what's the relationship between tenure track hiring and adjuncts?

Perhaps it’s just the MLA season, but the it’s the time of year when the dearth of tenure-track jobs and the exploitation of adjuncts often come up in the same sentence. So what’s the relationship between the two? I offer that as an honest question. I’m not sure if there is a national answer to it, if the answers are unique to kinds of institutions (research, liberal arts, community colleges, etc.), or if they are entirely local. We all know that over the last 25 years or so that the number of tenured/tenure-track (TT) faculty have declined and the number of adjunct/non-tenure track (NTT) faculty have increased. It would seem to make sense that hiring TT faculty would therefore reduce the number of NTT faculty. As the director of a first-year composition program, I work with a lot of NTT faculty. Really all the NTT faculty in our department teach writing, either composition or journalism, and the latter are primarily full-time professional journalists in the region.

Here are our current stats. A little over 40% of our composition courses are taught by adjuncts; the rest are taught by TAs, which is a different issue. Of those adjunct sections, more than half are taught by former TAs. That is, our TAships last five years, but hardly anyone finishes in that time frame, so they often take on adjunct positions for a year or two before finishing. We have seven other adjuncts and two NTT faculty who serve administrative roles in the composition program.

So here’s my point. My department is making two TT hires this year: one associate and one assistant. How will these hires impact the number of adjuncts working in the department? It will not. In terms of our reliance on adjuncts, it doesn’t really matter how many TT faculty work in my department. I imagine this is true at virtually every department. You tell me. If your department has grown in the last decade, has that reduced the number of adjuncts employed? Maybe if we decided to hire a TT journalism professor that would make a difference on that end, but not for composition, which is where 90% of the adjuncts work. And while these are local numbers, I think this is a fair description of the role of adjuncts in English departments nationally.

This semester we have 44 adjunct compositions sections, 32 TT-taught undergrad literature classes, and 14 TT-taught graduate classes. To keep these proportions and eliminate adjuncts, about 50% of TT teaching would need to be composition. If we viewed supporting our former TAs as adjuncts as a worthy cause and only wanted to eliminate the long term adjuncts (which wouldn’t make them happy, btw), then composition would be 30% of the teaching, or about 1 course per year for the standard 2-2 load. Of course it would require a significant amount of hiring, probably a 30% increase in faculty. To cover our extra 40 sections a year, we’d need at least 10 TT faculty.  It’s an interesting though purely hypothetical question: would the typical R1 English department faculty member agree to teach composition on a regular basis in exchange for more hires? And then there would be the question of hiring and retention. Of course we want the very best hires; we want to compete for hiring with the best departments in the country. How would this teaching requirement affect our competitiveness? Would the labor-intensive work of teaching FYC (outside of one’s disciplinary specialization) affect junior faculty in terms of their research productivity? Who knows? It’s all hypothetical because hiring would never happen that way.

In addition, there would be a real disciplinary problem and this has something to do with English or maybe the humanities in general. My sense is that elsewhere in the university it is not so unusual to have classes assigned to you and be asked to teach a fairly standard curriculum. In English though it would be simply impossible to ask TT faculty to teach composition from a standard syllabus. Instead, we would inevitably get some kind of writing about literature course. Whatever de/merits we might assign to such a course, it wouldn’t be a composition course.  And this is an expanding problem, where undergraduates not only can benefit from the conventional academic writing composition course but also could use courses that address oral presentation, digital literacy, and writing in the disciplines/professions. We’re only spinning further away from the disciplinary expertise of the typical English professor. You could hire a new class/department of TT professors to teach these courses, but now we’re talking about a real explosion in hiring as you couldn’t have a department of faculty teaching only general education courses. It would mean new majors, new graduate programs and so on. Again, no one is making that investment to solve this problem.

The realistic alternative, and the one that is implemented in many places, is creating full-time NTT positions that have respectable salaries (though not as respectable as TT positions). As far as I can tell this makes sense for us. SUNY has “clinical” faculty that have their own ranks, right up to clinical full professor. There’s no tenure, but there are multi-year contracts. However, if that is the best idea, then it only is further evidence that TT hires don’t impact adjunct hiring, at least not in English. What it tells us is that adjuncts do work in our departments that is considered non-disciplinary. If that weren’t the case, there’d be TT faculty teaching composition in my department (or yours) this semester, just as there are such faculty teaching introductory literature courses.

I wouldn’t assume that the way things work in English or locally in the various departments in which I’ve worked would describe the general adjunct situation in academia. Adjuncts do lots of different things. However that’s probably just another reason to argue that TT hiring can’t be seen as a general solution to adjunct hiring. Any university will require more faculty to teach introductory writing than it requires to research it (or teach more advanced writing/rhetoric curricula). The problem right now is that we have so many literary studies job applicants who find themselves in these composition adjunct positions. They don’t want to be there and they don’t really want full-time NTT comp teaching jobs either. If there was going to be a permanent class of NTT writing faculty as a regular feature of universities, then they would have to be filled by people who wanted those jobs. Assuming they paid well enough, were secure enough, and had some opportunity for advancement, I don’t see why this couldn’t be possible. But it wouldn’t be the same people who are now on the market for TT jobs in literary studies. Those just aren’t the jobs they spent the last decade trying to get.

I suppose where I’m ending up is thinking that we aren’t going to get very far in addressing the inequities of adjunct life by fighting for more TT jobs, at least not in English. Instead, we should focus on making a career of writing instruction into a viable professional life.

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