Mythology 101

It’s easy to spread rumors. It’s easy to take myths and, by constant repetition, give them the patina of reality. George W. Bush was a master at this artistic skill. There are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Send in the Marines.

The same thing is happening in higher education. There are these myths about part-time faculty. 

Part-time faculty don’t conduct research. 

Part-time faculty don’t mentor their students.

Part-time faculty flit from one job to the next.

Part-time faculty don’t publish.

Part-time faculty are __________________ (you fill in the blank).

Send in the Marines (hire more tenure-line and tenured faculty).

All part-time faculty are “drive-by” professors. Did you know that all Asians are excellent at math, all Jews manage money well, and most Muslims are terrorists? 

Myths are offensive generalizations. People who indulge in perpetuating myths are a puzzle to me, particularly when they are educated people who should know better and who, one presumes, have the research skills necessary to find the truth. Marc Bousquet is a tenure-line faculty member who has put himself center stage to speak on behalf of part-time faculty in the United States. In his latest blog entry at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Bousquet perpetuates several particularly irritating myths about part-time faculty. That The Chronicle published Bousquet’s error-filled generalizations on their web site is nothing short of editorial negligence.

Under the headline “Stabilize the faculty now!” Bousquet writes:

“There are several hundred thousand educators working part time or contingently filling permanent staffing needs who would prefer to work full time and securely. Most of them are employed at a discount, and many of them do not have the terminal degrees in their fields. There is high turnover among these educators, because the pay is generally poor, status is low, and there is no rational path for recognition or promotion, no reward for better work, etc….Enormous resources are wasted in constantly hiring, re-hiring, training, evaluating, and supervising this quickly churning labor pool.” Getting rid of part-time faculty would create “a better-prepared, more up-to-date, stable, available, and motivated faculty.”

Where do I begin? First of all, he uses no verifiable statistics to support his claims. Bousquet relies on many, most and generally. The assumption is that we’re with him on this, so he doesn’t have to be precise. Well, I’m not with him on anything, and I expect precision when writing for publication. I conclude from his incessant generalizing that he hasn’t done much research regarding the employment of those part-time faculty who want full-time employment within higher education. David Leslie, of the University of Florida, puts the percentage of faculty who want full-time teaching work somewhere around 40 percent of the total.

Bousquet writes that part-time faculty “churn” through job after job. Hardly. The National Education Association conducted a study in the 90s that found the majority of part-time faculty work at their institutions seven years, on average. The same study concluded that about 20 percent of part-time faculty teach for 20 years or longer at their institutions. It is a myth that there is a “high turnover rate” among part-time faculty. It is a myth of convenience, I believe, because if part-time faculty can be pegged as flighty and unreliable, it makes little sense to invest in their hiring, evaluation or professional development. Doing so also leads credence to the argument that only tenure-line and tenured faculty bring much-lauded continuity to the programs at their institutions.

Full-time faculty do bring continuity to their departments and programs. However, according to the Association for the Advancement of Higher Education, almost 20 percent of tenure-line faculty do not receive tenure and leave their institutions after six years. There is, then, just about as much turnover among tenure-line faculty as there is among part-time faculty. However, the average part-time faculty members remains at her/his institution a year longer than does the tenure-line faculty whose bid for tenure is refused.

Bousquet, in fact, relies on many of the current buzzwords tossed around by his colleagues. Part-time faculty aren’t motivated. Part-time faculty aren’t available. Part-time faculty aren’t stable. “Most” part-time faculty don’t have terminal degrees. Well, at least he finally got that right. In his book, How the University Works, the preface claims (Lord help us all) that part-time faculty are under-employed Ph.D.s. Yes, the majority of part-time faculty hold Master’s degrees. Is that a problem? For Bousquet it is. He writes, “One reason we have community colleges with single-digit graduation rates and major metropolitan universities who can’t graduate 30 percent of their first-year students six years later is because we have been trying to teach them with a drive-by faculty.”

Research by the American College Testing group into the percentage of students who move from freshman year into sophomore year  is really where Bousquet loses any remaining credibility. According to the ACT study, the percentage of freshmen who move onto sophomore year has fallen from 74.5 percent to 74 percent. According to a recent study by the American Federation of Teachers, part-time faculty typically staff first and second-year courses, about half of the courses offered nationally, in fact.

The ACT study attributes the fall in student retention between those surveyed freshmen and sophomore students to open enrollment policies at two-year colleges, and declining student preparedness. In short, the ACT researchers conclude that when colleges chose to increase overall enrollment levels by relaxing standards for incoming students, it should have been understood that there would be an increase in first-year student attrition. That the attrition rate has risen only .5 percent in 14 years is, I think, a testament to the excellent work of the nation’s non-tenured faculty, to their reliability, devotion to their students, and their skill in the classroom even under the duress of poor institutional support.

Bousquet argues that we need more full-time faculty with Ph.D.s. We need, in short, more college faculty just like him. Marc Bousquet writes about part-time faculty like we all need to cross the street so as not to get robbed when a part-timer comes walking our way. Because, you know, all part-time faculty are “drive-by” professors. Did you know that most African-American men are criminals? Well, except the one currently serving as President of the United States.

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