Rebecca Schuman

Columnist at vitae

This Job Market Season, Interview More Adjuncts

Full schuman redo

Most tenure-track and tenured faculty have tremendous empathy for the plight of adjuncts. Aside from a few “lifeboaters” here and there, the prevailing attitude in the academy is a self-aware and very correct “there but for the grace of [favorite deity], go I.”

But when it comes to concrete measures to improve academic labor conditions, many ladder faculty still feel, and not without reason, like their hands are tied. Say, for example, that your department wanted to take a stand and refuse to depend on underpaid part-timers to “cover classes.” The administration could smirkingly take half your courses off the books, and then use “under enrollment” as an excuse to shutter your whole department.

Still, over the past year I’ve come up with a few real measures that professors can take to fight the adjunct tide—like hitting campuses right in their U.S. News rankings or making it abundantly clear to students and parents just how underserved they are by an overreliance on low-paid teachers.

Now I’m back with another proposal: It’s peak job-market season in many disciplines, and if you’re on a search committee you can, here and now, make a commitment to taking the applications of adjuncts for a tenure-track position very, very seriously. As you make your first-round interview decisions in the coming weeks, commit to filling a certain portion of your conference (or, better yet, Skype) interview slots with a part-time adjunct or long-term contingent instructor. You can, and you should—not because it’s an act of altruism but because one of those instructors might actually be the best person for your job.

We hear a lot about “adjunct taint”—how being a part-time instructor for “too long” can make you damaged goods for a tenure-track opening. But all of the reasons offered for that taint are bunk, mere myths attributable to old prejudices or enduring elitism. I’d like to dismantle those myths here, and then I invite any search-committee members reading this post to take the Interview-an-Adjunct Challenge. You won’t be disappointed.

Myth No. 1: Adjuncts have spent too much time on teaching and not enough on research, and thus lack the research credentials to make it on the tenure track.

There are two outright lies there, each comprising half of an alleged cause-and-effect relationship that does not exist.

First to the alleged “problem” of having spent too much time teaching to be qualified for a job as a college teacher. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Academia has got to be the only profession legal in all 50 states where experience actually counts against you. Before I left Facebook last month (a move I couldn’t recommend highly enough, by the way), I would see dozens of posts by friends and acquaintances lucky enough to be hired out of graduate school onto the tenure track—all sharing teaching woes that stemmed from their obvious lack of classroom experience: Huh, your students aren’t doing their reading? And you made no provision in your ironclad, 95-page syllabus for this obvious outcome, because back in grad school you planned this course for the Platonic Ideal, and you assigned way too much, and now you have no idea what to do? Fascinating.

While I was glad to help friends with their teaching dilemmas, it was also painful to give my expertise away for free to people who earn three times my salary. Here’s a revolutionary idea: When it comes to teaching in a college classroom, there is no such thing as “too much experience”—especially since the majority of the tenure-track jobs that exist are at teaching-intensive institutions.

And now onto the second, and more pernicious lie: this ridiculous business about adjuncts being subpar researchers. That’s like breaking someone’s leg and then saying: “Well, you’re obviously bad at running; you’ve got a broken leg!” There are reasons why many adjuncts can’t crank out as much research as they would like to—reasons that are the direct fault of the very system that has both limited adjuncts’ employment prospects and enabled their often-abhorrent working conditions, and then used those poor prospects and conditions to proclaim those folks subpar.

Meanwhile, A.B.D.’s with even fewer (or no) publications (but “stellar” references from the “right” people) get to skate by on their “potential,” because of course they didn’t have time to publish articles; they were busy in grad school. They had to TA one entire class (except for all those years on fellowship, of course). If an A.B.D. gets to be judged on the “potential” of her dissertation and letters, so should people who have faced substantially more challenges to timely publication. And by the way, countless adjuncts out there already have enough publications to get tenure, despite grueling teaching schedules and no support.

Myth No. 2: Someone in a long-term contingent position has a dissertation, research topic, or methods that are “stale.”

Hmm. But what about that senior faculty member—lets call him O RLY—who defended his dissertation in 1985, published his first and only monograph for tenure in 1991, and has written but a smattering of book reviews since? Why do departments feel the need to base of their few tenure-track openings on the abject need for some voguish “turn” that will be ancient history in three years? “Fresh,” by definition, goes “stale.” Quickly.

Every single person on a search committee is also by definition “stale,” simply because they have been working for an institution long enough to be on a search committee. Having this kind of double standard for job candidates is not only counter to the department’s best interests, it is also fashion victimhood at its most ridiculous (all right, second-most ridiculous).

Myth No. 3: Adjuncts are worn down and “embittered” from too many years of poverty and second-class citizenship.

Translation: People are afraid to hire candidates who are unflinchingly honest about the faults in the academic labor system, unafraid to stick up for themselves, likely to organize on behalf of adjunct unionization, and somewhat less prone to kowtowing obsequiously in department meetings. Anyone who avoids hiring contingent faculty because they might be a little “too real” is simply entrenching the academic culture of cowardice. Congratulations?

Giving serious consideration to the candidacies of contingent faculty members is not an act of charity. They are versatile and experienced teachers, accustomed to doing a great job with little or no support and excellent at time management. They’re adept at navigating the slings and arrows of a multitude of institutions and bureaucracies with little or no guidance. They view research as a luxury, and will treat it as such for the rest of their careers. And they will stick up for themselves and for contingent faculty members (which, again, is a good quality).

So yeah, you might not be able to subvert your state’s funding crisis—or to convince your run-it-like-a-business administration to convert all your current adjuncts into full-timers, or even to pay them a living wage.

But you know what you can do? You can walk the walk. You can demonstrate with your actions that someone’s position as an adjunct has no bearing on his or her potential as a tenure-track hire. You can make a commitment to take adjuncts on the job market as seriously as everyone else, no matter their age, or the “age” of their doctorate.

So here’s the challenge, and if you take it up, I want to hear from you: For every A.B.D. you bring in for an interview with no experience but “unlimited potential,” you also interview one longer-term contingent instructor. That way, you will ensure you have a broad representation of experience in your pool. You might still end up hiring that shiny A.B.D. But you just might be blown away by that 45-year-old adjunct whose application you were originally inclined to ignore.

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