Contingent Mother: The Role Gender Plays in the Lives of Adjunct Faculty

Contingent Mother: The Role Gender Plays in the Lives of Adjunct Faculty

Hybrid Pedagogy recently announced a call for articles that address the problem of contingency in higher education. The goal is to examine our role as pedagogues in a system wherein education does not always result in opportunity. The following article is the ninth from a series publishing throughout Fall 2013 and Winter 2014.


I am a mother. I am also a PhD in philosophy. And, finally, I am a contingent college professor at two universities. I am an example of how being a mother in that environment significantly affects a woman’s academic career. In addition to the struggles faced by the average contingent faculty member, contingent teaching is for many women the only viable employment option in the academic world. Indeed, motherhood alone may be a significant reason why women end up in the non-tenure track as parenthood unequally affects female academics. Many have found the academic setting is entirely inhospitable to mothers. Fellow academic Miriam Peskowitz, for example, argues women who are mothers often carousel in and out of work and, for that reason, motherhood may funnel qualified female PhDs into the exploitative world of contingent academic positions.

One myth associated with those of us in the non-tenured world is that there must be something wrong with us, something “defective” — either we are too lazy, unmotivated, unambitious or just not qualified for one of the “many” tenure track jobs offered each year. In an effort to help personally dispel that myth, I would like to mention that I have published a book, written both academic and non-academic articles, do at least four book reviews a year, present papers at conferences, develop new courses, teach four courses a year, volunteer at my university — all while raising my two sons without the use of outside childcare. Hiding behind this “defective” myth, institutional power structures take the scrutiny off of why the academic system maintains so many part-timers and the way it might be culpable for that exploitive reality. In addition, most colleges and universities only benefit from the fact that many of the students before me have never heard of “adjunct professors.” Our visible invisibility means universities sit in the comfortable position of never having to justify to parents the ever-increasing cost of a college tuition coupled with the reality that many of their children’s professors may be making as little as $16,000 a year.

So how and why did I enter and remain in contingent teaching? I saw no other viable route. At thirty-three, less than a year after I finished my PhD, I became a mother. Little did I know at the time, but I was making decisions that put me on a more difficult path in the academic world. At the time, I thought I was making responsible decisions: my husband and I purposely waited until after I had finished my degree to begin our family. As a graduate student, I witnessed first hand the overwhelming struggle of a woman newly hired into a tenure-track job in my graduate department. Simply put, she failed miserably; mostly, I would surmise, because she was the mother of very young children, or, as Judith Sanders has put it, because of the fact that the academic model remains one of “men-with-wives.” The department simply expected a higher level of output from a woman teaching full-time, finishing her dissertation, and trying to be a mother. She regularly revealed to me how frantic her life was and that she rarely slept or spent time with her children; yet, she was later let go. I made the deliberate decision not to repeat her mistakes. Because of this, once my own child was born, I stayed within the part-time circuit. In their article “Non-traditional Academics,” Susan Bassow, Dana Campbell and Liz Stockwell write, “the tenure process is so rigorous and time consuming that many opt out of this path to pursue career alternatives that are more amenable to spending time with family.” As a result women like me become caught in a Mommy Crunch: as long as the university upholds the “men-with-wives” idealized academic, women academics who are mothers become caught in a bind that facilitates a secondary status as contingent faculty.

Contingent faculty are vital yet invisible in the contemporary university. Michelle Kern reports on the finding by the AAUP that 75% of U.S. faculty appointments in 2009 were off the tenure-track and specifically 60% of it was part-time. In an article on the “Abysmal State of Adjunct Teacher Pay,” Jeff Nall estimates that non-tenured, part-time instructors comprise almost 70% of contemporary faculty. Data from the U.S. Department of Education shows 1.3 million of the 1.8 million faculty providing instruction are non-tenure track. This vital role, however, is not adequately rewarded. Despite often teaching the same exact courses as tenure-track professors, part-timers’ pay and benefits are grossly unequal. Nall reports that the average salary for a tenure-track academic today is just under $66,000. In June 2012 the Coalition of Academic Workforce (CAW) released a report which found that adjuncts were paid on average for a standard 3 credit college course $2700 in the fall of 2010. In Florida at community colleges, for example, it can be under $2000 per course. This would mean, Nall points out, that teaching 8 classes a year would yield a mere $16,000 income. A minimum wage worker makes a little over $15,000 a year.

