Okay, so I thought more about this on the way home and decided a blog post was in order. There is something about the statistics on part-time faculty members that just doesn’t sit right with me. Now, it could be that I was still reeling from hearing for the first time that my nearly 2 decades of professional experience will count for nearly zero when it comes to obtaining tenure. So, feel free to read on with a grain of salt.
Numbers don’t lie. We engineers like that for the most part. So I fully believe the numbers and that there are more faculty members by percentage who are part-time than full-time and that the numbers have trended up since at least 1975. But I am not sure I can buy into the reason for that trend that we discussed, namely that it was a financial decision. I was reminded of an example I heard in a grad-level statistics class I took some years ago. Did you know that smokers are more likely to have car accidents than non-smokers? Is it because they are distracted while lighting up? No. The study cited showed a direct correlation between smoking and drinking. And we all know there is a direct correlation between drinking and car accidents. So, indirectly, there is a correlation between smoking and car accidents. But, does that mean that smoking causes the accidents? No.
So, why do we have so many part-timers these days? I put forth this hypothesis. Consider how many majors were available at Virginia Tech in 1975. A quick Google search didn’t give me that information but I did learn that was the first year we had a female cadet. Interesting. Since that time, it is my guess that we have developed a number of additional majors and departments as knowledge becomes more and more diversified. I would also guess that as our reputation and quality has increased, we (VT) have made an effort to get more and more expertise in our teachers and researchers. If I were looking to have expertise in 100 diverse subjects, it seems to me that hiring 100 different experts rather than 20 jack-of-all-trades would make sense. Yes, it is likely cheaper, but it also better serves the academic mission of the university.
Or how about this hypothesis. In 1975, how many study at home programs were there? How many extension campuses, virtual campuses, or other institutions set up specifically to cater to part-time students? With on-demand learning opportunities for professional development, rather than the more traditional on-campus models, how did the teaching approach change? How many of those courses are taught by part-time faculty members?
Obviously, I ask more questions than I answer, as I really don’t know. My intent isn’t to answer them at the moment, but perhaps to start a dialog. And, in the spirit of tonight’s discussion, I am open to co-authoring or other acknowledgement should any of you wish to turn these hypotheses into a scholarly essay. *chuckle*