job market woes and curriculum reform

From “The Professor is In” and “Blogora,” the ongoing conversation over the responsibility of tenure-track faculty for the adjunct situation and the job market. The former makes an argument for the privileged position of tenure-track faculty, comparing tenure-track privilege to white privilege. I don’t really care to make an assessment of that argument here. I will note, as I am sure others have, that the end game desired for the former is more tenure-track positions and fewer adjuncts. I’m fairly sure the analogous argument (which would be what–more white people?–) isn’t made. The argument for more tenure lines is basically an argument for more money.  No one is arguing that we cut tenure line pay, increase teaching loads, and put everyone on the tenure-track (or eliminate tenure and give everyone multi-year contracts). Hell no. After all, what is tenure without the much disparaged “privilege” that accrues to it? Still, that’s fine. It’s an argument for more investment in the humanities. OK, what do we get in return for the investment?

Maybe the answer is more single author monographs that sell a couple hundred copies. Maybe but that assumes that there will also be investment to keep those publishers afloat. More realistically the answer is that humanities faculty hires are tied to a student demand for the curriculum they offer. My sense in English is that adjunct faculty are very heavily tied to the teaching of FYC. That is, there aren’t a lot of adjuncts teaching upper division literature courses or even introductory literature courses. In some places, tenure line faculty teach FYC; in others they don’t. Regardless, I think it is fair to say that in English the process of adjunctification has been linked in no small way to the curricular separation of FYC from the rest of the department.

My point is that if one wanted to reduce adjuncts in English, the only way to do it would be to have tenure track faculty teach more composition. That is unless, of course, they managed to offer other courses that students wanted to take. But these are two sides of the same problematic coin. In my 20 years or so experience in English departments, literature faculty generally don’t view teaching composition as part of their profession.  (That’s fine; it probably isn’t.) Instead, they view their teaching responsibility as tied to their field experience (who wouldn’t?), which means teaching in a particular literary period. They already do that, and the student demand for such courses is what it is. More of the same won’t increase demand. So whether one is teaching composition or some other course beyond what is currently being offered, one is asking faculty to teach courses outside their field. Now one could hire new faculty in a very different field that might attract new students (that would be a risk one could attempt), but that would still mean changing a department’s culture. Even if a given professor isn’t teaching a foreign course, the rise of a foreign curriculum is just as disturbing, maybe more so. I’ve seen that first hand as well.

Besides that doesn’t do much to help the grad students being trained in the original field.

So there’s the vicious circle in a nut shell. “Privileged” tenure-line faculty are trained in a specialized disciplinary field to teach courses in that field and train grad students in that field. In my experience, the majority of such faculty would rather go down with the ship than change this arrangement. I’m not saying those are the only options, but given the choice, I’d say I hope you have a life vest (or better yet that you not get on the ship). Changing would certainly take some of the shine off of that “privilege.” But, in general terms, the answer to our problems is deceptively simple.

If you want more money, start doing something someone will pay more money for.

Of course it’s not so easy to figure out what that thing is that we should be doing. We always want to say that the humanities shouldn’t be tainted by such market-driven concerns, that it shouldn’t strive to be useful. That’s fine, until the humanities also starts clamoring for more money for more faculty. Then the humanities has to make some argument to someone about its worth, and ultimately that’s going to come down to students taking classes. Create a demand for curriculum and create a demand for faculty.

7 thoughts on “job market woes and curriculum reform

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  1. The problem with the “white privilege” analogy isn’t that tt faculty aren’t privileged. We are, in relation to contingent faculty. Why? Because we’re not contingent. There’s nothing complicated about that.

    The problem with the analogy is that it ignores the difference between earned and conferred privilege. I don’t have one second’s guilt about declaring that I earned a tenure-track position, and that I earned tenure and promotions once I’d gotten the job.

    With that said, the white privilege analogy does–in a way that’s overstated but not entirely wrong–ask those of us in tt positions to think carefully about the implications of our privilege and what we spend it on. The privilege that accrues to tenure might better be thought of as plural and, therefore, able to be prioritized.

    How that list of priorities looks is going to vary widely by types of jobs/institutions, and this is part of the conversation we don’t have often enough. I’ve seen Steve Krause raise it a few times, and I always cheer when he does. But what it means to have tenure looks very different in different kinds of institutions; how we exercise privilege in regards to different aspects of the job changes sharply.

    Sorry, starting to amble, should stop there.


    1. Thanks Seth. I agree that privilege is complicated and relative. I grew up with a single mom; we spent some time on welfare. I don’t think I had a privileged childhood, but I had food, clothing, and shelter. I got to go to school, and I wasn’t persecuted for my ethnicity or religious beliefs or whatever. Obviously I’ve climbed the social ladder fairly well since then. Similarly we could look at adjunct instructors and clearly they are underpaid and exploited. At the same time, they all have MA/MS degrees at minimum. Less than 10% of Americans achieve that level of educational attainment. Not surprisingly, those degree holders are disproportionately white. So could we say those adjuncts have also benefited from white privilege?

      There is no doubt in my mind that when push comes to shove, faculty and departments do not want to spend their political capital on helping adjuncts, at least not directly. They want to fight for more TT hires and better resources to support their own work as researches and teachers. Having adjuncts to teach less desirable courses is really in the interest of TT faculty. Having spent the last three years as the WPA at Buffalo, where I’d say more than 50% of my job is devoted to the composition program, I can see very clearly how the adjunct/TA situation floats the department’s operation. The TA opportunities coming out of FYC are the only reason we have a graduate program. Plus I’m sure we deliver more than half of the department’s FTEs, and really none of the TT faculty teach composition courses (occasionally when a course is cancelled for low enrollment it happens). To be clear, I am not saying those TT faculty should be teaching composition. Instead my point is that I can see quite well how the professional lives of TT faculty rely upon the operation of an FYC program with which they have no involvement. In fact, one could say that the primary purpose of our FYC program is to support the work of TT faculty and that that purpose is more primary that more obvious purposes like preparing graduate students as teachers or (god forbid) helping undergraduates become better writers. Perhaps some would be skeptical of this claim, but I think it is fairly obvious that if that last purpose was our primary one that we would deliver the program in a very different way.


      1. We could say they’ve benefited from white privilege, but I’m not sure why we would. I already agree that the connection isn’t very apt.

        This claim is the one I really need to take some time to stew on: “Having adjuncts to teach less desirable courses is really in the interest of TT faculty.”

        I assume you mean “self-interest” there. I’d also be interested, not now and not just you (by which I mean I’m not particularly contesting your use of the term), in teasing out *why* some courses are “less desirable,” and the implications of that hierarchy. In the case of FYC, yes, for many lit/creative writing/linguistics/journalism (all sorts of people who live in English departments in some places), it’s the least desirable course–and in no small part because we comp/rhetors have insisted that it’s “foreign” (to use your word from the original post). This is an issue I struggle with a lot–how do we reconcile our claims to disciplinary specialization with our urge not to be delimited by FYC because it takes so many people to teach it? [I’m skipping over the abolitionist argument, although it’s clearly the most parsimonious answer.]

        And we also live in very different worlds in the sense that while we have adjunct faculty, we don’t have TAs teaching anything–it’s a violation of our CBA–so the link between labor [exploitation] and pedagogical imperative isn’t really a problem for us. Thank [insert deity here].


      2. Thanks Seth. Following up on your last point, it helps to demonstrate that even though adjunctification is a national problem it has a very local character. A good solution for us wouldn’t work for you and visa versa.

        Regarding the disciplinary question… Rhet/comp has a unique history (which I know you know, but for the benefit of other readers): on the one hand there’s rhetoric with a long tradition in a variety of departments both humanistic and social scientific, and on the other hand there’s composition, which I would characterize as juxtaposed with these other disciplinary rhetorical traditions. There are rhetoric curricula out there from communications and media study to technical-professional writing at both undergraduate and graduate levels. What is the relation of FYC to those curricula? One could try to make an analogy to the relationship between World Civ and history departments, but that’s not quite right. It’s unique.

        I don’t think you need a phd in rhet/comp to teach FYC anymore than you need a phd in any field to teach a 100-level course. But I think you do need an MA-level understanding of the field, which means more than one course. And you do need to keep up with the field somewhat, even if that only means participating in in-house professional development.

        I think of it this way. I have an English lit BA. I took at least a half-dozen literature courses in graduate school (basically 20th century stuff). I’ve published literary criticism and presented on literary topics at conferences (though not in a decade). I would not consider myself qualified to teach an upper-division literature course in my department. I probably could teach an introductory literature course (though I haven’t done that in nearly a decade either). I think I’ve really lost any sense I once had regarding what such a course is supposed to achieve. So I totally sympathize with my literary studies colleagues who have FAR LESS experience with my field than I have with theirs. I would welcome any and all of my colleagues who wanted to teach FYC, but it would mean putting in some work to get up to speed, just as it would be a fair amount of work for me to teach intro to lit. I’d far prefer to teach FYC or technical writing.

        I think that for us the best solution would be something like Georgia Tech’s Brittain Fellows (I was one 97-99), which hires on recent grads for 3 year stints. That would be provided that we could have good placement of those fellows in tenure lines coming out of the program. Otherwise, we’d need to turn toward what SUNY calls “clinical” faculty. NTT but multi-year contracts with the possibility of advancement up to clinical full professor. That would create a permanent second class of faculty, but really those faculty already exist in our institution, just not so much in the humanities.


      3. Alex, the “clinical” or “teaching” faculty (U of Delaware has a similar system) is one I can likely support. My take on the two-tier faculty is the same as yours. We already have it, and pretending like we don’t is making it worse for everybody. There’s so much structural pressure on gen-ed writing at institutions even as large as mine (about 11,000 undergrads), and even with tt faculty who teach 4/4 like we do, and who generally teach at least some FYC just about every semester.

        I don’t know what the SUNY contracts looks like, but let’s just say for the sake of simplicity that those positions have to come with a whole bunch of stipulations before I can fight for them. Most adjunct faculty I know would be pretty happy with positions that pay them equally for equal work, offer benefits and some governance rights, and most important longer-than-one-semester job security.


      4. As you might know, SUNY faculty have a union, so some of these things are collectively bargained. My understanding is that clinical faculty have the same health/retirement benefits as TT faculty. They don’t get sabbaticals or tenure. I don’t think there is a general rule on length of contracts. I think they range from 1-3 years. Pay is also variable as it is for TT faculty, so that’s going to be market-driven. I don’t get equal pay for doing the work equal to an associate prof in the school of management, who typically makes 50% more than I at UB.

        The stickiest question is going to be governance, especially at the department level. Increasing the number of faculty by 20-30% in a department could really alter the voting dynamic. Would those clinical faculty be full voting members? Voting on TT hiring for example? Voting on tenure in my department is rank-to-rank (e.g. you have to be tenured to vote on someone’s tenure). Clinical faculty can also be promoted, so would a clinical associate professor get to vote on his clinical colleagues’ promotions? What about contract renewals? At the very least, I can imagine this would be a cultural change for my department. I imagine the same would be said of most other departments.


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