Higher Education

the intractable problem of contingent faculty

Another article on contingent faculty in AAUP that discusses some of the things going on at this campus. It seems to me that at an institution the size of the average college there will always be divisions: students, faculty, professional staff, administrators, clerical staff, food staff, janitorial staff, maintenance staff, and so on. As long as contingent faculty are essentially teachers, their jobs will be different from those of faculty who also do research and service.

There is an obvious interdependence in this ecosystem. Contingent faculty make it possible for tenure-line faculty to conduct research, prepare specialized courses for majors and grad students, and all the other service that we do. Contingent faculty keep college a little more affordable.

I don’t foresee this class of faculty going away. However, we clearly need to alter the role they play in our academic communities.

First, some contingent faculty may be in pursuit of tenure-line jobs and we should support them in their completion of terminal degrees and with professional development opportunities to help them succeed in the job market. When I was contingent faculty, I got the support and appreciated it. That said, we certainly shouldn’t assume that this is what all contingent faculty want. People choose these careers for a variety of reasons. They don’t all want to be professors, as is made clear in the AAUP article.

Second, contingent faculty ought to be treated as full members of the academic community. They ought to be free to participate in the collective work of the department and college. That means service. That’s difficult though, because they aren’t paid to do service. In my case, doing service as a contingent faculty member was professional development, something to add to my vita to show that I had experience doing the work of tenure-line faculty. But obviously that won’t work for many others.

Anyway, more to the point. Contingent faculty who desire to enter more enfranchised positions might take an opportunistic approach to taking on roles in the academic community. It’s an investment, much like graduate education with the goal of paying off in a new position.

But what about the conundrum of the permanent-contingent faculty?

It is simply necessary to include service and professional development as elements of these positions. These individuals, who teach a significant portion of the curriculum and represent a store of institutional memory and substantial human capital, are largely untapped in the current system. This may seem crude to the unionists fighting for these workers’ rights, but I think this argument works institutionally. These folks could be trained to do advisement, administrative support, assessment, etc. (and that’s just the ones beginning with "a"). In turn, you might get tenured faculty out of some of these roles and back into the classroom. Then we might identify some goals the college has trouble reaching with technology or international education and then do professional development to prepare these faculty to do these jobs. Finally you include them in the regular activities of the department, helping to reduce workload there and perhaps increasing faculty scholarly output.

In the end, you get tenured faculty who are teaching more and are producing more scholarship and grants. As a side effect you get contingent faculty who are not just classroom teachers but fully incorporated into the campus institutional culture.

How much would that be worth?

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