A Midcareer Feminist Reflection

In an era of increasing contingency and devaluation of the humanities, we should take a moment to reconsider the meaning of activism.
By Renata Kobetts Miller

It is time for midcareer feminists in the humanities to consider the legacy of their foremothers, as many of our mentors assume emerita status. Susan Gubar, one of the world’s most eminent feminist academics, with whom I was honored to work as a graduate student, retired this spring from Indiana University. We owe a debt of gratitude to her generation for opening the academy’s doors to women. As their inheritors, we also should reflect on what it means to be a feminist in the humanities today.

Gubar has long pointed out that the academic profession began to decline at about the time that women gained entry to it in significant numbers, and she questions the causal relationship. Were women allowed into the academy because it was no longer a desirable career choice? Or did the academy lose prestige and resources because women populated it in larger numbers? Gubar thus suggests that it is impossible to talk about the place of women in the humanities without talking about the state of the profession more generally.

The English department in which I teach, at the City University of New York’s City College, now has two female tenure-line faculty members for each tenure-line male, with relatively even distribution across ranks. Women remain a protected class, according to our affirmative action office, but men clearly comprise a minority in our department. The male-female ratio raises awkward questions: Should we pursue greater gender diversity when that means recruiting a male population anachronistically viewed as a majority? What does it mean to be a feminist when women form an overwhelming majority of our voting body?

As Gubar so eloquently points out in her 2006 book, Rooms of Our Own, while feminism has become a multiplicity of often divided feminisms, one constant is a desire to leave the world better than we found it. Service to our institutions, however, can be a professional handicap, because it is undervalued in tenure and promotion decisions while draining time and energy from the more highly valued work of research and publishing.

Service can be harder on women, who often already struggle to balance the demands of the tenure clock and the biological clock. Nevertheless, I believe that steering clear of service is self-disenfranchising and that helping to shape our departments, divisions, and colleges is an essential feminist act. At a time when women dominate humanities departments, we should use our status as tenured or tenure-track faculty members to shape our professional world for the better, lest we become beneficiaries and consumers of feminism rather than practitioners of its principles. So I want to argue for concrete ways we can improve the state of the academic profession.

Defending the Humanities

I see it as counterproductive in this day and age to grouse about the increasing burdens of tenured and tenure-track faculty members. We can bemoan the fact that tenure-track positions allowing time for research and writing become harder to find with each job list, and we can kvetch about declining benefits and pay. But, while millions of Americans are jobless and even more labor in conditions far less comfortable than our own, we must recognize that working in the academy remains a privilege.

Many doctoral programs in the humanities attract relatively few applicants from Ivy League universities these days. For graduates from these universities, an academic life with its attendant geographic restrictions and relatively low salary represents a loss of status when compared with other career opportunities. Whether students come from privileged homes or attended college on financial aid, the academy fails to offer the luster or lucre of consulting firms like McKinsey & Company, investment banks like Goldman Sachs, and law firms like Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP. But for many of my City College students, most of them the first in their families to attend college only because of sacrifices they and their families made, the notion of being paid to read interesting books, to research your passion, to debate your findings, and to convey what you have learned to a classroom of students remains an inspiring part of the American dream.

As budgets and endowments shrink and enrollments rise, many of us feel our privileged positions as academics increasingly encroached upon and tenuous. But how will the taxpaying public or munificent alumni see the value of the books and articles that we write for minuscule audiences? How will they believe that we are worthy of a living wage for teaching two to four classes two days a week? Even the dreaded four-four teaching load looks light compared with the public high school teacher’s five classes, all of which meet every weekday.

Our brightest minds reach a tiny audience, and I don’t mean this in the sense of published work—the need to write for larger, more diverse audiences already was a widespread notion when I was in graduate school a decade ago. I’m thinking primarily about teaching. Small class size has great pedagogical benefits, and we need our graduate students to learn from the leaders in our fields. But if we want the public that must underwrite our low teaching loads to understand and support our research, we need our stars to communicate excitement about their research not only to self-selected PhD students and hard-core undergraduate English majors but also to large numbers of general education students. The resultant short-term political benefits would be that humanities departments could point to increased numbers of students receiving instruction from ranking tenured and tenure-track faculty members. The long-term benefit would be nothing short of a citizenry educated in the ideas that we in the humanities most value. Our students would discuss their courses with their parents, and—as they themselves become wage-earners, alumni, and taxpayers—they would recall their work in English, philosophy, history, foreign languages, and countless other fields that have been devalued in an increasingly preprofessional academy.

