The Vexing Challenges of Contingent Historians

A book lies open on a sidewalk

Photo by Timothy Krause ( under a Creative Commons 2.0 License (

Donald W. Rogers

As we all know, part-time adjunct instructors and full-time temporary professors are a growing presence in modern college and university teaching, representing around three-quarters of all faculty nationwide, including historians. On the very day that The American Historian invited me to write this essay, I received a reminder of what being part of this burgeoning cadre of faculty means. A public college where I have happily taught American history part-time for more than a decade informed me that my spring classes had been cancelled due to declining student enrollments. That event eliminated my job there for the coming semester, revoked my state health insurance funding, and reduced my employment to just one other part-time university position (which I feel mighty fortunate to keep). Like other adjunct instructors, I got no help from my publication record, seniority and experience, teaching commendations, or service to schools and the profession. My predicament epitomizes the challenges faced by the contingent portion of the history profession today, and by the profession itself.

Historians assume temporary full-time or parttime teaching jobs such as mine for many reasons: as an avocation outside of other careers, a way to accommodate family responsibilities, a method to sustain teaching after retirement, a stepping stone to tenure-track employment, or increasingly, as a career in the absence of full-time jobs. Whatever the reason, contingent historians affirm the traditional values of the tenure-track core of the history profession—the love of teaching, a dedication to critical thinking, and a devotion to the intellectual growth and occupational advancement of students. Most importantly, they stand committed to historical expertise—cultivating and propagating accurate, up-to-date historical knowledge through effective teaching, and sometimes through research. Contingent historians thus remain very much part of the professional community occupied by traditional tenure-track faculty. Yet the vast restructuring of the modern academic labor force has compromised their ability to serve traditional goals, not to mention live normal professional lives.

For those who make a career of it, the baseline challenge for contingent history faculty is maintaining employment and a living income. Nowadays, many full-time professors are hired on one- or two-year temporary contracts, while an increasing number of part-time instructors are engaged at meager wages in semester-tosemester, course-by-course arrangements. Both practices satisfy the financial strategy of modern educational institutions to employ a flexible, lowcost faculty labor force. Recruitment of such contingent faculty has, of course, risen dramatically in the last forty years along with a limited increase in tenure-track positions, causing a preponderance of contingent instructors to replace the former predominance of tenured professors. One happy result is that opportunities have expanded for parttime historians, more of whom can now enter the profession with M.A. degrees as well as Ph.D.s. Yet low compensation and job instability have accompanied growth, especially for adjunct professors. As the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW) study “A Portrait of Part-Time Faculty Members” (2012) shows, most part-timers earn personal incomes of less than $35,000 yearly and a majority survive by living in households wherein spouses, parents, or partners provide additional revenue. The 2014 report “The Just-in-Time Professor” published by the Democratic Staff of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce adds that contingent instructors frequently do not enjoy the middle-class standard of living that their education and experience would normally afford them. Consequently, news stories proliferate about how adjunct instructors cobble together multiple jobs, go without health insurance, worry that schools will cut hours to avoid Affordable Care Act coverage, and in worst-case scenarios, resort to food stamps.

The problem is not just low wages. Contingent faculty members’ short-term jobs leave them constantly vulnerable to nonrenewal due to fluctuating academic market forces. A 2011 article by historian Robert B. Townsend shows that “wild gyrations” in academic employment have occurred within long-term growth during the past four decades. As I found out, contingent historians are at the loose end of these gyrations, experiencing booms and busts in job opportunities due to changing student enrollments, up-and-down economic cycles, vacillating institutional politics, and varying rates of tenured professors’ retirement.

By far, then, the search for secure, adequately paid academic jobs is the central challenge faced by contingent historians. It is a matter of equity. It is also a matter of professionalism, because the instability of contingent employment distracts historians from practicing their expertise. Long teaching hours, travel to multiple institutions, low income, and perpetual job searching all detract from professional requisites such as buying new books, attending conferences, and especially devoting time to reading, preparing up-to-date classes, and working with students.

A related challenge for contingent historians is upholding rigorous professional teaching standards under the terms of contingent employment. Work conditions vary from school to school, and among research institutions, four-year universities, and community colleges. Yet, across the board, to use the labor parlance of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce report, adjuncts suffer the same “piece rate” system—that is, a fixed, low per-course stipend that fails to take account of work time needed to prepare for classes, build websites, grade assignments, and tutor students in large survey sections. Even so, most adjunct instructors apparently enjoy freedom to teach history as they see fit, but spotty provisions for office space, clerical help, textbook choice, advanced course assignments, a voice in departmental decisions, and the freedom from arbitrary nonrenewal notoriously undermine their efforts. Moreover, as Adrianna Kezar’s and Ceclie Sam’s 2010 article “Understanding the New Majority of Non-tenure-track Faculty in Higher Education” suggests, informal and spur-of-the moment hiring leaves adjuncts and contingent professors isolated and undersocialized in the programs that they serve. The disconnection and lack of material support underlay contingent faculty’s complaint that they do not receive “respect.” Their challenge is to overcome contingent employment conditions and receive better support for the work they do—to get job security, adequate pay, orientation in the departments that hire them, sufficient administrative support, inclusion in governance, and opportunities for professional development.

A bigger challenge for contingent historians is prospering and advancing professionally. According to Townsend, a significant portion of historians with new Ph.D.s secure full-time tenure-track jobs after some adjunct service during the first five years following receipt of their degrees, but very few Ph.D. recipients in adjunct jobs get full-time tenured employment thereafter. One possible reason is that contingent part-time jobs offer minimal support for scholarly work that would qualify adjuncts for advancement into full-time ranks. Indeed, fragmentary evidence confirms that adjunct instructors experience little upward mobility, and that a large proportion of contingent historians are now trapped in a permanent adjunct caste. The CAW and House Committee on Education and the Workforce reports, as well as a 2013 report commissioned by the OAH, all verify that most adjunct professors have long tenures in part-time slots. A clear majority have more than five years of experience. Nearly one-third have ten years. With critics comparing adjunct employment to dead-end fastfood jobs, a final challenge for the historical community is to create opportunities for the growth, occupational advancement, and financial improvement of contingent history professors.

The recent media storm about adjunct and contingent faculty has focused deservedly on their employment difficulties, but members of the OAH historical community might contemplate how their challenges implicate the profession at large. Not only is the wellbeing of contingent historians at stake, but so also is the success of history education.

Donald W. Rogers has been chair of the OAH Committee on Part-Time, Adjunct, and Contingent Employment since 2009. He has authored Making Capitalism Safe: Work Safety and Health Regulation in America, 1880–1940 (2009), taught American history at Central Connecticut State University and other institutions as an adjunct instructor since 1992, and was a finalist in CCSU’s Excellence in Teaching Competition last year.