Friday, July 3, 2015

How I was Subordinated: Let me Count the Ways

It has been many, many years since I’ve taught Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but her “How do I love thee?” sonnet is one of those few poems that have achieved a kind of cultural fame: everyone knows it. And somehow, in a weird way, the list has itself made a kind of comeback as a literary form in recent years, whether in McSweeney’s or in the seemingly innumerable internet sites that give us clickbait titles like: “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird: You Won’t Believe Number 7!”

My old teacher Nick Howe, of course, would point out that literary listing or cataloguing is a very old practice, with a genealogy connecting Isidore of Seville to Jorge Luis Borges, and stretching even beyond those two giants. So here, today, I am merely engaging in an old, old textual strategy, to list the ways in which I felt structurally subordinated and placed in a second-class position while I was a teaching professor. I doubt that my own list will achieve the status of literature, but I do hope that the power of the list will help my ideas to be heard.

I have worked hard here to avoid using terms like “oppressed” in this list. But the problem with hierarchical positioning is precisely that: when there are levels involved, some are higher, and some are lower. Perhaps because I was a tenured full professor before I accepted work as a teaching professor, I could see and feel the ways in which, where I once had held the higher position, now I held the lower one. Certainly, the way in which my experience reversed the “normal” ordering—where one works as an adjunct or teaching faculty before (ideally, or hypothetically) moving up to the tenure track—gave me fresh insight into the ways the two levels were structurally configured.

And that’s what I hope to do here: simply list the structural modes in which the two levels or types of faculty member were distinguished at my last academic institution, with one type of faculty position regularly positioned as higher than the other. Many times I heard from my bosses, while I was a teaching professor, that I was a valued and important member of the faculty: those words, it seemed to me, were belied each time I considered the various items I list below. I don’t think that my bosses were lying to me, but rather I could see that there were at least two modes of valuing faculty members. Part of my intention with this list is simply to clarify for those who see only one side of the picture how these two modes operate.

Tom’s List: The Ways I was Structurally Subordinated as a Teaching Professor.

1. I taught more classes per term than the tenure-track faculty. I taught four classes per semester and thus eight classes per school year. During my five years of doing so, tenure-track faculty successfully altered their own contracts to move from five classes per year to four, often describing the change as a work-load issue.

2. I was paid less overall than the tenure-track faculty. The thirteen years of teaching experience that I brought to my new job were not rewarded, except perhaps in the type of position I was offered: I was paid as a beginner in that position, and my salary started out about ten thousand dollars less than beginning Assistant Professors in the department received. I was eligible for raises and promotion, so eventually I might have made more than a beginning Assistant, but in the five years I worked in the job, I believe those starting salaries grew faster than my own did.

3. I was paid less per course than the tenure-track faculty. This is, of course, the inevitable result of points 1 and 2 combined. But it bears noting: my labor in the classroom was paid at less than half the rate per course of some other faculty members, including some with fewer years of experience and with fewer publications. Experience and qualifications counted far less than job title.

4. I usually taught classes that the tenure-track faculty actively avoided. The core of my load was sophomore level writing courses. Filled with students who often felt they had learned all the writing skills they needed in their freshman level writing course, these courses were notoriously work-intensive and could be unrewarding: tenure-track faculty happily avoided them, as a rule.

5. I usually taught non-majors, while tenure-track faculty usually taught majors. The classes described in point 4 indicate this, but when I was given courses in the major to teach, they were usually either sophomore level surveys (Brit Lit I) or courses that the department thought would fill with non-majors (comics, science fiction and fantasy). I occasionally was assigned other courses when a tenure-track faculty member went on leave or was otherwise unavailable. There are, of course, rewards to teaching students of diverse academic backgrounds and preparation, but extra work is sometimes necessary, and tenure-track faculty, who regularly dealt with classes full of majors only, could usually count on an audience somewhat easier to plan for, easier to deal with, and easier to please when evaluations were filled out. The Brit Lit surveys, of course, also usually had more students in them than upper level courses for English majors.

