Thursday, April 23, 2015

On life at the academy...

Four years ago, I became what's known in academia as the "trailing spouse." My husband had decided to enter academia; he was hired for a tenure-track position at a public university; we packed our bags and moved into a whole new universe. He moved onto the tenure track; I became a contingent laborer - a lecturer teaching a 4/4 load.

We are not from academia. We both have terminal degrees for our areas (though mine is not recognized as a terminal degree in my department - it considers only the Ph.D. to be terminal - though my degree is recognized as terminal in similar departments in other universities, including the flagship university.) We have spent our professional lives engaged in the work our students wish to pursue. As a freelancer, I've worked with numerous clients, including Fortune 500 companies, tech firms, lawyers and more.

Thus,  I have been more than a bit surprised to learn that my professional experience, my degree and my enthusiasm for teaching are essentially worthless in the eyes of academia. It's taken me a while to figure this out - but I've finally realized the truth - contingent faculty have no future in academia.

I've had one tenured professor wonder why I was not aware that people like me (contingent faculty) were not supposed to speak in meetings. (I spoke in a meeting - apparently, contingent faculty are supposed to attend, but remain silent.) I've had other tenured professors sit in my office and tell me that I needed to know that lecturers (such as myself) were unimportant, temporary and that those without the Ph.D. (such as myself) REALLY needed to understand their lack of value and future in the department. I've had an assistant chair inform me that those on the tenure-track are in a "career" - contingent faculty, on the other hand, have "jobs." And I've dealt with other tenured professors who pretend I do not even exist - not even worth the breath needed for a greeting.

I have worked with difficult people in my career, but I've never worked with people with such a monumental sense of entitlement and privilege as those who are tenured. Certainly, not all on the tenure-track are like this - but even one is too many.

In academia, contingent faculty such as myself have no prospects for career advancement - which is a remarkable thing to realize - all the work I'm doing is essentially wasted effort, if I'm interested in a "career" and not just a "job." Working as contingent labor within a university has been unpredictable in ways that are more nerve-wracking than working as a freelancer - with freelance, the goal is to spread the work among a variety of clients; with contingent faculty work, a 4/4 load does not allow time for other clients. I do not know my work load for next year - I will not know if I'm 3/4, 4/4 or adjunct until mid-summer. I've done eight new course preps in eight semesters. I've been placed into a course the week before the semester started. I've gotten textbooks (ordered weeks prior to the start of the semester) a week after the semester began. I never really get to engage in a course long enough to get a groove going - after a couple of semesters, I find myself placed into new courses, with no regard for my own wishes. I am, I now realize, a hole-filler. 

According to AAUP, more than half of the teachers in higher ed are part-time - and "non-tenure-track positions of all types now account for 76 percent of all instructional staff appointments in American higher education."

This means that most - if not all - students at the university will be taught by someone who is provided with few resources for professional development, dealing with erratic schedules that can leave little time for curriculum development and employed by an institution that refuses to commit to them in any way. (Just prior to my arrival on campus, our tenured and tenure-track faculty in the faculty senate voted to abolish multi-year contracts for contingent labor. Every lecturer and adjunct gets the privilege of a two-semester contract. I am fascinated that tenured professors used the arguments against tenure to argue against multi-year contracts for contingent faculty; they wanted it to be easier to fire their contingent pool of teachers.)

As a contingent laborer at the academy, I am frustrated with the situation. As a parent saving money to send my children to college, I am outraged. I had no idea how absurd the situation was until I became part of the vast pool of contingent intelligentsia. I will be asking a great many questions of colleges prior to sending my children to them.

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