Adjuncts and Academic Freedom


Guest blogger Eva Swidler is an environmental historian on the undergraduate liberal arts faculty at Goddard College and the Curtis Institute of Music. She also researches and writes in the fields of labor studies and political economy.

Academic freedom is all the rage in newspapers these days. Are protests at speaking events on campus violating the mission of the university to promote debate and critical thinking? Are demands for trigger warnings really a refusal to hear challenging views? Are faculty who participate in the creation of “safe spaces” coddling rather than educating students? An article on some aspect of these speech issues seems to hit the headlines and the op ed section at least weekly. But perhaps the single most important issue of academic freedom today, namely the impact of the rise of contingent faculty on college courses and on the institution of higher education itself, seems nowhere to be found in the pages of newspapers.

4bEven a vigorous series of trigger warnings issued by a professor takes just a few minutes of a class session, but the shaping of topics, readings, assignments and classroom discussions that results from the contingent employment status of an instructor lasts all the hours, days, weeks, and months of a course. As my September–October Academe article, “Can the Adjunct Speak?” argues, this should be academic freedom topic number one.

In a co-authored piece in the AAUP’s Journal of Academic Freedom a couple of years back, Jan Clausen and I enumerated some of the many ways in which the widespread use of adjuncts impacts and undermines many different meanings of academic freedom. Dependent usually upon a single chairperson’s good will and positive student evaluations for the constant approval and re-approval of their teaching contracts, contingent faculty, (who form a majority in this country), speak and teach strategically, both on and off campus. The repercussions of this situation range from the obvious classroom consequences to less obvious results, including for instance the undermining of meaningful faculty governance and a retreat from the role of public intellectual.

The Modern Language Association invited my co-author and me to present a follow up to that article on a panel at their convention in Vancouver in January of 2015; as I wrote that paper and then edited it for publication in Academe, I pondered some more submerged yet equally powerful effects on academic freedom resulting from the increasing precarity of the professoriate. I wondered whether the trope of the disruptive and slightly embarrassing adjunct might be part of a divide-and-conquer construction of tenured and tenure track faculty as respectable and dignified, in contradistinction to the ragtag and troublesome adjunct. Are adjuncts in fact part of disciplining securely employed faculty to not be disruptive? After all, if those tenured faculty do in fact disrupt, well…maybe they aren’t actually suitable members of the responsible class of the tenured. Maybe they really belong in the adjunct underclass.

I also explored the intellectual and academic consequences of the economic reality of adjunct labor. Though surely not receiving the kind of coverage that trigger warnings are getting, in the last year or two there has been some media discussion of impoverished adjuncts, dramatically dying without health insurance, or (more grindingly and less glamorously) partaking of government assistance programs at higher rates than the general American public. A connection of those economic dots to the work that adjuncts do, and what that connection means both to students and to the public, has yet to be made in any widespread way. Adjuncts juggle courses at multiple campuses, do other kinds of additional paid work altogether to supplement their teaching, and rarely have the money to attend conferences. The precious time and energy to research and write and give papers have become unaffordable luxuries. Are rights to speech real when the economic ability to employ those rights is lacking? And what are the cultural consequences of the absence of these intellectuals from the entire last generation of scholarship? Are these not best conceived of as issues of the academic freedom of the faculty as a body, along with individually expressed speech constrictions such as adjunct self-censorship?

The next time someone asks me what I think about bans on trigger warnings and safe spaces as a defense of academic freedom, here’s what I plan to reply: let’s focus on secure employment for the roughly 75% of American college faculty who are off the tenure track as a lot more important for those who are concerned about open discussion and vigorous debate, both on and off campus.

Articles from the current and past issues of Academe are available online. AAUP members receive a subscription to the magazine, available both by mail and as a downloadable PDF, as a benefit of membership.

6 thoughts on “Adjuncts and Academic Freedom

  1. Unfortunately, rather than making progress toward security for contingent faculty, we are faced with a situation where tenure no longer guarantees security. Examples abound of instances where university administrations have successfully breached the tenure contract. How will we win the battle for contingent faculty rights when we are losing it with respect to tenure rights?

  2. I have yet to see the tenure issue in the larger context of post secondary education, primarily that which constitutes the 4 year and post baccalaureate academic institutions. Most of these arguments are assuming that these institutions are fully formed and will continue to exist in their current embodiment with individuals pursuing their degrees through a Ph.D. and thus desirous of or obligated to participate in the current embodiment of a “professor”.

    What if that model no longer holds? Perhaps there is a problem if these arguments are more than about the individual but the very institution itself. What if the form and function are changing which means the form and function of all in the institution are changing, struggling to maintain in the Christensen model of disruption (questionable, though it might be- but still a useful metaphor).

    What if, in the extreme, people are manning the pumps of a stricken ship and hoping to avoid having to clamber onto a lifeboat and head to an emergent model now rising up. The Suskinds have written and talked about the future of the professions pointing out that even the most personal of professions is not immune from or impacted by technological change. It maybe intellectual chutzpah for academics to postulate immunity.

    This is not a value judgment, a likening to the orchestra on the Titanic, but rather asking why the “idea of the university” as currently imagined is not undergoing change which requires a different response.

  3. It is clear that the at-will status of the vast majority of non-tenure track faculty reduces their academic freedom substantially. It would be preferable that they were on some kind of tenure track, or at least had multiyear contracts. That said, we should not exaggerate the intellectual diversity or risk-taking of higher education either: the process of getting tenure is one that requires faculty to adopt a fundamentally cautious and conservative approach to professional development that tends to persist well after tenure has been granted.

  4. Consider that there are many individuals in P-12 programs who have advanced degrees, many with Ph.D.’s. Also there are Ph.D.’s who would prefer to teach in post secondary programs but not be pub/perish research oriented. Thus, it is possible to have tenure paths that might require continuing education but not that which requires proof of competency via publishable research.

    There is cognitive dissonance regarding tenure between being awarded such for teaching or research. In fact this is a conflicted area in the HEI’s in how one is awarded tenure and the value of the two areas. There is some hand waving and presto there is “resolution” unless one pulls back the curtain to try to figure out the magic.

    The “at-will” faculty, like their students graduating with their bachelors, are now part of the precariat whose rights in many areas, not just employment, are eroding. There is a young organization, the Heterodox Academy, composed of tenured faculty who want to exercise their “rights”.

    Somewhere the cognitive dissonance has not been resolved, employment security or intellectual rights. Often the latter has to do with the differences in the disciplinary thinking itself, theories of economics, anthropology, etc that create collegial divides and divide departments within or across institutions which can be safely sidestepped by administrative fiscal decisions. Let the gladiators in the arena decide who lives and dies

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