The Ethics of Tenuous Faculty

Changes in faculty employment patterns are raising new ethical concerns.
By Chris Nagel

What exactly are the ethical responsibilities of college faculty? From what do they arise? How do those responsibilities matter in the everyday working lives of faculty members?

One way to respond to such questions is to consult the statements made by the profession about these issues. A reasonable starting point would seem to be the AAUP’s Statement on Professional Ethics, initially published in 1966 and most recently revised in 2009. But even a cursory glance at the Statement reveals why it is a problematic starting point—and why the entire question of college faculty ethics is problematic, as well. The Statement refers only to the professional ethics of professors, which is an equivocal term that obscures the situations of the vast majority of those who teach in colleges and universities. This is not a merely semantic issue; the Statement does not acknowledge the disparity between tenure-track and tenuous-track faculty work and working conditions.

I suggest a different starting point, based on the related concepts of subjection and subjectivation developed by the French philosopher Michel Foucault. Subjection is the construction of a subject under a particular regime of power, and subjectivation is the free, active self-construction of a subject through resistance and care. An ethical subject, he said, is a “docile body” adhering to the precepts of a regime by adopting its constructed subjectivity. Alternatively, individuals construct their own subjectivity (subjectivation) through practices of self-conduct and resistance to predominant regimes of power.

Faculty are socially constructed. What would we find as the basic different shapes of subjection adapted and adopted by those who become “professors,” “lecturers,” or “adjuncts”?

Most PhD students in the humanities learn that taking “adjunct” work—a course here, a course there, for very low wages and few or no benefits—is a necessary starting point for aspiring professors. Despite the fact that this “starting point” is, for most, also an ending point (that is, that the majority will never have tenure-track positions), we take on this subject position, continue to work the conference circuit as much as our dire financial conditions allow, revise and submit papers to journals, hustle for book contracts, and continue adjunct employment in order to have the basic legitimacy that a college affiliation offers—all under the normalizing framework that this is how academia works and that “if I am going to get a ‘job,’ I have to keep at it.”

The duration of this adjunct subjectivity depends on an individual’s personal exhaustion point, competing interests like starting a family or paying ever-looming debts, and, of course, getting a tenuretrack appointment. For most who either aspire to a position on the tenure track or are already on the tenure track, there appear to be no alternatives: it’s as if they all wear signs that read “Tenure or Bust.” The implication is that those who never make the leap from adjunct work to tenure-track work have failed in some respect; the alternative analysis blames either “the job market” or “the overproduction of PhDs.” In this analysis, ethical responsibility means adhering as much as possible to the values and behaviors of the tenured elite.

This simplistic binary is based on the notion that faculty employment is accurately characterized as dividing the small minority of academic “winners” from the undeserving “losers,” and it fundamentally misinterprets, or ignores, the daily working lives of faculty members and their subjectivities, interests, perceptions, and intentions. Such an analysis denies ethical responsibility to the majority of faculty by denying their subjection.

Yet it raises the question of ethical responsibility as adopted and understood by the faculty in these working conditions. Without the protection of tenure, is there any way to recover an ethical sensibility for the work done by these faculty members—by us? Perhaps we ought to assume ethical responsibility for our work. I believe we must, and I am certain that, for the most part, we do. The intriguing question for me is on what basis we do so.

Disciplining Faculty

Technologies of surveillance and control determine time, manner, and place for our activities as faculty members. Class schedules, academic calendars, and various other temporal determinants establish the scope of various kinds of academic activity to which faculty adhere. The manner in which academic activity is conducted is disciplined by the conditions under which work is done—under whose authority and with what degree of autonomy, according to whose criteria of judgment, and under what and whose prescription of movement, gesture, and speech. The technologies of place determine, rather obviously, where the work is done, in what forms of enclosure, and under what kind of surveillance. For Foucault, the effect of these technologies is the constitution of docile bodies— functional, predictable, interchangeable bodies.

The technology of time constitutes the subjectivity of the tenured and tenure-track faculty differently from that of the non-tenure-track faculty. Even probationary assistant professors have some say in their teaching schedules and have predictable schedules from term to term. In nearly all cases, they will know well before the beginning of a term what they will be teaching. Probationary assistant professors also have a predictable schedule related to their tenure decisions: indeed, they are informed of the timeline, and these timelines are built into the temporality of their work over several years. It is certainly no secret how the temporality of tenure leads probationary faculty to engage in certain kinds of academic activity.

Non-tenure-track faculty (those I prefer to call tenuous-track faculty) frequently have no certainty whether or how much or when they will teach, and they have little or no say in their class schedules. There is rarely any extended future dimension of employment, only a series of discrete, terminal appointments. Academic activity is periodic, temporary, and repeatedly interrupted. Almost all non-tenure-track appointments are “contingent” and can be terminated by the administration without notice.

