This is not the post I thought about writing. I’ll get to that post later. Today, this is the post I need to write.
There is a crisis in higher education. And because I suspect everyone reading this blog is in academia, you know exactly what it is: the contingent labor problem.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Contingent laborers are not a problem. In my experience – I have been associated with universities in some form since 1992 – I have seen some of the finest teaching come form those who are paid the least. At my current job, some of the finest, most dedicated, best-trained teachers are those who work on semester-by-semester contracts. No, what I mean is that the situation of contingent labor itself is a problem.
In the event you have missed the series of articles on this topic, please take a few minutes to read or bookmark the following:
(Trust me, there are more.)
I worked as an adjunct for many years, first when taking time off between my MA and PhD, and then during my PhD years to supplement my income. I have some first-hand knowledge of how adjuncts are treated in academia. It was always shocking to me how differently I was treated as an adjunct. As a graduate student, I was an investment. As an adjunct, I was a necessary evil whose presence both supported and antagonized my tenure-track colleagues; I was one of the “staff” who allowed those colleagues to teach their upper-division courses, while at the same time I was part of the reason why students did so poorly in those upper-division classes. I was given the “opportunity” to do extra work for no compensation, and I was denied such amenities as office space and institutional support. But I was happy for the job, a job that I loved (I am always happy when I’m in the classroom), and so I kept my mouth shut and did my job. I did it because I knew it was temporary. Because I knew – like everyone else just knows – that someday I would have that tenure-track job.
And now I do. I have a tenure-track job. I have an excellent tenure-track job. I have excellent health benefits. I make enough money to support a comfortable lifestyle. I enjoy academic freedom, and can pursue my teaching and research goals without penalty. And as of this semester, I have tenure,* which means I will no longer have to reapply to my job in the out-dated system that is called “reappointment.” I am now in that position that I always knew I would be in.
And as the philosopher once said, “with great power comes great responsibility.”** I no no longer have to worry about reappointment. I can be fired for cause, certainly. But not because I rock the boat. And in the words of another great philosopher, “I aim to misbehave.”
I remember those colleagues of mine, during my adjunct years (and grad student years), who never taught a lower-division course. That’s what adjuncts and grad students are for. Maybe it’s because I spent so much time adjuncting, but I love lower-division courses. My favorite course to teach is Introduction to Literature. I ask for as many sections of this 100-level course as I can get. I love meeting students as freshmen, and working with them through their senior-level courses. And I admire those of my colleagues who also teach lower-division courses. That said, there is a large – and growing – number of sections being taught by adjuncts. By well-trained, passionate, more-than–qualified adjuncts whose teaching is not supported or compensated in the same way that mine is. And so in what is becoming the tradition with this blog, I want to ask a question:
What do I need to do?
In other words, I know there is a problem. I see it every day. And I have no idea how to solve it.
I have several ideas about what to do, but I have no clue how effective these would be. More importantly, I have no clue how appropriate these would be. For instance, I would love to see adjunct representation on department and university committees, and representation for the adjunct community on the faculty senate. These various administrative bodies all make decisions that directly affect the working conditions of adjuncts. And as adjuncts teach a growing number of those courses, they should be part of the discussion. As adjuncts teach a growing number of lower-division university general education courses, their expertise should help inform the policy changes that tenure-track faculty impose. However, I aso know that any such service work is above-load for adjuncts, and I would hate to force them to participate in a process without direct compensation.*** How do we involve adjuncts without giving them more unpaid work?
I’m not a department chair. I’m not a dean. I’m not a president. I’m one recently-tenured faculty member. So I ask, what can I do? I’m not asking this in terms of hopeless desperation; I’m not throwing in the towel and deciding that because I am not King of the World, I have no power. I’m asking because I want ideas. I’m asking because I am part of a university community that I passionately love. I’m asking because I know that we *can* do better. I just don’t know how.
I don’t want to wrap my tenure around me like a banket, keeping at bay the chill winds of academic labor that I can safely avoid. I don’t want to be a part of the problem by not being part of the solution.
*That is to say, I passed my department vote. My tenure file still needs to be reviewed by the various leves of university, system, and state administration. But the important vote, the department vote, went in my favor.
**Of course, I mean Uncle Ben, not Voltaire.
***If I were King of the World, there would be pay. But I’m not king, and the coffers are not at my disposal.