The result of this overuse and underpayment of adjuncts on college campuses across the country has been that an unexpected sect of workers is growing in the U.S. — impoverished graduate degree holders. An ABC News report in May of 2012 found that the number of people possessing a PhD who received some sort of public assistance increased three-fold between 2007 and 2010. As Nall notes, universities help perpetuate this reality by staying willfully ignorant through administrators choosing to refer to adjunct teaching as some sort of “side gig” instead of what it really is: the means through which most are making their living. Just as with the “defective” myth, the “side gig” trope allows universities to perpetuate a system that exploits contingent academics by willfully ignoring the reality of the situation in favor of protecting the status quo. In my own experience, I’ve never met a fellow adjunct who fit this “side gig” description. I know of one contingent academic who strung together enough “side gigs” per semester (ten to be exact) that he was able to afford to buy a home. Of course, he spent more time in his car than his new house as he raced between four different colleges to teach.

Contemporary literature confirms my anecdotal experience with the young mother hired then fired by my graduate department. Miriam Peskowitz bemoaned the sorry state of Higher Ed in 2008, discussing how poorly she was treated as a freshly tenured professor when she learned she was pregnant and turned to her university expecting a more supportive response. She argues:

For years the academy has been experiencing a brain drain of women — women who are highly skilled and who are expensively trained, and whom our society needs not to lose. We also have witnessed the well-documented personal challenges that mother-professors face — the incredible and extraordinary and overwhelming exhaustion of doing their academic jobs with children, in an academic culture that doesn’t recognize how much labor is entailed in either.

Peskowitz writes of taking a leave of absence (because her university did not have a maternity leave policy) and the injustice of an academic system working against mothers. In the end, she left her academic job after finding the combination of mother and rigorous academic unsustainable and eventually moved into adjunct teaching for a while before turning into a full-time author, penning the successful Truth Behind the Mommy Wars. Peskowitz said in an interview, “I loved being with my daughter. I was thrilled by my new life as a mother. And I couldn’t believe the social price I was being asked to pay to incorporate her into my life.”

Likewise, the editors of the book entitled Mama PhD, Elrena Evans and Caroline Grant, report:

Academic life is predominantly a man’s world. Women remain on the periphery, and children are all but absent. American universities consistently publish glowing reports stating their commitment to diversity, often showing statistics of female hires as proof of success, but the facts remain: university women make up disproportionately large numbers of temporary (adjunct and non-tenure track) faculty, while the majority of permanent, tenure-track positions are granted to men… The disproportion between male and female university faculty, as in other work forces, is most striking among those who choose to be both professors and parents.

Evans and Grant’s overriding point is that it is obvious why newly minted female PhDs are funneled into the non-tenure track world if children are at all involved. As the system is currently arranged to favor the “men-with-wives” academic model, something has got to give in this picture for mothers. As Evans and Grant state, “With no easy solutions for the struggles they encounter, women take a variety of different approaches as they attempt to reconcile family and academy. None of these solutions is perfect.” In my own case, avoiding the nation-wide job search in favor of maintaining more flexible contingent positions at area universities became my “solution.” Evans and Grant point out that, typically, instead of decisions like mine implying an indictment of the system, it is instead viewed by others as a personal failure (the above “defective” myth). Peskowitz suggests the true subject of our righteous anger should be business, governmental, and education leaders shaping today’s workplace, not the women struggling in the workplace because they are unsupported after having children.

In an article entitled “Do Babies Matter?”, Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden report that women who have at least one child within five years post-doctorate are significantly less likely to achieve tenure than men who have children early in their career. In my own experience, at one university where I teach, there are ten full-time professors: six are men, four are women, and only one of these women has children, and they are grown. In 2001 Robert Drago and Joan Williams conducted a study they called The Faculty and Families Project and found that because women are still considered the primary caregivers in our society, the ideal academic favored in the university setting is therefore discriminatory towards women. Drago and Williams conclude succinctly, “American women, who still do the vast majority of childcare, will not achieve equality in academia as long as the ideal academic is defined as someone who takes no time off for child-rearing.”

What solutions are there if any? Few exist, but those that do could help improve things. It is likely the shared conclusion of those doing contingent teaching that it drastically demands changes that restore the dignity and respect we as contingent faculty deserve. More than once, I’ve had to swallow hard as a full-time colleague has unconsciously made me feel like an outsider, an amateur, a failure, or just plain invisible. One part-time colleague once told me that after having taught Composition at a university for over ten years, the Chair of the department admitted she “forgot” about my friend when assigning courses for the next term. Perhaps the first step is making students more aware of the academic caste system that is often actively hidden from them, making the invisible visible, as Joseph Fruscione suggests. Another would be to demand the system look to increase full-time teaching positions instead of exploitive part-time ones.

