I don’t share the sheer outrage that some adjunct professors are directing at the tenured ranks. I really do believe that the majority of tenured faculty — I obviously can’t speak for all of them — want every professor to be offered the benefits that were once the norm for university professors: stable employment, resources, research leave, health care, etc. I do believe this. However, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I sometimes bristle when I am forced to gape at the wide divide that separates me from those very, very few of my peers who have been fortunate enough to get on the tenure track.
To make a living wage, I have to work something between three and five jobs (the number changes slightly from year to year depending on how frequently I’m told mere days before my class starts that it has been cancelled). As a result, I cannot devote the requisite amount of time to research that would make me even remotely competitive for a tenure-line position. If I were to “sacrifice” some of my income to do that research, I wouldn’t make enough money to pay my bills; moreover, given the hyper-competitive nature of the academic job market, there is no guarantee that my sacrifice would ever result in forward professional movement.
So, social media being what it is, there have been a lot of occasions where I am treated to Facebook status updates from my full-time peers that feature pictures of frothy lattes positioned next to a laptop or a tablet with captions like, “Caffeinating and researching in Geneva #sabbatical.” Those moments make me feel jealous, and they make me bitter, because they serve as stark, disheartening reminders that my “career” as an academic ended with the completion of my doctorate. These days, I am no longer offered the opportunity to teach what I was trained to teach — American literature — and it is unlikely that I will ever again be given that opportunity, all of which makes me wonder, every single day, what I could have possibly done wrong to be so emphatically disowned by the profession that reared me. And no, simply using the “hide post” feature accomplishes nothing, because it doesn’t alleviate the misery of feeling like a professional failure.
What can be done to assuage some of these tensions — to alleviate them before they result in the unhealthy infighting that we witnessed after MLA 2014? I suppose a starting point would be for those of us who are off the tenure track (but wish to be on it) not to allow our anger and jealousy to warp our criticisms of the profession to the point where they become wholly unreasonable. Certainly, anger and jealousy are justified. But those emotions are not rational, and it doesn’t make any rational sense, in my opinion, to become enraged when discovering that a famous tenured professor had the good fortune of spending a weekend in a nice hotel that charges too much for granola bars. If we’re fighting over granola bars, we’ve already lost the war.
At the same time, the tenured ranks, I think, can recognize our jealousy for what I just said it is: slightly irrational, but not entirely unjustified. In the past few months — on Twitter, on education message boards — I’ve seen the term “tenuresplaining” gain popularity among contingent faculty. The term, as I understand it, is meant to describe the defensiveness that full-time faculty express whenever their (comparatively) secure and stable academic lifestyles are criticized for being built on the backs of part-time laborers. Not ever having been the subject of tenuresplaining, I can’t speak with any specificity about this particular brand of defensiveness. However, at the very least, I can suggest fewer latte pictures, a little less reiterating how “busy” your semester has been with all of the talks that you’ve been invited to give, and absolutely no more furrowed brows or looks of disdain when adjunct faculty say that they don’t want to “move anywhere” for a job or that they don’t want to live apart from their spouses or that they prefer to watch football on Sundays rather than spend those days in the library. Just because the job market has cruelly demanded this kind of transient asceticism in the past doesn’t mean that job seekers in the present should continue to stand for it.
So, you know, mutual respect would be nice.
As far as actual action might go — and I know that everything I’m about to say is going to sound ridiculous — we just need to stop playing the game. I agree wholeheartedly with Lee Skallerup’s column on institutional loyalty. By definition, contingent faculty have seen no loyalty from their institutions. They, in turn, should not show loyalty back to those institutions. When contingent faculty are offered jobs that would force them to stop teaching mid-semester, they should stop teaching mid-semester. No questions asked.
Furthermore, when search committees do not notify job candidates of their candidacy in a timely fashion — a month out from the interview convention (at a minimum) — those candidates should demand the option of Skype interviews or just not interview at all. None of us should be forced to pay the escalated costs associated with last-minute travel arrangements because search committees were, of course, too “busy” to evaluate applications efficiently.
Now, as far as the professional organizations go, again, I’m guarded. Those associations have recently borne the brunt of misguided and very public vitriol from a vocal subsection of part-time professors. Whatever the failings of these associations might be, the fact remains that they are powerless to control policy at every single college and university in the entire world. That’s not even the role of these associations in the first place. Like Michael Bérubé, I really don’t think that arguing, “The MLA didn’t do enough of [X]” gets us anywhere, because the MLA can’t just swoop down on a campus and right all of the wrongs meted out by a dysfunctional job committee (or any other dysfunctionality).
However, I will say that this year, for the first time in my seven post-doctorate membership years, I paid my MLA dues based solely on the scale appropriate for my teaching salary. In the past, I have always paid my dues based on my combined income (again, I work a bunch of jobs, all of them academically-oriented). This year, though, I subtracted out the income that I receive for the administrative work that I do, and I paid only according to my adjunct salary, which decreased my contribution by a discernible amount. I urge everyone to do this exact same thing, if you haven’t already been doing so. Pay these associations exactly what they should be paid, and nothing more.
Additionally, tenured and nontenured faculty should continually coordinate their efforts to call foul ball on the notion that university funding does not exist to convert adjunct professors into full-time employees — or, if nothing else, to pay part-time professors living wages. It’s disingenuous at best for universities to claim that they “don’t have funding” to support their faculty.
They do have funding. Universities simply choose to use that funding in ways that, quite often, have nothing to do with professors.
Despite an apparent “lack of funding,” university bureaucracies ballooned in the latter part of the twentieth century (and they continue to do so today). Interestingly, this ballooning has happened simultaneously with the shrinking of the tenured ranks and the increased reliance on contingent labor. As senior administrators have eroded the tenured ranks, they have somehow managed to find enough funding to employ armies of provosts, who usually make much more money than even the most senior faculty, constitute countless university offices devoted to “assessing” student and parental “satisfaction” “metrics” and other such corporate nonsense, and, of course, building absurdly extravagant dormitories where students (no lie) can arrange for things like maid service in their dorm rooms. Without question, the money’s there. University administrations just don’t want to spend that money on education.
Therefore, I can say that I wholeheartedly support slashing administrative budgets and reallocating those funds back to academic affairs. Obviously, faculty senates should have a large say in how that kind of reallocation should happen. (On a related note, tenured faculty — at departmental and university governance levels — need to do a much better job at allowing adjunct participation in governance decisions.)
I’d also like to see administrative positions be inhabited by people who hold discipline-based doctoral degrees. I very adamantly believe that universities should be run primarily by people who have academic training, not by people whose training is in the art of growing a bureaucracy. Again, amazingly, administrators find jobs for people who get degrees in university administration. All of a sudden, positions exist that come complete with stability, photocopy machine access, health benefits, private offices, prestige, and dignity. Meanwhile, in the composition department, four professors are crammed into one office and are sharing one (frequently broken) stapler. There need to be people in positions of administrative power who take these inequalities seriously and who understand that, perhaps, student satisfaction would genuinely rise if universities saw caring for the faculty as a primary responsibility.
The grim reality, as far as I see it, is that the system is irreparably broken at every level. It cannot be fixed. We should stop trying to fix it and should let it collapse. If every adjunct professor immediately stopped teaching, the American university system would instantaneously crumble. I can’t even believe I’m about to say this, because it’s totally naive and impractical, but we should let that happen. Let the current system become a thing of the past so that we might build a new one for the future, a future where we won’t be forced to do so much shouting at each other — and, I can only hope, to ourselves.