Power Lines over Flowers

Contingent Labor: an Interview with Lynée Gaillet and Letizia Guglielmo

 Published on November 7, 2013 /  Written by /  “.” by D. Julien; CC BY-NC 2.0 /  0

On Friday, October 4th, 2013, Hybrid Pedagogy hosted a synchronous #digped conversation on Twitter focused on Pedagogy, Neoliberalism, and Academic Labor. Because contingent labor is a topic that appears to be gaining momentum, I decided to interview Dr. Lynée Gaillet and Dr. Letizia Guglielmo about their upcoming books and their thoughts about the problem of contingency in higher education. The questions below are inspired by #digped participants. In the spirit of promoting community and collaboration, I collected questions posed during the #digped discussion and formatted them as starting points to the various discussions below.

Valerie Robin and Hybrid Pedagogy: Dr. Gaillet and Dr. Guglielmo, I want to hear about your upcoming publication: Could you tell us a little about the book(s) you are working on?

Lynéle Gaillet and Letizia Guglielmo: We are working on two books connected to contingent faculty and scholarly work that we see as complementing one another. The first, titled Academic Publication off the Tenure Track: Contingent Faculty, Scholarly Work, and Cultural Currency in the Academy, is a practical guide that offers strategies for engaging in professional development within a changing academic landscape. Our survey of “how-to-publish” manuals and “advice-to-young-scholars” publications revealed, for the most part, suggestions for tenure-track faculty members or graduate students writing within traditional genres — journal articles, books, conference papers, dissertations, etc. One unfilled niche in the scholarship led us to rethink the ways our profession hires/mentors/advises academics who don’t hold tenure-track positions in traditional departments. Our first book addresses the current protean nature of faculty positions and offers concrete advice for maintaining a research and publishing agenda, even without department (financial or professional) support.

The second text is a collection of essays written largely by contingent faculty whose voices are missing from discussions on academic publication. The title of this one is Scholarly Publication in a Changing Academic Landscape,  The authors share personal stories and strategies for engaging in professional development and scholarly publication with limited resources and support. Chapter topics include gender and contingency, intellectual property, connecting assessment and scholarship, online publication, scholarly teaching, professional development with the National Writing Project, local conferences, and innovative models of collaboration. Eileen Schell is writing the introduction for that volume.

VR: In response to our #digped discussion entitled, “Pedagogy, Neoliberalism and Academic Labor,” I’ll begin with a broad question: How does the current academic labor situation impact teaching and learning?

LG and LG: Teaching loads are increasing at the same time middle-management administrative positions are on the rise. Furthermore, these contingent positions are created in most cases to fulfill immediate teaching demands only, with little support for professional development, scholarly engagement, or innovative or experimental pedagogy. As a result of burgeoning enrollment, class size is increasing, and the need for teachers in general education courses remains a reality semester after semester; however, these positions rarely come with job security or lead to advancement. Scholarship tells us that the best teachers engage in professional development, and reflect upon and share best teaching practices. Since contingent teachers often aren’t seen as faculty members, they are overlooked in faculty decisions that often impact them significantly, resulting in low morale and outsider status in the eyes of administrators, faculty, and students.


VR: Do you feel that the scholarship about professional development and best teaching practices applies to adjuncts? Or is their situation different enough from the traditional tenured or tenure-track situation to warrant an approach more apropos, and probably more inventive?

LG and LG: Given how funding for professional development and research/creative activity is distributed to tenured and tenure-track faculty over adjunct faculty on many college and university campuses, adjunct faculty voices often are left out of ongoing conversations in the scholarship. This absence of voices, however, does not mean that these teaching professionals do not have something significant to add to these conversations. We would argue that in many cases, adjunct faculty have far more teaching experience than tenure-track junior colleagues, and their perspectives and insights are vitally important to a thriving teaching profession. Our work argues for models of professional development that are in many ways driven by contingent faculty and are grounded in and connected to the work that they are already doing. Although the immediate situational context may be different for adjunct faculty when compared to those on the tenure-track, the reality is that many academic and professional conversations still take place in fairly traditional contexts (professional conferences, academic journals, etc.). However, we must keep in mind that the concept of “traditional” publishing is also morphing given current publishing discussions about open access, Creative Commons licensing, publishing on demand venues (that still include the vetting process), digital publishing, and collaboration, and online course designs that get adopted and shared; these changes create unique opportunities for contingent faculty to join ongoing conversations and to make their voices public. The best approach perhaps is a combination of the two: we encourage contingent faculty to explore non-traditional models for professional development, yet we still need their experience and expertise represented in traditional contexts as well.

