From a Contract Faculty Member to Her Colleagues: It's a Feminist Issue

Feminism helps us understand our collective future.
By Gwendolyn Alker

In summer 2016, I was invited to share some of my personal views as a long-time contract faculty member in a keynote presentation at the Women and Theatre Program’s annual conference in Chicago. Viewing this as a good opportunity to formally research an area of personal interest, I dove headfirst into the history of tenure and unionization, the rise of adjunct labor, and the emergence of a “silent majority” of nontenure- track faculty. I brought to this research my own experiences as a contract faculty member over the last two decades, as an activist in the early adjunct unionization campaigns, and as a feminist. What I found, somewhat surprisingly, is that a feminist lens is not only one of the best ways to understand the basic facts of contingent faculty on the ground; it can also serve as a foundation for efforts to move forward collectively and respectfully.

Let’s Get Personal

The old adage of the feminist movement—“the personal is the political”—is still a useful place to begin. Here the personal will be my own story as a full-time contract faculty member. I share this story not to bemoan the plight of contract faculty but to illustrate the complexities of such positions.

In 2003, I earned my doctorate from New York University’s Department of Performance Studies. By that point, I had already taught as an adjunct instructor at various institutions around New York City and had been active in the ACT-UAW Local 7902 campaign, which led to the formation of NYU’s adjunct union in 2002. (The term adjunct is notoriously unclear. Here I am defining adjuncts as part-time teachers who usually earn less than $5,000 per class on a per-term basis with no benefits.) In the year of my dissertation defense, I was hired as a contract faculty member at 80 percent time, with benefits, in NYU’s Department of Drama.

Today I still hold a variant of this position—I have no institutional job security, and I am not expected to publish or engage in scholarly work. I am a middleclass member of the professoriate whose existence goes largely unnoticed. As a colleague who holds a similar position at the University of Pennsylvania once said, we occupy nebulous positions in the research university, commanding “neither carrot nor stick.” My position, and I suspect others like it, is complex rather than untenable: I continue to have a robust scholarly life and have gained the respect of my students and many colleagues as well as my institution’s administration. In 2015, I was honored to be elected chair of the newly formed Faculty Council and was charged with researching governance structures that would include all full-time faculty at the Tisch School of the Arts (the vast majority of whom are in contingent, contract positions). And I have also been able to pick up my young son from school almost every day. In other words, my family and I have made the job work.

The Feminization of Academic Labor

What these personal experiences have taught me, and what my more recent research into the possible relevance of a feminist frame has confirmed, is that the crisis of contingent labor in the academy is part of larger shifts in our neoliberal economy. Or, to put it in different terms, in spite of its verbal commitment to egalitarianism, the US academy has partaken in the so-called feminization of labor as much as any other workforce in the nation. The concept of the feminization of labor was originally used to describe the lowerpaying jobs that women held during and after World War II. It also refers to the ways a global economy has increasingly funneled undervalued labor, usually done by women, to third-world regions. The term also applies to the way labor once done by women subsequently becomes economically devalued in all geographic regions. Here I understand women’s work to mean both the labor done by the bodies of cisgender women (those whose biological bodies match their gender identifications), such as birthing and nursing, and stereotypically “feminine” endeavors, such as caretaking, which can be done by bodies of all sorts.

There are very specific types of labor in the academy that are deemed feminine, and are therefore undervalued, and this labor is increasingly done by members of the contingent faculty. We all know that, particularly at research universities, pedagogy and advising of undergraduates is a much less significant part of one’s tenure and promotion portfolio than scholarly publication. Teaching is being relegated to the domain of adjuncts, education departments, and teaching colleges, which are more often than not staffed by women. Teaching and scholarship have themselves become binaries: increasingly, those on tenure-track appointments are pushed to focus primarily on the monograph (or the peer-reviewed article, especially in certain social science fields), while those on non-tenure-track appointments have heavy course loads and are usually unable to write the book that could rip them out of the tangled web of adjunctification.

With the advent of the corporate university, service and committee work has proliferated. Service is a complicated subject, but the type of committee work that is often repetitive or goes unnoticed must also be understood as a form of feminine labor. Studies show that women are more likely than men to commit to service that is less prestigious, while high-profile service jobs, such as being a chair of a department or a director of a graduate studies program, are more likely to be filled by men. A 2009 study at the University of Massachusetts found that three-quarters of female associate professors take on time-consuming service roles, compared with only half of their male counterparts. Audrey Williams of the Chronicle of Higher Education has recently written about the added service load for faculty of color in related yet slightly different contexts.

