Memory Loss

We must remember that we did not always have such a highly tiered system of inequality among faculty—and it does not have to be so.
By Anne Cassebaum

Retiring means clearing out my office and sloughing off the past, so I send nine boxes of books to Ghana, pull off a gallon of paper clips recycling old files, and watch my university life flash before me as computer files fly across the screen prior to deletion. All that casting off highlights its opposite—what needs to be held on to—and that is what concerns me. In four decades of teaching college English, I have watched many good teaching jobs morph into second-class ones. Worse, I have seen the memory and then the expectation of teaching jobs with decent status, security, and salary depart along with principles and collegiality. To help reverse this downward spiral, we need a collective memory of better times and the language that shaped them.

The words colleagues and faculty used to mean all the people who taught with you. Now tenured and tenure-track faculty members tend to think of colleagues only as those who share their status and job security—a group that has dwindled from 57 percent of college and university teachers in 1975 to only 31 percent in 2007. Figures from the AAUP and the National Center for Education Statistics reveal the rest of the picture: the percentage of part-time faculty in the profession more than doubled from 22 percent in 1970 to 50.3 percent in 2007. Half may now work in a disenfranchised world with diminished opportunity for involvement in campus life and governance. More than 50 percent may be doing the institution’s essential work—teaching—but are they faculty? Even full-time non-tenure-track faculty members, 18.5 percent of the professoriate in 2007, often are seen as second class.

This loss of colleagues has ramifications. New faculty members were once carefully hired, but now contingent faculty may be hauled aboard even after classes have begun meeting. The risk is obvious and includes the possibility that adjunct faculty are devalued by a hiring process that assumes them to be less competent.

The profession further divides with student evaluations. Often merely symbolic for those with tenure, evaluations can be the sole factor in decisions against renewing non-tenure-track faculty members, whose contracts may hang on one semester’s student-evaluation numbers (which, for better and worse, were not part of the calculation in 1970). And contingent faculty members rarely are afforded due process when they are not reappointed.

Collegiality suffers when inequities separate us. At my first job, all new faculty members were people you got to know. And now? There is stigma and exclusion to overcome. One adjunct faculty member where I worked was initially excluded from a departmental e-mail list, although he was teaching an advanced course in the department. The justification that he was not “committed to the program” was based on his temporary status—reasoning that usually goes unchallenged. When faculty members in contingent appointments are excluded from collegial conversations, as well as opportunities in teaching, scholarship, and service, we lose the voices, energies, and insights they might have added.

Some justify the segregation by saying with a shrug, “Budgets are tight.” But public and private university tuitions rise, and administrative staffs expand. Other priorities find funding. And high schools have not been driven to divide teachers into tiers. Can one really say this exploitation is an economic necessity?

One thing is sure: under the pressures of our current economy and academic job market, inequities between tenured and contingent faculty are more pronounced than ever. In 1967, when I looked for a high school position in late summer, five possibilities materialized. Three years later, a community college job appeared after two months of casual searching. Do I need to note that it is not that way now? We do not even hear the feminist cry, “Equal pay for equal work,” which could rally support for narrowing the current salary gap.

Class division weakens the basis of advanced study. The concept of academic freedom once applied to the research and teaching of all faculty members. Now teachers in contingent positions sometimes have no say in determining the texts or curricula for the courses they teach. Some even encounter doctrinaire training programs. In one instance, a contingent faculty member floated a question about the effects of using grids and numbers to evaluate writing. “Does it,” he wanted to know, “constrain student thinking about writing?” He was quickly assured, without any evidence, that the approach was effective, and we returned to the agenda.

As our workplace conversation reconfigures to present working conditions, new words evolve;  one hears expertise more and more, but it was not a word formerly used to describe what was valued in a teacher - insight, curiosity, experience, learning, rapport-- maybe these, but not expertise-a word that might describe mastery over a computer program or a Buick's engine-some intricate but limited world.

Other word meanings also have been lost to change. Mentor used to mean someone you admire and take as your educator and guide. Now we talk about mentoring new faculty, meaning that the institution or department will assign someone to you who may or may not help you dodge the incoming flak of academic politics.

Ethical no longer applies to the working conditions of fellow teachers. In an institutional planning session, a colleague suggested fair treatment of adjunct faculty as a goal. The suggestion was duly noted on a yellow pad as this faculty member argued that students who attend four years in a college where workers are fairly treated will take away better ethical lessons. A trustee showed his lack of understanding by chiming in, “Yes, absolutely, I want everyone to take an ethics course.” The goal of fair treatment, despite reminders, disappeared from future lists.

We did not need the word splintering, cutting a full-time job into two to avoid paying health benefits and higher salaries, forty years ago. Splintering caused semiannual struggles where I worked. When we protested two full-time positions being divided into four part-time ones, even an interim dean with nothing to lose defended the practice. The way he pronounced adjunct as “add junk” in an opening speech had given some warning of his limitations. Though he gave useful counsel on framing the issue in administrative terms—using the right words at the right time in the budget schedule—our fellow educators’ right to fair pay and working conditions hid in his peripheral vision.

When no one uses either union or solidarity, the administration more easily controls faculty. At my institution, the burgeoning of new rank, status, and employment categories has led to nineteen different titles, while special awards, prizes, fellowships, and release-time grants multiply with the years and send faculty competing for recognition. Lack of worker solidarity is, of course, a problem across the United States. These four decades (1970 to 2009) have seen union membership drop from 28 percent to 12.3 percent of workers nationally, according to records in the Statistical Abstract of the United States. While faculty members tripled in numbers, membership in the AAUP declined almost by half, from 90,000 in 1970 to 47,000 in 2010. (It has rebounded from a low of 40,000 members in 1989.)

But I am retiring, and the bells chime five against the bare walls of my office, leaving me feeling, like Camus’s stranger, that this is “a world that has ceased to concern me forever.” Then an AAUP e-mail pops into my inbox to remind me that people are documenting and working on this problem and that change is possible. Data from the US Department of Education show improving equality for women in the profession and increased, albeit insufficient, ethnic diversity.

These changes, as well as others, provide hope. A full-time contingent faculty member told a dean that the higher salary and health benefits of full-time work make a difference in her well-being. In the end, her position and a colleague’s remained full time.

In addition, at some colleges and universities, faculty members on the margins can turn to adjunct faculty committees working for fair pay and benefits. Changes in bylaws have put adjunct faculty representatives on faculty senates.

With our egos, internal politics, and rankings, academia likely will remain a bed of thorny roses. However, our profession need not weaken itself by exploiting the people who teach alongside us. It was not always thus; that is what we must remember. The reality of our past is as much a basis for hope as a future wide with possibility.

Anne Cassebaum is associate professor emerita at Elon University and has taught English at various colleges and universities for forty-two years, including for a decade as an adjunct instructor. Her book, Down along the Haw: History of a North Carolina River, was published in 2011. Her e-mail address is [email protected].