Contingent Faculty Have Feelings Too

In the spirit of starting the joke with the punchline in order to avoid testing your patience, I’m going to make the big point first.

If you’ve ever tone-policed* a contingent** faculty member for sounding strident, or whiny, or whingy, or uncivil, or any such thing, I hope you read this article from today’s (Mon, July 29, 2019) Inside Higher Ed called “Professors Have Feelings Too” and substitute “contingent faculty member” for “tenure-track professor” or “probationary” or “untenured” professor. When you do, I hope you hear what I’ve been hearing every single time I hear someone tone-police a contingent faculty member for sounding angry or stressed out or frustrated.

What the hell do you expect? A job at which your workload can change even once a term has started is stressful; a job from which you can be disappeared without explanation is stressful. I’ve said all this before.

As with other times when I’ve made this kind of move, I feel obligated to say that this isn’t to dismiss or undercut the feelings that tenure-track faculty face. We should be able to think about faculty stress and faculty feelings within and across ranks and statuses because we’re (supposed to be) smart people.

OK, this is unusual. When I first started writing this, I had a much longer argument in mind, but I may have just said everything I want to say about this until somebody makes me keep going.

*[Updated Monday evening: If you need a primer on the concept of tone-policing, this piece from Everyday Feminism is excellent.]

**I’m using the word “contingent” to refer to faculty whose positions are insecure, whether that means workload, or longevity, or at-will status. Not all NTT faculty are “contingent” in this sense, and it’s important that those of us who are active in the discourse find a way to be clear about who we’re talking with and about.


11 Responses to Contingent Faculty Have Feelings Too

  1. Could you please give an example of NTT faculty who are not “contingent” or “insecure?” Are you trying to say that NTT status is not really so bad in some cases? Perhaps there are institutions where they have a role in governance and can vote, and where they are held in esteem by their TT colleagues. I don’t know of any, but perhaps you do!

    • sethkahn says:

      I do know some (four people I know well enough to have had extended conversations with them about this, and others in passing, plus people I read on the interwebz), and they’re increasingly vocal about it. I was on a panel this past weekend at the Council of Writing Program Administrators conference with the organization’s incoming Vice President, a non-tenure-track lecturer who is emphatic about the fact that she made the choice to take that position for reasons she’s completely satisfied with. I know two people who left tenure-track positions for long-term NTT positions and are happy as clams.

      In theory, what I want to say is that in my world, anyone who wanted tenure would be eligible for it no matter how their job responsibilities break down (so that somebody who wanted to teach almost exclusively and only do enough research and service to be responsible academic citizens would be just as tenure-worthy as a world-famous scholar), but increasingly I feel like I have to trust the decisions of people I trust about everything else, and if they don’t want anything to do with tenure, then I feel some obligation to make sure they’re respected as much as anyone else is.

    • lwoott says:

      I’ll jump in, although Seth is reflecting the possibilities accurately. I’m contingent but not insecure. I’ve been in this position for over 20 years, have been Faculty Senate chair, and have served on and chaired search committees for senior administrators, among other things. I’ve gotten into heated–but civil–disagreements with chairs and administrators and never felt at risk. My writing program has its own reappointment and promotion committee, made up of only term faculty (no TT faculty).

      I’ll also be the first to admit that our situation is unusual and is the result of fortunate circumstances and a hell of a lot of hard work. And it’s imperfect.

      I’ll also admit that colleagues with less time at the university, as well as colleagues in other departments, feel much more insecurity than I do–and even though I don’t share that insecurity, I would never, ever criticize them for feeling it.

      Oh, and speaking just for myself, I don’t feel the need to try to find a tenure-track job. I like my job, with its focus on teaching and the freedom to do research when I want to, not because of a tenure clock.

      Your mileage may vary, of course!

      • Why would ANYONE ever even consider criticizing a colleague for expressing insecurity because their employment is not secure?We are in large part in a highly precarious profession that needs to be fixed for everyone. I have put in several decades, and it has been a nightmare for so many. Telling TT colleagues that I and “my kind” deserve respect is just not going to get us there. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but it sounds like an excuse for not pursuing serious reform. There are too many of us living precarious working lives. Hearing about the exceptions sounds like a call to give up on the massive amount of serious reform that needs to be done for the next generation of young academics who are destined for precarity. The glass is not half-full.

      • sethkahn says:

        You mean not “mean to be disrespectful,” but that was pretty disrespectful. The whole point of my post is about not tone-policing NTT faculty, which is part of what you’re doing, but instead of tone-policing them for being too shrill, you’re telling them they can’t be satisfied.