Not surprisingly, these “feminine” areas of teaching and service map onto the well-worn Cartesian dualisms of mind and body, where the stereotypical researcher—a white man—remains concerned with the pursuits of the mind, while the stereotypical woman is left to take care of the children and their messes.

If a more discursive argument about a feminization of labor is hard to swallow, one can fall back on the more straightforward evidence of inequity for women in an increasingly stratified labor economy. According to research by English scholars Frank Donoghue and Marc Bousquet, and even data included in older tomes by higher education researchers Jack Schuster and Martin Finkelstein, women are more likely to start out as part-time contract faculty. While some of these adjunct positions may be at prestigious universities—where being promoted to a tenure-track position is possible, however unlikely—women are more likely to be hired at two-year colleges where tenure-track positions are less available. And the problem goes deeper than that. According to Maureen Baker, who studied gendered patterns in various neoliberal contexts over a forty-year period, female academics are more likely to start out—and remain—contingent faculty at almost every stage of their professional development. While the numbers are improving, women are still being hired into tenure-track positions at a lower rate than men. Women are also more likely than men to move to accommodate a partner’s career, or to choose not to move to improve their own careers because of family commitments. Women are less likely to find mentors to guide them through the difficult process of professionalization, which increases attrition rates for those on the tenure track. Women are also less likely to be promoted to full professor, and their promotions take, on average, two years longer.

 In 2016, economists Heather Antecol, Kelly Bedard, and Jenna Stearns published a study of gender-neutral policies to stop the tenure clock at the top fifty economics departments in the United States over an almost twenty-year stretch. Their findings were sobering: whereas women used their maternity leave (not surprisingly) to have a child, more men in their study used their paternity leave to engage in research and publishing. The result was a heightening of the competitive nature of the culture of “publish or perish” in these departments, putting women who went up for review at a disadvantage when compared with men who had received the same benefits. This empirical study bolsters the more loosely stated claims of feminists in academia that have been around since Tillie Olson’s 1970 book Silences—that writing is a form of labor that remains incompatible with motherhood. Because the entire economy of higher education relies increasingly on tenured and tenure-track faculty to do the writing and the rest of us to do the teaching, the split that has evolved has contributed to an unacknowledged dependence on a feminization of labor.

How Did We Get Here?

I have been surprised by many faculty members’ lack of knowledge of their own labor conditions and histories. What is more difficult to unpack is how the dependence on adjunct labor became so prevalent but was practically unacknowledged until a few decades after it began. Yes, we in the US academy are, by all accounts, some of the most educated and intelligent people in the country. But I suspect that our increased specialization and white-collar attitudes toward issues of labor have facilitated the emergence of the current system, where a diminishing tenure pool and an increase in adjuncts are intertwined in a community where these two faculty groups remain separate.

The movement for labor fairness in educational settings can be traced back to John Dewey and the pragmatism movement of the early twentieth century. There are even intriguing ties between the pragmatists and the early suffragist movement. Such labor histories occurred more often than not in secondary schools, and for this and other reasons, they have been omitted from the official narrative of higher education. The more standard histories of labor in higher education continually tie the idea of labor equality to academic freedom and the institution of tenure.

The idea of tenure as a way to secure academic rights against the whims of administrations, boards, and donors had its origins in the case of Edward A. Ross, who was dismissed from Stanford University in 1900. Ross, who repeatedly spoke out against privately owned railroads and Chinese immigration, was dismissed when the widow of the former president of the university (who had been a railroad tycoon, employing thousands of Asian immigrants) complained about his views. This case and others involving summary dismissals of faculty members contributed to the founding of the AAUP in 1915 and the subsequent crystallization of ideas about tenure in the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

Tenure as a system that ensured faculty security and stability reached its height in the post–World War II era, when demand for higher education flooded the university system and resulted in bountiful academic job opportunities. It was not until the 1970s, with the advent of a different academic environment, that major changes began to occur in faculty personnel patterns and in student enrollment: ever-greater numbers of female students and students of color enrolled in college, and students were more likely than before to attend college part time and less likely to be able to afford full tuition. The negative economic realities of that decade compounded this financial shift. A subsequent downturn in the financial stability of the educational marketplace occurred as a result, and colleges and universities began to hire adjuncts as we now know them.

Since the 1970s, such hiring practices have steadily increased. Much research remains to be done on the complexity of contract faculty; for example, specific research on gender and race among this demographic has only begun to be collected. Nonetheless, data on contract faulty more generally can shed light on the larger, untenable situation. According to figures presented in the AAUP’s most recent Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, by 2015 just 30 percent of the faculty held a tenured or tenure-track appointment; 17 percent held full-time contract positions like mine, 40 percent held part-time faculty positions, and the remaining instructional staff were graduate student employees. In my own field of theater and performance studies, data on adjuncts that include statistical analyses of gender and race have just begun to be collected by the Association of Theatre in Higher Education.

A Feminist Critique of Tenure

Occasionally during research we find a source that crystallizes our thoughts. For me, that document is a pamphlet published in 1979 by the American Association for Higher Education as part of its Current Issues in Higher Education series. This pamphlet staged a debate between the venerable AAUP historian Walter Metzger (who died just last year) and James O’Toole, at that time a professor who had renounced his tenure at the University of Southern California. Metzger gives an impassioned defense of tenure, linking it to academic freedom, as is customary, and situating his history of tenure alongside the “history of the academic enterprise.” O’Toole’s counterargument hinges upon a parallel between a typical patriarchal defense of male superiority and Metzger’s defense of tenure. O’Toole states, “This man might well conclude by warning that any attempt to alter the ‘natural scheme of things’ would lead to (a) an increase in homosexuality; (b) the failure to properly care for children; and (c) the demise of civilization as we know it.” He then acknowledges both the sexism and the foolishness of this argument but notes that it contains the same logic that Metzger has used in his defense of tenure—which is to say that O’Toole uses an explicitly feminist argument to critique Metzger’s emphasis on preserving tenure as “what has always been” rather than looking at the current context of the professoriate.

Such an argument has only increased in relevance in the decades since the pamphlet was published. O’Toole actually stumbled upon the foundations of the feminization of labor in the academy. The rules of tenure were designed for, and still apply to, the bodies of white men. Tenure was created in this country in a moment when white men taught other white men, while the hidden forces of female labor were, more often than not, kept in the privacy of the domestic sphere. The fact that the erosion of tenure began at the exact moment when women and people of color began to enter the academy in large numbers is not happenstance; it fits the pattern that always enables the feminization of labor. Furthermore, the continued push to preserve tenure, and the very inability to question its efficacy, is not about academic freedom at all. At research universities like mine, it is about maintaining a divided class and feminized structure within the marketplace of the university. If we continue to divide the work of academics between a less valued system of teaching and an increasingly cutthroat publication system, the seams of our patriarchal beginnings will show themselves and the split down the middle will erode our ability to maintain a collegial community of teachers and scholars.

Beware Of The Binary

Too often, discussions of contingent faculty are simplified into an “us-versus-them” mentality, with “us” being the last of those fighting against the death of tenure and “them” therefore being the great pool of non-tenure-track faculty who are facing imminent financial or other dangers. This is the final insight that a feminist methodology can give us: in many discussions of the labor crisis in the academy, what emerges is the application of a tight binary frame. The downside of this strategy is that such language creates an inability to acknowledge economic and social complexities among contingent faculty. Furthermore, such thinking has facilitated the growth of a complex, poorly understood web of adjunct and contract jobs. The AAUP’s One Faculty campaign, launched in 2014, is one important response to such binary legacies, as is the Association’s commitment, beginning in 2016, to including data on part-time faculty pay in addition to compensation data for men and women faculty at all ranks in the Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession.

Such binaries are another legacy of our labor histories. They were shaped, in particular, by the Supreme Court’s 1980 Yeshiva ruling, which held that full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty in private colleges and universities are “managerial” and therefore ineligible to organize under the National Labor Relations Act. Notably, the language from this ruling did not apply to part-time faculty, and, of course, employees at public universities form a different legal class under previous legislation. Thus, legal rifts were created between public and private institutions and between tenured and tenure-track faculty and the adjuncts at the same institutions. Tenured faculty members at private universities who were ineligible for collective bargaining were less likely to educate themselves about their own labor histories. A more subtle heritage of the Yeshiva ruling is a legally enforced yet largely subconscious separation between the classes of faculty in the university. There are the “real faculty”—those who are tenured or tenure track. And then there is everybody else. We must be aware of our own histories of divisive labor policies, especially as we move into the era of new labor standards enabled by the 2014 decision against Pacific Lutheran University, a case that strengthened the organizing rights of private-sector faculty. These histories will no doubt return to us as subconscious ghosts that regulate the separation of tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty.

As Frank Donoghue noted in The Last Professors, there is no wider disparity, in income and day-to-day experience, than that between adjuncts and their tenured colleagues. Yet these two groups engage in labor that is, at least on paper, very similar. My position as neither an adjunct nor a tenure-track faculty member has helped me see that we should not focus on the death of tenure as much as we should fear the death of an academic middle class. We cannot send the majority of our adjunct colleagues down on a sinking ship and not end up in the water ourselves. We must rise collectively, and we must treat everyone fairly.

