The Transient Academic

Shari Wilson examines the impact of having no job security on adjuncts and their institutions.

February 17, 2006

When I returned to my university the week before the spring semester started, the door across the hallway was closed and locked. As I watched colleagues quickly walking down hallways, I wondered why Dr. R. was not joining us in our last-minute preparations. Our departmental secretary enlightened me, "Oh, he took another position at a university a few hours south of here." Refusing to meet my eyes, she continued, "He was on contract, but I suppose that didn’t mean a thing to him." She waved her hand and walked away.

Later that afternoon, I heard that a sociology professor on the tenure track had also left our campus for greener pastures. With mixed feelings, I silently congratulated my colleagues on furthering their career paths -- and wondered if professors really are as self-centered as administrators think we are. Sitting in my tiny cube office, I pondered. Yes, I am intensely loyal to my academic discipline. But I do invest with the institution that pays my wages.

I worked for six years at a community college that not only declined to interview me for full-time positions, but also never guaranteed me work. In the last four years I worked there, I also worked on committees to shape curriculum and install a college-wide common exam. True, this committee work helped my CV, but I felt guilty working to develop professionally while many adjunct friends simply could not afford the time. For most academics, getting ahead is important. Yet administrators continue to assume that this is always at the expense of the current student population. We soon become defined by our investment -- not our expertise.

David Riesman, the late sociologist best known for The Lonely Crowd, was the first to define this split well. Those who identified with an institution and student population were "locals." Those who were married to their discipline, but not to an institution were "cosmopolitans." Beyond this simple classification, many have studied differences within these groups -- and groups that have been overlooked.

Adjuncts aren’t even in the mix. Everyone understands when an adjunct takes another job: one-year contract, three-year contract, visiting, non-tenured -- anything. At best, adjuncting can be a ticket into an industry overloaded with qualified applicants. At worst, it's a decade (or two) of poor pay and painful schedules with no pay off. Adjuncts often receive no training and absolutely no support. With the constant threat of poor student evaluations and grade reviews, part-timers may feel compelled to water down the curriculum and deliver only the most student-pleasing assignments.

When a tenured instructor’s class does not fill, it is the adjunct who is penalized. Last-minute cancellations and changes create constant worry and chaos for professional adjuncts. Often they are forced to take non-academic positions just to pay the rent or mortgage. More often than not, they do not even receive a courtesy interview from their “home” campus. After investing years (or even a decade) at an institution, they are often forced out when out-of-state applicants take positions that adjuncts themselves are qualified to fill.

One online friend advised me, “Do not begin to identify with your institution. You are hired help. The institution has no loyalty to you.” Because adjuncts suffer the worst circumstances and receive the emptiest promises, no one is surprised when they walk away for a full-time position -- whether it’s a visiting position, a temporary contract, or a tenure-track job in a less-desirable location. The adjunct simply cannot afford to stay.

Contract instructors suffer, too. Working full-time without tenure or hope of tenure can motivate contract employees to take any position that promises more -- whether or not that promise delivers. At a small, private university in the suburbs of Northern California, a business professor gave me the skinny on his situation: “Oh, sure, when I applied for this visiting job, they promised that a tenure-track job would be opening the next year.” Sighing, he continued, “But I found out that was a lot of hooey. They said that to every person who made the cut.” By the time he’d relocated his family 1,600 miles and started his second semester, he’d found out the truth. There was no tenure-track job for him -- or for anyone.

In fact, institutions often make vague promises about funding, salary increases, better benefits and even permanent job status with the hope of hiring more qualified applicants at a lesser wage. The untrustworthy campus or department, of course, is careful that this information never appears on paper or in e-mail -- giving the applicant no recourse when the money (or position) doesn’t appear. Most experienced professors know that if it’s not in a contract or letter of offer, it’s not real. Yet some applicants, enticed by verbal promises during a second interview on campus, may take a position that doesn’t look as good on paper. It’s simply too seductive to refuse.

And then there’s the “sham search.” A faculty member at a university in the Pacific Northwest waited nine years for a tenure-track job to materialize in her scientific field. One year, her teaching garnered an award by the provost. And each year, glowing student and peer evaluations filled her file drawer as she kept reapplying for one- and three- year contracts with the dean. Promises by hiring committee members had her hanging on, year after year, until the unthinkable happened. They did hire for a tenure-track position in her department; but they did not hire her.

Unbeknownst to the contract employee, the department chair had been grooming her own protégé. He had been a former student and fellow graduate school alumnus; in effect, the job had been his all along. My friend, who had served her institution with a loyalty everyone admired, found herself without a job within a semester. Although she has been able to pick up a few courses as an adjunct, she has virtually lost all of her contacts, her colleagues, and her friends. Misused and exploited, she confided that she doesn’t know if she will ever really be able to completely emotionally invest in a campus again -- even if she lands a tenure-track position.

Although administrators often accuse academics of moving solely for increased salary, funding, research opportunities or location, there are other qualities that make a position livable. One tenure-track instructor at a large community college on the East Coast confided, “They would dump me in a nanosecond if it became convenient to the institution’s goals.” She told me that it was not just the lack of funding and inner-circle favoritism that has forced her to start applying to positions out of her area -- in fact, it was her campus’ poor treatment of adjuncts and contract instructors that left her cautious. Even with her protected status, she believes that her campus will not support her. Worse, budgets had been cut again; departments had been collapsed and combined with horrific results. She has started looking for another tenure-track position, “I really hate feeling like a commodity that falls to the highest bidder but to be honest, until I find a campus that is worth my investment, I will be looking.”

A colleague in the Mid-Atlantic has told his tenure-track protégé, “Even if you get tenure, don’t stop thinking of yourself as a potential candidate. Channel that energy into publishing, mentoring, developing new classes, and getting funding. It’s a Darwinian system; the most productive will be most rewarded.” And this physical science professor is right. With an industry moving more and more into a “student as consumer” mode, postsecondary instructors need to work smart. In the past, we may have had to learn to adapt to unlivable situations. Now we find that we need to continue to develop professionally -- not just to benefit our student population and campus, but to also keep ourselves marketable. Just in case.

Yet, many instructors I’ve observed are not only invested in their own careers. Untenured professors often invest heavily in their own campus. A contract colleague of mine in speech holds a dozen office hours a week and extends his availability when students can’t make those times. Every other Saturday, he e-mails his students to let them know he’ll be at a local café for two hours -- and often stays three hours to accommodate the panicked freshman crowd.

Two adjuncts I know sit in on committee meetings at a local community college and work to develop curriculum. One offers suggestions on her area of expertise. After developing an elective for the campus, she has copied her notes and handouts for full-time professors who are often asked to teach the course. “I could be bitter and hold out,” she tells me, “but the students would be the ones to lose out.” Every two years she is allowed to teach this specialized course -- and she relishes the experience.

A veteran contract instructor at my current university proctors exams for minimal pay. She is often called in at the last minute when tenured professors can’t make the specified date and time to give an exam. Smiling, the contract instructor told me that she found the time with students “surprisingly relaxing.” Her serene influence touches the exam-takers; they often seek her out and take her courses the following semester.

An adjunct I know at a technical college in the Pacific Northwest sat in on several grueling sessions with tenured professors to assess students’ writing. I suspected he was simply networking during these “norming” and grading sessions. I was wrong. The greatest value, he said, was in actually being able to see exactly how senior professors were grading students. Adjusting his assessment tools (and expectations) has helped him feel much more confident teaching. He has since helped refine the rubric used to assess writing -- and applied this knowledge to his own courses. Although I can’t assume a cause and effect relationship, he e-mailed me this week to tell me that he has been invited to interview for a full-time position at his campus.

I know that investment is good. It’s good for professors, for students, for administrators, for research, and for the campus climate. In her paper, “The Humanist on Campus,” presented to the American Council of Learned Societies in 1998, Judith Shapiro claims that transient academics weaken the campus system. Although their local counterparts may be idealistic and occasionally intellectually stilted, the campus needs both. Bringing together the best of the local and the cosmopolitan is ideal. This not only requires a tremendous investment on the part of faculty, but on administrators as well. Accountability on both sides may help shape a campus that invites investment from both students and faculty -- and offers the stability necessary to breed original thinking and research.   


Shari Wilson, who writes Nomad Scholar under a pseudonym, explores life off the tenure track.


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