Regarding mothers in particular, this problem represents the classic “having-it-all” difficulty all working mothers experience in the American workplace. Ample writing has already suggested that better support must be given to women who are mothers to end what essentially becomes one more expression of gender discrimination. As that relates to the academic world specifically, more than once while researching for this article, I witnessed criticism of what’s referred to as the “free floating head syndrome,” or the common failure to recognize academic instructors as real people with outside lives and responsibilities. An authentic attempt to combat this would involve sincerely valuing the contribution of women academics who become mothers.

If tenure track is bad for mothers, contingency as currently configured (although it offers more flexibility) is hardly a satisfactory solution, given the significant lack of leaves of absence, health benefits, and a living wage. One actual solution might be what Judith Sanders refers to as “dignified part-time positions,” not exploitive adjunct ones that, as she says, pay Wal-mart wages. Sanders also calls for more flexible career paths, or a “willingness to allow people to proceed in the profession even if they have taken time away from it.” And finally, perhaps most obviously, we in the academic world need to change our perception regarding parenthood and see it as a dignified and worthwhile choice for an educated person.

[Photo by Koshyk]

About the Author

Margaret Betz

Margaret Betz has a PhD in philosophy and teaches at Rutgers University in Camden and West Chester University. She is the author of The Hidden Philosophy of Hannah Arendt as well as various articles on feminist theory, animal ethics and environmental philosophy.

7 Comments
Discussions from the Community.
  1. Maha Bali says:

    Margaret, thanks for writing that one behalf of all of us female academics (some of whom are mothers like me). I had my baby while I was doing my PhD and am now struggling with the job of an academic with a young child, and the kinds of sacrifices I need to make on many sides. It is more complex than just the institutions of academia and as you point out it is a social issue beyond academia. More so in the Arab world where I am from, because of the more explicitly patriarchal society.

  2. Loren says:

    Per the essay: ““American women, who still do the vast majority of childcare, will not achieve equality in academia as long as the ideal academic is defined as someone who takes no time off for child-rearing.”

    I think that is putting the cart before the horse. What is needs to change, culturally, is the fact that American women “still do the vast majority of childcare”. Until that happens, there will never be equality between men and women in the workplace.

    • Loren says:

      Social equality at home is necessary because if a professional position demands X amount of work (whether that’s a tenured professor, a lawyer, a company CEO, etc.), then there cannot be EQUALITY if there is one level of work (lower) established for women with children and another level of work (higher) established for women without children (or for “men-with-wives”). My life partner is a long-time law partner in a small but high-end corporate law firm. She is one of two women partners in a firm with ten partners and neither of the women has children. She believes it would be inconceivable for a woman to practice law at the level she does (she’s available 24/7 to her clients) and also have children AND most of the burden of raising those children and of general home responsibilities.

  3. Marissa says:

    There is much truth in this article. I am the lucky exception to this rule, having 2 children before tenure: I was pregnant on the market and had my first child 3 months before starting at UCLA, the 2nd just after signing my book contract. I would not have been able to do any of this without my amazing, amazing husband who left a tenure-track job to move with me to LA as an adjunct and who is my total partner and co-parenter. Mothers need to insist on this; no compromises, no exceptions. Single mother? Pay for childcare. It is worth every penny. As much as I love, LOVE my kids I need to carve out some brain space. Nobody can do good work with Sesame Street in the background.

    This is such a complicated issue and it’s different for every mother. I think the most important thing academic moms can do is to seek out a mentor who can talk us through the decisions we’re making at every step of the way. Also, a therapist would be great, but that’s a serious luxury that even I haven’t afforded myself yet. Who has the time?

  4. Meme says:

    As a mother and an adjunct, I read your article with great interest. As I had a second look at your name, it sounded familiar. So I looked you up and realized that I had read your book a couple of years ago, and had tried to see where you taught. I didn’t find an academic affiliation at the time, and I thought you had left academia. What a painful way to drive home the point about invisibility…

  5. Carolyn says:

    Nice article. I recognize most names in the article except Judith Sanders. Can you direct me toward some of her work? Thanks.

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