So You Want to Be a Tenured Ally

You’re tenured or on the tenure-track, and you would like to help out your non-tenure-track colleagues, but you’re not sure how. Oh, sure, you sign petitions online sometimes and maybe you’ve heard of some other suggestions, like including adjuncts and full-time NTTs on the department website, suggestions that you may or may not be able to implement. Mostly, you feel both good-will and guilt, and a sense of helplessness as you believe that the only real way to help adjuncts and NTTs is to pay them better, somehow – and even if you’re a tenured department head, there’s not much you personally can do about that.

But there is a way you can help, and it starts with recognizing that adjuncts and NTTs will never get fair pay as long as their work is seen as inferior. And the work of contingent faculty is seen as inferior because it is defined a priori as inferior. Your task, as a would-be TT ally, is to work in whatever way you can to identify double standards in the ways that TT and NTT performances are judged at your institution and in the professional organizations of which you are a member, and then to work for the elimination of those double standards.

It’s often said, for example, that contingent faculty are less valued because they are teachers rather than researchers and the academy privileges research. This is not true. The academy values neither teaching nor research when it is produced by the lower caste, and both (though to varying degrees) when it is produced by the higher caste. The teaching of all contingent faculty is often judged to be inferior simply because contingent faculty are contingent and not tenured; therefore, it is presumed, contingent faculty only get good teaching evaluations because they give out As in order to be re-hired. It has become commonplace to assume this about contingent faculty’s teaching because it has become commonplace to hinge the call for contingent faculty to be given better working conditions on the argument that they can’t teach well otherwise. This narrative is unnecessary because in fact contingent faculty should be given better working conditions out of simple fairness, not in order to better serve our customers. This narrative is also harmful because it not only vitiates the teaching achievements of contingent faculty; it defines contingent faculty as non-achieving. So-called teaching faculty are often ineligible, for example, to receive teaching awards. At my own institution, Temple University, for example, adjunct faculty are ineligible for any teaching awards save for a handful of department-specific, adjunct-only awards. (Do these awards at least come with money? What a richly humorous idea.) Other awards are theoretically open to all full-time faculty, but require faculty to have won some previous teaching award only open to TT faculty, or to have developed exciting, sexy new courses, which contingent faculty are seldom allowed to do. And some teaching awards are explicitly restricted to TT faculty, despite the fact that many TT faculty do not do their own grading, a crucial component of teaching, and are often further guilty of cutting corners and inflating grades (or demanding that their TAs do so) in order to earn tenure or promotion – indeed, that’s what TT faculty may openly tell each other they ought to do, without any feeling of guilt (“Your job is to study how senior faculty in your department cut corners in their teaching in ways that are considered acceptable within the departmental culture …Your job is to not beat yourself up about that. Your job is to forgive yourself for feeling overwhelmed and coming home at the end of the day and binge-watching Scandal” [The Professor Is In]). I know of at least one professor, for example, who hired undergraduates (under the table) to grade the papers of their classmates so that he could free up his time to write. (He “earned” tenure.) If we are going to value teaching, we need to start by valuing the ways that professors give their students feedback, by making such feedback an important part of the criteria for teaching awards, and by opening teaching awards up to all faculty regardless of status.

Because their teaching is defined as inferior, teaching faculty are often unable to earn merit pay for teaching well. My institution, Temple University, for example, has two merit pay committees in the College of Liberal Arts – one for TT and one (only recently established, and of which I was a member for the first two years) for NTT faculty. Despite NTT faculty’s greater numbers, our committee was allowed to apportion only a fraction of the total merit pay available; the lion’s share goes to TT faculty. For this reason a tenured faculty member might get 3 merit points for teaching, while an NTT might get 1 point, or no points, simply because of the number of merit units available to each committee. Further, the TT faculty who sat in on the first meetings told us that because full-time NTTs are classified as “teaching faculty,” good teaching is our basic job duty and therefore not worthy of merit pay at all unless we do something truly exceptional. Yet TT faculty, who are classified as such because their basic job duty is to publish – thus justifying their significantly higher salaries and lower teaching loads –, may award themselves as many as 5 merit points for publishing a simple article. Creating a merit committee for NTTs was a step in the right direction, as was removing TT faculty from that committee the following year, but for faculty to receive merit in a just fashion merit pay needs to be proportioned fairly. If 70% of faculty are contingent, then 70% of merit pay should go to contingent faculty.

