How to Treat Adjuncts

Patrick Iber, working off the tenure track, considers the basics on how those who have tenure-track security should treat those who don't.

October 24, 2014

It is the time of year when graduate students, unemployed Ph.D.s, contingent faculty, and various rubberneckers are clogging the lanes of the internet looking for job announcements. And, in spite of improvement in certain areas of the economy, there are few to be seen.

Amid the gloom, as job hopefuls often do, I found myself imagining what I would like to do if I did find myself on the tenure track after this year. One of my increasingly prosaic fantasies is that I would be able to act as a good mentor to future contingent faculty, who will no doubt be a part of our academic labor ecosystem for some years to come. (Only about 30 percent of faculty positions are now full-time, tenure-line positions, although the composition of course varies by the type of institution.) If my years in adjunct purgatory do indeed come to an end, these are some of the basic practices I would like to put in place that would show consideration for adjuncts and lecturers.  (To understand my perspective, here is my story.) And if I spend another year atoning, then perhaps others can do the job for me. Here, then, is a brief guide for tenure-line faculty to treating your contingent colleagues with respect.

It used to be the case that non-tenure-track faculty were assumed to be inferior to their tenure-line colleagues. These days, however, jobs have become so scarce in many fields that one’s position in the academic hierarchy is largely an accident of birth. One could probably instantly create a new university that would rival the world’s best simply by hiring from the pool of the un- and under-employed.

Even if academe were a magically pure meritocracy, there would be no reason to treat some of its members as second-class academic citizens. But perhaps the randomness makes an especially strong case for the general rule that contingent faculty should be treated as members of the academic communities of which they are indeed a part. There are three things that need to be done — two easy, one hard: welcome contingent faculty when they arrive, support them while they are there, and thank them when they leave.

The first thing to do is simple: welcome contingent faculty to the department. Universities are busy places, and almost everyone is chronically overworked. But contingent faculty are sometimes dropped into their jobs with little or no orientation to the university.

Adjuncts and lecturers are often told that they will have to be proactive about making connections with others at the university, and that is fair enough. But they often have the least ability to do so — they may be teaching at multiple campuses, and none of their universities will care to invest in their long-term success. A simple lunch or dinner with the department chair and a few interested tenure-line faculty at the beginning of the year gives visiting and contingent faculty a chance to meet with department leadership, communicates a sense of common purpose, and establishes basic channels of communication.

Second, there is the more complicated task of treating contingent faculty with respect during the academic year. This is, almost by definition, impossible, since the principal way in which respect is communicated to professionals (and other workers besides), is by paying them adequately for their labor. And since the basic logic of adjunctification is that it provides cheap and disposable teaching, it is inherently disrespectful.

Faculty who care about the fate of adjuncts must therefore do two things: work to change the system, and be decent to those disadvantaged by it. The latter is perhaps not so difficult. Set up an informal mentoring program — only you have the experience of being on the other side of a job committee, and can coach young adjuncts on how best to present themselves. If you’re part of a hiring committee, respect the commitment of contingent faculty and consider them for open positions. Choose video conferencing instead of expensive conference interviews. At home, invite your adjuncts to department events. Even a few hundred dollars of research support may make it possible for them to gain the benefits that come from attending a conference. Make sure that contingent faculty can access department and university resources, like competitive travel grants and teaching awards.

These things may seem difficult in an era of general deterioration of working conditions for most faculty members, including those with tenure-line positions. We are facing a crisis with multiple causes: the financial crash of 2008, decades of disinvestment in public education, generally increasing inequality in American life that makes paying for education difficult for many families, and the substantial reserve army of underemployed Ph.D.s. But the adjunctification crisis is also the result of institutional priorities within our universities that have been long in the making.

And so, if we are to arrest the deterioration of working conditions throughout the university system, another way to support contingent faculty is to support their unionization. Unions are, of course, not perfect institutions. But they do work to ensure that those they represent have health insurance, acceptable wages, and some protections on the job. Their flaws are minor compared to the many universities engaging in massive labor exploitation.

Many faculty might consider themselves sympathetic to unionization in general, but see the formation of graduate student and lecturers’ unions as obstacles to the smooth functioning of relationships within the university system, or a distraction from the business of scholarship. They are neither. 

Establishing basic minimums — including living wages and access to health insurance — is necessary to give graduate students and contingent faculty alike a reasonable present, especially in an environment in which the future reward toward which they are supposedly working may never arrive. Each year brings more evidence that we are in the midst of an enormous transformation in the terms and conditions of academic labor, and faculty at all levels are going to have to take actions to protect the conditions in which it is possible to research and teach in the ways that are best for our fields and for our students.

Unionization is not a distraction from scholarship; it is in more and more places necessary to ensure that the kind of work we are expected to do is possible. So show respect for those at the bottom of a broken system by supporting those who are doing the kind of work that may give us the power to recover the universities that we and our students deserve.

One easy task remains: at the end of the year, thank contingent faculty for their service. Many adjuncts’ final contact with a department comes when an office manager tells them to turn in their keys and evacuate any office space they were lucky enough to occupy. Many face total unemployment at the end of the year. The teaching they have done for your department has often been done under very difficult circumstances, financially and personally. Many are trying to care for families that include young children. Most have spent the year chasing elusive jobs, both in and outside of academe.

Please don’t let any guilt resulting from being on the receiving end of privilege stop you from shaking the hand of your contingent colleagues, thanking them for their work, and wishing them the best in a difficult environment. Survivor’s guilt does no one any good; it will feel better, and be more useful, to be an ally.


Patrick Iber is a lecturer in international and area studies at the University of California at Berkeley.


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