Professional societies need to take bold steps to support precarious scholars

From alienating alumni to excluding contingent workers from governing councils, societies and university departments risk doing a disservice to 70 per cent of academics in the US, says Zeb Larson 

January 19, 2020
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Every conversation with my peers in academia inevitably moves to the elephant in the room: the terrible job market. For many people, the prospect of adjuncting and suffocating under their student debt means that they will have to leave the academic career track behind sooner rather than later.

Those who stick around and continue working as adjunct professors face challenges of their own. One main problem is the effect on their scholarship – working as a contingent academic does not make it easy to publish. And since 70 per cent of faculty in the United States are contingent, they may be excluded from scholarship and the profession more broadly.

Even for those who manage to find work at a university, the workloads they face as adjuncts likely depress their scholarly output while reducing their profile and visibility. Unlike their tenure-track peers, adjunct professors lack access to the same financial support to carry out their research or to attend conferences where they can publicise and strengthen their work.

Departments and professional societies need to do more to support contingent and independent scholars. Daniel Bessner, an assistant professor in American foreign policy at the University of Washington, and Michael Brenes, a lecturer in global affairs and a senior archivist at Yale University, made an excellent case last year that professional societies have been dangerously passive as academia has collapsed around them.

I agree with their arguments and would like to build on them by suggesting additional ways that these institutions can help their colleagues before things get even worse.

For those who leave academia, many may wish to retain some kind of presence in the profession. Indeed, those who abandon the tenure-track job market can still publish and make scholarly contributions.

Moreover, leaving academia is likely to be less painful if you don’t feel like you’re abandoning your work and your friends in the process. For those who hang on as contingent scholars, more needs to be done to include them. Surveys have shown that contingent and part-time faculty feel less respected by their tenured or tenure-track peers.

Maintaining a relationship with the alumni who do leave academia can be valuable for departments’ PhD candidates. For most departments, the majority of their students are not going to go on to tenure-track careers. Those students who end up leaving are not the ones who will be invited back to speak in their departments, save perhaps one or two for the token “alt-ac” (alternative academia careers) event.

Yet those who leave are the ones with the most representative experiences of life with a doctorate. For those departments that are actually serious about trying to help their students find alternative career pathways, having ongoing relationships with alumni would actually accomplish something (and take some of the pressure off of faculty members in the process).

For alumni, many of whom report a feeling of alienation once they tell their advisors that they’re leaving academia, maintaining contact would mitigate feelings of loneliness and estrangement. For contingent academics, it will reinforce the ties between grad students, adjuncts and tenured faculty members.

Professional societies also need to do more to support research by contingent scholars. There are places where this is already happening. For example, Contingent magazine (edited by historian Erin Bartram) recently published a booklist consisting of offerings solely by people without tenure-track positions.

Professional societies could use their newsletters and publications to share research by contingent scholars alongside tenured academics. Similarly, research awards and grants for adjuncts should be considered as a way to support people who may not have any access to research budgets.

In addition, there needs to be more support for contingent scholars to attend conferences. The American Historical Association took a positive step this year in finally ending the practice of conference interviews. More can be done, however. Some conference rates are absurdly high for people making an adjunct’s salary – at the very least registration fees could be trimmed.

Societies also need to think seriously about creating spaces for contingent scholars in society governance. Most of the professional associations in the field of history, for example, have councils that are dominated by tenured or tenure-track scholars. These boards don’t fully represent the field, however, and prevent independent and contingent scholars from having a full voice in their networks. It is also not enough to allow for open elections – at the end of the day, a tenured historian at a prominent university is far more likely to have visibility than a typical adjunct professor.

The single most important thing that professional societies and departments can do for contingent scholars, however, is to wholeheartedly support unionisation. And that unionisation needs not to serve just tenured faculty, but to represent both groups simultaneously.

Useful resources like Dr Bartram’s spreadsheet for contingent compensation tell many stories, some of which are not particularly shocking: adjunct pay is low, benefits are patchy and office space is a luxury.

Unions can help to deliver meaningful improvements in pay and healthcare, but only when they make real demands on administrations and when they represent everybody. Moreover, unions can offer protection and security to those academics who face discrimination: women, LGBT individuals, and people of colour. From a moral standpoint, departments ought to support unionisation precisely as a way to defend their students and future peers.

Societies and departments can choose to make themselves more resilient by offering more concrete support to their untenured members, preserving their size and keeping these people as members even if they have chosen to leave academia.

These suggestions are aggressive, but the scope of the problem is enormous and we must not be content to work around the margins of the issue.

Zeb Larson is a recent PhD graduate from Ohio State University.

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