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I’m a Swiss Army Knife
November 8, 2011 - 9:49pm

(I’d like to thank my colleague who suggested this title to me; it’s been helpful in thinking about how to formulate this post.)

We talk, in higher ed, about collegiality, interdisciplinarity, and public engagement. We attempt talk about solidarity, but the divide between those who are on and who are off the tenure-track couldn’t be larger. We say we want higher ed to change for the better, but we keep perpetuating the same structures, with the same results, and marginalizing and excluding any voices that may help change happen.

I, like all contingent faculty, am a Swiss Army Knife, someone working off the tenure-track who has had to learn to be flexible, adept, and, “un-disciplined” (to use a term from one of the comments from my last post). Those who work off the tenure-track (and indeed some who are on the tenure-track) have to be whatever their departments need them to be. The more flexible we are, the more likely we are to get classes and have our contract renewed.

One quote in the comments really got me thinking, largely because of its honesty and forthrightness about what departments are looking for and indirectly the attitudes towards those who are off the tenure-track:

…my colleagues and I want people who join us to know the history, scholarship, issues, and trajectories of our field, and to be enthusiastic about participating further in making that kind of knowledge.  Most important, we want our extensive conversations about curriculum and pedagogy to be informed by that knowledge.

Why is the default assumption that contingent faculty are incapable or uninterested in having just those conversations described above? And, if those who are off the tenure-track want to engage with the conversation in order to learn, why does it only take place while earning a PhD or nowhere at all?

Academia wants us to be one thing to be an adjunct, but another to be on the tenure-track. And yet given the demands on adjuncts (or as Roxie puts it, Excellence without Money), how does someone off of the tenure-track meet the ever-increasing demands of the job search to be on the tenure-track?  

Many of the comments seem to imply that just because someone teaches doesn’t mean that they “know” anything about the discipline or area. But we are required, by our own professional standards or by the requirements of the job itself, to keep up with the theory, stay on top of current research, and innovate (for example, learning how to incorporate digital forms of communication in the classroom). But because it isn’t published in a journal, it doesn’t count.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what Dr. Crazy has to say about the current rhetoric of the “failure” of higher education:

Or I might ask, why is “failure” such a dirty word?  Because at the end of the day, how can anyone learn anything without failing sometimes?  Isn’t it the case that an avoidance of failure is an avoidance of intellectual engagement?  I know that’s what I teach my students.  Why exactly is there such a charge in speaking the “truth” of failure, and why exactly is the repression of failure some sort of ideal or public good?

My last post was a failure in the sense that the larger point about the disconnect between what we say we value in higher education and what we reward was lost. But, the comments highlighted that vast gaping chasm better than I ever could. We talk around the issues, arguing about disciplinary boundaries, whose fault it is that we have so many adjuncts rather than really taking a hard look at ourselves to see what needs to change. 


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