A Soliloquy on Contingency

A Soliloquy on Contingency

I don’t share the sheer outrage that some adjunct professors are directing at the tenured ranks. I really do believe that the majority of tenured faculty — I obviously can’t speak for all of them — want every professor to be offered the benefits that were once the norm for university professors: stable employment, resources, research leave, health care, etc. I do believe this. However, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I sometimes bristle when I am forced to gape at the wide divide that separates me from those very, very few of my peers who have been fortunate enough to get on the tenure track.

To make a living wage, I have to work something between three and five jobs (the number changes slightly from year to year depending on how frequently I’m told mere days before my class starts that it has been cancelled). As a result, I cannot devote the requisite amount of time to research that would make me even remotely competitive for a tenure-line position. If I were to “sacrifice” some of my income to do that research, I wouldn’t make enough money to pay my bills; moreover, given the hyper-competitive nature of the academic job market, there is no guarantee that my sacrifice would ever result in forward professional movement.

So, social media being what it is, there have been a lot of occasions where I am treated to Facebook status updates from my full-time peers that feature pictures of frothy lattes positioned next to a laptop or a tablet with captions like, “Caffeinating and researching in Geneva #sabbatical.” Those moments make me feel jealous, and they make me bitter, because they serve as stark, disheartening reminders that my “career” as an academic ended with the completion of my doctorate. These days, I am no longer offered the opportunity to teach what I was trained to teach — American literature — and it is unlikely that I will ever again be given that opportunity, all of which makes me wonder, every single day, what I could have possibly done wrong to be so emphatically disowned by the profession that reared me.  And no, simply using the “hide post” feature accomplishes nothing, because it doesn’t alleviate the misery of feeling like a professional failure.

What can be done to assuage some of these tensions — to alleviate them before they result in the unhealthy infighting that we witnessed after MLA 2014? I suppose a starting point would be for those of us who are off the tenure track (but wish to be on it) not to allow our anger and jealousy to warp our criticisms of the profession to the point where they become wholly unreasonable. Certainly, anger and jealousy are justified. But those emotions are not rational, and it doesn’t make any rational sense, in my opinion, to become enraged when discovering that a famous tenured professor had the good fortune of spending a weekend in a nice hotel that charges too much for granola bars. If we’re fighting over granola bars, we’ve already lost the war.

At the same time, the tenured ranks, I think, can recognize our jealousy for what I just said it is: slightly irrational, but not entirely unjustified.  In the past few months — on Twitter, on education message boards — I’ve seen the term “tenuresplaining” gain popularity among contingent faculty. The term, as I understand it, is meant to describe the defensiveness that full-time faculty express whenever their (comparatively) secure and stable academic lifestyles are criticized for being built on the backs of part-time laborers.  Not ever having been the subject of tenuresplaining, I can’t speak with any specificity about this particular brand of defensiveness. However, at the very least, I can suggest fewer latte pictures, a little less reiterating how “busy” your semester has been with all of the talks that you’ve been invited to give, and absolutely no more furrowed brows or looks of disdain when adjunct faculty say that they don’t want to “move anywhere” for a job or that they don’t want to live apart from their spouses or that they prefer to watch football on Sundays rather than spend those days in the library. Just because the job market has cruelly demanded this kind of transient asceticism in the past doesn’t mean that job seekers in the present should continue to stand for it.

So, you know, mutual respect would be nice.

As far as actual action might go — and I know that everything I’m about to say is going to sound ridiculous — we just need to stop playing the game. I agree wholeheartedly with Lee Skallerup’s column on institutional loyalty. By definition, contingent faculty have seen no loyalty from their institutions. They, in turn, should not show loyalty back to those institutions. When contingent faculty are offered jobs that would force them to stop teaching mid-semester, they should stop teaching mid-semester. No questions asked.

Furthermore, when search committees do not notify job candidates of their candidacy in a timely fashion — a month out from the interview convention (at a minimum) — those candidates should demand the option of Skype interviews or just not interview at all. None of us should be forced to pay the escalated costs associated with last-minute travel arrangements because search committees were, of course, too “busy” to evaluate applications efficiently.

Now, as far as the professional organizations go, again, I’m guarded. Those associations have recently borne the brunt of misguided and very public vitriol from a vocal subsection of part-time professors. Whatever the failings of these associations might be, the fact remains that they are powerless to control policy at every single college and university in the entire world. That’s not even the role of these associations in the first place. Like Michael Bérubé, I really don’t think that arguing, “The MLA didn’t do enough of [X]” gets us anywhere, because the MLA can’t just swoop down on a campus and right all of the wrongs meted out by a dysfunctional job committee (or any other dysfunctionality).

