AWP’s 2015–2016 Report on the Academic Job Market

Jason Tucker | December 2016

This newest addition to AWP’s Academic Job Market Report series finds the trends of fewer full-time tenure-track jobs and the increased use of part-time adjunct labor continuing. This is no doubt bleak, but if there is something to hope for amongst the dismal news, it is that awareness of the problem is increasing.

AWP’s data show a decrease in the past year in both the number of tenure-track jobs and the number of overall academic jobs, though both numbers are still higher than they were in prior years. (See Table 1).


2016 Job Report Table 1


And a bit of good news: If you do have a full-time tenure-track position, your salary most likely went up, as the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) data show.


2016 Job Report Table 2


But data on creative writing jobs, and even data on tenure-track jobs across all disciplines only display a small part of a much bigger thing: less that thirty percent of it.

Across all higher ed, nationwide, here’s a trend: Tenure and tenure-track lines are in decline, numbers of part-time teaching positions are still increasing precipitously, and full-time, non-tenure-track lines (FT/NT) are fluctuating such that it is unclear exactly what is happening there, but those numbers, after a drop, are back up to what they were before the recession.

AAUP tracks these trends in its 2015–16 “Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession.” It shows that those full-time nontenure contract jobs made up about sixteen percent of academic labor in 2005, about twelve percent in 2011, and back up to around sixteen percent in 2014.

“That indicates that it’s probably related to recession,” said John Barnshaw, Director of Research and Public Policy for AAUP. “Now that it’s back to where it was 10 years ago, [it will be] interesting to see if it increases or stays the same. We have to wait for the data.”

What is also unclear, Barnshaw said, is whether the recently added FT/NT lines are replacing part-time lines (that’s the hope), or if they are more often replacing tenure-track lines (that’s the fear).

“We want to see some of those part time faculty as full time,” he added. “Certainly we want part time lines to decrease and tenured lines to increase, but next best thing is to have [FT/NT] lines increase a bit while part time numbers go down as well. We’d like to see that, but we haven’t seen much evidence to indicate that’s where things are right now.”

He cited a recent Gallup survey of chief academic officers. In it, most of them said they plan to increase their reliance on part-time lines. This pattern is likely to continue.

Working in higher education right now means negotiating a great many troublesome issues and fraught conversations, but the increasing reliance on part-time faculty seems woven throughout all the others. They might be called part-timers. They might be called adjuncts. They might be called contingent, instructor, or, if they’re lucky, lecturer. They might not get called upon until October with course offerings for January. They might wait until October and not get called at all.

They probably are only allowed to teach a maximum of two classes per term at a single institution. Otherwise, they might be eligible for benefits. They almost never get benefits. So many of them work at more than one institution, cobbling together a course load far greater than any tenure-track professor, but at a fraction of the salary, no benefits, no security, no support or expectation or time or energy for their own scholarly or creative work (It is worth noting that MLA’s recommendations for adjunct salaries are “$9,670 for a standard 3-credit-hour semester course or $6,440 for a standard 3-credit-hour quarter or trimester course.” At this amount teaching four classes a semester would still not be equivalent to the salary of a full-time new professor (see Table 2), even without considering nonmonetary compensation such as health benefits, etc., or the difference in cost-of-living in various parts of the country.). They are generally shut out of department service work and are ineligible to vote in faculty meetings, so that they cannot develop the skills, experience, or resume lines in the area of “service,” which would give them greater advantages in the hunt for full time academic work.

For creative writers and those in related fields, First-Year Writing and other introductory-level courses often form most promising career path, with a great many of those classes nationwide being taught by part-time faculty.


2016 Job Report Table 3


You’ve probably read about adjuncts. You may know people who are adjuncts. You may be one yourself, and if you currently teach in higher education, there’s about a seventy percent chance that you are.

