Academic freedom is something we talk about a lot these days, what with Salaita and Dreger and Wisconsin and all. Less often talked about is the academic freedom of the new faculty majority. When contingent faculty’s academic freedom is talked about, it’s talked about as if precarity were the only obstacle to untrammeled academic autonomy, though the nouns in the first sentence make clear that such is not the case. And as converting roughly 70% of the professoriate into secure, well-paid positions is at best a long and difficult job, equating academic freedom with tenure is not only false, but makes academic freedom for the majority seem doubly hopeless.
But academic freedom for the 70% is not hopeless. Whatever else academic freedom means, it means the freedom to teach, to serve, and to write. Eliminating some of the double standards that serve to define contingent faculty a priori as inferior would not only be just, it would advance academic freedom for the academy as a whole.
Academic freedom, in a nutshell, is academic freedom. Part of academic freedom is being able to teach courses in your area of expertise. This is a matter of personal academic freedom, for to love ideas and be forbidden to teach all but a few is agonizing. But it is also a matter of academic freedom for the academy itself. A world where nearly three-quarters of faculty have little to no say in curricula or the courses they teach is a world of creeping mooc-ification, a world in which Pearson and other entities push ever more often for ever more automated “teaching,” or, as they would call it, “content delivery.” It is the world we have. If faculty — including contingent faculty — are to have academic freedom as teachers, then tenure-stream faculty need to work towards a blind peer-reviewed or other merit-based system for proposing new courses so that all faculty can have a chance to teach texts and ideas they love. And, as James Donahue and others have argued, not only should TS faculty at least occasionally teach gateway courses as well as established advanced courses, contingent faculty should have the chance to teach such advanced courses as well as introductory ones. This will, of course, involve thinking of ways to judge the merits of a person’s actual teaching record rather than relying on the way someone was tracked X number of years ago based on their potential as it was perceived then. In return for this effort, the academy will become a place where the majority of faculty are able to stay fresh instead of being wrung dry and who can teach material that they love and communicate that love to students — particularly impressionable first- and second-year students choosing a major. For the humanities at least to be strong, students need to major in the humanities, and that means they need to take courses during their first years of college that are something more than paint-by-numbers affairs taught by people who have taught the same course over and over and over for the last decade or more.
Academic freedom also means being able to serve. Of course, many contingent faculty serve already. This fact is obscured because “service” is wrongly defined as that kind of service that TS faculty do. Adjuncts and NTTs also serve — their service is only often of a different kind. Mentoring and tutoring, teaching the courses no one with any clout wants to teach, doing all their own grading — all this is service, but it is often given no credit because it is focused on students rather than on clan and clique. But contingent faculty deserve also to know and have a say in what is going on in the university outside of their classroom. Too few colleges and universities allow contingent faculty to sit on committees. Faculty governance has been eroded in part because the definition of “faculty” has been narrowed by too many to mean only the TS few. Contingent faculty should not be required to serve, but that is no reason they should not be allowed to serve. At institutions with some sort of merit pay system, contingent faculty should receive merit pay for service. With the prospect of even a little merit pay before them, many more contingent faculty would be willing to serve. Even without merit pay, many contingent faculty are still willing to serve. Let us, for otherwise committees are merely echo chambers.
Academic freedom means also the freedom to write. This means (as I said before) that funding for good projects should go to good projects no matter the status of the faculty members proposing them and that conference funding should be open to those who need it. Allowing contingent faculty, if only occasionally, to teach courses in their area of expertise would also help contingent faculty to use their teaching time as research time the same way that TS faculty do. And despite recent critiques of the peer review system, the academy needs more blind peer review, not less, in order to give contingent faculty a better chance of being published. Further, let’s place more value on writing that people actually read — faculty who publish in The L.A. Review of Books, for example, should receive some reward for that achievement besides the Review’s $100 check and a slap on the back. We cannot expect students and the public to value the academy in general and the humanities in particular unless we do more to value those who bring the academy to the public. All this advances academic freedom for the individual, but also for the academy, because an academy that does not value knowledge creation or circulation except when it comes from the correct caste does not really value knowledge and is not much of an academy.
In important ways, academic freedom is not created or granted by administrators. Academic freedom is what happens when professors teach, serve, and write. Let us unite to do just that. Contingent faculty need TS allies to help create the changes outlined above, but TS faculty also need contingent faculty to be their allies because the university has for long now been a battleground and an ever-shrinking army is guaranteed to lose the fight.