How to Be Off the Tenure Track and Love It

Gina Brandolino explores four common misconceptions about non-tenure-track jobs.

October 5, 2016

At the institution where I work, my job title of lecturer marks me as being non-tenure track, a status that I think earns me the right to title this piece as I have. I do love being off the tenure track, and I say this having been off it for nigh on eight years as well as having been on it previously at a small liberal arts college.

My job is not unique. More than 1,500 lecturers work at the University of Michigan’s three campuses, and in my home state of Michigan, at least Wayne State, Michigan State and Eastern Michigan University employ similar faculty -- as many institutions of higher learning nationwide increasingly do.

This is just the measure of a single field from one organization, but consider it: according to the “Report on the MLA Job Information List, 2014-2015” published by the Modern Language Association’s Office of Research, the number of full-time non-tenure-track jobs in English has been growing as reliably as the number of total jobs in English has been shrinking: during the 2012-13 job season, 1,011 jobs were posted on the MLA job list, 27 percent of which were non-tenure track. During the next job season, 928 were posted, 29 percent of which were non-tenure track. And in the following one, 884 jobs were posted, 31 percent of which were non-tenure track.

There’s definitely a trend and, unlike so many of my colleagues, I don’t bemoan it. Tenure provides a mantle of protection that too often makes not the brilliant and daring, but the lazy and careless and sometimes malevolent virtually untouchable. I am sure that I don’t need to elaborate this point -- that everyone reading this article can think of an example of such a colleague. But, some have argued back at me, academic freedom! The reality is, however, that most non-tenure-track contracts have an academic freedom clause that offers protection similar to tenure. Indeed, my own contract has such a clause, which reads, in part: “All employees shall enjoy the full rights of academic freedom and such rights will extend to employees no less than they extend to other instructional faculty at the university.”

Still, some people have pressed me: What if a non-tenure-track academic is terminated at the end of her contract for other stated reasons when really the issue is academic freedom? If this is the case, she has the same remedy that tenure provides: legal recourse. Facts like these make me think that we are well overdue for a serious assessment of what tenure is supposed to do versus what it is actually doing -- what its effects are in the new normal of higher education that includes a growing number of academic workers like me who are not tenure track.

If you are a recent Ph.D. and are new to the job market, you probably have for years been a part of a culture that taught you, in implicit and explicit ways, that only one kind of job is respectable and worth having, and that is a tenure-track job. That isn’t true. Non-tenure-track positions are far more viable as an employment option than many in academe consider them to be. Too often, people without any real knowledge of or experience with non-tenure-track jobs make all kinds of wrong assumptions about them. I want to identify and dispel four of the most common of these misconceptions.

Misconception #1: Non-tenure-track jobs offer no job security. While true of some non-tenure-track jobs, it’s not true of all of them. So it’s wise to know what to ask about and look for if you consider these positions as options for yourself. To be sure, technically, all non-tenure-track positions are “contingent,” but they aren’t all equally contingent. Jobs that come with an employment contract promise employment only for the term of that contract, however long it is; jobs with a renewable contract offer the promise of stable employment provided one passes regular performance reviews.

The latter is the kind of job I have, so let me give more details by way of example. My next review will occur close to the end of my five-year contract and will assess my work in the classroom as well as my departmental and university-level service through classroom observations, materials I submit and student evaluations. Scholarship is not a required part of my position, so it is not scrutinized, but it is recognized and valued during my review.

Most positions protected by a contract will include benefits, insurance and retirement options; that is especially true if a union is affiliated with the position, as mine is. (And happily, many non-tenure-track faculties have unionized even since the start of this year.) So while job security is something to be savvy about when it comes to non-tenure-track jobs, the truth is that many of them have a good level of job security -- indeed, the same level of job security that most professionals in America enjoy.

