Our hallway conversation was furtive, whispered hurriedly in the shadows of my office doorway. We kept an eye out for eavesdroppers, the casual hall walker trolling for gossip. We were careful, but excited.
"You too?" he said. I nodded. Me too.
We grinned at each other. If we had been kids, we would have invented a secret handshake on the spot. Here, in the halls of discontent, I had found a kindred spirit: another faculty member who worked under renewable annual contracts and liked it that way. His reasons for preferring contracts to the tenure track were not very different from mine. And we had much the same reasons for keeping these thoughts to ourselves.
It's no secret that to be a contract faculty member at any institution usually means you make less money than your tenure-track peers and teach more sections of whatever subject you've signed on to teach. At my institution, a non-tenure-track faculty member in the English department with a terminal degree starts at $29,000 a year and teaches four courses a semester. An assistant professor on the tenure track in English would start at a salary in the mid-30's.
We teach when and where we are needed most: usually in the afternoons and evenings, usually four sections of first-year composition, with 18 to 25 students in each section. Sometimes, when the department can afford our absence from teaching composition, we teach a class or two of creative writing or literature. We have little control over what we will teach, semester to semester; we have little official assurance we will even be hired back from one year to the next. Only a few of us serve on committees that make serious decisions about departmental matters. We all share offices and phones, mailboxes, and computers.
That's the bad news. That's the news on which my fellow instructors like to dwell. They grumble that the salary is low, the working conditions are bad. They fret about their academic freedom in the classroom. They feel slighted by what they see as minimal respect from tenured peers. They are sure that some new tenure-track faculty member got more of something than they ever had: a better course, a better classroom, a better time of day to teach, more attention and praise from the powers that be.
I listen to their frustrations, and agree in part. It would be grand to always get the course, room, time, and attention we desire. It would be terrific to make more money, teach fewer sections, and have some greater voice in where the department is headed. It would be comforting to be a part of the inner circle of politics, decisions, and power. It might even be wonderful to have "a job for life."
Still, here is what I know: I will be hired back.
My institution needs its legions of non-tenure-track instructors, and hires most of us back year after year. Contract faculty members here are, in theory, a fluid budget item. Officially, if money or enrollment warrants it, we can be dropped. In practice, we are a fixture. We are hired back because, without mincing words, we are cheap labor. In effect, we do have a job for life.
I have academic freedom. I have been able to teach what I believe in, and teach in the ways I see most appropriate. I have addressed controversial subjects in my classes, used language as I see fit, been clear that I stand politically left of center even though this is hugely at odds with the views of most of my students. And I have kept my job. Indeed, it has never been threatened.
I love what I do. I teach writing -- first-year composition and creative writing. The students I teach are the children of blue-collar parents; they are often the first in their families to go to college. They are not polished, not afraid to say what they think, not shy about asking me my own favorite question: Why? As much as they learn from me, I learn from them.
Finally, there is this: I have come to academe midlife, after working in various white-collar jobs (in public relations and journalism). I've seen people hired or given raises because of good looks, obsequious fawning, social connections. I've seen people fired for bad wardrobes, straightforward personalities, the wrong friends. In those "real world" jobs, I had to pretend to be keen on groupthink, smile through gritted teeth while toeing the corporate party line, hobnob with the legions of double-talking, backstabbing ladder-climbers.
As a contract faculty member, I am blissfully thankful that I don't have to do any of this. My responsibility to my institution is this: Teach. I come to the university, I meet my four classes, I teach them with full vigor and attention, and then when I am done, the rest of my time is my own. Oh, all right, the time I have outside of preparing for class, meeting with students, and grading 100 essays is my own.
In return, I have some of the perks of the tenure-track life, without the high price that tenure-track professors must pay, and without the psychic drain of the corporate world. I am paid a livable salary (for the part of the country I live in), I receive health, retirement, and other benefits, and I have generous opportunities for institutional support for travel and scholarship.
I am also largely my own boss. I can write and read and produce what I choose. I can serve on the committees that matter to me. I can turn down projects that don't. I am not desperately trying to leap over that ever-rising bar of tenure, carve out an identifiable niche, kowtow to institutional politics, make a name for myself on campus or elsewhere.
Even as I say that, I should make this clear: I do carry my weight at my institution. I take on tasks that I don't necessarily enjoy, but that nevertheless need to be done. I have read scores of placement exams, served on textbook and curricular committees, labored with colleagues on pilot programs, advised honors and graduate theses. I do stay active in my field. I write and publish regularly, earn internal and external grants, win awards for my writing. As my students would say: I'm not a slacker.
Still, if I were on the tenure track, there are fabulous projects I would not even be considering. For instance, I am currently fascinated by the role that storytelling plays in community building. So, I'm off this summer to attend a weeklong institute on just this subject. Is there a book in this? A class? Some parallel with a university project? Papers to write and present? Is this remotely related to my graduate work? Maybe, maybe not. But that is not one of my concerns. All I know is that I have a curiosity, and I want to follow it. I can, without any hesitation, because I'm not trying to position myself for tenure with every move that I make.
My secret friend has written and published a book on religious studies. Does this have anything to do with the study of English? He has been told by more than one of our tenured colleagues that it does not. But, he laughs, who cares? This is what interests him. And, he says, this is a perfect example of why he doesn't want to be on the tenure track: He doesn't want to be told what he should or should not pursue intellectually.
Neither do I. We both relish our own brand of academic freedom.
Still, neither of us is stupid. We know that to admit that we like being contract faculty members is to commit a kind of career suicide.
There is an expectation within the halls of academe that we should all abhor the contractual system, all clamor for more tenure slots, more pay, more responsibility, more influence. To do otherwise is to invite suspicion or derision from most of our peers: We must be an administrative spy, probably an inferior teacher, definitely a second-rate scholar, or obviously just lazy.
There is also this: To admit we like working under contract, and not under tenure, is to forever close the door to tenure-track positions. Until all of academe operates under the contractual system, then I am under no illusions. If I ever want to make more money, ever want to lighten my teaching load, I will have to give up the benefits of contract teaching and submit to the scrabbling angst-ridden life of the tenure-track world.
I'm not ready to do that, not just yet. So for now, like my friend, I'm a contract faculty member and secretly proud of it.