A lot has been written in response to Catherine Stukel's letter to the editor published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Is That Whining Adjunct Someone We Want Teaching Our Young?” I've been heartened to see so many write back in support of contingent professors everywhere, whether they are called TAs, GAs, adjuncts, temporary instructors, visiting lecturers, or the like. I found myself wishing that more of the responses were written by tenure-track or tenured professors, and then I remembered, oh yeah. Maybe I should speak up beyond retweeting.
I have been a TA and an adjunct, a freeway flyer and a “part-time” employee working 50 hours a week. (The only job I had that brought me less respect was public high school teacher.) In 2006, I landed a tenure-track job and am now a tenured assistant professor. While many of my colleagues throughout academia might see that mobility as a sign that I somehow proved myself more worthy than the legions of adjuncts from whence I came, I know the truth: I'm just lucky.
Don't misunderstand. I don't discount the hard work I have done to get here. Graduate school was a beast, and I got through it with a dissertation I am proud of. My scholarly record suggests that I've spent more than enough of my “free time” parked in a library or in front of my laptop. My teaching record demonstrates my dedication to my students and to the craft of educating. I'm collegial, shown not merely via my service on committees, but in my willingness to help colleagues however I may. I did all the right things to earn a tenure-track job. But here's what I own and too many tenure-track teachers willfully refuse to admit: my adjunct colleagues have worked just as hard. Many have much more impressive resumes than I. So why do I have this job, while they work for ¼ of my pay, often with no benefits? Luck. I was in the right place, at the right time, with the right set of qualifications. The hiring committee liked me. Significantly, the committee was populated by people who didn't hold my years of adjunct teaching against me, a phenomenon that still confounds me. I'm really good at what I do, but so are lots of people who the system of higher education treats as disposable.
That luck played a role in my employment is further buoyed by the fact that tenure-track jobs now make up a mere 25% of positions in higher education, something well explained by Marc Bousquet in his own response to Stukel. Here, some professors might take this as further proof of their own worthiness: I landed one of these rare positions, ergo I must be a cut above. Nonsense. Ok, you're smart; we get it. But one's employment status is simply not indicative of one's professional worth.
Consider, first, that adjuncts are often hired to teach more courses than permanent faculty, often general education courses that, in my opinion, are far more challenging to teach than upper-division courses. Think you're a good teacher? How much more would you have to up your game if you exchanged that 2/2 load for 4/4? Or 5/6? More more? Imagine teaching not seminars of majors, but lecture halls filled with freshmen. Your contingent colleagues regularly teach such loads, and often without the same institutional support you enjoy. Often without office space. Or printers. Or computers. Still think you're working harder?
Think your scholarship is impressive? Those adjuncts that want to get a tenure-track track job are also researching and publishing, just as you do. (Of course, not all share your dream of tenure—they just want decent pay and health benefits for working hard.) Keep in mind, of course, that they are doing this scholarship while also teaching the aforementioned heavy load of courses and without graduate assistants checking their work. That anyone gets anything published as an adjunct is a small miracle, given the constraints, but they do.
For every brilliant paper presented at a conference by a tenured professor, a brilliant idea is unshared by a contingent professor, unable to spare the time to explore it in writing, or the airfare to join you on the panel.
The only way I am able to reconcile working in a field that systematically abuses the majority of its workers is to dedicate my service and scholarship to addressing the problem of labor in higher ed. Too many lucky tenured, though, believe as Stuckel does, that they are special snowflakes. Or, they turn their eyes away, saying “I can't change it,” or “I need to focus on my students.” I call bullshit. We can change it, and improving the working conditions of all teachers is focusing on your students. The time for silence is over. In fact, there never was a time for silence. Become allies to your adjunct colleagues. Do something. Say something. Retweeting isn't enough.