A guest blog by Paula Patch.
Last semester, one of my first-year writing students analyzed the park bench scene from Good Will Huntingwhere Robin Williams' character tells Matt Damon's character that he might be a genius and he might be able to talk about art and love and war and death abstractly and from data, but unless he has experienced it himself, he cannot fully understand that experience.
Watching the scene with her one morning, in the midst of challenging conversations about faculty experiences off the tenure track, the message struck a chord. How can we understand the experiences of faculty who teach off the tenure track—or, in the common jargon, non-tenure track (NTT) faculty?
First, we have to let NTT faculty tell their own stories in their own words. Sounds easy, but research by Adrianna Kezar and others shows that most studies of NTT faculty are not conducted by NTT faculty themselves. Nor do many of these studies collect information directly from NTT faculty. Many studies, in fact, collect information from people who superviseor work with NTT faculty. In other words, rarely in the research or other published conversations about NTT faculty do those faculty speak of their own experiences in their own words and from their unique perspective.
I teach invitational rhetoric, proposed mid-'80s by feminist scholars (2), which puts the audience in the shoes of the sources consulted by the writer. Among other things, invitational rhetoric/argument asks writers to use the exact words and language of the people whose perspectives they represent, rather than summarizing the ideas or otherwise speaking for those people. It's a very cool, different, and often difficult style to learn.
I ask my students to try it out, and I help them move from generalizing or projecting their own experiences or perspectives onto everyone else. They work with the words of other people to feel to some extent what it's like to experience the same space or event differently based on, say, status.
That's why I think that it's important for people to invite and encourage NTT faculty to speak and to listen and take them seriously when they do. Here are some tips for talking to NTT faculty about their work:
1. It feels like the right thing to do to claim "status-blindness," but it's not. Because tenure is the status quo in most of higher education, if you have it or are eligible for it, you will not be aware of status in the same way as your colleagues who are tenure-ineligible. Your status as seeking tenure, if you are, is not the same as the status of those who cannot or are not seeking tenure. They may have some things in common, but they are not the same.
Not knowing which of your colleagues are employed on the wide variety of non-tenure track lines means that you don't know which of your colleagues may be teaching more classes than you do per year, which are unable to advise students, which are sharing offices, and which are working extra jobs, which do not have health insurance, which have to explain why they need a different model for making the case for promotion, which do not feel welcome or part of the conversation at faculty meetings or professional development workshops, which have to explain that they are not "failed PhDs," and which do not have basic access to the social and cultural capital and insider information that allows them to feel fully included and capable of teaching and supporting students. Saying "...but I don't think of you as NTT" means that you don't think of ways that your privileges don't extend to everyone.
2. Ask NTT faculty to tell you how their experiences are different. You'll hear a variety of answers, some of which may contradict one another and some of which will make you question your own status. That's awesome: that is the space where learning and transformation happen.
3. Try your best not to say that because you have never seen a problem that a problem does not exist or is not perceived to exist. If someone feels like there is a problem, consider them to be telling the truth.
4. Do not confuse the problem with the person voicing the concern. As Sarah Ahmed writes, “When you expose a problem you pose a problem. It might then be assumed that the problem would go away if you would just stop talking about or if you went away.” (3)
5. Watch your language. You may find yourself saying "...but you're so good at your job and we value you even if you're JUST a lecturer/part-time adjunct/etc." Just no. Insert any other group identity into that sentence and you'll see the problem. And "just a..." hurts like hell.
6. Speaking of hurt, recognize that these conversations are painful. Having to constantly explain and frequently apologize for oneself is painful. Hearing people tell you to get over it or watching people walk away or roll their eyes or frown when you start talking about labor conditions is painful.
7. Be hopeful. Be open to this conversation as a creative, not destructive process.
Obviously, I have been thinking about and studying this for a while. When you lead a first-year writing program, as I have for eight years, you are alwaysthinking about labor. Combined with my experience as first, an adjunct faculty at several universities, and now, a permanent faculty who teaches off the tenure track at a four-year university, it's always top of mind.
1. The 2010 Association for the Study of Education (ASHE) report, co-authored by Adrianna Kezar and Cecile Sam, is still one of the best glimpses at the research terrain.
2. You can get a taste of invitational rhetoric here.
Paula Patch is a Senior Lecturer in English at Elon University, where she coordinates the first-year writing program and has taught composition and language courses since 2006. She is the incoming Vice President of the Council of Writing Program Administrators and chairs the Untenured WPA and Faculty Caucus of that organization. You can find her on Twitter: @profpatch.