It Gets Better—and Other Enabling Fictions

In the summer of 2001, I received word that I had been  appointed to the Modern Language Association’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Professional Rights and Responsibilities (CAFPRR). Our work over my three-year term of service included establishing for the first time Recommendations for Entry-Level Full-time and Part-time Faculty Members that have been published annually by the MLA since 2003. Currently, the MLA recommendations are set at $6,800 per course for members off of the tenure track. When we established these recommendations, we knew that faculty and chairs and deans would use these numbers in arguments for per course pay commensurate with the demands of the work; those of us who are employed as faculty, however, were under no illusions that the baseline numbers were aspirational, and that the reality on the ground would be different.


More recently, in his President’s Column “Non-Tenure Track Faculty Members and the MLA: a Crowdsourcing Project,” Michael Bérubé calls attention to the MLA guidelines for adjunct salaries we developed over a decade ago. He also mentions Josh Boldt’s The Adjunct Project. What turned out to be most interesting to me, though, was a link on Boldt’s site that led me to other thoughts on adjunct faculty. “All thinking is analogizing, and it is the use of life to learn metonymy,” I thought, recalling Emerson’s comment in “Poetry and Imagination.”

I first discovered, on Boldt’s blog,  a “reblog,” “Just Not That Into You,” that originally appeared on the blog “Music for Deckchairs” by Kate Bowles. (There is a list of links at the end of her posting that offers a further chain of associations.) “When is it time,” Bowles asks, “for adjuncts to walk away/stay/lobby for change?” Then I found myself reading Amanda Krauss, at The Worst Professor Ever, commenting frankly, in an engaging and edgy voice, on the paradoxes of academic life, from the perspective of someone who decided that the life of a college or university professor is rife with more enabling fictions and illusions than a sane person can bear. (For a sample, have a look at “I Don’t Need your Stinking Tenure.”) In Krauss, a reader finds an irreverent if occasional pursuit of central themes in the Staying Alive Project.

Krauss’ voice also appears on yet another blog, The Professor is In, by Karen Kelsky, (a former tenured professor and Department Head with years of experience teaching at the University of Oregon and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign). “Be careful What You Wish For” echoes the quiet desperation we often hear from faculty. Krauss comments,

most tenure-trackers I know are medicated, lonely/estranged, and barely holding their overworked lives together. My tenured acquaintances aren’t much better off; a recently-tenured friend suggested that there should be a tenure PSA playing off the ‘It Gets Better’ campaign — except that the point of these ads would be that it doesn’t get better after tenure.

Perhaps she needs to find new friends. But she has a point: academics are often motivated by arbitrary external rewards and “going places,” as she ironically puts it, on the way to overcoming that “last” obstacle, “before everything got super awesome.” She goes on to say that “surveying what I saw, I determined that academia systemically didn’t allow, let alone reward, any sort of work/life balance. Quite the opposite: narcissistic assholes thrived because they were most willing to do whatever it took to win.” And she concludes,

Even if you’re a perfectly lovely person, it’s no fun to be in an environment that fetishizes external validation. I’ve seen folks so wrapped up in other people’s visions of success, they literally can’t articulate what they, as an individual, want. I’ve seen people get tenure, only to discover that it’s the only thing they have — and that, instead of providing any joy, it continues to interfere with finding meaningful relationships.

Finally, there is also mention of a piece by Penelope Trunk called “My Financial History and Stop Whining About Your Job” that is followed by an impassioned string of commentary about institutions and the market that are instructive and, once again, intersecting with concerns we are seeking to make visible here. What one finds at these blogs are people  engaged in an ongoing conversation about life and work that we will continue to cultivate.

Contingency, Irony, Solidarity

Since I began pursing a PhD in 1990 there has been astonishing growth in the hiring of college and university faculty. According the Department of Education (DOE), between 1995 and 2009 the academic workforce has grown by fifty percent. However, ninety percent of those positions were non-tenure-track faculty. As a result, in this fourteen-year period, the percentage of tenure-track faculty has dropped from eighty to under fifty percent. This erosion of tenure-track positions raises a number of challenging questions about higher education, the system of tenure, and the nature of faculty work. For someone like myself, a department chair at a medium-sized public college, the erosion of tenure-track faculty in postsecondary institutions raises other issues as well.

