A Tale of Two Teachers: The Curious Lives of Non-Tenured Professors

These days, many college classes – probably more than half of lower-division courses — are staffed by contingent faculty. To most people, that means adjuncts — itinerant teachers who fill in when tenured faculty are too busy or when demand for large courses outstrips supply. They go from school to school, patching together a low-level career while carrying the brunt of the work of education.

The actual picture is more complex, however. I know that because my wife, Leslie, and I are both off the tenure track – but at different elevations.

We are a happily married couple with a joint career in academics. I have a Ph.D. in economics and work as a full-time lecturer. Leslie is a part-time lecturer in the humanities. We both very much enjoy our jobs at Penn State University. This story is not about Penn State University, which treats us well, but about the employment conditions for contingent employees. Penn State happens to be the backdrop for this exploration.

I have a multi-year contract, with renewal by mutual consent. My classes are usually on Tuesdays and Thursdays and my private office has a nice view. I also receive a small personal research budget to use as I see fit, and a team of graduate assistants and undergraduate helpers is in place to facilitate my classes and grade the course materials. Staff assistants book my travel and help to prepare exams and handouts. I am paid well.

By building careers as teaching specialists who can effectively handle large lecture classes, my fellow teaching colleagues and I are in short supply nationally. This fact gives me the opportunity to do what I enjoy without fear of suddenly losing my job.

My department has assembled a group of lecturers who handle most of the undergraduate majors, so I have other teaching specialists with whom I can share experiences. Each lecturer, like me, handles six sections per year and well over 1,000 students. This means that the university is able to free up significant resources. As a result, an instructor who can fill this job reliably becomes a valuable asset.

To be sure, handling large classes has its downside. The job requires considerable management expertise and my email inbox is constantly full. However, for those who are passionate instructors and enjoy the interaction with many students this is a great job and one that pays very well. Indeed, it is possible to make much more as an experienced lecturer at a public university than as a full professor at most small liberal arts colleges.

This financial asymmetry is made possible because large class lecturers have, as economists like to say, high marginal revenue products. For instance, a low six-figure salary divided by 1,000 students per year works out to a cost of a little more than $100 per student per course. In contrast, tenured or tenure-track faculty members teach fewer students per course and have lighter teaching loads. The cost per student per course is often five or ten times higher.

Students can get a quality education in large classes. This may surprise some readers, since most academics assume that smaller class environments are better. In my department, course evaluations in large lecture classes are significantly higher – ten per cent higher — than those of the much smaller classes staffed with tenure-line faculty.

Penn State is not unique in having added non-tenured faculty over the last decade. Many other public state universities are doing the same. The slow move away from tenure provides another path for those hoping to get into the academy but experiencing difficulties.

This amounts to a sizeable paradigm shift from the idea of a faculty member who balances teaching, research, and departmental service, to a model based on employees who are specialists. By increasing the specialization and division of labor among the faculty, universities are transforming how the institution functions. Highly trained specialists now exist on two tracks. The research track offers the possibility of tenure while the teaching side has a growing pool of lecturers carving out rewarding positions that focus on instruction. The two models complement each other and allow faculty members to focus on their comparative advantage, either in the classroom or in research.

But the economics are not favorable for everyone. My wife’s circumstances are entirely different. In many overcrowded disciplines, the supply and demand conditions that make my job so attractive are absent. On Leslie’s side of campus there are more people able and willing and to teach in the humanities than there are openings. Consequently, the university pays smaller wages. It hedges against uncertain enrollments by hiring many contingent faculty members who do not have job security. Each new semester brings renewed insecurity and a mad scramble to make ends meet when positions (or courses) are cut.

Leslie has a semester-to-semester contract with no assurance that the position will be renewed. She is often assigned to early morning classes. Some semesters, Leslie receives one course to teach, other semesters as many as three. She shares an office with another contingent employee, and her department tightly controls her use of the copy machine. Leslie does all of her own grading and the university provides a modest sum for her efforts.

For Leslie, the uncertainty is mitigated by our partnership. My job carries most of the financial load. But, for someone relying on an adjunct paycheck to make ends meet, the consequences of a cutback would be severe. Finally, it is important to add that non-tenure-stream faculty in the humanities work hard (perhaps harder, if Leslie is correct) than their teaching counterparts in business and economics. Clearly, the work is no less important, but the rewards and privileges are significantly less.

To summarize, the lesson here is one of hope and caution. There is an expanding career path in academics as a large-class teaching specialist. For those now on the contingent side, the newly emerging teaching specialist model represents an avenue worth pursuing. However, within the academy there are large pockets where economies of scale cannot be deployed. In these areas the opportunities and salaries for those off the tenure track remain low.

Dirk Mateer is a senior lecturer and co-director of the undergraduate studies program in economics at Penn State University.