Being a contingent employee is never a secure gig. Whether you are an adjunct making peanuts or a corporate consultant making $200 an hour, your employment is at-will and terminable for the slightest of reasons.
In academe, your job performance is often less relevant to your continued employment than other, ancillary factors. What follows are some of those factors—things that won't get you fired immediately from the job but will get you nonrenewed at the end of your annual contract.
Miss faculty events. Attend everything, show interest, be personable. It's amazing how maligned you'll be for skipping any event. If there is a job talk when you are teaching, cancel class and go to the talk because, otherwise, your absence will be noted. If the department is getting drunk together when you are teaching, cancel class. If you are sick with bronchitis while your department is watching a documentary together, take your antibiotics, bundle up, and get there. Anything less and you are not "engaged" or "fostering a sense of community."
Of course, don't tell anyone you are canceling class. Everyone else is doing it, too, but no one is talking about it. And if they are on the tenure track, they don't care anyhow. The (double) standards only apply for the contingent.
Ask for a letter of recommendation. You are contingent and should be looking for permanent, tenure-track employment. But the act of asking for a recommendation is considered traitorous: You are looking to leave, you are not building community, you are putting them in a bind if they have to replace you.
You can count on that letter being lukewarm or an impersonal, cut-and-paste from your last teaching evaluation that will be transparently cookie-cutter to anyone considering your dossier. You are better off getting a letter from a colleague who will glow about you.
Trusting the help. Secretaries are sometimes your allies, often your enemies, but never your friends. Resist the urge to hang out and chitchat with them—other faculty members will assume you don't have enough to do or are shirking your duties. Don't Facebook friend any of them (actually, don't friend anyone in your department). The secretaries work for your boss, who gets to patrol your personal life by proxy if you friend them on Facebook.
Do not believe that just because they open up to you about their dating woes or parenting issues that there is an equal relationship there. They have job rights; you do not.
Irritate the writing center. Do not blindly or naïvely presume that sending students to the campus writing center will help them become better writers. Do not blindly or naïvely presume that your name is not being tracked in association with the students you send there. Send too many: You will be accused of not "teaching." Send them too early: Your assignments must not be validly constructed if the student comes in during the drafting process. Send too few: You are not availing yourself of the resources.
Make sure you send back a fawning, praising message to the director of the writing center any time he (or she) sends you an uninstructive "report" from one of your students' visits. The director may have no influence over policy, and no one wants his job, but one word from him about your "deficiencies" will sink you with the department chair who doesn't want to deal with a cranky writing-center director.
Whatever you do, never send a "complainer" to the writing center. Grumpy students who dislike any aspect of the experience will vent to anyone who'll listen, and no matter how specific or personal the complaint is about how the writing center failed to help them, the director will lay the complaint at your door.
Irritate your students. Departments will ignore mediocre student evaluations for a tenured faculty member. After all, they've already been vetted by the most important body (the other tenured faculty). It only takes a handful of students for a contingent faculty member to lose his or her job. So you must be attentive throughout the semester: Which students are underperforming? Who appears to be a malcontent or a complainer? Then take appropriate steps to make them all happier.
Never inflate grades, but definitely give extra opportunities to revise or do extra credit to students who seem like squeaky wheels. It only takes a handful of them to distort your evaluation numbers for the semester. A department chair will never say you are fired for these evaluations but will casually quote your "numbers" and what quartile your "evaluates students fairly" number is in.
Ignore RateMyProfessors.com and other social media. It should be obvious to anyone who has been on the Internet that an anonymous rating is relatively worthless. That is even more obvious on a site like RateMyProfessors, where the glowing reviews often sound written by someone with a Ph.D., and the bad reviews often sound like the whining rants of someone who skipped three months of class, then demanded a "second chance."
Yet do not be surprised to have your department chair quote a comment about you from RateMyProfessors and use it to justify your nonrenewal. Far more damaging is when your chair runs your name through a search engine and finds that someone "twittered" during your class that you are "crazy." Rather than find the student and ask for an explanation, the chair will suggest you don't have control of your classroom if a student twitters on your watch.
Publish. It's the opposite of publish or perish when you are a contingent faculty member. Usually your evaluations and merit raises are based on teaching, not scholarship (though a small percentage of your job description will often include scholarship and service to the department, which you are expected to do, but not in a way that makes you stand out).
Do not publish. Or, if you do, do not admit that you did. It will only foster resentment among your contingent peers, and unless you are told otherwise, you should assume the tenured faculty members have not read and do not care about your work. You may value your research, but it doesn't help you in a contingent position; if anything, it may hinder your quest to keep your job while you, quixotically, search for that tenure-track windmill.
Assume a compliment is a compliment. If the chair informs you that your contract has been renewed, take that as the only real compliment. When anyone tells you that your brown-bag talk was great, question the sincerity. If the report on the observation of your teaching begins with, "I thoroughly enjoyed observing ...," presume that your observer has "small" concerns that will be magnified.
When your colleague—whose contract is up for renewal, too—says, "It's great that you manage to publish while teaching; it must be so hard to find time to write when you are teaching full time," assume that she thinks you barely pay attention to your students, because if she isn't writing articles, you must be the one who is transgressive.
Also, assume that anyone who gives you any of these "compliments" is repeating them to everyone else in your department.
Assume a democracy. Check the fine print. You may have served on hiring, reappointment, or curriculum committees for your department, but the reality is that you were a martinet. The chair has the power. You know how it goes: You make it through three interviews for a tenure-track position with the hiring committee, only to find, as one of the two finalists, that the chair and the dean choose the winning candidate without meeting either finalist. The administrators looked at your CV's and the report of the hiring committee, and made the decision—which was to hire neither of you, due to "the economy".
Your friend volunteers to chair the department's committee on adjunct reappointments this year to ensure there will be no issues with your rehiring. Then the chair tells your friend, "it's not in the department's best interests to reappoint" and refuses to elaborate.
So you ask the dean to elaborate on why you have been, essentially, fired. She tells you that it's not her place to say and that the chair "must" have told you. The faculty union tells you it's a shame, but you are contingent, so there is little anyone can do, other than file a grievance.
You're not reappointed and you feel ashamed, knowing you need to give your best to your students for the rest of the academic year while you know you are redundant. You walk down the hallways trying to discern who knows that you have been drummed out. It's all of them, of course. There's some lip service about how unfair it is, but the tenured professors who support you do little to help, and the other contingents are busy letting their friends know about an impending job opening. Remember who you need to love: the boss.
Not becoming besties with the chair. Don't make the mistake of reading a draft of your chair's tome on an early modern author and giving honest feedback. You'll never see another piece of his writing again. And he may continue to tell you how proud he is of your publication record, and trumpet it to your department, but it won't stop him from resenting you, or not renewing you—the next day.
All of those nuggets are familiar to the thousands of contract employees in academe who can share horror stories of doing their work with dignity and efficacy and yet losing their employment. You get told by esteemed colleagues to take this as a "kick in the pants," pack up your publication-laden CV and your sterling evaluation "numbers," and move forward.
Yeah, because there's a shortage of faculty members in the humanities right now.