VR: Assuming that this current labor situation is a problem, what specific kinds of concrete action might a person involved in the academic profession take?

LG and LG: Our work focuses on ways contingent faculty members might publish (broadly interpreted) their way into increased job security and increased fulfillment. The recent “crisis in academic publishing,” economic downturns and department restructuring, the technological revolution’s influence upon research and publishing practices — and perhaps most importantly — promotion and tenure/hiring committees’ rigid adherence to outdated guidelines and unrealistic expectations affect contingent faculty members as well as those on the tenure-track.

Contingent faculty find few opportunities to enroll in publication courses, take advantage of professional development training/mentoring sessions, or find allies and peers within their departments. While we feel strongly that tenure-track faculty need to offer a wide range of support to contingent faculty, we know that at many institutions that simply doesn’t happen — even when ethical tenure-track faculty members act responsibly, they rarely have the authority to change working conditions and hiring/firing practices at their institutions.

We encourage contingent faculty to organize self-mentoring groups, work together to find ways to share expertise, create venues for learning/disseminating their experiences and findings, and giving voice to concerns. Opportunities for working together might include staging brown bag lunches for sharing pedagogical tips and mutual research interests, organizing mini-conferences, forming committees to investigate options for improving working conditions, and working with traditional faculty on shared areas of interests. However, at the end of the day, documenting the work we do still serves us all best when it comes time to renew contracts, ask for additional resources, or make a job change when necessary.

VR: While encouraging self-mentoring groups for adjuncts is supportive, might this not lead to a kind of “ghettoization” of part-time faculty? Do you see that forming these groups will give them any additional political power at the university?

LG and LG: Although we see benefits in self-mentoring groups created exclusively for contingent faculty, we advocate for professional development models that bring tenured, tenure-track, and contingent faculty together whenever possible. These collaborations become opportunities to share teaching strategies and to discuss professional issues, and rather than othering contingent faculty, initiatives like these succeed in amplifying their voices. Power is a tricky concept in academia, particularly given that even tenure-track faculty often are discouraged from speaking too loudly before earning tenure. However, we do feel that morale is a significant issue for all faculty members, particularly in times of shrinking budgets, and it is in increasing morale among contingent faculty that we think these initiatives really succeed. Additionally, in coming together and publicizing that work, contingent faculty certainly can garner political power among local colleagues and broader-reaching members of face-to-face and virtual communities. We also advocate networked mentoring, across campuses, the state, and the country. Mentoring groups of faculty from varying positions may provide one of the few locations where contingent faculty have a voice and influence on issues where they are the authorities, in a non-threatening (to all)  situation. Being recognized as a resource, as an authority or go-to faculty member, for us, is an advantage of networked mentoring.

VR: Do we really have hope of “fixing” contingency in the current system or should adjuncts instead focus energy on inventing a new model?

LG and LG: The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) reports, “Today, over 50 percent of faculty serve in part-time appointments, and non-tenure-track positions of all types account for 68 percent of all faculty appointments in American higher education [75% when you add graduate students into the mix]. Both part- and full-time non-tenure-track appointments are continuing to increase.” Nontraditional, hybrid, contingent faculty positions proliferate the academic landscape in the wake of economic downturn — with no resolution or plans for returning to “status quo” in sight.

Despite the somewhat gloomy projections for tenure-track positions, the number of advertised teaching and administrative positions (broadly defined) remains stable. Given recent technological shifts in changes in pedagogy delivery along with privately and government-sponsored changes in education, it is difficult to make predictions about the job market. Instead, we should perhaps avoid discussions about “fixing” the employment terrain and discuss instead ways that education, publishing, teaching are shifting and what that might mean for training teachers and administrators to be competitive in the job market.

VR: Unfortunately, examples abound of part-time faculty who are perfectly competitive — who publish regularly, present at conferences, and participate in service work at their institution — who nonetheless are denied the opportunities full-time faculty enjoy. If we don’t work to “fix” the system, do you believe its perpetuation will eventually level the playing field, and adjuncts will have more opportunities than they currently have?

