Historians have held many conversations over the past months about the state of the profession, particularly in academia, as scholars wrestle with an increasingly difficult job market and a prominent role in public debates about the place of history in our modern world. In addition, conversations about the role of adjuncts in academia are happening in the larger university setting, whether over the job market, the transition of colleges using adjuncts rather than full time faculty, or the situation of adjuncts lacking proper pay and benefits.
I graduated with a Ph.D. in May 2017 and like many of my colleagues I have faced a difficult time on the job market (I am about to enter year three looking for a position). In the year after graduation, adjuncting was a key part of my income and I offer here a few reflections on the experience and its pros and cons.
I’ll start with some positives, since there is a role that adjuncting can play in academia that is useful to both students and professors. For example, a school can ask a professional in the field to teach as an adjunct for a course that they normally would not have the staff expertise to offer. When I was in my first year of my undergraduate work, I took a course in historical archaeology that my college was able to offer because they hired a local expert as an adjunct. Teaching now at a community college, I see many professionals brought in to teach one or two courses so that they are bringing their professional experience in the field to their students. When used in this capacity, adjuncts allow universities to offer experiences to their students that they would not usually get and build contacts with local professionals that might expand their career options after graduation.
I also have to say that, despite the downfalls, adjuncting has been a prime source of income as I search for a full-time position, and I’m grateful for that means of support. I was fortunate to gain good teaching experience as part of my Ph.D. program, but adjuncting can also be a great way for early professionals to gain experience in the classroom to transition into a full position. When applying for full time positions I am fortunate to have years of teaching experience at several different institutions to bolster my chances.
Beyond that, the downfalls of adjunct teaching start to outweigh the benefits, particularly with the instability those positions create. In the fall of 2017, I taught four classes as an adjunct for three different universities—one of these was online and three were in person. I was also working part time at a fourth job as a tour guide at Fallingwater, meaning I was working seven days a week and commuting at least an hour (one way) for five of them. Four jobs, but part-time pay, no benefits, and very little time off. In the spring semester, only one of these universities brought me back to teach (and I was also working at Fallingwater). I was contracted for three classes, two of which were ultimately cancelled. The loss of stable pay meant I had to pick up another part-time job at Barnes & Noble to earn extra income. Again, part-time pay, no benefits, and working seven days a week. I’m not afraid of working hard, but this instability and schedule created a lot of stress and income insecurity (did I mention I was also pregnant at the time?). Plus, there was very little time to work on my research and publications that would help me advance my chances on the job market, not to mention rest, spend time with family, or engage in hobbies. This semester (Fall 2018) I have four classes again—three in person, one online—for three universities, plus a contract for curriculum development and working at Fallingwater on the weekends. I am grateful for the employment and the experience, but I long for a full-time stable job that would allow me to also pursue scholarship and have more time with my husband and newborn daughter.
I feel that, used in certain ways, a heavy reliance on adjuncts can also create instability for students. At one of the universities I taught at this year, the school had just gone through a major transition and had fired half of the full-time faculty in the history department, using adjuncts to fill the gaps they had for the fall. They hired me late in the summer to teach a class that I did not have a very strong background in. My students were keenly aware of the changes being made in the department and the university overall, as well as my place in that situation; and while they did not blame me for what was going on, they were not happy that their education was being affected in the way it was by the decision to rely on adjunct professors rather than the full-time professors they had built relationships with. Teaching at a school for only one semester meant that I could not built connections with my students that would last more than the one brief class I was teaching. Teaching as an adjunct also meant that sometimes I was pretty disconnected from the department and my colleagues (this depended on the university, of course). The use of adjuncts means higher turnover and less consistency in a department, for both students and faculty colleagues. Another unfortunate outcome of this system is that adjunct professors who need to coble together so many part-time contracts sometimes have less time and focus for each individual class and student or time to really invest in the campus community.
The use of adjuncts also fits into the difficult cycle of the academic job market for newly minted PhDs. If a school decides to reduce their full-time faculty or not fill a tenure-track line when a position becomes open, that means less opportunity for full-time jobs and a larger chance that PhDs will be stuck in the part-time cycle for longer or ultimately decide to leave academia for good. The loss of historians into non-historical positions is a loss to the profession as their expertise and research does not then make it into publication or add to the field. I am not counting public historians here, since we are all part of the historical profession and have different opportunities to use our research and expertise to bring history to our audiences. But there are some leaving the profession entirely due to the inability to land a professorship or in reaction to what they see as a broken system, and that is a loss of their training, scholarship, and teaching or public history skills.
I hope I do not become part of that statistic; I am certainly stubborn enough to keep working towards that goal of a tenure-track position. Like my friends and colleagues, I am passionate about what I do and I want to be a career academic, professor, and public historian. Adjuncting can be beneficial at times and I am certainly fortunate to have income and experience coming from my time as an adjunct; however, I hope that adjuncting does not become the norm for institutions of higher learning or that the issues that appear with that type of employment can be resolved for the benefit of both professors and students.
Dr. Kathleen Logothetis Thompson graduated with her Ph.D. from West Virginia University in 2017. She earned her M.A. from West Virginia University in 2012 and her B.A. in history with a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies from Siena College in 2010. In addition, Kathleen was a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park from 2010-2014 and has worked on various other publications and projects.