From where I sit: Show respect and make it real

The status of adjunct faculty is proving to be one of the summer's hot topics for discussion in higher education in North America.

June 10, 2010

In May, Megan McArdle, business and economics editor for The Atlantic, asked "Why Does Academia Treat Its Workforce So Badly?", lamenting the working conditions of most non-tenure-track faculty, and Marc Bousquet, associate professor of English at Santa Clara University, California, riffed on one of her phrases - "some of the worst-paid high-school graduates in the country" - in the online journal The Valve.

More recently, the Modern Language Association's newsletter featured a column by editor Rosemary G. Feal entitled "Contingent Faculty Members: More Alike Than Different?", itself a follow-up to her earlier "Three Myths about the Academic Workforce: Let's Get Real", which focuses less on critiquing adjunct working conditions than on admonishing administrators for failing to hire more tenure-track professors. It is, she writes, "time to give up the myths, get real, come together, and make sure our institutions face facts and take action".

Feal's phrase "get real" resonates a bit differently for me. If you've ever read The Velveteen Rabbit, you'll remember the opening discussion in which the Skin Horse explains how toys become Real through being loved. The process, he points out, is difficult: "It doesn't happen all at once ... You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept." As a contingent faculty member for nearly 20 years, I've often thought that for adjuncts the process of becoming "real" faculty members is remarkably similar - only what makes us Real isn't love (that's too much to ask of the academy) but respect.

We begin by becoming Real to our undergraduates, who have yet to learn the careful hierarchies of academic appointment, so they judge us solely on their experience in our classes: if the course is good, we gain their respect and are as Real to them as any other professor they meet.

Becoming Real to our colleagues can take longer. Are we truly members of the department or not? Should we be able to vote on departmental decisions that may last longer than our possible/probable contingent presence? Should we be encouraged - even permitted - to sit on committees, and if such labour is unremunerated, is this participation a gesture of respectful inclusion or disrespectful exploitation? And even when they come to respect the individual, colleagues often continue to discount the position.

Curiously, we are often more respected - and thus more Real - outside our home institutions. For most adjuncts, hired to meet the undergraduate teaching needs of the university, research is of necessity a labour of love rather than a requirement of a salaried position, but many of us do publish, and even garner grants or awards for our work.

These marks of recognition and respect from students, from colleagues and from anonymous peer reviewers help make us Real not just to others, but to ourselves: maintaining self-respect in the face of years of uncertainty and underemployment is one of the toughest challenges faced by contingent faculty.

The Skin Horse had it right: becoming Real "takes a long time" for most adjuncts, and "doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept". Contingency - the long-term kind - isn't for the insecure, the fragile or the impatient.

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