Having So Many Contingent Faculty Diminishes the Overall Quality of Teaching and Learning

Before you huff and puff at me, I want to say that it the title of this piece comes from the Executive Director of the Modern Language Association, Rosemary Feal, and not me. She said it to a reporter from the New York Times who wrote a piece on December 18th about the outlook for graduates in the humanities. To paraphrase the article, perhaps those with graduate degrees in foreign languages, literatures, humanities and English would have a better chance of supporting themselves by turning to lives of crime rather than expecting to find a tenure-line job in higher education. Just please remember the old addage: “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.” That being said, identity theft, pick pocketing and taking candy from babies which can later be sold for a profit on eBay should be fields that could interest future Master’s and Ph.D. holders.

This is from the New York Times piece:

To make matters worse, the share of tenure-track jobs available has been shrinking. Tenure-track positions for assistant professors made up 53 percent of the English jobs advertised and 48.5 percent of those in foreign languages. From 1997 until recently, the group said, 55 percent to 65 percent of the advertised positions were tenure-track jobs. And since part-time adjunct positions are less likely than those for tenure-track jobs to be listed with the language association, the overall share of faculty members being hired for tenure-track jobs is probably smaller than the survey indicates.

Ms. Feal said the trend toward hiring adjunct faculty members rather than permanent tenure-track professors had been going for about three decades, but was more pronounced than ever, as a growing number of struggling colleges and universities hired by the course or by the semester — usually paying little, and providing no benefits.

“Having so many contingent faculty diminishes the overall quality of teaching and learning,” she said. “The individual course might be great, but you can’t expect temporary hires to do the kind of curricular planning it takes to maintain a successful department.” 

I have just one word for Ms. Rosemary Feal: bollocks. Of course you can expect temporary hires to do curricular planning. Why? Because first of all temporary hires already do course planning. If, in fact, departments don’t require temporary hires to do curricular planning, it’s the administrators in the department, and not the temps in the department who are then responsible for any and all issues with respect to the quality of teaching and learning in said departments. 

However, here’s the real issue. No study to date has linked the “quality” of teaching and learning to the extensive use of adjunct faculty. Hell, no one can really agree completely on what “quality” teaching is for the heaven’s sake. The AFT started the propaganda campaign when their leaders had to think of something to say to various state legislators to pry loose the millions and millions of dollars the AFT wants to fund its boondoogle FACE. So, starting with Dr. William Scheuerman when he was still the UUP union leader, he went before the New York State legislature and started the rumor that J. Edgar Hoover was a cross-dresser, and part-time faculty were lovely people whose existence within higher education was systematically destroying undergraduate education. 

If the New Faculty Majority group does not work to dispel this bold-faced lie, it will be a miscarriage of justice of epic proportions. However, as more and more union members move into “advisory” and leadership positions within the New Faculty Majority, such unsubstantiated and damning statements will, most likely, be printed over and over again in newspapers across the United States. The New Faculty Majority will not answer the lies, alas, with the truth about who non-tenured faculty really are.

The good news is that, really, no one cares that contingent faculty “diminish” the overall quality of teaching and learning, because of the financial benefits associated with the exploitation of temporary faculty. There are just as many administrators quoted in just as many newspapers touting the competency of their respective colleges’ contingent faculty. The AFT, NEA, AAUP and Rosemary Feal can all shout from the highest mountain top, but colleges and universities all over this country will continue to employ large numbers of temporary faculty.

The job market for graduates in the humanities is in the crapper. Shouldn’t Rosemary Feal be pushing for reductions in the  number of graduate students accepted into Ph.D. programs? Shouldn’t she be pushing for mandatory retirement for tenure-line faculty at age 65? There are so many reasons that the humanities job market is a disaster. For Feal to zero in on the high number of non-tenured faculty as one of the main reasons shows her biases and that the MLA’s leadership has bought into the flawed notion that overall student retention and graduation rates have fallen because of the increased reliance on non-tenured faculty. Student retention is impacted by student preparation more than anything else. 

Rosemary Feal has had a big glass of the Kool-aid mixed up by AFT leaders to differentiate between tenured and non-tenured faculty. (Tenured faculty are good for student retention and success. Non-tenured faculty are bad for student retention and success.) It’s the plot of a cheap dime store novel. It’s not a plot I would expect the Executive Director of the Modern Language Association to play a part in, much less quote as literary brilliance.

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