Thursday, October 15, 2015

contingent faculty activism, part 1

The usual approach to contingent faculty* activism is to drive for inclusion, recognition, and security within our institutions. Contingent faculty are underpaid, usually ineligible for benefits, have little or no job security, are relegated to marginal positions as “adjuncts” (as non-faculty), and systematically barred from participating in shared governance over their own work. These have appeared to be the natural targets for activism. In unfortunately many cases, the targets also include faculty leadership and faculty unions, who often mirror their institutions in marginalizing and discarding contingent faculty.

This seems like a contradiction, to some of us. The tenure-track faculty surely ought to be our natural allies. We do the same work, in the same institutions, with the same students. We share commitments to our fields of knowledge and to the social good of higher education.

Obviously, tenure-track faculty are benefited by the current institutional system. For many in the tenure-track, the current arrangement appears to be merit-based, rewarding the deserving and leaving the undeserving to their fate. I am not interested in that here, so I will simply assert that it is untrue, and that the faculty who believe this are wrong about their own merit, their merit relative to the contingent faculty, and the notion that the current system is merit-based.

It is more interesting to consider the tenure-track faculty who acknowledge that the current system is unfair to contingent faculty, is arbitrary to some degree in its distribution of rewards, and yet do not support contingent faculty activism or the usual institutional reforms contingent faculty advocate. I sometimes imagine that they view us as the monstrous creatures of evil genius, or as ghosts haunting them as a reminder of how fickle even their fates are. Few tenure-track faculty quietists would recognize themselves in my gothic fancies, I’m sure. They would explain their inaction with a wan smile and the admission that they are too busy with their own work and their own institutional struggles.

In fact, whether or not I’ve diagnosed their unconscious motivations, they typically are too busy. Most of the contingent faculty are too busy, as well—though more often with driving to another campus to teach two more classes, or to another job, to make ends meet.

Now let me see if I can recapitulate this. The primary goals of mainstream contingent faculty activists are to gain very much or all of what tenure-track faculty currently have in compensation, job security, and self-determination and professional status. What protects those privileges of tenure-track faculty right now? If I’m not mistaken, it is the current institutional system of power and distribution—the very same system of power and distribution to which mainstream contingent faculty activists want access. If this system is what guarantees unfairness, why should the goal be inclusion in it?

So it goes in reformism. (Cf. the same-sex marriage “rights” “victory” that has provided same-sex couples access to the discriminatory institution of state-sanctioned marriage. If marriage were not used as a way to discriminate regarding access to healthcare, survivor’s benefits, and access to other social goods—that is, if marriage were not an administrative means for allocating social goods to certain categories of approved-of lives—this would be a completely empty “victory.” As it stands, it’s certainly Pyrrhic.)


* "Contingent faculty" is a misnomer, one of many, for the faculty who work off the tenure track. It delights me that there is no proper name for us. "Contingent" is technically untrue in my case, under our Collective Bargaining Agreement, and is also vague. "Adjunct" is inappropriate and derogatory: non-tenure-track faculty are around 75% of college faculty in the US, and more than 50% are part-time employees at one or more institutions, so there is nothing "adjunct" (ancillary, additive, inessential) about our work. "Precarious" (a term more often used in Mexico and Qu├ębec) is nice. I like the little bit of homophony of "tenuous track," which I claim to have coined in around 2008 or so. My three-year appointments all contain the word "terminal," so we could be called the "terminal faculty."

In any case, although it is not a proper name for us, it is in common usage as an alternative to the obnoxious term "adjunct," so I'll adopt it here.

1 comment:

Domestic Kate said...

"If this system is what guarantees unfairness, why should the goal be inclusion in it?"

I feel like this is why I've seen a lack of enthusiasm from contingent faculty when they're asked what they want, if they want to have more of a voice, etc. I tend not to say much because I think the two-tier system needs an overhaul, and I'm not sure I want to be a considered a permanent member of (and therefore a spokesperson for) a system I believe undermines equality.

I recently posted some thoughts on the contingent discussion on my own blog: