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If we’re going to have a more productive discussion about the fate and future of contingent academic labor, (and indeed, all academic labor) there’s a few rhetorical frameworks that need to be retired and replaced.

One of the most widespread of these frames that is now being challenged is the notion of the competition for tenure track positions as a “lottery.”

Having secured a tenure track position, one hears grateful scholars express how fortunate they have been to win the “lottery,” and while there is for sure an element of good luck that results in the securing of any opportunity, as Kelly Baker recently argued, a “lottery” presumes that all candidates have an equal chance at success, which we all know isn’t true.

Even when we reduce the pool of applicants to those who are judged “qualified,” not all of them have equal chances at success. But neither is this a meritocracy, something I argued two years ago, as I pointed out how choosing among the qualified relies on inherent subjectivity and bias that is often hidden from the applicants, and even the hiring body themselves.

We reach for “lottery” out of good intentions because we know how many worthy candidates are left behind, there but for the grace of god go I. But while the odds of winning a lottery are long, it also connotes an underlying ethos of equality and fairness, a distortion of what’s really happening in academic labor markets.

The word also covers for a much larger dysfunction, namely that those left behind are often left to work in jobs that are, in more ways than not, the functional equivalent of those who have won the “lottery,” but for whom decent pay and job security is not available.

It’s like they have a ticket with the same numbers as the lottery winner, but the oversized check and confetti and balloon shower never arrive.


Often, I hear tenure track jobs equated to making it in Hollywood as an actor, or to the top levels of professional sports. Long shots that take a mix of talent, hard work, and luck. The idea, I suppose, is that these are fields where many are competing for a handful of slots, and inevitably, even the deserving may not make it to the highest level - a regular on a television show or a roster slot in the majors.

This frame is used by those both sympathetic to the plight of contingent faculty, similar to the use of “lottery,” and those less sympathetic in a “Hey, them’s the breaks, not everyone gets to be a superstar,” way.

Here’s the thing, though. Failing to land a tenure track job doesn’t mean the contingent are exiled to the minor leagues, or community dinner theater, serving cocktails while delivering their lines.

They’re still working in the majors. They just aren’t treated that way[1].

Contingent faculty sometimes working for as little as $1500/class teach the same courses as tenured track faculty. They work with the same students. They have the same qualifications. Their paychecks are signed by the same entity[2].

They are not toiling in the minor leagues. They are not in a low budget film. They are on the same stage as everyone else, and yet…

What, other than an entirely arbitrary designation, separates them from their tenured colleagues?

The scarcity and high desirability of the positions doesn’t mean that contingent faculty should be vulnerable to this kind of exploitation as part of some kind of perverse application of “competition.” Imagine a Hollywood production studio was offering a “2nd lead” role in a feature film, but the catch is, rather than the SAG minimum (a little over 3k a week), they were going to offer bupkis.

We’d need to hold auditions in a stadium to hold everyone who would show up in the hopes that the exposure would someday lead to a job that actually pays.

Do you think an NFL team would have any trouble filling out its roster outside the stars and starters for minimum wage, or less? I can imagine there’s more than enough sufficiently athletically gifted people to man the special teams squads for nothing more than the chance to wear the uniform, again, in the hope that they may be noticed and paid someday. Though even then, I’d think many of them would do it solely for the chance to “play the game.”

Would we accept this?

It’s not accidental that athletes and actors are guaranteed these minimums. They are backed by unions and achieved through collective bargaining[3].

But they’re also backed by the widely held notion, rooted in our most basic American ideals, that if you’ve “made it,” you deserve to be rewarded in a way commensurate with your success. This doesn’t necessarily mean riches, but it shouldn’t mean poverty.

Of course, there are distinctions to be made among faculty. Perhaps we can see research superstars as “all-stars,” like my beloved Chicago Blackhawks Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, who will both be paid $10.5 million next season. But the stars of a team aren’t the only ones who get paid. No matter how many goals you score in the NHL, you’ll make at least $575,000. You are still in the pros.

Thousands and thousands of contingent faculty have indeed, already “made it.” They have completed their training.[4] They have been hired by the college or university to do the work of the college or university.

Yet, they are excluded from security and a livable salary by what, exactly?

Not training, not ability, not place of work, but by something arbitrary, something destructive not just to the individuals working as adjunct and contingent faculty, but to the very institutions they work within, and the students they mean to serve.

No, adjuncts aren’t in the minors. They’re in the majors. They’re on the big screen. We’re just pretending differently because it is convenient, because it allows us to turn away from an injustice.

But it’s a fiction, and we should put it to rest, permanently.




[1] While I don’t claim my personal example to be dispositive or universal, for the purposes of illustration, my CV looks like that of a tenured full professor, 15 years experience, five books, three books as co-editor, dozens of stories and articles published, blah, blah, blah, but because I have always held contingent positions (including at three different R1 universities, the majors by any definition), I’ve never made more than 40k per year, and for the bulk of that time, made less than 30k.

[2] Yes, contingent faculty are not responsible for research as part of their jobs and are often exempted from service, but they also teach more than faculty who do that work. The functional amount of work is roughly equivalent, and yet the compensation is wildly disparate.

[3] Likewise, contingent faculty working in states where organizing is possible have seen much better gains than those working elsewhere.

[4] We could perhaps analogize graduate studies to the minor leagues, or regional theater, where the work is similar to that of the professorate, but for a definied, and relatively short period of apprenticeship and training, you are paid less.

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