It has been called a crisis, a plight, an exploitation, systemic abuse. If you follow higher education in the news at all, you’ve seen so many stories lately of protest, strikes, walkouts, and general laments over how poorly we treat part-time faculty, and how that does damage far beyond the people who hold those jobs. At all types of colleges in states all around the country, there have been cries of inequality and critiques of valuing short-term budgetary issues over the long-term health of each individual institution, and of this profession as a whole.

This photo essay featuring adjunct faculty at Ithaca College went viral, evidently shocking many who had subscribed to the “Ivory Tower” narrative of college teaching—those to whom the poverty of that learned authority leading the class had been invisible. Projects like Brave New FilmsProfessors in Poverty work to show the human experience of highly educated, accomplished, and capable academics caught in unsustainable job situations, and to see those humans as manifestations of trends that have been building for decades.


Consequences Beyond the Individual

I’m not done listing what’s often difficult about life as a part-time faculty member, but the health of each department, of each university, and of the entire profession is damaged by our collective invention of a massive academic labor underclass.

Because those faculty members usually cannot do service work, any increase in the percentage of adjuncts in a given department means that the same amount of service responsibilities fall to fewer numbers of full-time faculty. This is particularly burdensome for junior faculty, who feel they cannot say “no” to committee assignments. When a disproportionate amount of service work falls on those who are working to earn tenure, those faculty members have less time and resources to devote to their teaching, and to their own writing/scholarship—the two other essential components of tenure. So full-time faculty must carry the additional burden of the work part-timers are not allowed to do.

Relying heavily on student evaluations for hiring decisions has all the problems of the consumer model of education, but also places women at a distinct disadvantage, since students tend to evaluate female professors differently, and far more harshly, than male professors.

The lack of security and full department citizenship leads part timers to take fewer risks in pedagogy and in scholarship, to be less innovative in their teaching, and to be unavailable for their students in any long-term capacity. This hurts the entire institution because full-time faculty strongly correlate to student retention.

AAUP data found that, for every ten percent increase in part-time faculty at a public institution, it was associated with a 2.65 percent decline in institution’s graduation rate. Conversely, in almost the same ratio, the more full-time faculty at an institution, the higher its graduation rate.

This is further related to performance-based funding, and any student learning outcome measure you might imagine. As a contingent faculty member for years, I have written letters of recommendation for students at colleges where I no longer teach.

“If administrators are concerned about those things here’s something they can do,” Barnshaw said.

In that same report, AAUP estimates that, despite significant variation in the existing percentages of part-time faculty at various institutions, on average, four-year colleges and universities could make all their part-time faculty into full-time faculty for a first-year cost of about an additional two and a half percent of their budget, and maintain that structure for about an additional two percent every year after that. Put that way, it sounds doable for many institutions, especially when weighed against retention issues.


Nice Change, If You Can Make It

Ira Sukrungruang, Associate Professor at The University of South Florida, said, “At my institution, we have tried to stay away from adjunct lines as much as possible, creating more visiting or continual instructorships. But that can’t be sustained in a shrinking budget.”

And those budget concerns, whether due to limited state funding (despite modest increases this year in many states), university administrations prioritizing other things with their funding, or other factors, puts departments find themselves in difficult positions of making short-term, stop-gap hiring decisions, rather than being able to invest in long-term faculty hires. In general, people within departments think in these ways, but it is the upper administration that holds the purse strings.

Ohio State University has a large stable of graduate students who receive stipends for sharing the teaching load, but it also faces the question of adjuncts versus lecturers to cover all the necessary courses.

Michelle Herman, a Professor in OSU’s MFA program, said their English Department has managed to reduce number of adjuncts to almost zero.

“Senior lectureships licked that problem,” she said. “These are great first jobs. Our senior lecturers teach six classes per year. We don’t expect them to have teaching experience beyond grad school, and we don’t expect them to have a book.”

There are some caveats. Almost no creative writing courses go to lecturers at OSU because those sections are set aside for graduate students. They teach low-level classes. They do not advise students. They are under no expectation to do research or scholarship. In reality, the expectation is that no one should keep these jobs for more than three years.