However, I will say that this year, for the first time in my seven post-doctorate membership years, I paid my MLA dues based solely on the scale appropriate for my teaching salary. In the past, I have always paid my dues based on my combined income (again, I work a bunch of jobs, all of them academically-oriented). This year, though, I subtracted out the income that I receive for the administrative work that I do, and I paid only according to my adjunct salary, which decreased my contribution by a discernible amount. I urge everyone to do this exact same thing, if you haven’t already been doing so. Pay these associations exactly what they should be paid, and nothing more.

Additionally, tenured and nontenured faculty should continually coordinate their efforts to call foul ball on the notion that university funding does not exist to convert adjunct professors into full-time employees — or, if nothing else, to pay part-time professors living wages. It’s disingenuous at best for universities to claim that they “don’t have funding” to support their faculty.

They do have funding. Universities simply choose to use that funding in ways that, quite often, have nothing to do with professors.

Despite an apparent “lack of funding,” university bureaucracies ballooned in the latter part of the twentieth century (and they continue to do so today). Interestingly, this ballooning has happened simultaneously with the shrinking of the tenured ranks and the increased reliance on contingent labor. As senior administrators have eroded the tenured ranks, they have somehow managed to find enough funding to employ armies of provosts, who usually make much more money than even the most senior faculty, constitute countless university offices devoted to “assessing” student and parental “satisfaction” “metrics” and other such corporate nonsense, and, of course, building absurdly extravagant dormitories where students (no lie) can arrange for things like maid service in their dorm rooms. Without question, the money’s there. University administrations just don’t want to spend that money on education.

Therefore, I can say that I wholeheartedly support slashing administrative budgets and reallocating those funds back to academic affairs. Obviously, faculty senates should have a large say in how that kind of reallocation should happen. (On a related note, tenured faculty — at departmental and university governance levels — need to do a much better job at allowing adjunct participation in governance decisions.)

I’d also like to see administrative positions be inhabited by people who hold discipline-based doctoral degrees. I very adamantly believe that universities should be run primarily by people who have academic training, not by people whose training is in the art of growing a bureaucracy. Again, amazingly, administrators find jobs for people who get degrees in university administration. All of a sudden, positions exist that come complete with stability, photocopy machine access, health benefits, private offices, prestige, and dignity. Meanwhile, in the composition department, four professors are crammed into one office and are sharing one (frequently broken) stapler. There need to be people in positions of administrative power who take these inequalities seriously and who understand that, perhaps, student satisfaction would genuinely rise if universities saw caring for the faculty as a primary responsibility.

The grim reality, as far as I see it, is that the system is irreparably broken at every level. It cannot be fixed. We should stop trying to fix it and should let it collapse. If every adjunct professor immediately stopped teaching, the American university system would instantaneously crumble. I can’t even believe I’m about to say this, because it’s totally naive and impractical, but we should let that happen. Let the current system become a thing of the past so that we might build a new one for the future, a future where we won’t be forced to do so much shouting at each other — and, I can only hope, to ourselves.


Hybrid Pedagogy uses an open collaborative peer review process. This piece was reviewed by Chris Friend and Sean Michael Morris.

[Photo, mic by Robert Bejil, licensed under CC BY 2.0]

About the Author

Joseph P. Fisher (@JosephPFisher1) holds a Ph.D. in English from the George Washington University, where he works as a Learning Specialist in the Office of Disability Support Services. Over the past decade, Joe has taught variously in George Washington’s English Department and University Writing Program, as well as at Northern Virginia Community College-Alexandria. Currently, Joe teaches composition in George Washington’s College of Professional Studies. Joe is the co-editor of the collection The Politics of Post-9/11 Music: Sound, Trauma, and the Music Industry in the Time of Terror (Ashgate 2011), and he is also a blogger for the website PopMatters. His current research explores the connections between late-twentieth century disability activism and the ethos of Western punk music.

6 Comments
Discussions from the Community.
  1. Margaret Hanzimanolis says:

    What the MLA can do, and other disciplinary organizations, is to offer a more robust travel grant to graduate students, adjuncts and NTT professorships, and offer it every year in stead of every three years. While Berube is of course correct that the MLA cannot “reform” institutions away from their practices of institutionalized discrimination, they can certainly take specific steps to lower the barriers to part-time and other NTT faculty to participate in the annual convention. If most of the 75% of the faculty teaching (the NTT group) are effectively barred from participation in the convention, by lack of access to travel and research funding and a annual income that does not support travel and research, then the MLA has an obligation, if it wants to become the first truly representative disciplinary organization, to reform its own internal structure, which in many ways reproduces the legalized discrimination practiced at its members’ institutions. Raise the travel grants to $600 for those with income under $40,000 and $400 to those with income between 40-50K. Make them available every year. Provide free convention entrance (or maybe $5) to all NTT faculty and graduate students within driving distance of a convention city (say 100 miles), Let this mass of people belong to the organization, vote in the matters that concern the organization, enliven the organization with their perspectives. Disciplinary organizations have a role to play in righting the boat. They have the wealth base to do so. They can prolong their “gated community” status or they can rethink their role in higher education. The first step is to open the doors a bit wider!