The humanities are particularly threatened right now, as sciences are increasingly ascendant while resources shrink. In other words, the humanities are receiving a smaller slice of a smaller pie. Although the British government plans to cut funding to universities by 40 percent over the next four years, it has exempted science, technology, engineering, and mathematics from the ax, according to an article last October in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Impinging directly on my college, Chancellor Matthew Goldstein of the City University of New York declared the years 2005 through 2015 the “Decade of Science” for the CUNY system. His designation includes approximately $1 billion in funding for building and modernizing science facilities.

Between 2001 and 2006, according to data from the chancellor’s office, CUNY student enrollment grew 12 percent, while enrollment in math, science, and engineering programs increased 26 percent. Science and technology are the engines driving the world economy, but we run the risk of becoming a society dominated by these fields and uninformed by the moral, ethical, and humanitarian considerations that subjects such as literature, philosophy, and history provide. It is time for humanities departments to step up their outreach efforts using their talents to communicate the importance of the humanities to the greatest number of undergraduates.

Growth of Contingent Appointments

Although maximizing the contact of research-active faculty with undergraduates may seem intuitive, the shrinking size of my department’s tenured and tenure-track faculty makes this a difficult goal. During the harried days of a hectic fall registration, an undergraduate sought my advice on her schedule. As I glanced over the four English classes on her registration receipt, it struck me that contingent faculty taught all four—from firstyear composition right up to English electives. This extreme example is not anomalous. A 2007 Association of Departments of English survey revealed that, on average, in Carnegie master’s English departments nationwide, tenured and tenure-track professors teach only 21.6 percent of first-year writing sections, 60.8 percent of lower-division undergraduate sections, and 77.6 percent of upper-division undergraduate sections. In Carnegie doctoral institutions, the figures were even lower, at 3.1 percent, 29.7 percent, and 63.9 percent, respectively. The study also showed that, on average, 42.2 percent of teachers in master’s English departments and 31.2 percent of teachers in doctoral English departments were full-time tenured or tenure track. This semester, my department has 31 tenured and tenure-track faculty members and 131 non-tenure-track faculty members. Because we use tenured and tenure-track faculty to teach our master’s programs, contingent faculty always teach at least several electives and virtually all our lower-division courses.

In a recent MLA Newsletter column, Rosemary Feal, the Modern Language Association’s executive director, pointed out that there are many different kinds of contingent faculty, and they are not all exploited equally. I believe teaching is an important part of training for graduate students and that graduate students’ engagement with both their subject matter and pedagogy more than makes up for lack of experience. We owe it both to our students and to our part-time, contingent labor force, however, to provide as many opportunities for full-time, noncontingent employment as possible.

A 2010 AAUP report titled Tenure and Teaching-Intensive Appointments argues: “The best practice for institutions of all types is to convert the status of contingent appointments to appointments eligible for tenure with only minor changes in job description. This means that faculty hired contingently with teaching as the major component of their workload will become tenured or tenure eligible primarily on the basis of successful teaching.” It also identified the “most successful forms” of conversion to tenure as “those that retain experienced, qualified, and effective faculty, as opposed to those that convert positions while leaving behind the faculty currently in them.”

My department mitigated its dependence on part-time contingent faculty by appointing full-time instructors on lecturer lines that offer a certificate of continuous employment—the equivalent of tenure in terms of security— after four years of service. A lecturer differs from a professor in teaching obligations and the criteria on which each is judged. A lecturer’s performance is reviewed on the basis of service and teaching, without regard for research or creative work. While the contractual workload for an assistant professor is twenty-one hours a week (with a research release the normative teaching load is three-three), the contractual workload for a lecturer is twenty-seven hours a week (releases for service roles result in a normative teaching load of four-four). The appointment of lecturers thus allows our department to fill more classrooms with instructors employed at our institution full time; to provide more employees adequate salaries, job stability, and health insurance; and to reward excellent teaching. On the other hand, lectureships threaten to spawn a class system within the academy and to encroach on the principle that colleges and universities provide students the opportunity to learn firsthand from researchers. We must ensure, therefore, that lectureships do not replace tenure-track lines for research-active faculty but instead serve as upgrades for contingent faculty.

I view such pragmatic attempts to improve our institutions, making them better for students and employees, as a form of feminist activism. Women’s majority status in the humanities requires us to redefine what it means to be a feminist in the conduct of our professional lives. Earlier feminists fought to gain entry to the academy. We have both a right and a responsibility to improve it.

Renata Kobetts Miller is associate professor of English at City College of the City University of New York, where she teaches Victorian literature. She is director of freshman English and the master’s program in literature. Her e-mail address is [email protected].