Skip the department meeting


In a controversial recent essay, Emily E. VanDette recounted how a search to fill a tenure-track position — that increasingly rare object of legend — ultimately failed because the non-tenure-track faculty insisted on having a voice in the search and a vote on the hire. The column did not accuse the non-tenure-track faculty members of purposefully seeking to thwart the search but suggested that their desire for involvement in the process raised difficult questions for the department. And its inability to settle those issues ultimately resulted in the position remaining unfilled.

The story was unfortunate in itself. But there was a specific passage that gave me pause: \”These days more contingent faculty members than ever are, on selective issues, showing up at department meetings, serving on committees, and weighing in privately and publicly on curricular changes. Contingent faculty members turn out in droves during meetings with high-stakes items up for a vote, and their sporadic and selective participation is condoned and encouraged, all in the name of an inclusive culture.\”

The question I cannot help but ask is: Why? Why in the world would contingent faculty be showing up at department meetings, requesting to serve on committees, and otherwise seeking to participate in departmental or university business that many, if not most of them, are not contractually required to do?

Don’t get me wrong: In principle, I applaud contingent faculty members for wanting to play a role in the institutions where they work. Everyone knows the old story about how tenure-track professors complain about the necessity of doing service, and how tenured professors seek to avoid it whenever possible (those are, of course, overgeneralizations, but you probably know someone who fits the bill). So faculty members who actually want to be more involved are certainly valuable.

And I’m definitely not suggesting that adjuncts are unqualified to participate in departmental governance. Given the fact that a majority of college courses are now taught by contingent instructors, their involvement in departmental and university-level decisions, particularly related to teaching, is sensible. Or at least it should be.

My primary concern — as a visiting assistant professor on the non-tenure-track myself for too many years running — is that we ought not to be contributing to universities that devalue us. And being a contingent instructor means, by definition, to be devalued in most cases.

Various observers of the strange world of academe have noted that being an adjunct or a visiting professor in a department actually seems to decrease your chances of securing a tenure-track position: There’s always some shiny new unknown candidate whose \”potential\” can be imagined as more exciting than the known commodity of someone who’s already been working at a department.

When contingent faculty members push for more involvement in their departments and schools, they’re essentially asking for the opportunity to devote more of their time and energy to an institution without receiving any increase in pay or benefits in return, and without any reasonable expectation that that institution will reward their contributions with tenure-track employment.

So I ask: Why? Why seek to better an institution that does not value you and which has not, and likely will not, provide you with job security or financial stability?

There are some obvious (but flawed) answers.

For instance, it might be argued that contingent faculty members — especially those who have been working in the same position for years — have earned the right to have a say in important departmental matters, especially as they will be affected by most such decisions. There is merit to that argument. However, my \”why\” question still stands.

It’s bad enough that adjuncts, instructors, and VAPs are willing to continue teaching and sacrificing valuable time and energy that could be devoted to their research or to searching for a better job, while accepting less pay, benefits, and/or job security than their tenure-track counterparts. But our acceptance allows universities to keep us in employment limbo and perpetuates the adjunctification of higher education. If we clamor for more unpaid or undercompensated responsibilities, we’re only contributing to our own exploitation.

Forget brownie points. Forget good will. When it comes to hiring decisions, those things mean little in comparison with shiny degrees from prestigious universities held by unproven but \”promising\” candidates; to phone calls and favors from well-placed friends; and to the omnipotent bottom line. The only thing that will change the system that currently favors the swelling of the contingent faculty ranks is if the unsustainability of that system becomes apparent.

My advice after my third year as a VAP: Do your job, and nothing more. Don’t go to meetings you are not obligated to attend. Do not agitate for involvement in decision-making processes that you are not welcomed into. Do not take on service responsibilities in the hope of \”proving yourself.\” Do not contribute to the future of an institution that is indifferent to yours.

Fulfill your contractually obligated responsibilities and go home — or beat the traffic on your way to the other campus where you’re probably also teaching.

Let the dwindling numbers of tenured and tenure-track professors attend to the department’s service duties. After all, they are the only ones who can be reasonably expected to have an investment in the future of their departments and universities. Those of us on the nontenure track have no incentive and no reason to be so invested, so we ought not be.

Allow the responsibilities that only tenure-track and tenured faculty ought to be fulfilling to pile up on their desks, allow their time and energy to be swallowed up by administrative tasks, and allow administrators to notice that things in the trenches seem not to be running quite as smoothly as they should as the nonpedagogical duties of departments are performed by increasingly small numbers of people.

Otherwise, you’re just asking to be exploited more so than you already are.

Neil Beckett is the pseudonym of a visiting assistant professor in the humanities at a research university.