Adjunctification by the Numbers: Two Real Scenarios for a History Education

We talk a lot about an adjunct crisis in America’s universities, and we talk a lot about a hiring crisis in the academic humanities. Today, despite a certain amount of trepidation, I would like to get specific. I’m going to talk about the history instructors at two real universities. There are a lot of institutions like them. I have chosen not to name them, but all of the numbers from them are real, and all of these figures come from the current semester.

Their differences as well as their similarities are instructive.

The school I will call University A has about 4,000 undergraduates. At this university, there are 811 students enrolled in 33 history courses this semester. The faculty members teaching these courses include 7 part-time faculty members and 8 full-time faculty members.

The standard expectation at University A is that a full-time faculty member will teach either three or four courses per semester, and a part-time faculty member will teach no more than two courses per semester. However, in Fall 2018, one “part-time” faculty member is teaching a full load of three courses; one full-time faculty member is teaching an overload of four courses in addition to administrative duties that normally involve a course release; and two full-time faculty members are teaching only two courses each.

Thus, thanks to administrative releases and at least one other factor unknown to me, it seems the “full-time” and “part-time” designations are not very reliable predictors of the actual number of courses a history instructor teaches at University A in the current semester.

With that in mind, here are charts showing how many students are taught by full-time and part-time faculty members in Fall 2018 at University A. Part-time faculty members’ figures are represented in blue:

An interesting contrast is provided by University B, which has about 2,000 undergraduates. This semester, 419 students are enrolled in 15 history courses there. Those proportions might seem to make sense; everything at University B is approximately half the size of University A’s. However, the history faculty members teaching at University B currently include six part-time faculty members and only two full-time faculty members.

Of the six part-time faculty members in history, four are teaching two courses each this semester; the others are teaching one course each. Of the two full-time faculty members, one is teaching four courses; the other is teaching two courses thanks to administrative releases. (A standard full-time teaching load at University B in a fall semester is four courses.)

Here are the charts for University B:

As you can see, the experiences of students taking history courses (and probably of the instructors teaching them) at these two institutions in Fall 2018 are dramatically different.

At University A, two thirds of the students taking introductory* history classes are taught by full-time faculty members. (The proportion is approximately the same for students taking all history courses. However, students in higher-level courses are more likely than students in introductory courses to be enrolled in multiple history courses simultaneously and thus to be counted more than once here.)

At University B, on the other hand, barely one quarter of the students taking introductory history courses are taught by full-time faculty members, and barely one third of all history students are taught by full-time faculty members.

At one university, being taught by an adjunct is normal. At the other, it is the norm.

Now let’s talk about the painful part.

Both of these universities are private schools. University A charges about $44,000 per year in tuition for full-time students; University B charges about $33,000 per year in tuition. According to publicly available data (which I have not confirmed, and which I believe are skewed by a few high-paying disciplines), assistant professors make an average of about $76,000 per year at University A; they make about $64,000 per year at University B.

Also according to publicly available data, in the field of history, the national average pay for adjuncts teaching at four-year private colleges is about $3,400 per course. Most other disciplines have similar numbers.

Thus, an adjunct faculty member who somehow managed to teach a full-time faculty member’s equivalent course load might be paid an annual wage of about $23,800—if she were paid as much as the national average, which is not necessarily the case at these two schools. In the case of University A, but not University B, she would be doing this in exchange for teaching (on average) almost 35% more students than full-time faculty members.**

Of course, full-time faculty members are compensated for many activities besides teaching, so a direct comparison may be misleading. However, we should also remember that part-time faculty members also have to engage in many of those same academic activities if they want to remain even slightly competitive for full-time academic jobs in the future. They normally must do such non-teaching work for free. To be more accurate, in fact, they usually have to pay out of their own pocket to do it, as when they pay for their own conference and research travel.

I will not spend a lot of time here expressing my opinions about these figures, but I imagine they aren’t difficult to guess.


* The two universities take slightly different approaches to numbering their courses. For our purposes, 100-level courses at University A may be considered comparable to the introductory and survey courses at University B.

** This is not meant to be an estimate of part-time faculty members’ actual annual income or general financial circumstances, which may depend on many other factors.