Contingent Confessions

Christopher Bloss reflects on 17 years off the tenure track, his love of teaching -- and the quest for dignity and job security.

January 12, 2012

Perhaps because of my own experiences as a nontraditional student and then an academic librarian, I have never really thought about why tenure-track jobs were so difficult to land. For years, I did not much consider them. Working contract positions and long-term nontenured positions seemed natural, although I saw others with eerily similar qualifications reaping rewards that I did not imagine; I assumed I simply did not have enough experience, the right education, etc. to merit a tenure-track position.

A few days ago, a fellow instructor in my department said something that truly made me evaluate my philosophy on the unending search for secure employment. A highly educated fellow, my colleague said, "I just want to teach with dignity; I am not really concerned with the pay." The word "dignity" stood out to me as a singularly distinctive concept. At my institution most contingent faculty hold doctorates in the field we teach, most of us have conducted research and published our findings, and many of us have sat with our undergraduate as they struggled along their journey, whether it was good or bad. All of us are granted the same salaries and we share offices to save precious office space. We are seldom invited to attend faculty meetings where major decisions are made, often decisions that affect those of us who are teaching the significant core classes, such as higher enrollment caps in core classes, forced pedagogy, etc.

After some contemplation over my friend’s word, "dignity," it occurred to me that I had made certain concessions simply to stay employed in the academy — not because the work is easier, but like Salinger’s Buddy Glass, "There is no work I’d rather do." While many of us who operate in "at-will" positions do so because no other line of work clearly presents itself, others do it for a true love of teaching and all that accompanies it.

In my world, I do the work to the best of my abilities, I publish as much as time allows, and I work additional positions to make ends meet, just like the rest of us who have been captured by remaining in academia in somewhat questionable positions. The American Federation of Teachers reports that contingent faculty members are 73 percent of the faculty workforce in higher education teaching and most are affiliated with teaching the ever-important “core” classes, which help students find purchase on academic ground.  The American Association of University Professors, in a 2003 report, says that 65 percent of faculty employees are considered "contingent faculty." Yet, in something of a paradox, we are the least-compensated and the least-invited and -involved in departmental gatherings, meetings, and other informational events. When we are invited to some sort of institutional gathering, it is typically something of very little consequence that most of us find it more laughable than our salaries.

I want to state clearly that I am not among the disgruntled — I truly love my position, and yet I must stop and ponder the word "dignity" when it is so highly descriptive of my view of my place in academe even after a number of years of a fairly sound career.  I graduated from a reputable state university and I am proud of my publications, which are stressful to produce because each minute I am not teaching (online or face-to-face) represents a dollar figure I am losing. This is not the viewpoint of most tenure-track professors, where publication is necessarily entwined with the scope of their duties. So, we teach the largest number of students in the core curriculum and we receive the least compensation and we simultaneously provide instruction and continuity to those students who are, typically, most at-risk. This does seem odd to me.

I keep feeling as if I must repeat my position: I do love my job and I am glad to do it. Things could be better, such as room for growth or even the chance to advance in a professional manner — through funding for professional development, etc.

On a more personal level, in 2010 my 12-year old daughter died suddenly. Somehow in that moment of chaos and dread, I realized how tenuous my financial situation is, despite the countless students who had sent kind letters thanking me for helping them over the years. I had to borrow money to aid in burying my daughter, though my family was happy to help with the funeral expenses and, luckily, my wife had saved a great deal of money for a catastrophic moment despite my meager income over the years.

Whether it is real or fantasy, I like to believe that all of us are rewarded for the hard work we do and that our pay reflects our dedication and talent. Please do not misunderstand my point here. I am an at-will employee and I know I can leave or stay, but I am unable to find a coveted, and better-paying, tenure-track position that fits with my educational and experiential background.  Additionally, I would like to say many fine tenure-track friends came forward and asked if I needed "help," and it was meant in the kindest way possible.

When my colleague mentioned, "I want to teach with dignity," this entire experience came back to me in a flood of memories and I knew that I just want to live with dignity. Despite 16 years of working hard to perfect my pedagogy and performance style, I was unable to bury my daughter in the fashion befitting a grieving father. I am not bitter, and I am willing to share this very personal story if it aids the situation at all for contingent faculty at all locations or even a singe location. More than teach with dignity, I want to be able to live with dignity, to take walks with my wife, to write as much as I can, and to consider my next lesson instead of rushing because I need to teach 13 to 15 courses or more a year simply to make the mortgage payments. The entire situation is simply an exercise in double-speak and fallacy. Perhaps I will be able to afford the tombstone I wanted to give to my daughter.

In what I consider yet another paradox in the "contingent" problem, Audrey J. Jaeger discusses the negative influence institutions may find from reliance on non-tenure-track instructors on undergraduate outcomes. Unfortunately, the implied question is whether or not contingent faculty are to blame for this situation?  While it seems a ridiculous question, it deserves consideration.  How can part-time or perma-temporary employees be blamed for a situation that is clearly beyond our control?

It is best I remember I am not in a position to decide if my talents are exploited and this can be a dangerous line of questioning while serving in such as tenuous capacity.  Peter D.G. Brown eloquently captures how I feel toward the matter when he writes, I am not in a position of judging anything except how I conduct myself day-to-day and semester-to-semester. I am willing to concede the system is broken, but I do not see a clear remedy for what has gradually occurred over several decades. Whether we have done this systematically, in a gradual change so it is less noticeable, or whether it was simply based on institutional financial exigencies is a matter for others to judge, but the harm and outcome is real and pervasive.

To explain just a few obvious problems, the contingent status ranking has made it impossible to advance (a job in-hand is more important than no job at all). I actually worked for a chair who explained to me "the situation" when I was attempting to apply for a tenure-track position where I was working at the time as a contingent faculty member. I still hear his response echoing in my darker hours: "Why would we hire you for a tenure-track position when we already have you working in an adjunct status?"

While I don’t like to admit it, the logic was sound and painful. Not all chairs or department heads follow this method of logic, fortunately. Secondly, the ever-increasing numbers have created an unnecessary division among tenure-track faculty and contingent employees that is simply counterproductive to our edict to educate our students. I have always found illuminating ideas to inform my teaching when a modicum of respect was shown in a giving relationship. I enjoy interacting with my colleagues on a professional and collegial level. Thirdly, one cannot discount the economic disparity the roles have clearly created. In "Tenure and Teaching-Intensive Appointments," the AAUP explains, "This form of economic discrimination is deeply unfair, both to teachers and to their students...." I am not simply an individual voicing complaints over a low wage for providing solid writing instruction to a always-increasing number of students; but I am the voice who denounces this practice as a problem for all of us in academics.

As for me, I am still happy as a teacher and contingent professor. I love my work and I stand behind it. I adore the opportunity to write when it presents itself. Even while writing this short piece, I was discouraged because it would not count toward my annual review because my contractual position calls for 100 percent teaching, which in itself provides a loggerhead in logic. How can one teach something successfully if one never tries to do it, to know where the theory behind the practice actually works?

I remain open to new and different possibilities as well as changes within the system. I am an optimist, regardless of what the actual situation demonstrates. Working together will create better outcomes for our students and a better working environment for all of us.

As a father, I am looking forward to a tenure-track position so I can afford both to pay the mortgage and to repay my family for the kindness they provided in helping me bury my daughter. Together we can make higher education in America a strong and rewarding experience for all involved. As for me, I just want to live and work with dignity.  


Christopher Bloss has served as a contingent faculty member as well as a facilitator for several online institutions.  He has taught English, composition, creative writing and world literature for 17 years.  


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