10 June 2014

The Noncontingent Labor Crisis

This is mortifying.  Even though I've been blogging about this stuff for some time now, I'm only now starting to get straight terms that I had thought were synonymous.

Adjuncts?  People tell me those are part-time.

NTT?  That's the term (or rather, abbreviation) to use for full-time non-tenured faculty

Contingent?  The all-purpose catch-all phrase except that in some cases, NTTs are on multiyear contracts (it's not tenure, but not all contingency is created equal).  And sometimes people include graduate students in this category.

These terms are particularly confusing when people try to arrive a numbers that will convey just how dependent higher education has become on underpaid people who don't have the job security of the tenure stream. Part-time faculty members are a growing part of the academic labor force, but efforts to address their situation specifically can be skewed by the small (but not irrelevant) number of tenure stream faculty who teach full time.  The oft-cited figure of "75%" comes from this 2009 report by the U.S. Department of Education. summarized by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce in their recent Portrait of the Part-Time Academic Workforce as follows:
Of the nearly 1.8 million faculty members and instructors who made up the 2009 instructional workforce in degree-granting two- and four-year institutions of higher education in the United States, more than 1.3 million (75.5%) were employed in contingent positions off the tenure track, either as part-time or adjunct faculty members, full-time non-tenure-track faculty members, or graduate student teaching assistants.
I have blogged before about some of the confusion generated by the AAUP's 2012-13 chart on the status of the profession, which has yields an "adjunct problem" consisting of 41% of faculty, 57% of faculty, or 76%, depending on how you add up the numbers.

The distinctions between the various ways of being not-part-of-the-tenure-track are vital for purposes of labor organizing.  If the labor law in a given state and the statutes of a particular institution prevent part-timers and full-timers from forming a joint collective bargaining unit, then it's futile to try to do so, regardless of the benefits of solidarity.   They are also useful for building broader coalitions: faculty teaching at institutions where relying on part-timers is the norm have different shared concerns than faculty at institutions with a cohort of NTT full-timers.

The complexity otherwise obscures a crucial question, though: who is doing the teaching? One full professor teaching a handful of graduate students each semester signifies differently for college teaching than one NTT who is teaching 100 students in two classes, particularly if the NTT also teaches two additional classes as a part-timer at another institution.   Faculty head-counts tell only part of the story, and not the part most relevant to the tuition- and tax-paying public.

To demonstrate why the insider-baseball of academic staffing should matter to anyone outside academia, we should be counting contact hours.  Of all the hours of instruction delivered in a given institution, how many of those involve a tenure-stream faculty member interacting directly with students?

Rebecca Schuman has suggested deploying a scarlet "A" for "adjunct":
I propose that the “A” (and everyone else’s faculty rank, too) be codified into every course catalog in America. I propose that we do it in a way students and parents can understand, and that we do it with a link to each rank’s salary range. So instead of CHEM 104 STAFF (most of us adjuncts are, after all, Professor Staff), it would read CHEM 104 ADJUNCT, with a link to the pay range. Instead of CHEM 500 DOE, J., it would read CHEM 500 DOE, J. (FULL)—with a link to the pay range, again. 
What if we could calculate a number for every institution of higher learning: the average number of hours an average student, upon graduation, has spent classes taught by instructors who have (or are eligible for) the protections of tenure?  Or compare averages within particular majors across institutions? The possibility of counting the role of contingent faculty by instructional time rather than a head count (as well as the complexity of whose heads are counted) has been a subject of recent Twitter discussion between @KateMfD, @gerrycanavan, @pankisseskafka, @VCVaile, @josh_boldt, @deandad, @MattBruenig, @JeffreyKeefer, and of course @goodenoughprof.

I suspect the underlying reality would be the same, however.  "Faculty' doesn't mean what it used to mean or imply the norms of status and employment that used to go along with college-level teaching. It is time to bundle the complexities of assistant/associate/full/tenure-track/tenured into the blanket term "noncontingent faculty" and reserve the term "faculty" tout court for what it is: everyone who teaches college classes without the increasingly dubious security of the tenure stream.

1 comment :

  1. I like the idea of counting contact hours. To get some truly comparable statistics, one would also need to distinguish between graduate and undergraduate classes (possibly tricky, since in some cases there is some crossover between advanced undergrad and M.A.-level classes, though there are often different course numbers and requirements, even though the same professor is teaching the same group of students). Focusing on undergrad alone would knock out some tenured professors entirely. I'd also argue for separating out the lower-level/intro/core classes -- the ones taken primarily by freshman and sophomores, and/or by upperclasspeople fulfillling distribution requirements -- and the advanced courses/courses in the major. Among other things, those numbers would highlight whether it's worthwhile to start one's college career at a university, or whether it would make more sense to start at the local community college (and quite possibly be taught by exactly the same people at lower cost).