Tenuous Faculty Statistics

Academe, the magazine of the American Association of University Professors, has devoted this month’s issue to the problem of “tenuous” faculty—an umbrella term for those not on the tenure track: part-time faculty (or adjuncts), year-to-year faculty, or people on other kinds of contracts.  The recent discussion is in some measure a result of the recent coverage of the Margaret Mary Vojtko case, where an 83-year-old Duquesne University adjunct teacher of French of 25 years died in tragically impoverished circumstances, and a recent House committee report (article here, with the actual report linked to the article).  So we are again confronted by the always-relevant issues of the tiered system of university faculty, the extent to which universities depend on adjuncts without in any way investing in them, the wretchedly low hourly wages they receive, etc.)—issues that, for good reasons, refuse to go away.

I am all in favor of improving the circumstances of all who teach.  I met an earnest old fellow (my Dad’s age, were my Dad still alive) at the Weld County Democratic Party reception last night who told me that he thought all teachers should be paid as much as football players (“All they do is rah-rah-rah!”), which I of course appreciated but could not even begin to engage seriously.  It is a threatening development that increasing percentages of the education part of the Higher Education enterprise are being entrusted to—perhaps “off-loaded on” would be more accurate—highly trained yet precariously positioned people who in no way have the time and mental resources to devote to students that tenured and even tenure-track people ought to have…and so on.  This is one more statement of the obvious, which has been true for decades.  And?

It seems fair, in a perverse kind of way, to remind the young who are looking at such issues with fear and trembling of my mantra that there are no statistics that are relevant to you.  There is just you.  There are so many variables in the adjunct-lifestyle equation as it relates to music (this is perhaps less the case with other disciplines) that no possible study can do more than collect anecdotes and depress the reader.  We all have our share of those, right?  Until the time when you get your break, the phone rings, etc., and that becomes a different kind of anecdote, for a different kind of study.  Oh, and incidentally, you become one of them, the resented Haves with tenured positions.  While for some that might mean you have crossed the Rubicon of Unrighteousness and immediately become Part Of The Problem, someone who takes advantage of others in lesser positions, it is a fact that you quickly gain a much better understanding of the stresses many universities face, and the wide variety of adjunct situations that don’t show up in articles that generalize about them.  A somewhat random list:

1.  The Two-Body Problem.  This is obvious.  Your spouse or partner has a solid but immovable professional situation and your specialties (teaching skills, research specialties, whatever) aren’t called for in your locale, or are covered already.  Fact: that’s no one’s fault, and no one is to blame; if there’s one major university where you are and they already have a medievalist and don’t have enough students for another musicology track, the choices are to make peace with it or make other changes in your life and make peace with those.

2.  Locale.  All universities are in Places.  In music, Places at some distance form metropolitan areas receive far fewer applications than those nearer by—I remember (and have probably previously quoted) a comment I once read, a complaint about the job market, where someone was appalled that there was nothing available “within a hundred miles of New York!”  The following has long been understood by realists in academics: you go where the gig is, period.  If, instead, you prefer to be picky about locale, best of luck; some people can make this work and more power to them.  But students everywhere deserve to learn, and if you have a only short list of places you’re willing to live, well…I’m less likely to listen to your complaints about your inability to get off the adjunct track.  The U.S. has fifty states, and if one is unwilling to apply to 45 of them then I have other things to worry about.

3.  Undesirability of Searches.  There are cases where an adjunct provides every service a full-time faculty member ideally might—teaching, service, guest lecture, collaborations, everything—and has made a home for her- or himself at an institution.  Still, even when colleagues try to agitate in support of an improvement of status, the person begs them to leave off because there is no way he or she would survive a proper faculty search.  Perhaps there are no advanced degrees in the equation?  Relatively few institutions can just bestow a tenure-track position on someone, and the myriad applicants out there would endorse that.  Everyone should have a chance, searches should be regulated and transparent as far as process, right?  There are adjuncts who have made their lives work and would rather not risk losing it all via a search for an upgrade in their own position.

4.  Love of Institution.  There are adjuncts who, even when invited to apply elsewhere, refuse because they believe in the mission of the department and institution they are at and would rather stay than leave.  Period.  I’m not making this up.

5.  Preference for the adjunct track.  Particularly among performers, adjunct track can suit better than a full-time gig; this offers an institutional base of operations while one can still play with the symphony, gig, travel, etc., and they don’t have to be involved with committee work, research, etc.  Sometimes they are paid differently; sometimes not.  (Many universities don’t have the option.)

6.  Desperation for experience.  This cannot be minimized.  A hiring committee with any sense will not hire a candidate with no teaching experience for a full-time gig.  How to get experience, for someone with none, or in the process of finishing a degree?  Part-time work, which is initially horribly time-consuming, and which often (for good or ill) leads to more part-time work.  This is a tightrope that each individual must manage for him- or herself: making this process work for you, getting the right experience, staying involved enough to look viable from year to year but still making other connections and staying professionally active, etc.  The point is that you’re nowhere without it, but it is incumbent on you to somehow not get swamped and submerged by it.