OSU’s shift to full-time lectureships started a few years ago, when the university moved from quarters to semesters. Graduate students had taught one course per quarter, meaning three classes per academic year. The administration wanted them to continue to teaching three courses per year, but faculty pushed back across all Arts and Humanities. With that victory, graduate students still only teach one course per semester.

But that also meant there were a lot of First-Year Writing classes left with nobody to teach them.

“As soon as that was evident,” Herman said, “Our chair asked the dean for money, and we got it. But, last year we couldn’t get the same funding, so the chair decided to run the department at a deficit to keep these lines.”

OSU’s English Department now totals twenty-eight full time senior lecturers, but even for such a large institution, funding for those lines is anything but certain from one year to the next, and a department can’t run at a deficit indefinitely. Recently, eighteen lecturers received notice, mid-year, that the remainder of their contracts would not be honored. After some organized outcry on social media, and claims of miscommunication from higher administration, those jobs will continue, at least for the remainder of the academic year.

Herman cautioned people entering the job market to check their own expectations.

Lee Martin (MFA thesis adviser to both me and my wife) once told me, “Working in academia is the next best thing to joining the military; you get to see the world.”

One choice many have to make in academic careers is whether or not to move. Some of those FT/NT jobs are temporary. And as more and more of these jobs require national searches, those seeking to work their way up as adjuncts may find that the only way to advance to a higher rank from part-time is to leave for another institution. This can mean a gain in exposure to many different programs, a chance to grow as a teacher, and opportunities to become more experienced as a member of an academic department. This itinerant nature of some of our academic lives has drawn considerable comparisons to sharecropping.

“Now I see people who graduate with MFAs who think more like the way people who graduate with PhDs do: like the degree should get them a job,” Herman said. “In the PhD world, that stopped being true thirty years ago. But that’s always how it was in the MFA world. You always needed the book and the degree to get an academic job. At least in creative writing, nobody should expect to get job until they’ve got not just a published book, but a well-published book. And it’s a competitive market. There’s no question that we’re doing less tenure-track hiring.”

Barnshaw said that, since 1975—when The National Center for Education Statistics started keeping track of employment—that number has occasionally gone down a percent or two, but for forty years, we’ve seen a general increase in part-time faculty and a decrease in tenure lines. Tenure-track lines have decreased by about fifty percent since 1975. Tenure lines have decreased by twenty-six percent over the same period.

Due to the recession, professors are not retiring as early as they had planned, and when they do retire, they might not be replaced. The economic crisis of 2008–2010 depleted the retirement savings of many faculty members as well as the endowments by which universities would offer incentives for early retirement. The lean years have contributed to budget crises that keep departments from retaining the same number of full-time faculty.

“We’re also seeing an increase in ‘joint appointments,’” Barnshaw said, meaning that some individual tenure-track jobs are shared across multiple academic departments. “A single faculty member might be on the tenure line, but be shared equally by, say, sociology and criminal justice. That keeps that faculty member from being able to fully participate in any one department. It’s a difficult thing to quantify, but it’s certainly a trend.”


Adjunct Unions

Recently, adjuncts at Ithaca College have formed a union with strong demonstrations of student support. Other colleges are seeing their part-time faculty moving to unionize, if they haven’t already.

“We’ve seen an uptick in adjunct faculty unionizing,” Barnshaw said, “but over twenty years, I’m not so sure. It’s difficult to measure. We have seen a lot more media attention around faculty, particularly about part time faculty unionization. It’s encouraging that we’re paying attention to their desire to expand into the full time academic environment.”

AAUP has launched its One Faculty campaign in an effort to change the narrative away from one that has various faculty lines competing against each other.

“There is one faculty on campus that serves the institution,” Barnshaw said. “Whether tenure or non, full-time or part-time, we are all in it together to improve higher education. For some, it is a zero sum game, assuming that if you add contingent faculty into full time ranks, somehow you’re cutting the pie differently, and tenured faculty get less.”

That assumption, though, runs counter to the One Faculty idea of a unified concept of faculty working for everyone’s benefit, rather than pitting different faculty lines against each other.

Often, even full-time lecturers on short-term contracts will still be referred to as “contingent” faculty by their institution. The word “contingent” suggests employment is dependent on fluctuating enrollment needs. But if there is a demonstrated continued need for those instructors to fill classes, then that is a sign permanent faculty are needed, and “contingent” is not an appropriate category for these teachers.

While AAUP does call for converting as many part-time lines to full-time as is feasible (preferably tenure, but FT/NT would be better than part time), Barnshaw acknowledged that this process would inevitably mean a large portion of adjunct faculty leaving an institution. If a group of part-time faculty each only teach two courses per semester, while FT/NT teach four, a total conversion to full-time lines would mean half the numbers of jobs. So AAUP cautions such changes to be made slowly, with as much reduction in personnel being made through attrition as possible. It’s difficult to pin down exactly how many adjunct instructors would lose their jobs entirely. Since a great many of them already teach part time at more than one institution, it may be more a matter of consolidating in one place than of an actual layoff of half the adjunct workforce.

Another caveat here is that if, as is increasingly the case, FT/NT jobs are filled by national searches, rather than internal or even regional hires, this restructuring would mean current adjuncts would likely need to be open to relocating clear across the country in order to find full time faculty employment.

Still, like adjunct lines, these positions would not likely be advertised for specialists.


Rise of the Generalists

Sukrungruang is one of many who have observed a shift in job postings toward faculty who can teach a broader array of classes.

“Because of a shrinking job market,” he said, “what I’m observing in terms of tenure-track lines are calls for a generalist. One who can teach in all genres, literature courses, and offer perhaps something in digital media. Gone are the days of the single genre author.”

Michelle Herman said that it’s unwise for those newly on the job market to set their sights on jobs teaching in high-ranked graduate programs, because those jobs will only follow “pretty spectacular success.” Smaller liberal arts schools and smaller public institutions, she said, do hold greater opportunities, but will more likely call for generalists and those who can teach survey courses. Herman describes OSU’s program as deliberately concerned with giving its graduate students broad teaching experiences in beginning and intermediate creative writing workshops for undergraduates, in first year writing, and business writing.

OSU’s is among several programs that encourage MFA students (fiction, nonfiction, and poetry) to take workshops in genres other than their primary concentration [This is a recommendation in AWP’s Hallmarks for a successful writing program]. OSU allows students to structure their coursework, theses, and degrees so that they may concentrate in multiple genres. Herman said that allowing students to do graduate course work in literature, rhetoric and composition, disability studies, and other courses further enables them to teach broader ranges of courses, which seems to be an increasing advantage in the current job market.


2016 Job Report Table 4

Mentoring the Arts in Vocational Age

Sukrungruang lamented “the shifting of priorities away from the humanities” and “the amount of new administrators that eat away at hiring lines to be able to pay large salaries,” but also shifting priorities toward Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) courses.

“There is a sense of invisibility I feel happening in the arts in academia,” he said. “A sense that, yes, we teach writing, dancing, painting drawing sculpting, but unless it translates to vocation, then it doesn’t compute. Michael Martone says to his dean, ‘ask me in thirty years whether the students I’m teaching now are still writing.... If yes, then I’ve done my job.’”

Sukrungruang is surveying MFA alums for AWP to determine the extent to which their respective programs offered professional development, mentoring, training in pedagogical theory and practice, and job-market preparation opportunities. He is still collecting responses, and did not have sufficient results to comment for this article, but does believe this to be important work graduate programs should do. [The survey results will be available on the AWP website in spring 2017.]