For the tenured or tenure-track professor, the technologies of temporal control demand regular and ongoing academic activity according to a schedule of regular and ongoing expectations: probation, continued or permanent employment, successive academic activities that should go on without interruption. For the non-tenure-track faculty member, the technologies of temporal control demand irregular, immediate academic activity according to a schedule of arbitrary expectations: preparation for on-the-spot employment, or unemployment, for appearing and disappearing from the scene of academic work at a moment’s notice.

Tenure-track professors are most often appointed in accordance with the recommendation of department faculty following intensive searches. A probationary professor is usually provided a framework and guidance for achieving expectations that are clearly stated in advance of employment. These expectations typically include requirements for teaching, service, and publication to which the professor must adhere in order to achieve tenure—an ultimate value in this regime. The work of the probationary professor is determined according to these requirements; barring some violation of expectations, the probationary professor—like tenured professors—has wide latitude and overall responsibility for pedagogical decisions and for opinions stated in public. Tenuretrack faculty members typically make or contribute to decisions regarding course materials, assignments, grading criteria, and so on. These decisions, as well as the overall productive output of the probationary professor, are the materials evaluated for tenure.

Tenuous-track faculty are typically hired from a local pool based on a need to fill out a schedule of classes; fiscal benefits to the institution are always important in hiring decisions. These faculty members are rarely provided evaluation criteria or presented with procedures for evaluation (except when contractually mandated), and they are not provided initiation into the department or university. They are not expected to engage in service or publication and they are not held responsible for pedagogical decisions; they are rarely permitted to contribute to such decisions. Tenuous-track faculty experience one of two opposite forms of surveillance of their work: in some cases, they are required to submit to greater oversight and direct evaluation; in other cases, they never undergo any direct evaluation according to identifiable criteria.

Faculty members work in a variety of settings, each of which affects their work differently. There are large lecture halls, small seminar classrooms, office spaces, cafeterias, libraries, cars, and homes. Institutional places are equipped differently.

Many faculty members teach in large lecture halls, but tenure-track and tenured faculty are much more likely than tenuous-track faculty to teach small seminar courses. Those in the former group are offered, and to some extent are expected to avail themselves of, up-to-date equipment: laptop or tablet computers and other devices. Typically, they are assigned individual offices, and those offices are usually equipped with telephones and computers; tenured and tenuretrack professors also have access to photocopiers, printers, and clerical staff support. The places they occupy convey expectations, or at least prospects, of permanence.

Tenuous faculty, in contrast, occupy marginal places. They may share an office with several others or make do with another space—in the library or cafeteria—to work with students. Their status within the institution is indicated in minutiae: lack of a nameplate or access to copying services, for example. Since many tenuous faculty make a living by teaching at several institutions, they sometimes use their cars as office space, storing student papers and their own materials in them in order to carry them from institution to institution.

These differences in the time, manner, and place of academic work tell us about the subject positions of tenured, tenure-track, and tenuous faculty members and who those faculty members are. A successful faculty member of either type adopts and adapts to the appropriate subject position.

Dominant Ideology

The ideology of the professoriate articulated in documents like the AAUP’s Statement on Professional Ethics corresponds more closely to the subjectivity and working lives of tenured and tenure-track faculty than to those in tenuous positions: they are expected to “seek and state the truth as they see it”; to contribute to their students’ intellectual growth, their institutions’ posterities, and their fields’ knowledge; and to have institutional and social support for these activities. Many of the ethical obligations asserted in the Statement are foreign to the subjectivities and working lives of tenuoustrack faculty, and fulfilling these expectations can result in being dismissed from a teaching position.

Tenuous faculty have ambiguous—not to say precarious— status. They cannot adhere to the ethical obligations of tenured and tenure-track professors, yet they perform a great deal of the teaching work in their institutions. If the ethics of the professoriate neither protects nor defines the work of tenuous faculty, then it is not apparent what ethical responsibilities could be assigned to them. One way to resolve this dilemma would be to claim that under their working conditions, no ethical responsibilities could be assigned. The writing of many tenuoustrack faculty activists and the work of organizations like the New Faculty Majority make clear that we do not understand our work in such terms, but instead construct forms of subjectivity and ethical responsibility for ourselves on an alternate basis and through identifying ourselves under different terms.

