17 March 2014

The Academic Job Title that Dare Not Speak Its Name

Over at "Tenure She Wrote," hashb8ting raises the question of what her students, collaborators, chair, and advisees need from her in order to feel that her work is "good enough."  Such framing is vital to being "The 'Good Enough' Professor" (her title, in this case, not mine).  As she explains:
Without someone else’s perspective on my work, I would always assume I’m underperforming: there’s always a paper that needs resuscitation, or a grant that needs improvement, or an advisee who could use more attention.  
The adjunct is rarely subject to this kind of institutional scrutiny: good enough to teach for a semester or a year is good enough, as far as the higher ed employer is concerned.  Of course, good enough to swing such a job is, by definition, not good enough for the employee, who generally would prefer a job that is not subject to the caprice of adjunct hiring.  The underemployed adjunct never feels "good enough."  There is always room for "better": there is just no institutional structure to recognize or reward "better"--so "good enough" is often "never good enough."  And yet one is hired back to teach, year after year, because by someone's metric, one is "good enough."

But it doesn't always work that way.

"The New Faculty Wife" was the subject of a Chronicle of Higher Education column five years ago, but she's been mostly absent from the growing blogospheria about adjuncts and adjunctification. The relationship between adjunctification and marriage generally crops up whenever a "some adjuncts are happy!" piece crops up.  The happy adjunct usually has a spouse supplying the salary and security that are missing from most adjunct jobs, and she (often she) appreciates the opportunity to do stimulating work on an (often, but not always) part-time schedule that accommodates child-raising.  And of course such adjuncts are often faculty spouses.

At my institution, where a generous spousal hiring policy is a recruiting tool for top-notch faculty, spousal adjuncts constitute a recognizable subset of the full-time adjunct faculty.  They're hardly a homogenous group, though.  A single trailing spouse in computer science can command the salary, office space, and service obligations of three spouses in a humanities field. Divorce, remarriage, negotiated retention agreements, specialized skills, and any number of other factors produce very different job descriptions and compensation packages.  Most spouses, though, get full-time work, if they want it, a regular salary, benefits, and the expectation of future employment.

These adjunct spouses are often (but not always) women.  They're often (but not always) managing households and childcare so as to free up the primary hire for the institution's prodigious research and service expectations.  They generally get more respect and affirmation than adjuncts hired to fill particular institutional needs--they get invited to the parties, introduced to colleagues, acknowledged in the hallway, accepted as potential friends.  Sometimes--when department budgets run short and the schedule of gatherings for invited speakers and job candidates runs long--they still help host parties like the faculty wives of old, and all the more effectively for their ability to talk shop at such events.

Some are more aware than others of the way that corresponding to the class, race, and gender norms of the old "faculty wife" paradigms eases their way through the institution.  Some are more aware than others of the ways that corresponding to those norms can lock them into subordinate status.  Some can exploit the situation, some are exploited by it.   Every such adjunct has a story, some combination of compromise, familial circumstance, and good fortune, that brought them to this awkward place: happy--often--but neither one thing nor the other.

The glass ceiling of the adjunct spouse's situation can in fact produce precisely the kind of "good enough professor" that Allen Irving has described in an article titled "The Good Enough Professor" (which I only discovered after devising my blog name):
What I have in mind is the professor who sees the quality of personal supportive relations between and among students, faculty and staff as more important than research; the professor who does not feel too competitive; the professor who sees teaching as the universities' most noble activity; the professor who is broadly intellectually engaged without necessarily having large research grants; the professor who sees the university as a place for meditation, contemplation and wisdom not just frenetic activity.
The salary and job security of a tenure-stream partner, coupled with the unlikelihood of ever transcending adjuncthood, can create the kinds of dedicated, motivated college teachers who, freed from the pressure to advance and anxiety about tenure and promotion, can pour their vocational energies into the classroom.  And the classroom, whether virtual or real is, after all, where much of the work of higher ed takes place.

Perhaps instead of the awkward secret of higher ed, adjunct spouses could be a model for the combination of job security, financial stability, work-life balance, and professionalism that leads to good teaching.  If we apply the logic of "good enough" to the mission of higher ed as it adjunctifies, and to the work all faculty do within it, perhaps there would be room to create happy adjuncts who don't have to be married to to be valued.  A liveable salary, a multi-year contract, a sense of meaningful connection to the institution, and recognition of one's value as a colleague can be a function of the work, even when there is no affiliative relationship to hold it in place.


  1. Try having a spousal line with no spouse. I did. It's a kick you could starve on!

  2. The whole enterprise is still based on the idea of a male faculty member who is working at 150% capacity plus entertaining, so 200%, because he has a capable wife who is RA, hostess, homemaker. Guys who have this, and I have known a woman or two who have it, are still those who get ahead the most easily.

    The better answer is humanize the "primary hire"'s job little more: scale back on the prodigious requirements, so THAT person can also be the humanized professor you are talking about.

    Then, don't have adjuncts. There may well be a place for the old-style lecturers, teaching and scholarship, but not visible-research-oriented, people, FT, living wage, eligible for their own kind of promotion and security of employment.