Thoughts on Being Contingent

According to a recent AAUP report, 68% of all faculty appointments in American colleges and universities are non-tenure track; over 50% are part-time, so-called contingent faculty. I am one of them and, while I love teaching and, by many accounts, am pretty darned good at it, I’m still a part-time employee, subject to chance, and that causes problems both for me and my students.

Contingent faculty include those who are hired to teach on a temporary basis, usually on a semester-to-semester basis. Among other things, this means that we’re only employed for 14 weeks at a time. We’re offered the opportunity to teach a class just a few days or weeks before the class is scheduled to begin. If there is low enrollment or a budget short-fall, the offer can be revoked without warning, and we’re left unemployed for 14 weeks. This happened to me recently when I received the “maybe next term” email. Polite as that email may be, what it really says is, “take (at least) three months off, unpaid, and without benefits”. 50% of American higher education faculty are teaching in fear of that email. Any rational person would understand that such things will have an affect on the teaching that does take place.

Because of the last minute hiring process, I will, almost by definition, not be part of the curriculum development or textbook selection for a course. I’ll also miss the deadlines for requesting software, computing, or other resources for the course, which typically are set 8-10 weeks before classes are scheduled to begin.

Instead, I and many other contingent faculty are left dealing with a curriculum that is new to us, with a textbook that may or may not suit our teaching and classroom styles, and without institutional resources that might benefit our teaching and our students’ learning. We’re expected to do instructional planning on-the-fly and to understand the intended learning outcomes of the course and the relationship of the course to the rest of the curriculum on a plug-and-play basis; we’re a cog in a wheel and can be easily replaced, we’re told in terms both implicit and explicit. It’s no wonder that so many contingent faculty work by trying to stay just a few chapters ahead of their students. It’s no wonder that students notice.

If lucky, one may be on the “short list” of people who might be offered a course. If no permanent faculty member wants to teach the course; and if the course isn’t being used to support a graduate student, who can be paid even less; then you might be offered the course, if the budget permits. This is the very definition of contingent.

Moreover, the job opportunities for contingent faculty are limited by the number of colleges and universities that are within driving distance and that offer courses that one is reasonably qualified to teach. It’s unreasonable to think that someone would pick up their life, their family, and their home to move to a new city for a 14 week appointment or, for that matter, even a year-long appointment, with no chance for stability. Yet that’s how many contingent faculty live.

For their services, contingent faculty are typically compensated $2,000 – $5,000 per course. Working at a large state university, I’m offered $3,000 per course, regardless of the number of students in the class. This has meant that I’ve taught as many as 600 students spread across three courses in one semester for the kingly sum of $9,000, before taxes. That’s $18,000 per year; take home pay: approximately $12,000 per year, from which I’m expected to pay living expenses and, somehow, try to reduce my own student loans.

We’re also the low hanging fruit. When budget cuts are required, we’re the least secure employees with the least bargaining power. It’s convenient to reduce head count, even as it decimates- sometimes literally- course offerings to do so.

But we do it. We do it because we love teaching. We do it because we love working with students, and learning, and knowledge.

The reality, I believe, is that it affects us. It diminishes us each time we’re told that we have to provide our own paper and our own chalk. It diminishes us when we have to tell students that we can’t be their advisors because we’re not on the permanent faculty. It diminishes us as we struggle to do the thing we love and pay our bills, too.

In every way that being contingent affects us, it affects our students, as well. We’re stretched thin: we either don’t have or must share an office on campus in which to meet with students; we’re less engaged with campus life, because we’re rushing off to our next paying gig; we’re less available and less plugged in, and our students notice.

But, to borrow a phrase from General George S. Patton, “God help me, I do love it so”.

So, What Do We Do About It?

These are not new problems, but they haven’t been solved. In the current economy, it’s critical to address these issues as institutions cut budgets and scale back faculty. It seems to me that there are three categories of possible solutions: tenure, reality, and the unknown.

We could re-embrace the tenure model and immediately begin hiring contingent faculty into tenure-track positions, effectively reversing the trend toward contingency-as-the-norm. There are serious issues with tenure, however, that are well articulated elsewhere: it’s a long, difficult process to which not all academics want to subject themselves; it imposes long-term financial and cultural burdens on departments and institutions; and it hasn’t lived up to its promise of ensuring academic freedom; to name a few. At many institutions, tenure involves an evaluation not only of ones teaching, but also ones research and publications track record and community service; all proxies for the value one brings to the intellectual life of the institution, the discipline, and society at large. It’s likely that many contingent faculty would not want to compete in all of these areas.

Alternatively, we could acknowledge the shift in our culture from life-long employment toward a more mobile workforce and redesign our institutions, processes, and expectations to match.

  • Our campus resources (information technology, administrative support, etc.) could address contingent faculty needs more aggressively, reaching out to and supporting last minute hires as a matter of course, rather than viewing them as temporary annoyances to be ignored. For years, I could not authorize my notebook computer for use in my own classroom for use during lectures, because I wasn’t on the permanent faculty.
  • Institutions could ensure a living wage for contingent faculty.
  • Institutions could adopt longer-term contracts (say, a few years, with the possibility for renewal) to promote stability, institutional identity, and synergistic benefits to both the institution and the individual. Teaching-track positions are one way this facet is being addressed, although too few institutions are embracing this, so far.
  • We could encourage contingent faculty to bring their own course designs with them to our institutions. Many contingent faculty have courses they would love to teach, but since they’re not part of the curriculum design process, those courses will never be offered. I’ve personally been told by top-level administrators that, if I want my course designs to see the light of day, I should remove my name and put a permanent faculty member’s name on the proposal. Intellectual dishonesty apparently knows no bounds.
  • Publishers could remove institution-oriented policies for obtaining review copies of textbooks (requiring an institutional office address for shipment, e.g.). Additionally, reduce the time it takes to get a desk copy (usually it takes a couple of weeks to receive the instructor copy of a textbook that has been adopted for classroom use).
  • We could, as a society, shift from employer-based health insurance and pensions to portable instruments that are employee-based. As it stands, contingent faculty have to re-qualify for health insurance with each new institution and, sometimes, with each new semester, enduring the waiting period before coverage begins each time. Contingent faculty are often required to pay into pension plans in which they have no hope of ever vesting. Since contingent faculty are often considered part time employees, it could take 10-20 years of continuous service to vest!

Finally, there are the great unknown options; at least, unknown to me! The ideas I haven’t thought of, haven’t heard about, and so haven’t considered. I’m open to new ideas and encourage lively debate on how we can meet the needs of institutions, faculty, and students.