6. I was barred from certain kinds of teaching entirely. While I was repeatedly told that I was eligible to teach graduate courses in my field, I was never assigned one, even when I was the only faculty member in my area of specialization. I was explicitly barred by policy from directing doctoral students.

7. I was eligible for some research support, but products of my research could not be used in my annual evaluation. My contract called for evaluation on 80% teaching and 20% service. I was able to get some conference funding and some other research support. Note that the department and university did include my publications in annual accounts of scholarship performed, and the department displayed my book among other faculty books, so while my scholarly work was understood to benefit the university and the department, it did not benefit me within the institution.

8. I was also not eligible to be considered for my college’s annual “College Scholar” award. This was particularly annoying since I couldn’t get credit for scholarship during annual evaluation.

9. I did not have access to the full range of service and governance opportunities. I could and did serve on the faculty senate and on university, college, and departmental committees, some of which I was eligible to chair. I contemplated throwing my hat into the ring when a new department chair was being sought, and to be honest, I never found out for sure whether I was actually eligible or not: but I doubt I would have been seriously considered even if I had been technically eligible. Certainly, there were departmental committees I was barred from chairing, because they required a tenured chair.

10. I had less opportunity to boost my merit pay than my tenure-track colleagues. Merit pay, when it was available, was based on annual review scores. Of course, tenure-track colleagues could count scholarship in their annual review, while I could not. This may not have been a problem, but the departmental evaluation guidelines allowed tenure-track faculty to “save” or “bank” scholarly publications from one year to the next, in order to help them get the highest annual review scores on a regular basis. No such system applied for teaching professors, who could only rely on one year’s accomplishments for one year’s evaluation score. Since merit pay raises were added to base pay, this extra potential for access to merit pay had an effect that would multiply over the course of a career.

11. The terms of my contract were interpreted narrowly, while the terms of my tenure-track colleagues' contracts were interpreted generously. Because my contract specified that there was no research component, none of my scholarly accomplishments counted during my annual review. But tenure-track faculty members (like me) were on a part-year contract (nine months), and yet the work they did over the summer on scholarship was regularly counted as if it were relevant to their employment contract. In my case, work done that was not under contract was not counted; in their case, work done while not under contract was counted.

Finally, I should say that I probably had the very best type of adjunct employment available: I had an annual contract, one that was expected to be renewed; I had health insurance and TIAA-CREF; I had an office to myself; and so on. I was just about as close to being a tenure-track faculty member as it is possible to be. More stereotypical adjuncts would, of course, have several additional modes of subordination that they could describe. When we think about the splitting of university teaching into a two-tier system, what I’ve described here is still a far better job than most adjuncts have.  

Many adjuncts would probably be thrilled to have the job I had. Most tenure-track faculty, I suspect, would be up in arms, if their schools required them to accept the terms I had. No wonder common cause between the two groups is so hard to achieve.


  1. This pretty exactly mirrors my own experience in an even more privileged (multi-year renewable) contingent position. We've even got the possibility for promotion (I'm an untenured associate professor, eligible in a few years to apply for full), but, for all the reasons listed above, it's not a real career track, because there's no real opportunity to make use of, and pass on, one's experience. And, of course, there are the salary disparities (ours are similar; after 15 years, I'm still not making as much as an entry-level tenure-track assistant professor), which make it even harder to make progress on research/writing, since I need to teach during the summer.

    As far as I'm concerned, the strangest contradiction/catch-22 remains the fact that tenure-track faculty, who have a chance at greater job security, are actually expected, and paid, to spend time on activities (research and writing) that accrue academic capital beyond the institution, while contingent faculty, who need to be prepared to find another job, are paid only for activities that benefit the institution directly, and not for those that are most valued on the employment market. There's something wrong with this picture. . . .

    1. My sense is that, at many universities, tenure track faculty are perceived as having careers that deserve or need to be nurtured; teaching faculty, by contrast, are not perceived as deserving of the same career support. And you're entirely right, that that runs against the mythology that suggests that teaching positions are a stepping stone to tenure-track positions.