In a report on part-time faculty members issued by the American Federation of Teachers in March, one paragraph opens with a stunning line: Adjuncts, it reads, "have varying degrees of seniority at the institutions where they work."
The paragraph, in "American Academic: A National Survey of Part-Time/Adjunct Faculty," goes on to parse how many of the 500 faculty members surveyed have been teaching at the same institution (60 percent), and for how long (six to 20 years). So much for the common wisdom that adjuncts are not worth higher compensation, because we're not committed to our institutions.
Seniority usually indicates measures of job security that increase with service. But the only thing the word "seniority" means in that AFT report is how long those surveyed have held onto the same jobs.
Few contingent faculty members have seniority to any degree: It's our very lack of seniority rights that make us contingent employees. By working contract to contract, we bring institutions both cost savings and the flexibility that enables them to accommodate fluctuating enrollments and other variables. Some adjuncts have successfully bargained for the right of first refusal when teaching assignments are made (adjuncts who have been teaching the longest get offered the courses first).
But more commonly, seniority means nothing for an adjunct. As a new department head told a colleague of mine who had 30 years on the job and was worried when his next semester's schedule was delayed, "Part-time faculty have no seniority."
That the AFT report didn't distinguish those two definitions of a term so crucial to the very population group it claimed to study seems significant in a couple of ways. Hart Research Associates, which conducted the survey for the AFT, does make other fine vocabulary distinctions: Its Web site points out that the company does "strategic research, not just polling or market research," and identifies its goal as "not merely to furnish interesting information; rather, we aim to provide the relevant decision making recommendations on which successful planning is built. ... All of us use our skills in every way we can to work toward the desired outcome."
Desired outcomes would be dictated by the clients, in this case the AFT, a union that purports to represent both part- and full-time faculty members but that didn't catch the fuzzy vocabulary in the report it had commissioned to illustrate its concern, presumably about, and for, contingent faculty members.
In fact, as dismayed adjuncts who posted comments about the report on an e-mail discussion group said, the AFT might just as well have commissioned the fuzziness itself (including the finding that most of us love teaching so much that "compensation appears not to be a major expectation"), as a way to justify the glacial pace at which the union has achieved contractual gains for contingent faculty members over the last couple of decades.
It's true, as the report's executive summary states, that the union now "is conducting an extensive national campaign to bring equitable salary and working conditions to contingent faculty and also to build a stronger corps of full-time tenured faculty in higher education." However, many adjuncts have questioned whether AFT and other unions that represent both sets of faculty members are working toward the first goal as hard as they are toward the second. In practice, the two goals can be mutually exclusive, partly because of budget limitations: Given a choice between more tenure-track positions and more money to pay adjuncts equitably, how many departments would choose the latter? And how many would choose fresh hires to fill the new tenure-track lines rather than long-serving adjuncts?
In our particular industry, credentials rule over experience and other standard criteria for seniority and promotion, and sometimes over judgment and common sense. In most professions, it's accepted that the longer you do a job, the better you get at it. But that's not perceived as true of adjuncts. In academe, the assumption is that if you spend more than a couple of years working in contingent teaching positions, something must be seriously wrong with you.
Even Hart Research Associates reports that 44 percent of its survey respondents believe they are not given a fair shot at full-time positions. The qualification that is preferred over teaching experience is a brand-new degree. "And a lot of the rest is luck," shrugs an exhausted tenure-track colleague, perhaps trying to make me feel better.
But as with so many of the symptoms of inequity between academe's two faculty tiers, fairness is only part of the problem. The other part is damage to the integrity of the institution itself: Too much veneration of credentials introduces a disconnect between declared values and practices, between aims and means.
At a recent conference, someone at my dinner table confessed to having been teaching in higher education for 24 years, but only the past four on the tenure track.
"Wow," I said. "Congratulations!" He was an unassuming-looking guy, but I was suddenly awed with what I realized must have been his hidden reserves of fortitude, not only to survive two decades of contingent teaching but also to have, at last, persuaded at least one institution to see adjunct experience as worthy of additional support. "Do you realize how rare it is to jump tracks like that? That must have taken some doing!"
"Not really," he said, finishing a mouthful. "You see, I finally just got the degree. I went back and got it." He was mumbling, his eyes on his plate, and others at the table, newly credentialed themselves, looked down, too.
What we need to put this academic house of ours in order—in a way that we can all be proud of—is fewer of our own particular definitions, credentials, and procedures, and more of all three that make sense to everyone. The rules shouldn't just benefit the house. That's the difference between colleges and casinos, or it should be.