Life On (and Off) the Tenure Track

Michael Johnson Jr. offers suggestions for how tenure-track faculty members can and must support adjuncts and other "temporary" colleagues in academe.

April 5, 2019
 
 

A hell of a lot of ink has been spilled about life in academe off the tenure track. And at the risk of adding to that spill, I’d like to offer my observations now that I’ve finally secured a tenure-track position. I will tell my story and then make a few humble suggestions for current and future doctoral students and those of us responsible for influencing the next generation of precariously employed and often exploited academics.

After graduating with my master’s degree in 2007 from the University of South Florida, I made the perilous decision to apply to a couple of the top five Ph.D. programs in American studies. By August 2008, I had accepted admission into Washington State University’s program, which was highly ranked in my discipline.

By the time of my graduation in 2013, I was lucky to be hired into a full-time position with my department, albeit with only a three-year term. I was transformed into a faculty member with full-time pay and health insurance, as well as teaching, research and service expectations that came along with the job. I was ecstatic but also full of trepidation, as the position would only last for three years and I had no clue what I would do next.

And so I settled into the uncomfortable exhaustion that typifies life off the tenure track, filled with anxiety over my looming expiration date. I remained productive, attending national conferences and publishing journal and book chapters, yet after 130 job applications, I was still unsuccessful in obtaining a tenure-track position. So I decided to remain on the market. And then, one year later, I struck gold. I was offered a job on the tenure track at the California State University at Northridge.

Occupying a position as a tenure-track assistant professor is different. The pay is significantly better, as are the professional development and advancement opportunities. Most important, our votes count in terms of setting policy, evaluating curriculum and performing many other administrative roles. Being a union member makes my job rewarding in incomparable ways.

Yet I now also see the ugly side of what life in academe today means. A number of universities across the country are experiencing a chronic incapacity to serve all the students who want to enroll. Meanwhile, they've filled their ranks with adjunct and "temporary" faculty members who, unable to gain a tenure-track or even a full-time job, must often labor in difficult conditions with relatively little pay. Thus, faculty members like me confront a higher education system that forces a "choice" between the Scylla of not offering classes to all the students who want to learn and the Charybdis of peer exploitation.

We tenured and tenure-track faculty members must demand changes to this system. Although many of us may feel paralyzed by the intransigence and bureaucracy of higher education, we must resist the temptation to give in to the depressing state of affairs today. We must fight against the anesthetizing forces of complacency that have brought us to this point. And so, as an attempt at doing so, I offer these suggestions.

First, we need to be brutally honest with our doctoral students. We must carefully assess if the numbers of graduates we’re producing are equal to the market demand. In fields where there’s an overabundance, we need to reduce admissions of Ph.D. students to, at minimum, single digits. One way to accomplish that is to fully fund every student who is admitted, increasing their stipends to a living wage. The costs alone will dramatically reduce the number of students that graduate programs admit. The best way to implement this recommendation is for institutions to reallocate funding and to make administrators recognize that such reallocations are part of a long-term strategy of institutional survival.

In keeping with my previous suggestion, we also need to extricate ourselves from this prestige economy whereby the number of doctoral students becomes a de facto metric of departmental success. Our participation in this system can create a perverse incentive for some departments to actually increase their enrollment of doctoral students -- even going so far as to offer them no funding at all -- just to appear “productive” as a unit. That not only perpetuates pernicious overabundance in some disciplines but is also grossly unethical.

Colleges and universities should also immediately offer tenure-track positions to certain qualified, long-term “temporary” employees. They’re doing the same work, and frequently under absolutely egregious conditions for little pay. It’s unfair and needs to stop.

Some institutions have begun this process. For instance, across the California State University system, if part-time contingent faculty members teach for six years, they become eligible for a three-year contract. These changes occurred in large part because tenure-track faculty members agitated for change.

In fact, if we tenure-track faculty can’t demand such change, then we’re only paying lip service to our principles without actually doing anything substantive to change the system. How can we achieve that? The best way is through unionizing and collective bargaining. Contingent-faculty organizers have already had significant victories by creating powerful incentives for both administrators and legislatures to help create fair working conditions.

We need to demand that administrators institute at least a one-to-one parity when hiring tenure-track and “temporary” faculty. While the long-term discussions about the need for tenure-track faculty members will require significantly more financial resources, the minimum we can expect and demand is equality.

Finally, we must stop lying to ourselves and to the graduate students to whom we have a professional obligation to tell the truth. The fact is that getting a tenure-track job is damn near impossible. And some evidence suggests that this trend will worsen.

If we can’t be honest with ourselves about the numbers, and the reality of the job market and conditions that doctoral students face, then we’re as bad as the system that exploits them. We’ve not only convinced them of this fantasy of easily obtaining a tenure-track job in their discipline, we’ve encouraged them to expend four to five years or more of their time and financial resources (often leading to severe indebtedness) in its pursuit. That’s unethical, and I for one refuse to remain silent in the face of this untenable situation.

Bio

Michael Johnson Jr. is an assistant professor of media theory and criticism in the Cinema and Television Arts Department at California State University at Northridge. His book, There’s No Place Like HBO, will be published by Wayne State University Press in late fall 2020.

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