We’re taking a look at the economic realities of trying to live out a theological vocation in the academy. In the last post, we focused on the shape of the academic job market, which is still rather bleak. Today’s post moves in a different direction: trying to make it as an adjunct.
An additional part of the economics of the theological vocation comes into play when we include the reality of the adjunct life. Although I was not able to locate statistics from ATS on the use of adjunct faculty, the trends in U.S. higher education as a whole are quite clear. In 1969, 78% of professors held tenure-track positions. By 2009, that number had dropped to 33.5%. And at private 4-year schools, over half were part-time, non-tenure (53%). I do not think we would find that these numbers reflect ATS schools as a whole, but they do suggest an industry-wide trend toward more “flexible” faculty.
Thus, even though full-time positions have grown scarce, plenty of part-time, non-tenured teaching opportunities await the new PhD. And students often use these positions as a way of staying near the unicorn, running alongside for a while, hoping to jump on its back when its not looking. My concern, though, is that too many are getting trampled in the process.
An adjunct instructor, is often paid somewhere between $3,000 and $3,500 for a 3-credit course. That will vary from school to school, but I would be surprised if there were many institutions that went far beyond that. Many institutions will limit the number of hours you teach so that you remain nominally part-time. Depending on location, the adjunct might be able to cobble together close to a full-time load by teaching at various institutions. For that effort and creativity, she will receive $25-28K per year. This will probably be enough to keep you above the nominal poverty threshold in the US, but not by much. And, of course, she will probably not receive any benefits. And let’s keep in mind that teaching a 3-credit class is about more than the specific hours that you spend in the classroom. There’s also the course prep, grading, random conversations, and other things that take more than a little time. When all is said and done, then, it’s not unusual for an adjunct to make less than $15 per hour for their work. Thus, as one commentator pointed out, the reality is that for many, being a professor in America can no longer be considered a middle class job, which involves a significant shift in how we understand the vocation:
A professor belongs to the professional class, a professor earns a salary and owns a home, probably with a leafy yard, and has good health insurance and a retirement account. In the American imagination, a professor is perhaps disheveled, but as a product of brainy eccentricity, not of penury. In the American university, this is not the case.
On top of that, because the adjunct operates outside the established framework of the university, she will typically not experience the same kind of support as regular faculty. That could be as little as a lack of office space in which to meet with students, but it runs deeper. I have a friend who adjuncts at a secular institution on the west coast. And their policy is that if a regular faculty person has a section of their class canceled, they will automatically pull a class from an adjunct to keep the regular faculty person’s load full. And as a former dean, I understand the economic realities of that policy. Why put out extra money so an adjunct for a class that you’ve already paid a regular faculty person to teach? The reality for my friend, though, is that she routinely spends the summer preparing to teach a course only to have it pulled the week before the semester starts, which is usually too late to find other teaching opportunities.
And the lack of support extends to emotional and relational support as well. We all know how difficult teaching can be, especially in those early years. Most of us would not have made it if it weren’t for some more senior faculty who helped us navigate the waters of constructing syllabi, writing exams, handling difficult students, balancing the academic life with other responsibilities, and understanding institutional policies, among a myriad of other things. Although adjuncts are not usually left completely on their own for these things, it’s common for them to experience far less relational support from within the institution.
One final reality. Although the adjuncts that I have known have been incredibly self-sacrificial, going above and beyond expectations despite limited financial benefit, the reality is adjuncts simply do not have the time that they would like to devote themselves to their classes. They’re either teaching in too many places, or they’re spending most of their time earning some real money so they can take care of themselves and their families. Regardless of what impact this might have on the classroom, many adjuncts find the situation inherently unsatisfying and frustrating. After all, these are people who feel a call to the classroom and want to fully invest in their theological vocation.
Despite the significant challenges that adjuncts face, it is difficult to see the trend toward using more adjuncts changing any time soon. With schools experiencing declining enrollments and pressure to avoid raising tuition, it makes sense to shift resources from expensive full-time faculty to relatively cheap adjunct faculty. And the growth of distance education programs makes it even easier for institutions to support programs with part-time and adjunct resources.
 Kezar, Adrianna, and Daniel Maxey. “The Changing Academic Workforce.” Trusteeship 3, no. 21 (2013). http://agb.org/trusteeship/2013/5/changing-academic-workforce.
 Riederer, Rachel. “The Teaching Class.” Guernica, June 16, 2014. https://www.guernicamag.com/features/the-teaching-class/.
This is the second part of a paper I presented at this year’s annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. The session focused on the “theological vocation” with particular emphasis on economic issues. Timothy Dalrymple (Patheos) discussed the idea of living out a theological vocation in the marketplace, and Gerald Hiestad (Center for Pastor Theologians) focused on the theological vocation in the church. My task was to talk about the academic theological vocation. Here’s the series so far: