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Patty Kleban: Much Love for the Non-Tenure Track Faculty

by on October 08, 2012 6:00 AM

Mother Teresa said, "There is more hunger for love and affection in this world than for bread.”

She must have met an instructor at a university.

I’ve been a teaching faculty member at Penn State since my middle daughter was six weeks old. In that time, I have come to love teaching and working with students. I appreciate their humor and their energy. I am inspired by their accomplishments.

It’s the instructor part that can sometimes be rough.

As a non-tenured faculty member, I was hired to teach. I am not guaranteed a job every year. I am what Penn State calls a Fixed Term employee. Every year in July after budgets come out and needs for the upcoming year are determined, I am, hopefully, offered a contract. If I take on any additional duties in the summer, I sign a contract addendum that covers those three months.

Thankfully, for the last 20 years, they have invited me back.

With universities experiencing the same economic downturn that has hit businesses and manufacturing, many are relying on instructors to fill holes in semester schedules rather than hire the more expensive (and sometimes hard to find) tenure-track faculty. The benefit to the university is that instructors are inexpensive and can be used as a temporary solution to shortages. Adjunct instructors are usually paid per credit hour. Other instructors are part-time and therefore are ineligible for benefits. Some, like me, are full-time. Our salaries are usually much lower than our tenure-track colleagues. In some departments, the instructors don’t have offices, are omitted from faculty meetings and are only limitedly involved in department activities.

Instructors are usually hired to teach the entry-level courses so that the tenure-track faculty can be free to do research and to teach the upper level and graduate courses. Depending on our practical or “real world” experience, we are sometimes provided the opportunity to teach specialized courses as well. Some instructors balance teaching with their full-time professional position.

My story is pretty typical. I had worked in my field for 10 years, during which time I had the opportunity to complete a Master’s degree going part-time around my work demands. After Kleban daughter No. 2 joined her 2-year-old sister, we made a family decision that I would do the stay-at-home-mom thing. Not long after I submitted resignation, one of my Master’s thesis committee members called to ask if I was available to teach a course. I called the Grandmas, who each eagerly agreed to cover child care on one of my teaching days. I started three weeks later.

That was 20 years ago. I began with four credits that semester. After a few semesters, I was bumped to part-time (some benefits) and eventually full-time (full benefits).

According to figures by the American Association of University Professors, non-tenure track faculty make up 40 percent of university faculty appointments nationwide.

Some of those in higher education have expressed concerns that the increasing role of non-tenured faculty members is compromising the experience for the student. They argue that professional experience does not always equate to good teaching. Some suggest students who are paying ungodly amounts in tuition dollars have a right to “quality” teaching. Others suggest that non-tenured faculty may be watering down the experience and the field of higher education.

In the years I’ve been at Penn State, I’ve met a few of those people along the way.

I’ve run into the people who think of instructors as NRFs (Not Real Faculty), a term one of my colleagues made up, in jest, to diffuse the low morale that can result from being devalued. That was during a time when we had an administrator (thankfully long gone) who would skip over instructors at meetings when people were asked to introduce themselves. He would recognize the staff each year at a holiday luncheon and then host a gathering for tenure-track faculty at his home. Instructors were ignored. At one point, he said he would like to get rid of all instructors. At the time, there were more than 50 of us in the programs under him in the university food chain. None of us were sorry to see him go.

I thought about my status as a non-tenure track faculty member this past week when I learned that a key member of the College of Health and Human Development Dean’s office is going to step down after this semester. That, with the pending retirement of our very supportive department chair, has caused me to reflect on my NRF status.

Under the supervision of these incredible mentors, it has been a long time since I felt like a second-class citizen. I’ve been given increasing administrative duties, opportunities to contribute at the college level and a promotion to senior instructor. With their encouragement, I have been able to share my experience in the field with students in the classroom and beyond the gates of the university through presenting at conferences, writing articles and consulting. The last several years have been some of the best in my PSU career.

I’m not a PhD wannabe. Research has never been my thing. I love teaching and am grateful that I’ve been given a chance to contribute. At the end of the day, I just hope that I can have a positive impact on the students at Penn State.

Love, appreciation and bread all rolled into one.

Recent Columns:

Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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