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Does a Ph.D. go “stale” after a few years? Is there such a thing as “too old” or “too experienced” to take a tenure-track position?

Katherine Larsen and Cheryl Vann are prime examples of a major problem in the profession: they’re very experienced, productive teacher-scholars who are more than qualified for tenure-track positions, yet they’re effectively permanent contingents. There’s a (mis)perception on the job market and on some search committees that younger Ph.D.s (or A.B.D.s, even) are “fresher,” instead of (in the words of one) “already marketplace losers.” In what other profession would rich experience be a detriment?

Kathy and Cheryl aren’t “adjuncts” in the typical sense of having one-semester or one-year contracts. On paper, they’re both in the “full time” category, yet they’re essentially full-time part-timers with no job permanency past their contracts. One reason Kathy and Cheryl are appealing for this column — besides their experience and consistent dedication to their work — is that their “full-time” positions are increasingly common in universities. Yes, there’s a certain level of job security with their positions, but there’s also a lack of basic faculty rights, meaningful promotion potential, and (in some cases) respect afforded by “real” full-time faculty.

Katherine Larsen received her M.A. from Georgetown University and her Ph.D. from the University of Maryland at College Park with a concentration in 18th Century British literature and the novel as a genre. Her research interests have grown to include fandom studies and audience reception studies. She has taught at George Washington University for the past 18 years, starting as an adjunct in the English Department and eventually moving into a full-time (though not permanent or tenure-track) position in the University Writing Program. Larsen is the co-author of Fandom at the Crossroads and Fangasm, and co-editor of Fan Culture: Theory/Practice and Fan Phenomenon: Supernatural. She is the editor of the Journal of Fandom Studies. She also was active in the formation of the contingent faculty union at George Washington University and was part of the first contract negotiation team.

Cheryl Vann has been teaching at George Washington University for 20 years. She received her M.A. from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, her M.Litt. from Middlebury College, and her Ph.D. from George Washington University in medieval British literature. Two National Endowment for the Humanities awards and summer study on China and Japan have broadened her interests to include areas of the Middle East, Asia, and al-Andalus (Islamic Spain). While she has had permanent part-time status with University Honors for several years, she has also taught as adjunct faculty at the University of Maryland University College and Georgetown University. Her teaching day often begins at 8:00 a.m. and ends about 10:30 pm, after having taught at three different universities. Despite the long days and part-time salary, Vann remains devoted to her students and to her studies. She remains equally devoted to her work on the contract bargaining committee for GW’s contingent faculty union, SEIU Local 500.


KL: When you began your career, what was your sense of your future in academia? How have those expectations aligned with the reality of life as contingent faculty? And what does that term mean for you in particular?

CV: Because I did not go immediately into graduate school after graduating from college but went abroad to work, I naively thought that experience outside academia would provide a boost to my applications for tenure-track positions. I also thought that bringing a few more years of life experience would increase my opportunities. I was wrong on both counts.

Rather than enhancing my potential for academic employment, my non-traditional experiences relative to traditional academia seemed to marginalize me, at least in my field. I really didn’t expect that. I thought that the university would be a welcoming marketplace of ideas among respectful and collegial peers, but what I found is that even an adjunct needs to hew to the latest theoretical stance. When I was a graduate student and was the only one in the class to agree with views expressed by E.D. Hirsch, the professor was offended and proclaimed that she supposed there was a place at the university “even for people like me.” It took my becoming contingent faculty for me to truly grasp what it meant to be “people like me.”  

My association with the Honors Program, however, puts me in a relatively rare status at the university. The Honors Program is quite small, and while none of its core faculty is in a tenure-track position, they have renewable contracts. One or two others besides myself have regular part-time status, which makes us eligible for term life insurance and health benefits and university contribution to a TIAA-CREF 401a. So I am really neither fish nor fowl, not tenure-track, not contract, and not unbenefited as are so many adjuncts. Under these circumstances, circumstances that so many contingent faculty would gladly embrace, to complain would make me not only ungrateful but unfeeling. Still, I feel isolated.

One of the most serious issues of contingency status is this isolation. I am not invited to faculty meetings, and this lack of participation in the present and future direction of the Program creates a clear divide between contract and adjunct faculty. At the same time, each of the Honors Directors with whom I have dealt — there have been three — has been very supportive of my applications for various study opportunities, including financial support. How could I not appreciate that?! I do, and I am lucky in many ways.

Since universities tend to be very status-conscious institutions, when one does not have the status of tenure or contract — or, when one is “people like me” — one inhabits a sort of no-man’s land. That’s a barren place to try to nurture self-respect, and unfortunately but understandably, one’s colleagues in this limbo are suffering from the same lack of respect. The type of collegiality built upon shared grievances can itself become unproductive and discomfiting.

Perhaps it is a cop-out, but I have relocated a desire for collegiality to my students and found great fulfillment in that. Reading and research I might have shared with colleagues, I share with my students. And my students don’t care that I’m contingent faculty; rather, they provide the welcoming and respectful forum I thought I would find among peers. I did not understand that as contingent faculty, I would never be, or at least would never feel that I was, the peer of tenured faculty.

KL: Newly minted Ph.D.s seem to be given expiration dates in place of diplomas now. If we don’t get full time jobs within a certain (short) amount of time, we are seen as having gone off — no longer viable commodities. Given this, and that the possibility of promotion from adjunct to full time (or even a slightly more stable form of part time) employment is something of a chimera, what keeps you working as an adjunct?

