Follies of Affiliation

For adjuncts, writes Terry Caesar, explaining their institutional ties can be fraught.
February 18, 2005

What does it mean to be affiliated? For a teacher in higher education, the answer is simple: to be in some form of association or connection with a college, presumably in a teaching capacity. But wait. What if you are an adjunct? Does this mean that you necessarily have an affiliation -- properly speaking -- with each institution at which you teach? Even if you teach merely on a semester-by-semester basis?

As I prepare to attend a regional conference and deliver a paper, the question of my affiliation has come to vex me. In the conference program, I am listed as affiliated with an institution at which I am not presently teaching. Should I stand up and say so, before beginning to read? Would anybody care? I am not even sure I should, because I am not sure what issue is at stake.

Another six weeks or so after this conference, I expect to have another paper accepted for another conference, and to be asked my affiliation. What to declare? By the time this conference takes place, I do not expect to be teaching at the institution where I am presently teaching. Perhaps I should give the institution where I expect to teach again, even if nine months from now, when the conference takes place, I may not be.

Two semesters ago I gave a paper at this particular institution. My affiliation, though, appeared in the program to be from yet another institution, where in fact I had taught the semester before but was not teaching at this time. Earlier that same semester I gave still another paper and my affiliation for this one was listed as the university where my wife teaches, where I have never taught. This one time I mentioned the fact, and got a few laughs.

Just so, it seems to me that the matter of affiliation for an adjunct is finally a comic one. You really do not "belong" anywhere. However, this is not exactly equivalent to saying you do not belong. The more an institution relies on adjuncts, the more you can be expected to be included in all sorts of official ways, ranging from a special orientation meeting for all adjuncts to repeated encouragement to attend teaching workshops given throughout the semester.

So you do belong in a sense. But the sense is purely transitory, and exclusively based on teaching, i.e. the courses you are teaching at the time. This is why institutions variously attempt to solicit the adjunct into continual rededications -- don't forget drop/add dates, report all discipline problems to the dean -- to the job. This is also why the moment of a conference appearance proves to be so awkward. This moment is public. It comes with the expectation that affiliation will be declared.

Teaching, by contrast, enjoys no public moment, and, for adjuncts there is not even a listing in the course catalogue, where any one normally goes by the name of "Staff." Indeed, because it takes place in private teaching is subject to careful monitoring in many institutions, where full-time department members "visit" classes, often unannounced. These visits amount to a species of affiliation, but to the department or to
the discipline, rather than to the institution.

One of the scandals of a conference appearance for an adjunct is that it partakes of a contrary logic. Not only is scholarship irrelevant to the work an adjunct is expected to perform. (Hence, no funds are available; indeed, your pay can be docked if you have to miss a class.)

Scholarship is actually contrary to it. An institution recreates itself through its faculty, and vice versa. This is the meaning of declaring affiliation to it. Adjuncts, on the other hand, are superfluous to the identity of an institution, and the identity of an institution is inessential to them -- as least as adjuncts.

So if you give papers at conferences, why not list yourself as an "independent scholar"? Many do. (And at the particular conference to which I am preparing to go, many just list their names.) I do not, for three reasons. First, academic knowledge is institutionally based; no institution means no knowledge -- or rather, no claim to knowledge, which, decoupled from institutional affiliation, feels rootless and helpless.

An "independent scholar" is like an orphan at a conference of parents.

Second, describing yourself as an "independent scholar" means communicating an even more unfortunate fact: you just do not have a job. I do, as an extension of the fact that I did, for more than 30 years. As a part-time adjunct now, the teaching often seems to be an agreeable extension of that I did as a full professor. Conference appearances always feel like such an extension. No matter that a paper may have little to do with what I teach now. It never did.

The third reason is harder to describe. It simply amuses me to appear as somehow affiliated. I never really felt affiliated to the university where I taught for many years. Now I am not affiliated with any university, although in listing one anyway, each time I try to rehearse the necessity not only for an academic to be affiliated but to pay tribute to the great preeminent truth of Affiliation Itself. I believe in it, rather as an atheist who wants to believe in God.

The other night I was relating my affiliative pratfalls to a friend. "Why don't you just make up your own institution?" he said. It seemed like a great idea! (We did not discuss the intricate provocations of personal e-mail addresses.) Institutions of higher education in the San Antonio area, where I live, are not widely known, and even those that are, such as Trinity or St. Mary's, either have the same name as other universities, or else, as with the University of Texas at San Antonio, are part of the UT system.

We tried to come up with a good name. "Alamo College" seemed a winner. Everybody knows the Alamo. Trouble is, the name is too much like the actual name of the local community college district (in three of whose colleges I have in fact taught). So we devised another: "Crockett College." Everybody knows Davy Crockett. There ought to be any institution in his name. The students might not be so good. But it would look awfully snappy and convincing as an affiliation on a conference program.

Terry Caesar teaches at Crockett College, at least when he needs something for a name badge. His last column was about the problems with syllabi.


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