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Too Many Part-timers Teaching English, Hurting Students

The Modern Language Association (MLA), the leading academic organization that works to strengthen the study and teaching of languages and literature, is calling on colleges and universities to increase the number of tenure-track lines at their respective institutions.

In a report Wednesday titled “Education in the Balance: A Report on the Academic Workforce in English,” MLA officials and its subcommittee — the Association of Departments of English (ADE) — charge that too many college-level English courses are being taught by nontenure-track faculty members, many of whom are “overworked and underpaid.”

“Part-time and nontenure track faculty members are a dedicated and valuable part of the teaching mix, but providing students with a solid educational experience requires an appropriate balance between adjunct and full-time professors,” says Dr. Catherine Porter, first vice president of the MLA and professor emerita of French at the State University of New York College at Cortland. “Our report shows that some long-established rations have become seriously skewed and raise questions about the consequences of this shift for teachers, students and schools.”

According to the report, part-time faculty members make up about 40 percent of the faculty teaching English at four-year institutions and 68 percent at two-year institutions. Forty-two percent of all faculty members teaching English at four-year colleges and 23 percent teaching English at two-year colleges hold tenure or tenure-track positions.  At many schools, nontenure track faculty teach a large percentage of the lower-division courses like English Composition.

MLA officials argue that this disparity impacts the overall quality of education delivered to students.

“More students are going to college now than ever before, but their experience is vastly different from students just a generation ago,” says Rosemary G. Feal, the executive director of MLA. 

Feal says that more adjuncts are working at multiple institutions for meager pay simply to make ends meet, and are often unable — because of time and financial constraints — to fully mentor and advise students at any one institution. In addition, almost 90 percent of English tenure-track professors hold the doctorate degree, compared to just 25 percent of those who are on nontenure-track teaching appointments.

In their report, MLA officials recommend that universities pay nontenure-track faculty members a higher salary, and consider nontenure faculty members for possible tenure-track positions in the future. Some nontenure-track faculty members make as little as $1,500 for a three-credit course.

Sidionie Smith, the second vice president for MLA and chair of the Department of English at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, said that in an effort to save money, colleges and universities are making a decision to outsource teaching jobs to part-timers.

“Such decisions are shortsighted and counter-productive,” she says, adding that parents of high school-age students should take be proactive in examining the percentage of full-time faculty at the colleges where their children might be interested in attending.

Dr. David Bartholomae, who is currently the chair of the English Department at University of Pittsburgh, says that the report is not an indictment on nontenure-track teaching faculty.

“We are not proposing the elimination of nontenure-track faculty,” he says “But we are recommending a better sense of balance.”

In an age of economic turmoil, some colleges have recently put into place a number of hiring freezes and others have refused to fill teaching positions left vacant by the retirement of long-term faculty members.

Still, Feal says that the economy should not be an excuse for a university’s decision to deliver a quality education to its youngsters.

“There is no doubt that tuition costs are increasing and state funds are decreasing, but colleges make decisions everyday over how to utilize their resources,” she says. “In these tough times, colleges and universities can still strategize for the future, and decide what this balance should like and how to pay for it.”

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