Sticks and Stones, or Titles and Truth?

Brian Taylor

September 23, 2009

Recently I had coffee with a colleague I hadn't seen since his nonrenewal years ago. At the age of 62, after more than a decade of commuting between two part-time teaching jobs, he had run afoul first of one department chair, then another. My friend contested both times, holding forth to tenured professors and union colleagues who were unswayed by his articulate appeals for equity. He left pretty unhappy.

He talked in a dispassionate, almost nostalgic way about the psychological effects of the word "adjunct," now that he's finally out from under it. As our default descriptor, if not a contractual title, the term is odious to many. Its Webster's II denotation—"attached to another, subordinate, dependent"—seems to indicate we're not really essential to a college or university's main functions or concerns.

Worse yet is the dreaded label of "part-timer" or "part-time people" (as a T-shirt campaign for adjuncts' rights once asked, "What are we the rest of the time, wolves?").

Better to emphasize the terms of the contract than the person, as in "faculty serving on part-time appointments." But as many point out, so-called part-time faculty members are often teaching the most labor-intensive courses, as many or more of them in any given semester than our so-called full-time colleagues.

"Contingent" has some of the same connotations as adjunct, maybe because it sounds a little like "tangent." But it's meant to refer to the conditions of our contracts, which usually state that our employment is dependent on enrollment and/or money ("likely but not certain to occur," in other words, as Webster's II puts it). The Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor chose its terminology carefully for this reason, as did its child, the emerging New Faculty Majority: The National Coalition for Adjunct & Contingent Equity, which covers both bases.

When its meaning is understood, "contingent" has become commonly accepted, especially when it's used as an adjective in front of "faculty members," which is what we are and would like to be considered, first and foremost.

Debates over titles can be trivial, of course. A yearlong panel on one campus recommended adopting "associate faculty member" for non-tenure-track instructors who work either full time or part time. For the next several years, campus documents were edited to reflect the new terminology, and a great fuss was made to use the right wording in labor-management discussions: "The concerns of our adjuncts—excuse me, our associate faculty … "

Even so, those sentences still tended to end with " will remain unaddressed."

What we need to watch out for are hurtful or disparaging assumptions, especially in titles determined by people with an interest in reinforcing the two-tiered status quo. Even apparent accuracy can skew the reality of our jobs when it connotes quality, dedication, or the lack thereof: "Nontenurable" or "non-tenure-track" can imply unworthiness, defining us by what we're not, what we lack.

My state system avoids that pitfall sometimes by using a contractual term, "qualified academic rank," but it also raises questions, especially in its Martian-sounding abbreviation, "QAR lecturer." Neutral titles like instructor or lecturer can obscure real distinctions that need to be dealt with: For example, in the State University of New York system, part-time and full-time lecturers have the same title, "lecturer," but the salary mininums paid to the full timers are set by the state while the salaries of part timers are set campus by campus. The shared title hides the potential for significant pay disparities.

Officially blurring such essential differences in working conditions with a common title can also exacerbate a struggle for distinction in a system whose terminology distinguishes none. Never mind undermining collegiality, unspoken assumptions about the relative quality and worthiness of full-time versus part-time contingents can foster anticollegiality. A kind of house-worker vs. field-worker rivalry can set in, and prevent contingent faculty members from uniting to organize effectively. We're a varied and often desperate lot, and the career crumbs available to us are so few, compared with the cake dish held out to our tenure-track colleagues, that we can behave like lab rats with unacceptable cage density.

Is it any wonder, then, that even the most sympathetic of our tenured colleagues—whether preoccupied by the pursuit of tenure or lightheaded at having gotten it—can inadvertently reinforce negative attitudes toward us even in bemoaning them? Consider an Academic Leader article distributed by the American Council on Education's Department Chair Online Resource Center: "Managing a Department's Adjunct Faculty: Let Them Eat Sweet Rolls." The authors offer a laudable suggestion for a departmental breakfast that can integrate contingent faculty members with tenure-track professors and pay for itself "many times over in problems prevented, good will generated, and collegiality confirmed." But the Marie Antoinette reference could undermine the whole effort if half those invited were to hear it.

If we're "the faculty that dare not speak its name," in the witticism of one colleague, it's because in the limited vocabulary of the institutions where we spend our time and energies, the gap between the work we do and the titles we're given is unspeakable.

The issue over which my friend lost his last job was talking about truth in a business course. On that campus, the business department was paying the English department to teach writing courses for business majors. As my friend understood his charge, it included not just teaching students how to cite and document written material but also a writer's obligation to synthesize such material thoughtfully. He wanted to encourage students to think for themselves, reading and writing their way to the truth as they saw it, rather than merely declaring some already-established opinion and throwing in a few facts as "evidence."

"Just teach them the grammar," the chair had told him, which was how the business department conceived of the writing task; otherwise, it would find someone else to do it, and the English department would lose the extra money.

My friend didn't obey, and he's no longer demeaned by any titles conferred by institutions of higher learning. The economic terms of his retirement are at least as difficult as his teaching career's were. When I saw him over coffee, he still chose his words carefully, as he had before he was axed (excuse me, "nonrenewed") for trying to teach truth over punctuation. And he looked a lot healthier.

Steve Street, a lecturer in the writing program at the State University of New York College at Buffalo, has taught writing and literature in colleges and universities since 1980, never on the tenure track. He writes occasionally for the Adjunct Track column.