  2. Joe Fruscione says:

    I’m very happy to see this piece published–it’s so resonant for many on and off the tenure track. The ““Caffeinating and researching in Geneva #sabbatical” line is spot-on; at those times I, too, feel jealous, bitter, and defeated. Why can’t I and many others like me be given paid leave?

    To echo and build from Margaret’s comment above: I’d also like to see MLA be more financially fair to NTT and part-time faculty, as well as allow voting and other kinds of meaningful representation. Granted, MLA can’t simply demand institutions stop overusing adjuncts and/or ‘reform’ them overnight (or over several nights). Yet, is it feasible to request MLA publicly censure schools/departments that (woefully) underpay and mistreat their adjuncts in comparison MLA’s 2009 statement on the use of part-time faculty? (See https://www.mla.org/statement_faculty.) Is it possible, for instance, for schools/departments to be banned from conducting MLA interviews until they treat their part-timers more in accordance with the guidelines the organization values?

    I’ve often wondered about specific, concrete actions MLA could take as an organization to help correct faculty inequity. This would be a memorable one, if it could happen (practically and legally).

  3. Maha Bali says:

    This was SUCH a good read! I remember the first time our uni moved from an academic to a non-academic president. I learned about corporatization and neoliberalism. Your point about having academics as admins is a good one. They might not “run” a uni more efficiently, but they will hopefully have “educational” rather than “corporate” values, and that can make all the difference. You’re also completely right about money being available but not being spent on education.
    The problem is that even when people get a chance to speak up as you have done or at their own university’s committees, meetings, etc., administrators don’t listen. A total disconnect? I’m just at the beginning of my career and can’t get my head around this. And you’re right if adjuncts stopped teaching universities would collapse. But maybe it is the full-timers with stable jobs who can afford to strike in favor of adjuncts? Would they be willing to?

  4. Shawn Warren says:

    Hello Joe,

    I am a Canadian expat living in Washington state, with a decade of experience as an adjunct. Here is a hint of the disruptive solution which I advocate: http://professionalsocietyofacademics.blogspot.com/2014/04/academics-as-vendors-for-universities.html

    This solution might seem impractical to some as well. It is not, though it does require some imagination to understand. It outlines action that better meets the needs of all interested parties – institutions, academics, students and society – and introduces a truly new model for the provision of higher education, without the impractical mass abandonment of the current one.

    Here is a more complete account of the disruptive model I am developing: http://professionalsocietyofacademics.blogspot.com/2013/07/a-new-tender-for-higher-education.html

    As a single, brief criticism of your suggestion consider this: Suppose we grant there is enough money in the system that, if appropriately allocated at the university level, would properly compensate the exploited existing population of adjuncts. This would not be sufficient to meet the demand, either from ALL the academics who wish to earn a living providing high education services or ALL the students (and others) who seek such services. Consider that in California alone over 500,000 students were on waiting lists to gain access to higher education last year…

    We need a model that can accommodate ALL the academics and students, and the current institutional model simply cannot hope to do that – even with more equitable allocation of funds. The physical facilities (much of which is in desperate need of repair). support staff and academic staff is simply not there and would require infusion of more (new) money to accomplish this – not merely the reallocation of existing funding.

    No, what we need is a different higher education model – not the same one torn down, taught a lesson and reconstituted. I have such an alternative in waiting. I need others to help me develop and promote it. Are you interested?

  5. Thanks for the post Joe! I appreciate the personal nature of your post to communicate a problem. I don’t think that change will not come from the inside, for it seems that the insiders can’t see the forest for the trees. If we consider that the forest is not HE but rather “ability placed at best-fit” then we can only start to see new business models that accept HE as a key activity, i.e. a “tree” in the forest. And if we can consider that the forest is not “placement at best-fit” but rather “a life well-lived” then we can only start to see new business models that accept “placement” as a key activity, i.e. a “tree” in the forest.

    My point is this: until leaders quickly accept that the HE business model is not a value proposition in need of subsidy but rather a key activity in need of subsidy in a much broader scope of market “pain points” you won’t see much change any time soon. However, I can assure you that the change agent will be a platform with associated network effects that reduces/eliminates the market’s greatest pain point the most efficiently and effectively. Gallup has qualitatively and quantitatively shown that “education” IS NOT the market’s greatest pain point, but again, only a key activity in support of a bigger problem/solution.

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