Given that many attendees at the Modern Language Association's meeting, this year in Chicago, are here for job interviews, it's no surprise that working conditions for academics are always a hot topic.
At several sessions this year, panelists sought to reframe the way some of those issues are discussed. With many new Ph.D.'s fearing that their careers may be off the tenure track, panelists considered how to draw attention to the inequities of the adjunct system and whether new models -- close to tenure but decidedly not the same -- should be embraced. And at other sessions, professors raised concern about whether professors on the tenure track are being hurt by the way service requirements are enforced (but not rewarded).
The backdrop for many of these discussions was the continued shrinkage of tenure-track positions among all faculty jobs. According to the most recent federal data, part-time positions made up 48 percent of faculty jobs in 2005, up from 36 percent in 1989 and 30 percent in 1975. Because full-time, non-tenure track positions are also increasing (to 20 percent of jobs in the 2005 data), tenured and tenure-track positions have become decidedly in the minority. At the MLA meeting, this is particularly evident because many colleges rely on instructors off the tenure track for the composition and introductory language instruction that employs many of those here.
Gloria McMillan, who teaches part time at Pima Community College, presented research on the attitudes about adjunct policies by adjuncts, tenure-track faculty members and administrators. She has been surveying the three groups on a series of policies, with the aim of showing that views vary widely based on where in the academic hierarchy people fall. For instance, 65 percent of adjuncts believe that their departments never award travel funds to adjuncts. Only 50 percent of tenure-track faculty members -- most of them working in the same departments -- share that view. And the figure for administrators is 47 percent.
Since the adjuncts surveyed work in the same departments as the full timers and at the same institutions as the administrators, McMillan said, the gap in attitudes demonstrates the way the faculty experience is really not a single experience, but a very different one for people on different rungs of the ladder. She noted that she was only at the MLA meeting because of a travel grant for adjuncts, and because she was able to sleep at relatives' homes. Adjuncts seeking to stay on top of research in their fields -- which they must do to apply for tenure-track jobs -- clearly feel that they are shut out of travel funds, and others are unaware, McMillan said.
One topic that has come up several times in recent years at the MLA is whether colleges should be encouraged to create new slots -- with more job security than most adjuncts have, but short of tenure. Georgia State University,  for example, has created multiple-year, renewable contracts that have resulted in full-time jobs with better pay and benefits than adjuncts could have earned, even teaching many courses. The University of Denver has created such positions for an undergraduate writing program.
Douglas Hesse, director of the Denver program, said at a session that after the program was described in this article,  he had visits from a number of provosts and administrators at other universities who were interested in replicating the model. This left him wondering, he said, whether the creation of these jobs was a form of "collaboration" with the system that fails to create tenure-track jobs. Was the program, he wondered, "a composition Vichy regime"?
While Hesse said he is nervous about the idea of creating new, non-tenure track positions, he said it was important to recognize that these instructors are getting more job security, more money and more benefits than are the norm for adjuncts. Because contracts are renewable, Denver is investing in these professionals' growth, so the individuals who have the jobs gain more skills, from which their students benefit.
In the end, these "nearly in sight of tenure" positions should be evaluated based on whether they are "good for the profession," Hesse said, and that means that the question is what happens to teaching. "What’s best for students trumps everything for me," he said, explaining why he thinks positions like those created at Denver should be viewed as positive. Students gain from the better trained and compensated instructors, and from instructors who are there from semester to semester, he argued. If academics wait until colleges return to the assumption that every possible position should be tenure track, "we'll wait an awfully long time."
Other sessions featured concerns that also affect those on the tenure track: service requirements.
Katie Hogan, a professor of English and chair of women's studies at Carlow University, said that professors with tenure are portrayed as "whiny" and "pampered" even though they routinely work much longer than 40-hour weeks. She focused on the "potentially endless" list of tasks associated with service, everything from advising students on a club to helping to draft curricular changes to serving on an accreditation committee.
This work is framed as "a labor of love," much the way society describes the devotion of a mother to her children, Hogan said. While it is true that many in academe who perform service do value this part of their career, that doesn't mean service requirements (and the frequent lack of appropriate rewards for them) don't merit attention.
Much of the discussion about creating "engaged students" or campuses better connected to local communities requires an expanded service role, Hogan said, yet these calls rarely acknowledge that. The "servicification of higher education" has the danger, she added, of belittling the "production of knowledge" and the individual production of books, papers or other research in favor of service work.
Michelle Massé, a professor of English at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, said that service demands also fall disproportionately on women, who still "do the university's housework as well as the family's." That makes the lack of attention and reward for service more problematic, she said.
Massé stressed that she was not suggesting that service work isn't important, but that the lack of acknowledgment devalues it and those who perform it. She added that certain trends in higher education are adding even more service demands. She noted that department chairs and program directorships, once jobs that went to full professors, now regularly go to associate professors who might be at stages in their careers when teaching and research could be paramount.
And many of the new interdisciplinary programs and centers being created, she said to knowing nods in the audience, are not really programs or centers to the extent that means having anyone to support the efforts. Creating a new program, she said, means finding "one's inner secretary" and "one's inner IT specialist" because the odds are that's the only way a program will have support.