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"Adjunct Arrested at Board Meeting" (1), "The Plight of Adjuncts" (2)

What do we mean by adjunct? Contingent? Permanent? Sustainable? Visiting? Lecturer? Instructor? Professor? When does it matter?

In the excellent 2010 report "Understanding the New Majority of Non-Tenure-Track Faculty," Adrianna Kezar and Cecile Sam argue that "terminology is one of the most difficult conundrums of recognizing and understanding non-tenure-track faculty." In fact, they point out, more than 50 terms exist for non-tenure-track faculty.

For instance, what does it mean for me to describe myself as a permanent non-tenure-track lecturer in English? Especially when we in higher education define each of those terms -- permanent, non-tenure-track, lecturer -- differently depending on institution or simply our own positions?

For me, permanent means that the four-year private liberal arts university where I work has formally committed to me for…well, forever. I was hired after a national search and "continued," the equivalence of "tenured" on this line, after completing a probationary period, compiling a dossier demonstrating excellence in teaching and significant service to the university, garnering support from senior faculty in my department, and being granted the permanent status by the Dean and Provost--just like my tenured colleagues.

At my university, lecturers are expected to be “exceptional” teachers, to be actively engaged in significant service to the institution, and to participate in professional development activities in their fields. Lecturers are eligible for promotion to the rank of senior lecturer. Lecturers at my institution do great things: They chair departments. They coordinate minors. I coordinate our first-year writing program.

In my job, the distinction between permanent non-tenure-track and tenure-track exists in name, dominant activities, and sometimes, but not always, credential (lecturers are not required to have a Ph.D.).

The benefits are more distinct: This is an agile position, one that affords me is the time and space to focus on whatever needs to be done at the time. If that means no time for research … no problem. This is also a position that allows me to focus on my strengths and interests -- teaching and service -- to create a fulfilling, meaningful career. I am also learning that it is an opportunity to trailblaze -- to shake up the status quo by simply existing in a way that defies classification. So, it's a powerful place to show leadership. 

However, I know from serving on many search committees for this very same position that others define these terms differently. At the public universities to my east and west, the title lecturer means limited-term faculty, a long-term adjunct, if you will. As it does at many other institutions across the U.S.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to meet a "rock star" in my field. I was eager to tell him how much he had influenced my thinking about teaching writing. I introduced myself as "lecturer in English and coordinator of first-year writing." He sighed, and said, "I wish institutions would stop exploiting their adjuncts by giving them these positions."

I sigh, too, every time this has happened since. If we can't even get the name right, how do we expect to get the right conditions and the right people in place?

Positions like mine remain mostly invisible. Rarely in any discussion -- in the organizational documents published by the MLA, the CCCC, or the Council of Writing Program Administrators or in the media reports published in Inside Higher Ed, the Chronicle or even The New York Times -- is any distinction made between nonpermanent non-tenure-track faculty and permanent non-tenure-track faculty. This under- or nonrepresentation can be just as damaging as misrepresentation -- indeed, it is a misrepresentation of the full scope of life and work off, or indeed free from, the tenure track.

It also ignores the agency -- the existence and role of choice -- that some of us have in choosing to make a career off the tenure track.

For instance, in a 2012 issue of the ADE/ADFL Bulletin devoted to issues of contingent faculty, Jack Longmate asserts that “Many non-tenure-track faculty dream of a tenured position” (35). While this may be true for some, it doesn’t hold true for all: it fails to take into account faculty who are untenurable on account of credential -- faculty who, like me, don’t have a terminal degree -- or faculty who choose to focus on teaching and service, rather than on scholarship -- that is, faculty who don’t, after all, wish to devote their time to doing what is required to be tenured at most universities.

The dangers of creating a false dichotomy that indicates deficiency include devaluing the expertise, experience, and type of teaching done by lecturers in a way that undermines their authority (either stripping it entirely or refusing to acknowledge it); lecturers trying to “pass” for tenure-track by doing the same amount of intellectual work (research and scholarship) while doing more tangible work (service and teaching) -- in effect, doing “equal” work for unequal pay and status; and an inability to identify the conditions for promotion or continuance other than those that are the same as for tenure-track.

The misrepresentation and lack of representation of the teaching-intensive permanent lines also all but ensures that there is no professional support outside the institution that takes into account what is different about the position -- which, in my experience, makes it sometimes difficult to assert a clear identity within my institution and the field.

Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that there are not one or two ways to make a career in academia, and that those ways don't have to be set up as binaries that, by nature, "other" the other way. This dichotomy -- non-tenure track vs. tenure track -- makes invisible other ways of working in academia and silences many productive conversations.

I suggest we move from binary, or "othered," ways of thinking and naming paths and toward imagining paths that are aligned horizontally -- as complementary paths or positions -- rather than vertically -- as less-than or step-down positions within a program or department.

Pretending or assuming that permanent non-tenure track faculty are like tenure-track (tenure-track light) or like adjunct (adjunct plus) -- regardless of who is doing the pretending (the non-tenure track faculty or the tenure track/adjunct faculty around them) does not work, because it does not fully value or allow for someone to be something different.

And it's not that simple, anyway: we're not this OR that. We may be a little of both, and we're definitely a whole lot of this: a faculty person that does not -- and cannot -- depend on other labels to define us. 

It's time that these permanent, tenure-free lines are made visible. Moreover, it's time to begin talking about how these lines are not other than or different from, but complementary to and as important as the work done by tenure, tenure-track, and even non-permanent contingent faculty at our campuses.

Not all non-tenure-track positions -- or, moreover, the people who chose to make a career in them -- are bad (3). But our insistence on lumping them together under one umbrella term is.

After all, in the bard's famous tragedy, Juliet answers her own question by saying, "that which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet." If we mishear or misread "would" as "wouldn't," that's our mistake.


  1. Headline from October 23, 2017, Inside Higher Ed Quick Takes,
  2. Headline from October 10, 2017, New York Times letter in response to "Professors Behaving Badly," about the bad behavior of adjunct professors,
  3. In this series of guest posts, I’ve opted to talk from my experience as a permanent, non-tenure track senior lecturer in English. I have also worked as a non-permanent non-tenure track faculty member. I do not mean to ignore or demean the status of my non-permanent non-tenure track colleagues, but space and experience don’t allow me to dig deeper into their stories.

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.

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