The abuses placed upon adjunct faculty members by college administrations are legion, long-standing, and not likely to lead to change anytime soon -- despite intermittent committees, activist organizations, and other groups of well-meaning but naïve educated people. Still, hope blooms eternal and the forces of justice press onward. I am not about to add to that fray, but rather, will reflect upon a higher caste of faculty. How much higher, though, is up to debate.
Administrations rationalize their un-evenhanded -- at times underhanded -- treatment of the one or two or three section per term laborer by saying that he or she is probably enmeshed in graduate work, and the adjunct experience is a fine training ground for future full timers. But what of that group designated as non-tenured full-time faculty: Those with the one-year contracts with no promise? They labor on without the dream of a full-time job, for they already have one. In fact, in many cases they are worthy enough to receive a full plate of benefits: A job with a health plan, full-time status, and office space commensurate with that of (can we dare utter its name) an associate professor?
Yes, these are good things. If not an answered prayer for an academic, at least such a position may appear as a sign of one. But the academic fine print and the job market challenges this purported academic coup. For while the adjunct may dream of tenure-track possibilities when the dissertation is done or that refereed journal cherry picks his or her article off the crowded transom, what dreams does the year to year full-time teacher have?
For half a decade the door of my office in the humanities department was located at 45° angles to two others across the hall, forming an invisible equilateral triangle. From this vantage point, I witnessed the injuries of cast and class of this species of scholar. One office was easily visible by a leftward turning glance. It was inhabited by an associate professor; the office further up was apportioned to a full-time non-tenured year-to-year man. While the geometry was ineluctable, the effects upon these two professors -- equally matched in education, competency, and age -- was all too palpable. As the months and years went by, and the mien of the overworked scholar grew wearier, I recalled an essay by Isak Dinesen wherein she lamented the suffering of oxen, who because of the insensitivity of the farmers to notice how poorly designed were the creatures' wooden collars, doomed the poor animals to a lifetime of suffering. On the other hand, the harness designed by the administration in funding the non-tenured position was a sophisticated, bureaucratic one, albeit devoid as well of any empathy to relieve the stress of this educated beast of burden.
The associate professor would jauntily enter the department domain in good cheer, spotlessly attired in a gray suit, well-groomed hair, and freshly shined shoes. While her job duties may not have been those of a managerial professional in the business world, her appearance would pass muster without a thought in the corporate corridors. She differed from her counterparts in business, however, since she needed make her appearance only twice a week. She taught two classes -- both "upper level" -- and dashed about the hallways as if her requisite time at the institution was something of a novelty, even an adventure. Not so the faculty member whose office abutted hers. He walked with a slow slouch. His demeanor reflected the toll of his job was heir to. His face poorly hid the toil of teaching twice the number of sections and grading hundreds of freshman compositions: first drafts and final. On occasion he could summon up a smile or a retort. But it was clear these were temporary anodynes, and even though his contract went from year to year basis to a guaranteed two-year stint, his reward for his labors were as threadbare as were his clothes.
He was friendly to his neighbor of higher status as she was congenial with him, although I could not help but notice a mote of resentment settle in his eye and a subtle gritting of the teeth from time to time as he turned from a brief interchange with his colleague back to his office. Eventually I noticed other subtle signs of unsucessful attempts at hiding his discontent. When new candidates for tenure-track positions were interviewed, he’d often show up and cordially inquire about their views on teaching or ask pertinent questions regarding their experience. However, I had the troubling feeling this was a pose, that beneath his professional stance, there stooped a disheartened soul that cringed at the idea the next academic year would bring in a new faculty member with higher rank than his. Why he did not apply for these positions himself is a mystery. He certainly seemed to have the qualifications. Perhaps after so many year-to-year years, he believed he had been apportioned his lot. Was he a representative of a new millennium academic Uncle Tom?
As for the professor who resided beside him during those years -- the one who kept bankers' hours -- it never seemed she was aware of the irony of being placed so geographically close yet so professionally apart from him. I suspect, however, she was grossly unmoved or unaware of the life on the other side of the thin slab of sheet rock that separated them.
There is an old adage that the three best things about college teaching are June, July, and August. This seemed to be the case for the solidly tenured half of our duo. When the first inklings of summer tinged the end of the academic year with warmth and greenery, she was off to parts unknown to the rest of us. But for her counterpart, these months were filled with summer teaching assignments (as many as could be legally and logistically taken on). Which led to another irony of academic life. Since the year-to-year contract covered only nine months per annum, summer school pay was lowered to an adjunct's compensation. So, as is the case with bureaucracies such as certain local governments, operations that exist outside the law, and corporate whistleblowers, it seems for the non-tenured faculty, no good deed goes unpunished.