The Adjunctification of English

MLA seeks to highlight -- and reverse -- the increasing use of non-tenure-track professors to teach writing and literature.
December 11, 2008

Without anyone paying much attention, professors have substantially been replaced by part timers and those off the tenure track when it comes to teaching English and writing to undergraduates.

That's the theme of "Education in the Balance: A Report on the Academic Workforce in English," issued Wednesday by the Modern Language Association and its Association of Departments of English.

Among the report's findings:

  • Only 42 percent of all faculty members teaching English in four-year colleges and universities and only 24 percent in two-year colleges hold tenured or tenure-track positions.
  • Part-time faculty members now make up 40 percent of the faculty teaching English in four-year institutions and 68 percent in two-year institutions. (Part timers are only a subset of those off the tenure track since, for several years now, an increasing share of the adjunct population works full time at a single institution.)
  • Huge gaps exist in salaries between tenured and non-tenure track faculty members teaching English, although full-time adjuncts have seen salary growth in recent years. Per-course payments for part-time instructors have been relatively flat over the last eight years.

The report places an emphasis on the educational impact of shrinking the role of tenure-track professors in English instruction. The MLA notes that professors who are fully part of campus life and who help design the curriculum should be teaching, and that those making curricular changes should be guided by actual classroom experience. And the report -- while going out of its way to praise the commitment and talent of adjunct instructors -- notes real differences between adjuncts and those on the tenure track.

While over 90 percent of tenured and tenure-track faculty members teaching English in four-year institutions hold a doctorate, only 25 percent of non-tenure-track faculty members do (15 percent hold an M.F.A. and 50 percent an M.A.).This educational gap could be troubling, the MLA report says, because many of these master's programs aren't necessarily designed to train people to teach college writing. The report urges further study of those programs and their role.

Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the MLA, said in a press briefing that the use of non-tenure-track instructors to teach writing and literature is not new, nor is it a bad thing as part of balanced departments. The impetus for the report, she said, was a sense that departments were no longer in balance, and that those off the tenure track were increasingly doing the teaching, without an appropriate level of involvement from the tenure track (which would require enough tenure track positions). The shift to adjuncts has been "rapid and largely unnoticed," she said.

The MLA is recommending specific goals for the share of courses to be taught by tenured or tenure-track faculty members and the share to be taught by full-time faculty members (on or off the tenure track). For doctoral institutions, the MLA is calling for at least 45 percent of sections to be taught by tenure-track professors and 60 percent taught by those who hold full-time positions. For master's institutions, the association is urging 55 percent and 70 percent as the goals, respectively. For baccalaureate institutions, the goals would be 70 percent and 80 percent, respectively.

Data from the report show drops across the board in the use of tenured and tenure-track professors to teach various kinds of English courses. (This table is based on statistics from the report that -- like many there -- do not include community colleges, where the use of adjuncts to teach writing and literature is even more dominant than at four-year institutions.) Not surprisingly, baccalaureate institutions and upper division courses are the places students are most likely to encounter tenure-track professors, but even there, the declines are notable between the staffing surveys conducted by the MLA of the status of instructors in the fall of 1996 and 2006.

Percentage of Courses Taught by Tenured and Tenure-Track Faculty Members, 1996 and 2006

Type of Institution and Course 1996 2006
--First-year writing 5% 4%
--Lower division 40% 30%
--Upper division 84% 75%
--First-year writing 44% 22%
--Lower division 75% 61%
--Upper division 85% 78%
--First-year writing 49% 43%
--Lower division 82% 62%
--Upper division 88% 78%

The data suggest that many students whose only exposure to English is a first-year writing course may never be taught by a tenured or tenure-track English professor.

Sidonie Smith, an MLA vice president who is chair of English at the University of Michigan, said that these figures point to "a systemic change in higher education," as English departments have lost the slots needed to teach writing to freshmen, and literature at a range of levels. "It's an out of balance system," she said.

Smith said that at a research institution like Michigan, part of the student experience should be learning from "a scholar/teacher" of the sort that make up the tenured faculty. She recalled attending graduation ceremonies and watching new graduates "light up" while introducing their parents to professors whose ideas and teaching made a difference.

David Bartholomae, chair of English at the University of Pittsburgh and chair of the panel that wrote the report, also said that -- if the MLA's recommendations are followed -- more tenure-track faculty members would be teaching writing to freshmen. While there is no specific goal offered for these courses, Bartholomae said that students would benefit and "ideally" departments would be staffed to make that possible.

The report goes out of its way to stress that current part-time or full-time non-tenure track instructors shouldn't be viewed as a problem, and should in fact receive better treatment in pay, training and benefits. Particularly for part timers, the report suggests a falling standard of living. Those paid on a per course basis were earning less in 2006, when adjusted for inflation, than in 1999 in master's and bachelor's institutions.

Per Course Average Pay for Part-Time English Instructors

Sector 1999 1999 Salary in 2006 Dollars 2006
Doctoral $2,951 $3,571 $3,826
Master's $2,149 $2,600 $2,560
Baccalaureate $2,522 $3,052 $3,042

The MLA report comes a week after the release of a study by the American Federation of Teachers that also pointed to increased reliance on adjuncts and urged a reversal of the trend. MLA leaders, like AFT leaders last week, acknowledged that the economic crisis facing many colleges makes this a less than ideal time to push for more tenure-track lines, but they said that was no reason not to articulate the issues and develop plans for improvements as finances permit.

Many of those off the tenure track who teach in English departments are teaching writing -- and these rhetoric and composition instructors are sometimes in subdivisions of English and other times in their own programs. The report won praise from the chair of the Conference on College Composition and Communication.

Cheryl Glenn, the chair and a professor of English and women's studies at Pennsylvania State University, noted that there were many similarities between the MLA's report and a statement adopted by the writing instructors in 1989, which lamented the "enormous academic underclass" created by the use of adjuncts to teach writing, and called for programs to rely on tenured and tenure-track professors. She said it saddened her that so little progress had been made since 1989, but that the MLA had framed the issues well.

Glenn also noted the unfortunate timing of releasing the report in such a trying economic time. "It's really a bleak day economically," she said. "Faculty searches are being canceled all over the nation. Chances are the employment picture won't change any time soon." But Glenn quickly added that this doesn't mean that there are no recommendations in the MLA report or the composition conference's report that can be acted on now.

She noted that the MLA is not calling for eliminating adjunct positions, but for being certain that they represent only part of the teaching faculty and that they receive appropriate support. Even if a college can't create many new tenure-track lines, Glenn said, its tenured faculty members who are experts in composition and rhetoric "can provide rich orientation programs that support new teachers, can design ongoing mentoring programs, and can provide opportunities for professional growth," she said. In addition, she said that they should be paid a decent wage, so they don't have to teach so many sections at so many campuses that it is difficult to do their jobs.

The assumption shouldn't be that adjuncts are poor teachers. "I see great teaching all over" by those without tenure-track jobs, she said. "But we shouldn't just be throwing them in there."


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