Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

The Professor Is in: Asking About the Adjuncts’ Work

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Image: Douglas Fairbanks speaking in front of the Sub-Treasury building, New York City, 1918: Paul Thompson, photographer (via NARA)

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In applying for a tenure-track job, I know I need to mention how my research plans fit in with the scholarship of the department’s tenured and tenure-track professors. But should I also talk about how it complements the work done by all of the non-tenure-track instructors in the department -- i.e., those with titles like adjunct, lecturer, or clinical faculty member?

Interesting question, and one that gets to the heart of a fraught issue over the have and have-nots in academia today. It reminds me of a controversial column published last month in The Chronicle by a tenured professor complaining about the role of adjuncts in a failed tenure-track search. Be sure and read it.

In the old days, the quick-and-dirty answer to your question would be: Adjuncts don’t count; don’t mention them. And that would still be true in many departments today. The fact is, even if 70 percent of a department’s courses are being taught by adjuncts, major departmental policy and hiring decisions are still monopolized – in many (and maybe most) places -- by tenured and tenure-track professors. The tenured, of course, make a case that they are the ones with years of past history and future investment in the department, compared with adjuncts and other contingent instructors who come and go.

There is some truth to that. And yet when a department is dependent on a class of faculty to run its basic operations, it seems to me that that class of faculty should have a vote in how things are run.

And they do on some campuses. Increasing numbers of departments have policies that now allow adjuncts, lecturers, and other non-tenure-track (NTT) instructors to vote on faculty hiring. Indeed, I know of one college at my local R1 university that requires the NTT faculty (who are hired on relatively secure, recurring contracts) not just to vote on tenure-line hires, but to chair the searches for them, and even chair programs, because the tenured professors are too busy already, incompetent, and/or selfish to shoulder those administrative tasks themselves. That is a different type of NTT exploitation, in my opinion, and one we may see more of in the future. How can NTT chairs assign and then impose service obligations on a recalcitrant tenured professor, for example? Short answer: They can’t.
Be aware that adjunct, lecturer, and clinical faculty member are not equivalent statuses. So don’t lump them all together in your mind. Part-time adjuncts might be excluded in departmental votes, while full-time lecturers and clinical faculty included, for example.

As a job candidate, the most important thing you can do is, first, figure out who comprises the voting constituency in the hiring department. Unfortunately, there is no way to determine that without coming right out and asking.

I would recommend that you wait to inquire about this until you arrive for the campus interview. I would ask relatively early on the visit, so that you have a thorough grasp of the politics right away. In a friendly and casual way, ask the first faculty member you are scheduled to meet: “I noticed on the departments website that there are a number of lecturers/clinical faculty/etc., and I wondered if I would be meeting them during my visit and if I could know their role in the search. I hope this isn’t an awkward question.”

The answer you get will tell you a lot. Not just the immediate information you’re seeking, but also about how NTT faculty are viewed in general within the department. Your interlocutor may say, “Oh, no! of course not!,” and laugh dismissively. Or the interviewer may say, warmly, “Oh, absolutely, they play important roles and are integrated in almost everything in the department.” Maybe he or she will say, “Actually, I am an NTT myself!”

Either way, the information is revealing: So note not just what is said, but how it is delivered. The fact is, the role of NTT faculty is contested and in flux in academia, and people probably have strong feelings about it.

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