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The Instructors Formerly Known as ‘Adjuncts’

The hive mind of academic word usage has been buzzing busily over the last few years, trying to come up with a useful alternative title for those of us who are not, and probably never will be, on the tenure track.

This linguistic task of nomenclature was ignored for many years for the simple reason that we, the untenured faculty, were very much in the minority, our corpus largely comprising young academics looking for their first job, professors of practice, active emeriti, and those misfits—some happy, some not—who always seem to populate the more friable margins of employment in any field. Our pay was low, our prestige lower, and we were thoroughly and unthinkingly disfranchised by the institutions that employed us.

But today things have changed, changed utterly. We are still at the low end of the pay-and-prestige scale, still have not achieved suffrage, but we have grown in numbers. Indeed, we are legion. Blame what you will—the baby boom, the excess of Ph.D.’s, the mushrooming of highly paid administrators, the Internet, the almighty market—the simple fact is that our ranks have grown to the point that in many cases we outnumber our tenured coworkers. And as higher education surveys this new reality, like a bleary-eyed Rip van Winkle gaping and blinking at his changed world, it has been realized that Something Must Be Done. The first thing to do, of course, is the naming of the animals.

“Adjunct” worked well for many years. To the untutored ear, it even sounded vaguely prestigious. “I’m not just a professor; I’m an adjunct professor.” But the linguistic process of pejoration, which has brought to grief many words originally meant to be an improvement on a previous stigma-ridden formulation (consider “retarded”), began doing its wicked work on “adjunct.”

The process started, perhaps, at academic conferences, where all of the attendees knew exactly what the word meant, thank you very much. Truth to tell, Professors Sneerwell and Backbite had seen and snubbed these creatures in the halls of their departments more often than they cared to, and no, they were not impressed by their papers in that session. Thus it played out, at least in the minds of some.

Either way, suddenly the word seemed to reveal the truth of its root, which darkly suggested the notion of one thing being joined physically to another, rather like a two-headed goat or an irradiated fish with extra sets of eyes, or a goiter. No wonder some recoiled from us.

“Contingent” was also run up the flagpole of usage. This word was useful in that it carried the sense that this class of academic was used only for, well, contingencies, so it had the advantage of making for the administration a useful political point about the putative intermittence of these untenured appointments. It didn’t last, though. Perhaps administrators at those institutions where the tenured faculty were outnumbered by the contingents saw the blatant absurdity of the title. Or perhaps, again, the root of the word, which has one thing not necessarily connecting with but touching another, was in the end too creepily unpleasant to consider. Noli me tangere, said the Savior to the prostitute.

The word for us that now seems to be most in vogue (we of this precarious academic tribe tend to read the help-wanted ads on a regular basis) is “nontenured,” along with the term “non-tenure-track faculty.” Yes, it is a mouthful, but it may be shortened to NTT, and it rightfully captures the essence of how academia sees us.

We are defined, at this moment, not by who we are, but by who we are not; by what we lack, by what is not available to us. I can think of no such word that we use to describe any other field, no matter how lowly that field may be stereotypically regarded. Even the word ”janitor” has a whiff of classicality to it. The closest I can think of is “untouchable.” But that word is itself evidently a poor translation of the Sanskrit for “broken” and “crushed.” Perhaps my learned readers have suggestions.

Will ”non-tenure-track” stick? Who knows? Most of us NTTs are often too busy lining up employment for the future, or driving from campus to campus and searching for nonexistent parking spaces at swollen urban campuses to bother about such things. Not to mention, of course, the daily endeavor of all academics: ensuring that our students get the best of what we can offer while we also try to keep up with our research.

So I, for one, ponder this issue of what the world calls me more as an amusing philosophical diversion than anything else. Usage mocks our attempts to scientifically nail down language, and I suspect that NTT will fare no better than its forerunners. The worm of stigma already munches at its heart.

But, as Henry Miller said, “Always merry and bright.” Between classes I walk around campus to stretch my legs, loitering a while in the shadow of the brand-spanking-new sports and recreation center, a cathedral to aerobicity and muscularity, which towers like Kubla Khan’s pleasure dome over the quad and over the holy ground of the plastic-sodded football field, and I think how lucky I am to be doing what I love, even though I am a nontenured creature. I return to my office to prepare, like E.E. Cummings, my nonlectures.

James Dempsey is an instructor in the department of humanities and arts at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He is a former columnist at the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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