A Chance to Advance
Departments have no business punishing adjuncts or those who haven't earned tenure if they seek other positions, writes Nate Kreuter.
Last semester a fellow faculty member in my department, working in the non-tenure-track ranks, came by my office to talk about the program that we work in together. The business of our meeting was more or less routine, but necessary. Toward the end of the conversation he became visibly nervous.
He told me that he had applied for a new job, outside the department, but internal to our university. He was worried that I would hear about his application, and worried that I and other faculty members in the department might perceive him as disloyal or ungrateful for testing other opportunities.
But he didn’t owe us either loyalty or gratitude. After all, he had been doing wonderful work for us for years, largely without the security of a multiyear contract. If anything, we owed him. We certainly owed him our support.
As far as non-tenure-track faculty members go, I’ve never seen a better one. He had served the department for over 10 years, from contract to contract, voluntarily doing work that was often beyond what he was being compensated for. He had been an integral, stabilizing force in our writing program for years before I, the young, upstart, tenure-track faculty member, had ever even applied for my own position. He was a model of how hard many term faculty members work in exchange for relatively little, and certainly too little, recognition and compensation.
So why was he worried that someone might resent him for pursuing a new opportunity?
I think that one particularly insidious byproduct of today’s cutthroat and underfunded academic job market is that people begin to feel beholden to their departments and employing institutions. Nobody should ever swear fealty to an employer, at least not in our line of work. And when I write "our" I mean faculty in both the non-tenure-track and the tenure-track ranks, for despite our different statuses and compensation, in our classrooms we are working on the same mission.
A junior faculty member who is fortunate enough to win a competitive appointment does not "owe" anything to her employer. She can continue to pursue other opportunities.
I've heard some senior faculty members express a concern that some junior faculty members go on the job market too often, and worry that this may hurt a young scholar’s stock or reduce their credibility on the job market. I feel this is an unwarranted fear.
I not only think it’s all right for untenured (but tenure-track) faculty members to go on the market even after they’ve secured an appointment, but I think it’s prudent. Why should such a person make a de facto commitment to an institution, for any period of time, before that institution makes the commitment of tenure to the faculty member? And the junior scholars I know with the best jobs are ones who are not only excellent scholars, but who have been aggressive about seeking out better and better positions.
Healthy departments and wise colleagues understand that we have responsibilities to ourselves and to our families to pursue the best opportunities available, and to define "best" for ourselves. That responsibility to self and family, as far as I’m concerned, ultimately trumps our responsibilities to our departments and universities. But I think it speaks well of our profession that so many of us do feel a sense of stewardship and responsibility toward our departments, universities, and most of all, our students.
And it should go without saying that educators in poorly compensated, insecure term positions should seek out every available opportunity, and shouldn’t be resented by their current employers or colleagues for doing so.
When we spoke in my office, my colleague’s situation was a little different. He was shifting gears, transitioning from a not-very-secure teaching position to a more permanent position with better pay and much more job security. He was, by applying for the job, making a smart decision, putting himself in a better position to advance his own career. My department (because of systemic restrictions placed upon us) was unable to offer him that security or compensation, and so he was wise to pursue both elsewhere, and lucky to find both in a job that I think he will find fulfilling, and that I know he will be good at.
Notice, I don’t contend that everyone deserves to advance. Whether or not someone advances in their career should be determined by performance. But — and many people more eloquent than I are trying to make this same point these days — everyone deserves the opportunity to advance. Unfortunately, the current American academic system is frighteningly and shamefully reliant on undercompensated, overworked laborers with only part-time or short-term contracts. This is an especially acute problem in my own discipline, where cadres of adjuncts and term faculty are employed because nearly every student has to take a writing class at some point, because the work of teaching students how to write is labor-intensive compared to teaching other subjects, and because teaching writing has historically not been valued within our nation’s academic culture.
I think there is still a tendency, especially among the tenured and tenure-track ranks, to view the problems short-term faculty face as someone else’s problem, and not as their own problem. But the problems term faculty face will ripple into our lives as well. The labor of term faculty directly subsidizes the labor of tenured and tenure-track faculty. The relationship is direct. We are all riding the same sinking ship.
And advancement may not mean simply earning more money. We certainly shouldn’t begrudge our colleagues who seek new positions in order to better provide for themselves or their families. But neither should we begrudge our colleagues who seek new opportunities for other reasons, to move closer to family, to find an employer more in line with their own values or educational priorities.
As for my colleague, he got the job. And I’m proud of how supportive my department has been of his pursuit of a new endeavor. My department will miss him. Luckily my university won’t have to.
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Professor or Associate Professor of French and West African Francophone Studies and Director of the African-American Studies Program