LG and LG: Although we can’t speak of the situation at all colleges and universities, we have seen an increase in positions that, although often accompanied by heavier teaching loads, do create some long-term stability for contingent faculty and include benefits and funding for professional development. The reality is that we are not likely within academia to move toward a model that includes a majority of tenure-track teaching positions with a few contingent positions to fill in gaps. The trend has been to move away from that model for quite some time. So the “fix” we think is to find ways to make the system a bit more equitable for all teaching professionals within this “new normal.” We see our work as one step in that direction. And as harsh as it may seem, promotion or security in existing NTT positions rarely occurs without documentation of traditional “game playing” strategies. When playing the game doesn’t improve current conditions, as you have pointed out, many of our colleagues move on, look for a better contingent position or TT opportunities that fit their needs (local, teaching heavy, online, etc.). At this time, honestly, without a competitive CV, it is extremely difficult for contingent or TT faculty to make a move up or out.

VR: What can folks with job security do to support their contingent colleagues? Who should be doing this work?

LG and LG: We think the key to innovative teaching lies in institutional collaborations and sponsored workshops for the contingent labor force. At the kinds of events we envision, tenure-track faculty support their colleagues, and contingent teachers can showcase their ideas for pedagogical innovations. For example at Kennesaw State University, the WPA and members of the first-year writing program instituted precisely this kind of public event — a departmental conference — that allows all who teach in the writing program to share their expertise in a formal venue. Ideally, this kind of conference should bring together instructors of all ranks who teach a variety of courses yet do not always have the opportunity to share teaching strategies with one another. Not only will the conference value lore, but it also offers contingent faculty another opportunity to connect with colleagues from across ranks and specializations and to engage in both local and professional [writ large] conversations.

Beyond formal conferences and initiatives sponsored by program administrators or national organizations, faculty can seek out mentorships or partnerships with colleagues, both those who have experience in scholarly publication and those with whom they share teaching interests. Often these collaborations occur among graduate students and faculty mentors as students begin to find their scholarly voices, yet given that faculty across ranks are often engaged in teaching that overlaps in significant ways, these partnerships may very easily exist among contingent faculty and with tenured/tenure-track faculty who share teaching and research interests and who wish to engage in collaborative inquiry.

VR: How do we counsel students about the academic labor market? How can we help protect their futures?

LG and LG: Many more academic positions exist than those focusing exclusively on tenure-track, research-heavy, teaching-light assignment; students must realize that in the current market, traditional university positions no longer dominate job lists and postings. Contingent teaching positions (including graduate students, adjunct teachers, academic professionals, non-tenure-track lecturers, etc.) well out-number tenure-track jobs at research-focused institutions. Faculty must not seek to merely replicate themselves, but rather prepare students for a wide-range of academic positions.

It’s important to be honest with students — both at the undergraduate and graduate level — about the academic labor market. For graduate students, understanding how their academic training, specific degree (MA vs MFA vs PhD, for examples), and areas of specialization will expand or potentially limit their job prospects becomes another important part of graduate work. In our MA and beginning PhD courses, we speak frankly about what might be termed “the dark underbelly of academia” and the ever-expanding number of contingent positions, particularly for those with expertise in writing studies. We do this not to scare students but to help them to think realistically about what they want from the degree program and how they can make savvy decisions while they are in that program. We took fairly non-traditional paths to the PhD and are always willing to talk about our own experiences within this context.

Graduate students have to understand the full range of academic positions currently available and the changing landscape of academic employment. The move away from tenure-track jobs towards increased contingent positions is a reality. To protect current graduate students, we need to increase the number of publication courses and “job training” workshops we offer. These courses must focus not only on traditional publication venues and formats (books, journal articles, and edited collections), but also broaden the conception of what constitutes publication, service, and teaching in ways that blend the Boyer Commission notions of an integrated triumvirate and take into account shifting technologies and both public and commercial notions of what education might look like.

At the undergraduate level, it can also be helpful to talk about the academic labor market, but for different reasons. Certainly some students may be thinking about careers as academics at this early stage, but more importantly, we can get them to think about how the growth of contingent positions impacts their undergraduate experience.

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