At a recent campus forum that was called to address concerns about the College reductions in the number of courses taught by adjunct faculty, we were asked what we thought the fundamental issues affecting community relations at the College. Forum participants called attention to problems with communication, a lack of respect across staff and faculty groups, and a culture that exploits adjunct faculty. While these things may be true, my response—and some people, I learned later, were surprised by what I said—was to call attention to the failure to understand (and take part in) a culture of shared governance.

My point was that the decisions the institution had made over the past ten or more years were designed to reduce our reliance on adjunct faculty. Contrary to what many claim, however, these decisions were based, at the same time, on valuing the many contributions of adjunct faculty. But the value these contributions were running up against the work we were doing to increase the number of tenure-track lines. In making my case, I reminded my colleagues why active participation in the life of the College is so essential to the work we do to create better working conditions for faculty and learning conditions for students. For everyone who participated in our College’s embrace of a 4-credit course curriculum knew that the change would result in fewer course sections—in fact, the number of course sections would drop by about 25%, or 500 sections each year. Department chairs and other faculty who choose to attend faculty meetings knew that the Provost had made a commitment to hiring a certain number of tenure-track faculty each year, too. In fact, the President had published a letter to the campus that outlined this initiative that would place us among our public liberal arts college peers with at least 2/3 of courses taught by tenure-track faculty. (The initiative from the President’s office was in part a response to a NEASC recommendation following the College’s Self-Study.) From 2006 to the present, in fact, we added 43 new positions—from 181 to 224 tenure-track faculty. This is a trajectory that goes against national trends, and I am hopeful that the new administration can sustain these gains.

Yet a friend, who happens to be an adjunct faculty member at the College, noted that hiring more tenure-track faculty would not necessarily improve the College. While I agreed that there is little data to support the institutional initiative to increase the percentage of tenure-track faculty, I disagreed with him that we should be arguing for temporary and non-benefitted positions. Though in disagreeing I found my way to the question I was facing as tenured member of the faculty and a department chair: can one value adjunct faculty at the same time one is working to diminish the number of adjuncts at the College?

Perhaps the best answer is yes and no. One the one hand, increasing the number of tenure-track faculty is important for a number of reasons: 1) we end up advocating with the administration for more stable positions with competitive salaries and benefits; 2) we endorse the mutually constitutive relations between scholarship and teaching by making scholarly work a contractural obligation for faculty on the tenure track; and 3) we hire faculty from a national pool of applicants with a terminal degree and with different expectations for teaching and advising, scholarship, and service. On the other hand, in making decisions to cut adjunct lines, and reduce long-serving adjunct faculty from full- to part-time positions, we are actors in a system that offers little employment stability to those who do not have a tenure-track position and who have chosen to take a job as an adjunct.

Increasing the number of tenure-track faculty is important. Our collective bargaining agreement specifies that tenure-track faculty will generally teach 24 credit hours per academic year and may be assigned a maximum of 21 advisees; engage in ongoing study and professional development, participation in professional organizations, work with campus committees; spend hours spent mentoring students as well as evaluating their work; undertake activities supporting quality teaching that may include setting up and breaking down labs, ordering and inventorying supplies, maintaining equipment, supervising student assistants, and coordinating multi-section courses and other dimensions of academic programs. We need people do do this work so that we can do this work well.

From the standpoint of shared governance, a higher percentage of tenure-track positions allows us to move beyond a stakeholder model of governance to an actual model in which the faculty accept both the authority and the primary responsibility to reach decisions in our areas of expertise, including the shape of the curriculum, our subject matter and our methods of instruction, the nature of our research, and the dimensions of student life that intersect with the educational process. Instead of functioning as employees of the institution, then, the faculty is recognized as a body of professionals with specialized training and knowledge who are in turn uniquely qualified to exercise decision-making authority. In identifying the understanding of roles faculty must assume in a genuine system of shared governance I was also making a case that many of my adjunct faculty colleagues are not prepared to make: an argument based on participation in and understanding of the structures and  systems in particular educational institutions; and an argument based on an understanding of the kinds of decisions that involve the implementation of long-term institutional goals.

I’ll continue to do my best to make with these decisions in a transparent, compassionate and respectful way. Yet it is neither simple nor easy when I am sharing difficult news with an adjunct faculty member in my own department whose work has for many years benefited our students and whose professional competence I deeply respect.