        And let me say two things as directly as possible.

        1. The folks I know in those positions have worked very hard to reform their workplaces, much harder than most TT faculty I know. Lacey, whose comment you’re replying to, has a chapter in this book about the efforts she undertook with her colleagues. There are several others that describe parallel efforts, and since the book published in 2017 we’ve heard plenty more.

        2. The point of my note that you’ve been responding to is that people deserve respect because they’re people. At no point have I or anyone else said that we shouldn’t also pursue structural reforms of various kinds. You keep arguing this as a binary and accusing people of not doing one part of it, but they are. They’re also asking that people like you and me respect their professional autonomy, just like you want people to respect yours.

      • Lacey, I apologize. Seth, thank you for pointing out that I have transgressed respectfulness. I am being serious, not sarcastic. In trying to respond to both of your efforts to reform our profession, I have not been able to escape my bias in support of tenure. My working life in Arts higher ed has been almost unendurable, and that is the experience of my colleagues. The PhD, decades of productive teaching, and the arts version of research have made no difference. I am less interested in respect (which seems ephemeral) and more interested in job security for myself and my colleagues. I have now been forced out and it is an ugly legal battle. The reforms are too slow in coming. I hope you will forgive my agitation. Truly.

      • sethkahn says:

        I try to make it a policy not to guess who I’m talking to if people write under user names that don’t identify you, but if you’re who I think you are, I appreciate the gesture here and understand enough of what’s happened to you over the last couple of years to empathize deeply. And I don’t think the positions we’re taking here are all that far apart if we could take the time to parse out what we mean when we operationalize tenure. For many people it has an almost mystical quality to it that goes beyond the very concrete sense in which I talk about it: academic + due process = tenure. That’s why I take the position that anyone in the profession ought to be able to get it, no matter what kinds of work they do in what proportions. [With apologies for the double negative] Nobody shouldn’t be protected like that. Whatever else people mean by tenure, I’ve never really understood, and I’ve had it for almost 15 years.

        For many, tenure and research productivity are as intrinsically tied together as most people make them. If we could disarticulate those, this whole discourse would shift in really useful ways almost instantly.

  2. Could you explain what it means to “not want to have anything to do with tenure?” Does that mean you don’t want to jump through the hoops to get it because you think its “just politics?” Or because you dont want to do the hard work of governance in order to preserve academic freedom for yourself and others? Or because you aren’t interested in research or contributing to the public good beyond the university? The problem is, if you never have the opportunity to achieve tenure, you open yourself up to all sorts of abuse, given the competitivess of human nature. I wish it weren’t so! Respect is not something that can be forced without it being legislated, inspite of your honorable sense of obligation.

    • sethkahn says:

      I need to be careful about not speaking for these colleagues more than I already have, but I can probably say this much. The people who have talked to me at length about it say two things that are directly responsive to your point. First, they’re all deeply involved in shared governance, and respected by their institutions. Of course there are some things they’re excluded from, like tenure and promotion processes/decisions. But they’re fully integrated into their departments; serve on university committees; take on program administrative roles; etc. Second, they all work at institutions where tenure is about doing and protecting scholarship. The institutions aren’t all R1, but they’re all more researched focused than mine (for example), where I got tenured doing not much more scholarship than they do. So I think what they prefer is the flexibility to decide how research-active they want to be, knowing full well that as responsible professionals they can’t and wouldn’t do none.

      It occurs to me that the impulse behind the rest of my argument (we’re focused on a footnote, as it were) applies here too. The original IHE article was about making sure to acknowledge the feelings of faculty; in this case, we’re talking about a group of people who are able to do meaningful work securely and safely, and they’ve been able to create spaces to do it that aren’t freeloading off other people’s efforts (which is a crass way of paraphrasing your concern). The respect I’m calling for comes from us–trusting that their performance is professional and their reasons for staying off the tenure track aren’t to duck responsibilities they foist off on other people.

      • “Acknowledging feelings” and respect based on trust is too gentle for me and built on an idea of human nature that has not been my experience. You may be calling academics to their “better natures” in a maternal way, Seth. But dang it, nobody listens to Mom. I say tighten up the rules of behavior towards each other. Make it a crime to treat faculty like they don’t matter.

      • sethkahn says:

        Why not both? I don’t think asking people to treat each other with basic respect and legislating the terms of dignity are mutually exclusive.

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