• September 3, 2015

Sticks and Stones, or Titles and Truth?

Adjunct Track Illustration Careers

Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

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.


1. charleneosgood - September 23, 2009 at 12:32 am

<Comment removed by moderator>

2. timebandit - September 23, 2009 at 07:31 am

The plight of some adjuncts is really terrible, and we should certainly try to do things to make this easier for those people who teach part time. However, I think that if you don't get on the tenure track within a few years of finishing the PhD, it is much more sensible to change careers, because as the economists will tell you, the presence of all this contingent labor is a sign of oversupply of labor. Naturally, this forces wages down, and it is unlikely that we will go back to the 1950s style university, with a large tenure track faculty. (It is no more likely than the US steel industry reemerging, despite the negative consequences for former steel workers.)

But if you change careers, perhaps to the always-in-demand high school teaching, you could still adjunct for one or two courses, as you no doubt love your subject, and it wouldn't be in an exploitative labor condition like it is for full-time adjuncts. I love my research, but if the academic job market doesn't work out, there are opportunities for me elsewhere, and I might teach a course on the side....

As for organizing, if you would really like to do something revolutionary, it would be to lobby to limit the number of PhDs in crowded fields like English and History, the way they do with medical degrees. (Some of us can always go work in the public or private sector, so this is not necessarily the best idea across the board.) Even better? Get the word out to PhD students that their chances of getting a tenure track position are low, so that they can plan ahead. I think that the expectation of getting a tenure track job is the most insidious problem, because we're not like medical doctors with almost guaranteed placement, we're more like athletes - many will try, only some will place.

3. thirdcamper2 - September 23, 2009 at 08:33 am

"Special-contract faculty" is the term used at the institution where I teach. It seems fairly respectful and is accurate: each has their own extent of teaching and own terms of employment. Some in fact are on semi-permanent one-year contracts.

4. vfichera - September 23, 2009 at 10:06 am

It isn't just the adjunct/contingent faculty "that dare not speaks its name" for university administrators seek to hide the very existence and numbers of faculty in these positions, e.g., cf. Inside Higher Ed's coverage of higher education administrations' deliberate shadings of the truth in the U.S. News college rankings surveys: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/09/14/usnews

There doesn't appear to be any coverage of these administration shenanigans (first revealed at an AFT blog: http://www.aftface.org/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=561) in the Chronicle of Higher Education, though. Why is that exactly?

Totem and taboo.

5. eicherd - September 23, 2009 at 10:06 am

I came from a background of many years in Corporate America and now that I am a "full-time" faculty, I wonder why faculty is not "tagged", faculty. Some titles are important, but in the whole scheme of things how important is it to be labeled "adjunct", "part-time", or "full-time?" What may be more important to the survival of higher education is a candid dialogue about tenure. I can't seem to get a good answer from the academic dinosaurs why we have tenure. I always thought if you did a good job you would be retained, if not, you wouldn't. Perhaps higher education needs to do what we continue to tell students....be creative, think at a higher level. Come on "dinosaurs" let's get into the 21st Century.

6. vcvaile - September 23, 2009 at 11:03 am

I identify with your colleague on so many levels and am also healthier and happier despite "difficult economic conditions. Remind your friend the next time you meet that he could put "freedom from non-renewal" to good use by getting involved. After all, the not-hired cannot be fired for speaking out.

As for naming, do you recall the hackneyed expression? "It doesn't matter what you call me as long as you don't call me late for dinner?" First, comes a place at the table.

7. cwinton - September 23, 2009 at 11:57 am

At one time adjunct professors were fairly rare among us and were so called to indicate they were disciplinary specialists hired to bring their expertise to bear on subjects where "permanent" faculty capabilities did not reach. As such they were not involved in shaping the research and curricular agenda of the institution and were contracted ad hoc to add breadth to course offerings. That obviously is no longer the case. Faculty are those who instruct the students, so perhaps we should simply tag everyone according to role: professor, lecturer, specialist, etc. The term adjunct poorly communicates the role played by the individuals contracted in this capacity.

8. emwhite - September 23, 2009 at 12:01 pm

The comment by Prof. Eicherd deserves a reply. He is not alone in his lack of awareness of the connection between tenure and academic freedom. Indeed, coming from the world of Corporate America, he puts "doing a good job" in corporate terms, pleasing the boss. He really needs to do some research in academic traditions and the reasons why academic freedom exists. He might then appreciate that these are not dinosaur concerns, but important privileges so we can do a good job for the society, which sometimes means displeasing the boss.

9. vfichera - September 23, 2009 at 12:30 pm

@emwhite and @eicherd

Unfortunately, the academic freedom at issue in the case of the "axed" adjunct of the article is likely a more complex case than meets the eye.

Yes, adjuncts are often hired to teach from prescribed "syllabi" in multi-section courses; indeed, tenure stream faculty teaching those courses are usually expected to do the same. This is one of the reasons that tenured faculty avoid teaching at the lower-levels of the curriculum: they prefer individual faculty academic freedom over the responsibilities of the proper exercise of collective faculty academic freedom.

In fact, ironically, this prescribed syllabus, content and approaches mandate is one which emanates from the faculty's academic freedom and responsibility to develop approved degree curricula -- and this freedom of the faculty collective to impose its will on multi-section courses has not usually been deemed counter to even AAUP's own policies. However, this academic freedom has, in recent years, been transferred from the faculty to the administration by the courts in developing case histories of the "academic freedom of the university" vs. the academic freedom of the individual faculty member.

Ergo, in a post-scriptum to my earlier posting, a chronicling of higher education administration might find little quarrel with the "axing" of an adjunct who refused to conform. Which would bring us to the conclusion that the publishing of this article is an example, as well, of "token and taboo."

10. laoshi - September 24, 2009 at 12:32 pm

Scab fits.

11. smstreet - September 25, 2009 at 07:21 pm

While I'm impressed by the courage of the above responder, I wonder at the accuracy of the metaphor. For one thing, even if you don't pick at us, we're not going to go away. For another, I don't know any contingent who's working because non-contingents refuse to. Most tenure-stream faculty I've worked with have seemed too concerned with their own priorities, either their personal career or departmental ones, to stand up to anyone anywhere near the purse strings. Recent actions in California are the exception. But other tenure-stream faculty, including presumably the responder above, should realize they have more to gain from supporting contingents than continuing a losing battle to keep us down or shut us out. What's happening to us will happen to you unless you extend your own job conditions -- from equitable pay and step-promotions to academic freedom -- to contingents. Expand the faculty base instead of shrinking it.


12. emwhite - September 26, 2009 at 02:43 pm

I think VFichera is defining academic freedom differently than I am. Academic freedom does not mean a teacher can do anything he/she wants in the classroom; the course does not belong to the teacher but to the faculty which approved it. The academic freedom that is important for society--the reason we are uniquely entitled to it--is to be free from sanctions for what we say or write, even if that displeases the institution or its funders. That is a crucial privilege of the college professor and one that adjuncts as well as tenure folk need to be aware of, and treasure.

13. drnommy1 - September 28, 2009 at 09:58 am

This is in response to emwhite's first comment above. I agree with him/her that tenure is important in its guarantees of academic freedom. However, given that importance, how is it that at many institutions, half or nearly half the faculty don't have it? Doesn't that undermine our arguments over its importance?

14. laoshi - October 01, 2009 at 09:20 am

By accepting adjunct posts, adjuncts encourage less tenure-track faculty positions for everybody. Thus they reduce the total amount of union represented jobs that would be available for everybody. Scab fits.

Adjuncts aren't faculty.

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