In The Use of Pleasure, Foucault discusses ethics beyond the limits of a particular moral code or “rule of conduct.” For Foucault, a given code of conduct does not resolve the ethical question of one’s own conduct, “the manner in which one ought to form oneself as an ethical subject acting in reference to the prescriptive elements that make up the code.” There is a critical distance between oneself and one’s formation of self, and there is a prescriptive code; in that gap, the work of ethics takes place. This work is not obedience to a code, but “the determination of the ethical substance; that is, the way in which the individual has to constitute this or that part of himself as the prime material of his moral conduct.” Foucault further explains the rigor of the work of ethics:

In short, for an action to be “moral,” it must not be reducible to an act or a series of acts conforming to a rule, a law, or a value. Of course all moral action involves a relationship with the reality in which it is carried out, and a relationship with the self. The latter is not simply “self-awareness” but self-formation as an “ethical subject,” a process in which the individual delimits that part of himself that will form the object of his moral practice, defines his position relative to the precept he will follow, and decides on a certain mode of being that will serve as his moral goal. And this requires him to act upon himself, to monitor, test, improve, and transform himself.

This ethics begins from the “care of the self,” as opposed to established codes of conduct, deployments of power tending toward production of subjectivity—tenure-track faculty as formed through the institutional expectations and ideology of the professoriate being our example. The power of a prevailing regime is not absolute. The regime misrecognizes tenuous faculty, deploying power over them less evenly and systematically. The ethical responsibilities and subjectivities of tenuous faculty are difficult to identify in terms of that prevailing regime and ideology. It is a situation that calls for ethical work on the part of tenuous faculty. As philosopher Ian Leask writes, “‘We are always free’; we can always resist; our ongoing task is to construct ‘arts of living’ that might counter the manifold expressions of ‘fascism’ that lurk throughout institutions, systems, relations, and even ourselves.” Tenure-track and tenuous-track faculty all undergo subjection of one form or another. Ethics, as the task of freedom or resistance, opens a discourse into college faculty labor that is neither exclusive to tenure-track professors nor confined to the disciplinary regime of the tenure track.

Building Resistance

The two forms of ethical work most directly relevant for understanding the ethical responsibilities of tenuous faculty are what Foucault calls “ascetic practice” (in particular, the ascetics of writing) and resistance. Ascetic practices are means of achieving critical distance and allowing for the conduct of self: tenuous faculty constitute their moral subjectivities through the generation of a discourse counter to that of the prevailing regime of power and in resistance to the prevailing regime. Resistance involves destabilizing the categories through which faculty work is conceptualized— in short, challenging the presumptive divisions between tenure-track and tenuous-track faculty subjectivities and modes of work.

The growing contingent faculty movement across North America is taking steps in this direction. The movement has created conditions for faculty to acknowledge and resist the prevailing regimes of power and knowledge to which they and their work are subjected. Our actions are more than mere consciousness raising, as I believe Foucault’s ethics would demand. Through various networks and connections, we tenuous faculty develop counter-discourses and counter-practices. By now, there is extensive knowledge, built from the ground up, of the experiences and institutional roles of tenuous faculty. Though largely ignored by administrators and by most tenure-track faculty, this counter-discourse grounds an alternative recognition of tenuous faculty work as fundamental rather than adjunct, in relation to the project of education if not to our employing institutions, and of ourselves as professionals and experts rather than “warm bodies.”

In resistance to the invisibility of tenuous faculty work, we have held successful Campus Equity Week events to demonstrate the institutional dependence on tenuous faculty. Political action, though painstaking, has resulted in numerous victories for collective bargaining rights, access to unemployment benefits, and, in some cases, salary and benefit parity with tenure-track faculty and even job security. As a result of these successes, it is much more difficult to draw a clear line between tenure-track and tenuous faculty at some institutions. In the California State University system, for example, lecturers who have taught continuously and satisfactorily for six years in one department have a right to a three-year appointment. On many CSU campuses, lecturers have designated seats on the academic senate, and on some, they are eligible upon retirement for emeritus status.

A more individual approach to the ethical work of ascetic discourse and resistance is relentlessly to reveal and discuss the academic regime in classrooms, faculty meetings, and public forums. Raising the question of the proper title for addressing tenuous faculty, taking every opportunity to comment on the different effects of academic policies on tenure-track and tenuous faculty, and inviting others within the academic regime to engage in this ethical project destabilizes and problematizes the academic work regime. This conduct creates discomfort. It poses questions that the prevailing regime does not answer: How are academic jobs awarded to workers? What sort of subject is a tenure-track professor? What are our roles in the institution? Who are we for ourselves or for one another?


Chris Nagel is in his fourteenth year of teaching philosophy as a “temporary” faculty member at California State University, Stanislaus. This article developed from discussions in his professional ethics classes about the erosion of status and autonomy experienced by many professions.  

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