Misconception #2: You will never get to teach your specialty if you have a non-tenure-track job. I am suspicious of anyone who uses the phrase “teach your specialty,” because it describes what I consider to be an outdated model in which a scholar’s research and teaching areas overlap to be virtually the same, such that an instructor teaching her specialty would be essentially teaching her research. Some people would have you believe that teaching a range wider than just your specialty makes you a victim of the corporatization of the university. But I think it means you have a student-centered pedagogy, and it makes you much more employable than you would be having a narrow teaching range.

I’m a medievalist by training, and I do teach courses which focus exclusively on medieval content, but I rarely teach a course that doesn’t have a touch of the medieval in it. For instance, I regularly teach a horror course that I built from the ground up; in it, I have purposefully taught Beowulf and Middle English ghost stories with the likes of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Last semester, I taught a course that I designed on comics and graphic novels; my students and I explored the Bayeux Tapestry alongside Joe Sacco’s The Great War, his powerful graphic panoramic representation of the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The trick is not to turn every course you teach into a topics course focusing on your specialty but rather to make informed pedagogical choices about how to deploy your specialty -- putting enough of it in the mix to explore it and also what it can reveal in other topics covered in a course. All this should make it clear that you need not teach only your specialty in order to be teaching your specialty.

Misconception #3: Other faculty members will look down on you if you are not tenure track. Increasingly, tenure-track faculty members are aware of the evolving culture of academe and won’t make so shallow a judgment as to find those not on the tenure track automatically not interesting or valuable colleagues. That said, I won’t lie: it does happen to me. Most often, however, slights are unintentional and the result of the fact that the ranks of non-tenure-track faculty are growing so quickly that the cultures of departments, universities and even professional organizations haven’t yet fully adjusted to our being such a large and vital part of their numbers.

But it’s also often the case that institutions contain structures that bear out the prejudices of the most unenlightened of our colleagues. At my university, for instance, the highest teaching honor is open only to tenure-track faculty. Non-tenure-track faculty can receive a parallel award, but it isn’t awarded as publicly, the monetary award is significantly less and it doesn’t carry the same prestige. Coming up against and calling into question benighted attitudes in colleagues or institutional structures takes patience and generosity of spirit, but it can help shift the culture of a department or school -- and ultimately, of academe.

Misconception #4: Students will know you are different from tenure-track faculty and not respect you because of it. In my experience, that is unlikely. At the four institutions where I have taught in various faculty positions, most students were aware of faculty only as a monolithic unit. The ways we divide and distinguish ourselves, taking great pains to single out our distinct identities, either never gets communicated to them, or it does and it doesn’t interest them.

I have tried talking to my students about how I am a lecturer, not a professor, and how this makes me different; they’re polite and respectful but ultimately don’t seem to think it’s such a big deal. What I have come to realize is that, in the classroom you inhabit with your students, you are the only teacher there; what job title you hold does not change what a vital role you can play in your students’ lives. Students respect excellent teachers, the non-tenure track no less than others.

What’s Important to You

A fellow lecturer and friend of mine recently spoke with a group of grad students soon to be entering the job market about what it’s like to be non-tenure track. She began by asking each of them to take a moment to jot down on a note card an answer to this question: What’s most important to you, professionally and personally? It’s a question that can clarify a lot, especially when you’re competing in a job market in which you might feel compelled to take any tenure-track job offered to you simply because it’s so rare a commodity -- not because it appeals to you.

What’s most important to you, professionally and personally? Start thinking about it, and it’s obvious the two lists of answers quickly dovetail. Maybe where you live is most important, maybe it’s not living apart from your spouse. Maybe support for your research is paramount, maybe helping first-generation college students is.

Some of these priorities can be just as easily met in non-tenure-track positions as in tenure-track ones. If you are fortunate enough to get a job that matches your sense of what’s important -- or even mostly matches it -- it’s ridiculous not to love it because it doesn’t measure up to someone else’s increasingly untenable standards.


Gina Brandolino is a lecturer jointly appointed in the Sweetland Center for Writing and the Department of English at the University of Michigan. This essay is adapted from a presentation at the 51st International Congress on Medieval Studies.


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