Can You Support Them?

Not all non-tenure-track faculty are the same.

March 25, 2019

A guest blog from Paula Patch.


Who is teaching your students, and how can you support them?

A Chronicle of Higher Education report published March 10, 2019 listed the percent of tenure/tenure-track and non-tenured/tenure-track faculty teaching at about 700 colleges and universities in the United States. While lists such as these do a good job of, well, listingthings based on numbers, they do a poor job of telling us much of anything else. And they do nothing to tell us how to support faculty who work off the tenure track. 

A better way to understand the number -- and type and workload and impact -- of non-tenure-stream faculty on your campus is to count them yourself. The Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success, an initiative of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California, has toolsfor doing this work. These resources include a self-assessment tool for departments and institutions to get feedback directly from non-tenure track faculty, and guides for understanding the faculty models at your institution, with a focus on non-tenure-track faculty. 

The Delphi Project also provides useful terminology for understanding what is meant by non-tenure-track, contingent, and adjunct faculty:

The terms non-tenure-track faculty and contingent commonly denote both full- and part-time academic staff who are not on the tenure track; they are ineligible to be considered for tenure. It is important to note that this is not a homogeneous group. Individuals may have very different reasons for taking non-tenure-track jobs and the nature of work and working conditions can vary substantially, even on campus. Full-time non-tenure-track faculty may be referred to as lecturers, instructors, or clinical faculty. They typically work at one institution since they hold full-time appointments. Part-time non-tenure-track faculty are commonly referred to as adjunct faculty. Depending upon their individual circumstances, some part-time faculty might work only work at one institution. However, they are more likely to have positions at multiple institutions and may aspire to full-time non-tenure-track or tenure-track positions. Although these individuals are not considered for tenure and may not be required or permitted to participate in the full range of teaching, research, and service tasks as tenure-track faculty, they are still faculty. The work they do is tremendously important in the teaching and research missions of the institution. On some campuses, non-tenure-track faculty may teach a large share of the students enrolled in courses, particularly freshmen and sophomores or online students. They are often very committed to their field of study and to ensuring the success of the students they teach. 

A while back, I collaborated with a non-permanent non-tenure track adjunct assistant professor to apply the Delphi Project tools to the required first-year courses in our general education program (where adjunct and NTT faculty tend to teach) and to create some guidelines for our university—and others—to use for ethical and inclusive practices. Here’s what we recommend for hiring:

  • Hire intentionally at the university, college, and department levels. What do you need, and what kind of person with what kinds of experience and knowledge can provide that? What do you expect their role will consist of in relation to the department and university? 
  • Create high-quality permanent lines with an emphasis on teaching and service--though research/scholarship is not unheard of--in general studies or in inter-/multidisciplinary spaces, where course offerings are affected by general student enrollments, not by major. Consider these positions complementary to, not less important than, faculty who teach in the majors.  
  • Adjunct hiringoften cannot be avoided; it is created by (what should be) temporary need when permanent faculty are pulled out of the classroom for other activities. Adjunct positions, on the other hand, can be better. Create longer limited terms--a minimum of two years--with opportunities for orientation and annual feedback so that faculty have some security and can focus on teaching rather than applying for jobs or worrying about their status. If temporary lines become the norm, reassess your department needs; temporary need should not turn into permanent reliance on adjunct faculty.
  • Be clear to potential and new hires about the limitations, expectations, and opportunities that come with each type of line. If you do not anticipate any permanent positions becoming available in your department, let applicants and new hires know up front--and let them know that you’ll help with their search for permanence elsewhere (more on this later).
  • Know your disciplinary standards and recommendations for labor conditions. Your discipline doesn’t have any? Refer to AAUP and AAC&U standards. Balance these with local values and needs. 

And here’s what we recommend for fully including everyone you do hire: 

  • Know the lines on which people work at your institution. Don’t use only tenure lines as examples of professional and personal development. Don’t obscure limited-term lines behind tenure-line language. It’s actually better to refer to limited-term faculty as adjunct or visiting assistant professor. 
  • Get to know the people on every line, especially those who teach in your own department. After all, they make it possible for you to do your job, and they likely recruit or recommend students to your major, minor, organization, or student program.
  • Consider non-tenure-track lines, permanent and non-permanent, as complementary to, not less important or deserving of respect than, tenure lines. Same goes for degrees. Assume that the faculty teaching on these lines with whatever degrees they attained made an informed decision to apply for their job. If any of these ways of thinking are not the norm, do everything possible to make them so; differences in the way non-tenure track faculty are perceived and treated are usually more about mindset and semantics than about actual qualifications and quality of work. 
  • Train, promote, and award research and development opportunities to faculty according to the unique conditions of each line. For example, sabbaticals awarded primarily for scholarship often do not match the job expectations for non-tenure-track positions. As another example, offer to vet materials, work your network, and cover classes for adjunct faculty who are on the job market. 

Above all, treat all faculty like faculty. People are not problems; the constraints that come with different faculty lines can be. It follows that adjunct faculty are not problems, but adjunct positions can be. 


Paula Patch is a Senior Lecturer in English at Elon University, where she coordinates the first-year writing program and has taught composition and language courses since 2006. She is the incoming Vice President of the Council of Writing Program Administrators and chairs the Untenured WPA and Faculty Caucus of that organization. You can find her on Twitter: @profpatch.


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