Those are just situations that affect the individual.  On the University’s side, things are challenging in different ways.  Many of the justifiably resentful adjuncts who demand more investment in them don’t understand that Department Chairs often have no options.  They are not given tenure lines, and certain courses must be offered or accreditation is lost.  This is a semester-to-semester dance that is one of the least enviable tasks of the Chair or Director, and it’s reality, year in and year out.  Your anchor X person just left?  Whatever; we’re all busy.  Figure it out.  Tell us who will be teaching the class, and if the part-timer has to travel, you have to make the schedules work and deal with the complaints of students who have been depending on this schedule for three years and now have a conflict…

And, finally, a statement of the obvious.  All the righteous talk about teaching is beside one particular crucial point: teaching is only one part of a full-time faculty member’s responsibilities—typically, a third.  Most places have requirements for professional activity—research and publication, for example, and all kinds of peer-reviewed service to the discipline on a national or international level.  That is not and unjust requirement; that’s the gig and that’s why our doctoral programs look the way they do.  We do not just teach out of textbooks; we have to shape the discipline itself that we teach.  Now, the argument that adjuncts don’t have time to do that and could if they had full-time jobs is reasonable but unfortunately beside the point; like other institutions, universities need to hire not on potential, primarily, but on demonstrated accomplishment.  Even those with minimal experience know how resourceful people can be about not publishing: look how hard I’m working, I think of the students first, it’s all political, my subdiscipline is the victim of discrimination, I’ve been through some stuff recently, OK?, I’m working on a bigger project, etc.

None of that is the problem of the university, which is why people who get full-time gigs tend to have fatter publishing/professional activity CVs.  If one can’t find a way to get that done, well, it’s unreasonable to expect a university to invest in you entirely on your, y’know, potential, regardless of your doctoral institution, the letters after your name (are they there yet, or are you merely very confident that you’ll finish?), or the importance of your advisor’s name on his lordly letter of recommendation.  Oh, and by the way: letters of recommendation are going the Way of All Flesh, to streamline the search process.  The newer pattern is to cull the applicant pool purely on the basis of the candidate’s accomplishments, and then call the references on the phone.  In my mind, this levels the playing field somewhat.

And then there’s service: search committees, governance, writing of university documents etc.  This is much on my mind in part because my shamefully irregular blogging has a direct relationship to recent service commitments.  Academic departments have to do candidate vetting themselves; it can’t be pushed off on Personnel or whoever because we’re too busy—they don’t have the background.  So the ability to be both a leader and a team player, both an organizer and organized contributor, becomes paramount.  People have to get along with you, however weird and wacky (speaking from personal experience, here) you are.  Does that come through in your interviews?  Enough to make the university want to invest in you on a long-term basis?  Or is there something about you that just screams High Maintenance? Are you so wonderfully hot that it’s clear you’re going to try to be leaving in two years?  If you’re clearly ready for a “first” job, how interesting will that be to the institution that has neither sufficient financial nor human resources for repeated searches?  One wonders how interested people would be in a proposal to be a first wife or husband or partner.

This is all based on what I have observed.  I post this rambling entry simply as a report from the Front: the adjunct situation, while critical for many, is not nearly as simple and one-sided as it is often represented to be.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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3 Responses to Tenuous Faculty Statistics

  1. Rebecca says:

    While it is true that adjunct gigs can be right for certain people in certain situations (I was happy to do four semesters of it for reason #6), that does not justify the reduction in full-time positions and the increasing reliance of universities on adjunct instruction. Adjunct teaching works well for full-time performing musicians and in some others disciplines where it is desirable to have a practitioner teach certain courses. It does not work well for most people as a career track.

    Also, the marriage analogy seems a bit misguided. There is no moral obligation to commit to your first job for life. Such thinking would be considered crazy in any other profession, but it isn’t apropos even in academe, where we often do mate for life. An assistant professor starting a tenure-track job can’t be expected to know whether this is the place she wants to make a career and a life, just as her colleagues will not know whether they will want to offer her tenure in 6 years. That is going to be determined through extensive vetting in a stressful 5-7 year job interview (or courtship, if you insist). Surely that person also has the right to decide whether the university is the right fit for him or her, no?

  2. Re the difference between music and other disciplines: I believe I acknowledged that in a couple of places. And of course said person absolutely has the right to decide if a university is the right fit or not. Still, if the relationship of the individual to the institution is conceived as adversarial from before it even starts, the lack of commitment—say, the offer of a tenure-track job—cannot come as a surprise.

    I have no disagreement about the reduction of full-time positions. To deal with it, as I have said elsewhere, we need brilliant strategists more than raised voices, and I wish I were one of the former.

  3. Michael says:

    Thanks for a terrific post and some much needed perspective.

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