“I do CV workshops, Teaching Philosophy workshops, mock interviews,” he said. “I just recently ran a professional development workshop for my MFAers called, ‘Know your Path.’ The students changed the title to ‘Know Your Pain.’ I covered different career paths and how grad students should be thinking, in their first year, what they want to be and where they want to go after graduation. It dictates what classes you take, what opportunities to take advantage of.”

These might not be the kinds of things you realize make a difference until you actually land a job. Sarah Einstein, who recently transitioned from graduate school at Ohio University to an assistant professorship at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, talked about negotiating that leap from grad student to junior faculty.

“I was lucky to attend a PhD program that encouraged me to think of myself as both a student and a member of the faculty” she said. “I was often included in departmental work and decision making processes as if I were a colleague.”

She encourages graduate students planning a career in academia to volunteer to serve on committees, and to attend departmental meetings, if allowed.

As a junior faculty member, she has many more unconnected responsibilities: teaching, committee work, advising responsibilities, research and creative work, departmental and college commitments, and administrative tasks. And because, unlike in a more traditional workplace, she is the only person who oversees her commitments, extra work in one area doesn’t reduce the work she must do in another.

“Coming into my PhD program, I misunderstood a lot about how universities work,” she said. “Particularly about how, and by whom, decisions are made. The opportunity to learn how things really work, while my participation in the self-governance process was still fairly low-stakes, has proven invaluable.… I felt very nurtured by graduate school. I miss the gentle reassurances of the head of my dissertation committee, and before that my thesis advisor, both of whom had to regularly walk me back from crippling impostor syndrome melt-downs. Now, it’s my turn to walk my own students back from their insecurities, and I’m grateful to have had mentors who taught me how to do that.”

Having served on innumerable hiring committees over her career, Herman wants everyone to know how terrible most job application letters are. One of the most terrible features she sees regularly is when applicants don’t respond to the questions and requirements listed in the job posting.

“Before an ad goes in the job lists, it goes through so many drafts and so many people at so many levels, and every word is fought about,” she said. “If we say, ‘Please address this in your letter,’ it’s an absolute forbidden sin to not address it. You are disqualified immediately.”

It’s not a failure of intellect or talent or ability, she explained. “People simply don’t know how to present themselves. Most people go on the market without a mentor to help them do that. It’s an important thing that a graduate program can provide for its students.”


Diversity, or the Lack Thereof

Earlier this year, The Chronicle of Higher Education published this interactive graphic to offer data for the obvious: college professors so white. While the vast majority of professorships in America are held by white faculty, their student populations are increasingly diverse in “race and ethnicity,” even though both are far less diverse than the population at large.

Certainly diversity among faculty hires is essential to this conversation, but as many wise critics have been saying, that is but one part of a much more complex ecosystem.

Kazim Ali’s essay “Addressing Structural Racism in Creative Writing Programs,” highlights several key reasons why any talk of diversity in hiring is incomplete without the context of the totality of a system that must change its operations, as well as change the demographics of those working within it.

Marlon James in “Why I’m Done Talking About Diversity,” said, “It’s not just that diversity, like tolerance is an outcome treated as a goal. It is that we too often mistake discussing diversity with doing anything constructive about it.… The fact that we’re still having [academic panels to discuss diversity] not only means that we continue to fail, but the false sense of accomplishment in simply having one is deceiving us into thinking that something was tried.”

The conversation about diversity in who does the teaching is a worthy and ongoing one, but even more nuanced conversations are emerging about how we teach the diversity of students in our classrooms.

Matthew Salesses’s four-part essay at the Pleiades blog, “Pure Craft Is A Lie,” discusses how creative writing workshop pedagogy is rhetorically situated, and “colorblindness” or other approaches that ignore actual cultural difference marginalize and silence much of the diversity of perspective, style, culture, and life present in the classroom.

Tonya C. Hegamin’s “Inclusion and Diversity: A Manifesto and Interview” likewise characterizes “diversity” not as some requirement satisfied by the presence of a token minority, but a responsibility we all share to make the classroom a place that makes room for a multiplicity of perspectives and voices.