CV: The answer to this question folds nicely into the first. As my students have become my community, they keep me teaching. I have had the privilege to teach humane, thoughtful, inquisitive, diligent, and inspiring students year after year. Former students become friends who continue to enrich my life. So although I agree that new Ph.D.s seem to have a limited shelf life (regardless of their alma mater) in the contemporary academic employment world, my relationship with my students does not go stale.


CV: While you are not tenured faculty or in a tenure-track position — because you are in a full-time position with attendant salary and benefits — your situation is quite different from that of most adjunct faculty, many of whom would look at your situation with envy. Therefore, can you clarify for us how your experience relates to the experience of adjunct faculty who teach on a course-by-course basis with no guarantee of continued employment from one semester to the next?

Also, has your level of preparation changed when you moved from adjunct to full-time status? Have you perceived any difference in expectations for full-time as opposed to adjunct faculty since your program consists of both full-time and adjunct faculty?

KL: I should start by clarifying two points. First, everyone (except the executive director) in my program is essentially contingent faculty. However, there is still a clear hierarchy within these contingent ranks. In the university’s parlance, there are: Regular Active Status (full time with teaching, research and service expectations, benefits, three-year contract); Special Service (full time with only teaching and service expectations, benefits, three-year contract); Regular Part Time (teaching and some service expectation, partial benefits, one-year contract); and adjunct (no service, no benefits, no contract past the current semester).

Second, I’m in a somewhat unique position of having moved from adjunct to “regular part time” to “special service” faculty. While I am now full time, I am still on a contract (similar to the one I was on as regular part time) and still have to apply for renewal of that contract once every three years. Moreover, my status as “special service” (no research expectation) means that I will never be eligible for sabbatical, and my access to promotion is limited. (And, despite my active research agenda, there is certainly no incentive for the University to hire me into any other position — for which a national search would have to be conducted — since I am already working full time and teach more sections than I would otherwise teach in the positions that do have a research expectation.) Unlike my regular active status colleagues, I am prohibited from serving on any committee tasked with appointments and hiring, and have no vote in the faculty senate and thus no voice in university affairs.

While not technically prevented from assuming administrative positions, that I can’t be involved in hiring decisions effectively means these positions are not available to me. However, because of the research I’ve done and my position as the principal editor of one of the few journals in my field, I am qualified to write letters of recommendations for tenure and promotion for people at other universities. The irony (I was tempted to write “the injustice”) of this situation is not lost on me.

In this respect I am much closer to my part-time colleagues than I am to my other full time colleagues.

CV: Did you apply for a full-time position thinking that internal promotion was a possibility? Is there internal promotion in your program, or do all but adjunct positions mandate a national search? In terms of internal promotion, do student evaluations factor in to this equation? Seniority? What does factor in?

Moreover, are adjuncts able to apply for full-time positions in your program? Do you have any information on how many adjuncts have been successful in moving from adjunct to full-time status?

KL: When I applied for my current position I was told flat-out that it was a “dead-end” job and that the possibility for promotion was all but nonexistent. At the time (one child recently out of college and another about to go in) the jump in salary mattered more to me than the possibility of promotion. And since I had already been one of the lucky ones who had managed to move from adjunct to a (limited) full-time position, I suppose I also held some hope that eventually I would be able to manage a move to regular active status faculty.

While there have been promotions in my program from adjunct to regular part time and, in one case from regular part time to regular active status, these moves are the exceptions rather than the rule. Filling any “regular active status” line always involves a national (or at least a regional) search and competition with a younger and perhaps “better-credentialed” pool of candidates. There is also little to no precedent for internal promotion of “special service” faculty. Though this is theoretically possible, there is really no mechanism in place to facilitate this process and it is unclear what a potential candidate would have to do in order to apply for promotion since research is not a factor in evaluating the position. It’s territory I plan to explore in the near future, but without a compass or signposts I’m ready for a frustrating, and perhaps ultimately fruitless, journey.


I’m proud to call both of these dedicated teacher-scholars my colleagues and friends. I’ve seen their dedication to teaching and overall professionalism first hand. Cheryl’s “even for people like me” memory surely resonates with a lot of us experienced, hardworking teacher-scholars who — for a variety of arbitrary reasons — are not seen as “current” or “fresh” in their fields. Kathy, Cheryl, and I have taught at the same institution for over 50 years combined, and we’ve seen often how pedigree and “star” power trump experience when it comes to candidacy for legitimate full-time positions. Internal promotion to tenure-track positions, as many of us contingent faculty know, are effectively impossible, especially at universities that privilege status and pedigree at the expense of experience in the profession. As MLAlienation, Rebecca Schuman, and others have written about recently, this kind of elitism has kept contingent faculty where they are, while also creating rifts between those off the tenure track at a time when solidarity and cooperation are vital.

I want to close with some questions:

  • What does it mean for our profession that so-called “full-time” positions like those Kathy and Cheryl have are the new norm in higher education? Is this a pragmatic or problematic move by universities?
  • Since there’s a de facto expiration date for Ph.D.s, how should graduate education in the humanities change?
  • Should professors in these kinds of full-time positions be more pleased to have contracts lasting longer than the current semester, or more frustrated that they’ll likely never move up internally to a “real” full-time position?


As always, I’m looking for participants for future columns. If you’re a contingent faculty member at any level of higher ed, contact me via email or Twitter.

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