Some Small Steps

In closing, here are a few simple ways in which we can all act as feminists and take action:

1. Remember that faculty are interconnected. We need to see the reality of all of our labor in the academy as interconnected. If you are fortunate enough to receive research leave, note that your classes are probably being taught by adjuncts. Use your Marxist theory self-reflexively. You might find yourself getting a mental and physical stretch.

2. Think beyond the binary. There is not the “real faculty” and everyone else. “Everyone else” is the vast majority of the current professoriate. Administrations and the increasingly corporate environment of higher education thrive on the simplicity of “everyone else.” Contingent faculty are not all the same. Some colleagues in these positions need serious advocacy, and some of them are having thriving academic careers. Such differences need to be analyzed using our strongest critical skills.

3. When thinking about academic labor, ask what we mean by “labor.” It’s not just about rewarding those who teach alongside those who research. It’s saying that if we, as members of a community who are responsible for creating new knowledge, leave the teaching to a lower class of citizens, we create the structures for class stratification that will herald the death of an egalitarian community.

4. Be collegial. This one seems obvious, but I say this most emphatically: don’t be paternalistic, don’t be sympathetic, be respectful of adjuncts and contract faculty alike. Respect is free! What’s more, we deserve your respect. We have not failed; we are not awash in shame and regret. We are scholars and teachers just like the few who currently hold tenure-track jobs. And, for better or worse, we are an omen of things to come.  

Gwendolyn Alker is a distinguished teacher of theater studies in the Department of Drama at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She is the outgoing editor of Theatre Topics and is currently director of theater studies in her department. Her email address is


Thank you for this brilliant essay tying the feminist movement to academic labor. If you haven't already read it, I commend to you Don Eron's "An Evolution of Principled Futility: The AAUP and Original Sin" about the AAUP's 1915 support of a 2-tiered faculty. Both of you have done a valiant job of describing the downward spiral of academic labor. Your practical suggestions at the end are spot-on.

Here is Don's essay:

I am wondering about the stats on contingent faculty--how skewed are they towards women faculty? My concern is to represent ALL of our oppressed sisters and brothers in academic labor--we need all the solidarity we can manage.

I am faculty at Pacific Lutheran (year 40, contingent in Music), and am proud of the 2014 decision that our faculty achieved. Just an update--we are still seeking union representation since our vote was suspended due to the challenges to 1/3 of our ballots for spurious reasons.

One final comment--I think we should no longer use the term "adjunct," which means "non-essential." Contingent faculty are holding up the whole creaky structure of American higher ed.

Thanks so very much for your thoughtful advocacy.

Hi Jane, Thanks so much for your excellent comments and questions. I am going to respond to you in more detail via email. Best, GA

Let me congratulate you on a pithy well-written exposition of the current state of the American professoriate. Your message of unity is inspiring. I was especially pleased to see a ‘solutions’ section. Too often authors seeking progressive change stop short of offering actionable solutions.
I’m glad you brought up the NLRA, the body of federal law that has brought the Progressive labor movement to its knees by diligently dividing America’s working people since 1935. We must not lose sight of the way our government has long and disproportionately enabled those who are motivated predominantly by financial profits to walk away with the vast majority of the value working people produce. The feminist critique has little chance of providing the necessary tools to fight the current global neo-liberal policies without a firm grounding in Progressive labor history taught from the perspective of workers and their struggles. All we get currently is the other side of the story. The correct education is non-existent in this country. American educators must find ways to wipe out the colossal ignorance that reigns supreme. Profiteers don’t really care about the gender, color, religion, ethnicity, etc. of those they exploit. They just take the path of least resistance to their goal and our government facilitates their progress. Unity is a necessary response but it must be underpinned by profound knowledge of our labor past. And I’m not referring to labor history as a separate discipline. It is the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the energy we use. I could go on. It has to be the structure of history. Whatever the subject, the economic perspective has to be paramount.

Kimberly, Thanks for your comments and I appreciate your focus on the lack of knowledge & understanding of labor histories. Indeed spending considerable time in the labor archives was one of the most fascinating elements of the research for this article. While I am new to calling myself a labor historian, I have been a labor activist (in some ways) for a bit longer. Event then, I noticed that certain academics frown upon labor history as a viable area of study, despite its daily influence on our working conditions. This is part of the heritage of specialization, I think, and not thinking of our work as "labor" in ways that mirror larger class debates (most simply between "white" and "blue" collar labor) in the United States. So yes, educating the educating elite is a subtextual element to points 1&3 above. But you are right--this is a central step that could be highlighted more clearly. Thanks again for your comments...

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