The American Historian

Contingent Faculty and the OAH

Eric Fure-Slocum and Dorothee Schneider (CPACE co-chairs)

Contingent faculty have been a growing presence in the American historical profession for many decades. This reflects the realities of American higher education and especially the humanities. A majority of classes are now taught by contingent rather than tenure-track faculty members. The OAH acknowledged this reality more than a decade ago by forming the Committee on Part-time Adjunct and Contingent Employment (CPACE) and publishing a “best practices” statement about the working conditions of contingent faculty. Since then, CPACE has been actively supporting contingent faculty members within the OAH through grants that subsidize their attendance at annual meetings, organizing and hosting events on topics of interest to contingent faculty at the annual meetings, and outreach efforts of various kinds.

In 2020, CPACE conducted a survey of contingent faculty within the OAH to better understand its constituency and to plan how this group could be served. The survey, yielding over 180 responses from OAH members who identify as contingent faculty, provides an unusually detailed portrait of these historians who teach and endeavor to engage as active scholars, all without adequate resources.

The survey revealed an array of workload and pay arrangements, with 40% of respondents working full-time at a single institution, about 28% employed part-time at one institution, and 32% juggling classes at multiple institutions. The numbers of courses and students taught per semester ranged widely, with half of the respondents teaching 3 to 8 courses per year. Well over a majority (60.3%) labored under short-term contracts, just a semester or a year in length. Members’ comments underscored the precarity of their positions. Pay levels also varied, with over a quarter of respondents earning $3000 or less per course. While most respondents were not represented by a union, about 37% were part of a collective bargaining unit.

OAH members answering the survey reported a high degree of scholarly and professional activity, with over 78% engaged in publishing their work (many citing several books and articles) and about 89% involved in presenting their research. The contingent faculty who answered the survey made clear the many obstacles that they encountered as scholars—from limited resources to time constraints to an absence of collegial support and professional networks.

CPACE prepared a survey report and recommendations based on the results. We are happy to share these upon request and look forward to making contingent faculty experiences and views more widely known within the OAH.

The results of the survey also motivated CPACE to ramp up its efforts at organizing contingent faculty within the OAH, attracting new OAH members from the ranks of contingent faculty in American history, and serving this group better. We are building a caucus, a group composed of OAH members who identify as contingent faculty (broadly defined) to serve as a forum to discuss and amplify contingent faculty concerns. The caucus can help to transform the culture of the OAH, making it a relevant organization for this large group of historians, and press the OAH to advocate for policies to improve contingent faculty conditions within the profession.

Contingent faculty conditions and concerns are often framed in the language of crisis. The ever-rising numbers of faculty facing unstable employment does indeed mark a crisis for higher education and the historical profession. Yet this approach risks portraying contingency as aberrant rather than a feature baked into the structure of higher education today. CPACE and the caucus hope to reorient the OAH’s response to contingency, recognizing the need to confront the many types of instability that now lie at the center of the everyday teaching and scholarly experiences for a majority of historians.

As a result, the caucus and CPACE seek to operate on multiple levels. We intend to elevate the profile and to better integrate contingent faculty members into the OAH through participation on service and prize committees and within the OAH’s governance structure. CPACE will continue to bring contingent faculty voices to the fore during the OAH’s annual meetings, while also building in opportunities for contingent faculty to develop collegial networks to support their teaching and scholarly work. At the same time, the caucus can do more to highlight the contributions of contingent faculty as teachers, scholars, and public historians. By promoting best practices, or employment standards, the OAH encourages colleges and universities to institute policies and practices that treat contingent faculty fairly and with professional respect. While the OAH is not a labor union, both CPACE and our caucus can offer support to unionization efforts, viewing this as the most promising path to improved working conditions and a measure of economic security.

The caucus represents a great variety of faculty in many different situations. They range from adjuncts teaching in one or multiple institutions on semester-to-semester contracts to full-time continuing faculty on year-long or multi-year contracts at a great variety of institutions ranging from community colleges to private universities. We will also seek to include faculty with post-doctoral or visiting appointments and practitioners from a variety of fields who teach history part time, as well as independent scholars and public historians who also teach occasionally. All in all, this group’s diversity represents a challenge to organizing but also embraces the diversity of the profession in the twenty-first century.

We began our caucus work in the spring of 2021 with an initial mailing and are following up with a periodic newsletter. Our activities will focus on updating a best practices statement—standards that can be used to advocate for better contingent faculty working conditions. Most immediately we hope to recruit contingent faculty members to take an active interest in the work of the caucus and help us develop a program for the OAH to better serve this diverse and growing community of historians.

CPACE welcomes ideas and participation, especially from contingent faculty. Please feel free to contact the co-chairs (dorothee.schneider@gmail.com; furesloc@stolaf.edu) if you have questions or would like to become involved in the committee’s work.

Authors

Eric Fure-Slocum, a non-tenure-track associate professor of history at St. Olaf College, is co-editor with Claire Goldstene of Contingent Faculty: A Labor History (under review) and author of Contesting the Postwar City: Working-Class and Growth Politics in 1940s Milwaukee (2013). He helped found the Labor and Working-Class History Association’s contingent faculty committee and co-chairs the OAH’s Committee on Part-Time, Adjunct, and Contingent Employment (CPACE).

Dorothee Schneider co-chairs the Committee on Part-Time, Adjunct and Contingent Employment of the OAH . She is a historian of immigration and labor and the author of Crossing Borders: Immigration and Citizenship in the 20th Century United States (2011). She retired as Teaching Professor from the University of Illinois in 2019.