On her website, Lesley Wheeler has curated a rich collection of links to essays and other resources on diversity and inclusion.


Where’s the Hope?

While the academic job market seems to track fairly along the lines of the broader economic recovery, it’s still easy to lose hope.

Last year in this space, Daniel D’Angelo liked Dinty W. Moore’s quote (from the 2013 edition of this same report) so much he said it again. So here it is a third time: “In forty years of working in the arts, I’ve never met a starving artist. People find ways to survive if [creative writing] is important.” D’Angelo added, “Moore’s words illustrate a resilience and passion that creative writing graduates share throughout the ups and downs of their careers, whether it is navigating unreliable adjunct work or negotiating vast but potentially alien-seeming nonacademic opportunities.”

Hope, in all the pull quotes and the silver linings of all these articles, seems to be a thing you have to make for yourself. But plenty of people still find it. Many of us are working hard to make an acceptable living within the academic world. But one emerging trend in creative writing involves people nationwide—not just in the largest cities—finding ways to build literary communities, and to do it outside the academy if need be.

Nonprofits like The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota and GrubStreet in Boston, Massachussetts have been around for a couple of decades. And they’re growing.

“Obviously we can’t offer something like tenure,” said Alison Murphy, Director of Programs and Marketing at GrubStreet, “but we’re starting to have more ‘upper level’ faculty positions, where we can offer a bit more salary and security.”

Still, that’s a very small number. GrubStreet has about 100 “active” instructors, meaning they rotate in and out. About 50 teach courses during any given term. Only three are full time. Very, very few make a complete income this way. Some make enough income to fill in gaps in their part-time teaching or other work.

But these models of democratizing graduate-school styles of creative writing pedagogy are spreading. Murphy said she has fielded calls from groups all over the country looking to start a similar organization, or to build on one that already exists. Hugo House in Seattle, Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, Gotham Writers (among others) in New York City, Literary Arts in Portland (OR), and others in Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Cleveland, and more.

In such places, there is a lot of creativity and flexibility, but, sort of by design, there isn’t the kind of security of a full time position. If GrubStreet is any indication, they do work hard to pay fairly for the workload and the time commitment, for almost everyone involved, it won’t be more than supplemental income. But these places don’t seem built for that.

“We make writing more accessible and more affordable for more people,” Murphy said. “But community is what’s important. It’s a feeling that you are supported for your writing and teaching skills. Students and teachers, we’re all writers, and everything is focused on making an isolating vocation not so isolating.”

It’s serious work, though. The publication rate from GrubStreet’s “Novel Incubator” class is about 20 percent. The idea was to take graduate school MFA pedagogy and make it available to everyone. In the process, writers and teachers become not just people who share the same city, but peers in a way that probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

One of the devastating things about some academic jobs can be a feeling that you’re disconnected from the real work you want to be doing, and the people who share your passion for doing it. Working with these kinds of nonprofits may not offer tremendous financial benefits, but there do seem to be important social and psychological rewards.

Reports on the job market also usually end on a note about how tough it is out there. And it is. But then they cut that cliché with another one: you’ll find your way if you keep doing it. And that’s true enough. You may not be able to keep doing the exact same thing that’s always been done, or the same thing you set out to do, but there’s a way, even if you have to make it yourself. There’s a reason we keep seeing the same cliché, and why I’m trotting it out again: it’s still useful. But I will add: find other people to make it with. No matter the way, it won’t happen alone.


Jason Tucker lives in Boston with his wife, Amy Monticello, who has (and abundantly earned) the tenure-track Creative Writing job. He’s now a full-time lecturer at Suffolk University, and teaches at GrubStreet. He’s spent years in adjunct and short-term teaching positions. His essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Pleiades, The Southeast Review, River Teeth, The Common, Waccamaw, Sweet, and other journals.

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