April 07, 2003

What is a Visiting Assistant Professor?

Job advertisements supply direct and concrete evidence of the current state of the profession and also offer hints and clues concerning the profession's future (or perhaps lack thereof).

Here's a recent advertisement for a position as Visiting Assistant Professor:

"The History Department at Miami University invites applications for a visiting assistant professor in American History for the 2003-04 academic year. Any specialty of U.S. history is acceptable, but preference will be given to 19th century U.S. and/or women's history and/or race and ethnicity. Duties include teaching both halves of the U.S. history survey and upper-division specialty courses. Ph.D. in hand by date of appointment (August 19, 2003). Send letter of application, c.v., evidence of teaching experience, and letters of reference to the address below. Screening begins April 15 and continues until position is filled."

Ok, that's straightforward enough. For whatever reason, this department wants to hire a one-year replacement. Perhaps their regular 19th-c. American historian is going on sabbatical; perhaps it is a female faculty member who has been "irresponsible" enough to contribute to the continuation of the species; perhaps the 19th-c. American historian recently retired or is about to retire, and the department does not yet have the go-ahead (approval plus funding) to conduct a tenure-track search, but still has to meet student demand or curriculum requirements for courses in 19th-century American history. They will hire a recent Ph.D. who is currently unemployed or underemployed to do the work of an assistant professor. They will pay this person much less money than they pay a tenure-track assistant professor, but this amount will still be far more than is the current rate for "adjunct" teaching, and they will probably throw in a few of those benefits (eg health insurance) of which adjuncts can only dream.

Given the dismal state of the academic job "market" in history, this is not a bad gig. Certainly, it is far better than adjunct teaching. By the way, this department's decision to hire a "visiting assistant professor" rather than an adjunct assistant professor should not necessarily be attributed to their kind hearts and keen sense of responsibility to the profession. Such decisions generally have a lot to do with access and availablity. In an urban area, where unemployed and underemployed PhDs are a dime a dozen, a department will usually hire adjuncts to fill in their teaching gaps, because this saves them a lot of money. But the department of an undergraduate college in a small town that is isolated from PhD-producing research universities will not have access to a pool of cheap teaching labor. And they couldn't possibly induce people to move to the town for the purpose of adjunct teaching: the pay rates are too abysmally low. Instead, they must rely on a "visiting assistant professor," which is to say, someone who will hold a full-time but limited term (most often a one-year) contract.

Now here's another advertisement for a position as Visiting Assistant Professor:

"The University of North Florida seeks to hire a Visiting Assistant Professor with a specialty in modern history, to begin in academic year 2003-2004. This is a non-tenure earning position. The person hired must be able to teach both small and large-lecture sections of the second semester of our western civilization course, as well as upper level courses in the area of specialization. Candidates must have completed requirements for the Ph.D. before the contract begins. Teaching experience and evidence of potential for teaching excellence are required. Send complete dossier, including a letter of application, curriculum vitae, graduate transcripts, and three letters of recommendation to the address below. The search committee will begin considering applications on March 31. The search will remain open until the position is filled. For more information visit our Web Site. UNF is an Equal Opportunity/Equal Access/Affirmative Action Institution."

Notice anything different? Of course you do. This department is not looking for a one-year replacement, someone to fill in for the year 2003-2004. The position begins the year 2003-2004. When does it end? Impossible to know from this advertisement, but I find it interesting that they need to emphasize that "this is a non-tenure earning position." Everybody (at least everybody who would be reading this advertisement) already knows that a "visiting assistant professorship" is a non-tenure track position. A visiting assistant professorship is a full-time but temporary (usually one-year, sometimes two-year, ocassionally three-year) position. Kind of makes me wonder. For how long, exactly, is this department planning to pay host to its "visiting" assistant professor? Longer than one year, clearly, for it begins but does not end in 2003-2004. For two years? Three? Five? Permanently? I have heard of a new phenomenon whereby the term "visiting assistant professor" is used as a euphemism for "semi-permanent to permanent full-time non-tenure track position at half the salary of a regular tenure-track professorship." I may be wrong, of course, but I think this advertisement may offer a concrete example of this new variation on the ongoing indirect attack on tenure.

My husband is after me to go to law school. My husband is probably right. Off to practice logic games for the LSAT.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at April 7, 2003 02:00 PM

Don't go to law school. Law is basically a parasitic job(criminal excepted), and the market there is not great either. Do what I did: Go to medical school. There's plenty of work, especially with an aging population, and you will serve a socially useful function. It's a bit of a slog, though: Four years of med school and a minimum of three years of residency. J Rossi

Posted by: J Rossi at April 8, 2003 01:22 PM

I agree that medical professionals serve a very useful social function. But I can't even imagine medical school. I don't think I would like it, and I'm almost certain I would not be very good at it. I'm ambivalent about law school for myself, but must disagree with the notion that a legal career is by definition "parasitic" -- and not only because my husband is a lawyer :)

Yes, there are parasitic ambulance-chasers. But I don't these are a fair and accurate representation of lawyers in general.
Like it or not, a lot of conflict in our society is mediated through legal processes and institutions. And I think this is a good thing. Where would we be without law? I submit that without law, we'd be living in Hobbes's state of nature. Not that legal processes and institutions should be immune from criticism, but I don't think they should be dismissed outright.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at April 8, 2003 02:29 PM

Of course many lawyers are needed, but the marginal social usefulness of more lawyers is the issue. The historian Paul Johnson estimates that each additional US lawyer dcreases GDP by about $1million per year. Peaceful conflict resolution is a good thing, but our society already has enough lawyers for this purpose. The question you must ask yourself is whether you wish to help your society or whether you will risk harming your society in order to further your own financial or personal goals. It doesn't mean you're an evil person if you decide to go to law school, but you should be clear-eyed about the larger implications of your decision. J Rossi

Posted by: J Rossi at April 10, 2003 01:21 PM

I had two visiting positions (a one-term and a two-year) before landing a t-track position. I think that's becoming more and more the norm. In both visiting positions (at Bowdoin and Kenyon, I might as well say) I was treated as a full colleague and paid the same starting salary as someone coming in on the t-track. I think this aspect of the profession should be kept separate from the evils of adjuncting. (I adjuncted for a year earlier, before finishing the degree.) True, visiting positions are sometimes exploited (I have a friend who's been 'visting' at Colby for six years!), but the rationale for them is not the same as the rationale for adjuncts (even in that Colby situation). Nor are they anywhere near as bad as adjuncting.

Posted by: Ted Hinchman at April 28, 2003 05:15 PM

I agree that there is a real distinction to be made between a visiting assistant professorship and an adjunct position. What concerns me is use of the label "visiting asst professor" for something that more nearly approaches adjuncthood.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at April 28, 2003 05:31 PM

No one who isn't already a star aims to be a visiting professor. I think that says it all.

Posted by: che at November 10, 2003 03:55 PM