The above example might make it seem, again, like the real problem in the academy is the way that research is valued over teaching. Yet research is not valued when it is produced by NTT faculty. Temple’s NTT merit committee has been told repeatedly – again, by TT faculty as well as administrators – that NTT faculty should not expect to receive, and in fact ought not to receive, any merit points for publishing peer-reviewed, scholarly articles or books. And contingent faculty are generally not eligible for the funding that would help them to conduct or present research. Internal research grants and fellowships at my institution are open only to TT faculty. Many national and library fellowships and research awards are also only open to TT faculty, which these days certainly narrows the playing field, and conference stipends are generally only available to graduate students, because they are seen as future TT faculty. These inequities infantilize NTTs by treating them as incapable of teaching a 4/4 load and also publishing, though many faculty at smaller liberal arts colleges do this routinely, and these inequities also work to prevent adjuncts from ever getting a full-time position. Most importantly, though, all of these double standards serve to define NTT faculty a priori as inferior without regard to actual achievement or to how actual achievement might be judged, instead relying on a weak and out-dated argument about which types of faculty have been “vetted” and which haven’t without regard for the ways in which “vetting” is simply higher education’s buck-passing version of K-12 education’s tracking system, and which possesses all the same problems with class, gender, and race.

If higher education is to survive as something more than a series of vo-tech diploma mills, it needs to start valuing the teaching and research done by the new faculty majority. In the long term, this means abolishing the two-tier system altogether. But you, as a would-be tenured ally, can help right now by doing your part to abolish the double standards that currently define NTT faculty as lesser. Let’s make conference funding available to those who need it, and open up research funding to anyone with a good project. Let’s open teaching awards to teachers, and change the way that teaching is valued so that giving feedback to students becomes a much more important criterion for teaching awards. Such small changes could be accomplished relatively quickly and easily. They would make contingent faculty’s lives better by giving them some of the respect they deserve. And as adjuncts and NTTs begin to win teaching awards and funding, the more they are able to present research at conferences, the more they are able to network, the more they able to publish, the harder it will be for anyone to explain why contingent faculty are paid so much less than their colleagues.

18 thoughts on “So You Want to Be a Tenured Ally

  1. Pingback: Anna L. Peak | So You Want to Be a Tenured Ally

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  3. Thanks for this! I’ve been arguing for adjuncts’ access to research funding on my campus for years. Not too long ago, somebody told me that he didn’t think adjuncts could do research that was grant-worthy. When I asked him why he was opposed to people applying if their applications wouldn’t be good anyway, he (without skipping a beat) listed off half a dozen adjuncts we both know who had received lots of grant money. The double-think was stunning.

    So a slight extension of your overall point–we TT/T folks don’t get to deny adjuncts access to research support, and then conclude from that denial that you can’t do research. That’s the exact same strategy as the rightwing strategy of strangling government services by de-funding them and then proclaiming that government doesn’t work.

    • Thanks for posting your comment. I have heard much the same “double-think” argument here at UIUC. After some reflection, I realized it means “I don’t want to have to compete with them for grant funding because it would be too humiliating to lose to someone who is supposed to be my inferior.” The same arguments were used against women and minorities in the past.

      • It also means, “I want to be able to take for granted for my research is better, and anything that challenges this assumption is BAD BAD BAD!” 🙂

    • Yes, that is exactly what I am saying about both research and teaching.

      Another suggestion: Let’s make awards subject to blind peer review. Symphony orchestras used not to hire many women, claiming their playing just wasn’t as good. But when curtains were hung at auditions to hide the identity of the performer, suddenly women’s playing was judged good and women have increasingly been hired by symphony orchestras. Let’s do the same thing with funding and awards in the academy. And if an adjunct wins but is told, Oh, you can’t get the award because you’re an adjunct, that would be a revelatory embarrassment.

  4. Agree that blind per review might be preferable — but I have only experienced teaching awards at the department level (didn’t even know there were dean’s level awards), and of course the department faculty know who’s an adjunct and who’s TT. So far as I remember, awards went to adjuncts as well as TT folks every year I was on the exec committee.

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