A lot of attention has been paid in recent months to the plight of part-time and non-tenured faculty teaching at North American universities, sometimes known as the “adjunctification” of university teaching. I can comment only on the Canadian experience, which by recent accounts is a far better situation than in the United States, where part-time professors can actually be impoverished.
Still, the reality is that at many institutions in both countries, the percentage of undergraduate teaching being done by non-permanent staff has dramatically increased.
This development is relatively recent. Throughout my entire university education (1996 to 2006) I don’t recall taking a single course that was not taught by a tenured or tenure-track faculty member. Yet here I am, one of the no-longer-silent majority of university teachers with little to no hope of permanent employment.
For a long time, I thought it was just me, that I had somehow failed in some key aspect of my dossier. I know now that I am not alone. An entire generation of scholars and scholarship is being lost due to this dramatic shift in academic hiring. In fact, not one person from my PhD program cohort has managed to land a tenure-track position.
Like many who pursue an academic career, I was fortunate to have had wonderful mentors who encouraged and believed in my chosen path. I was told repeatedly that my timing was ideal due to the large number of retiring baby boomers expected in the early 2000s. Well, many didn’t and still haven’t retired. Many more have not been replaced. All the while administrations clamor to increase enrolment, turn libraries into coffee shops and student lounges and boast about their commitment to learner-centredness. Yet, investing in teaching staff apparently isn’t part of that commitment.
The people who advised me to follow my pursuit of an academic career were baby boomers who entered academia in an era when tenured positions were practically being handed out with degrees. To be fair, they had no reason to expect a radical paradigm shift in academic hiring.
I can confidently state that I’ve done everything I was advised to do to ensure a tenure track position. Develop a clear and focused research program. Check! Study with the best scholars in the field. Check! Finish the PhD within four years and publish dissertation within two. Check, check! Pursue a postdoctoral fellowship, present at international conferences, add to list of publications. You get the idea. At the same time I taught at three different institutions and developed a broad cross-disciplinary teaching portfolio with consistently positive teaching evaluations.
So what went wrong? Nothing, it would seem, because these things are not the criteria that earn someone a tenure-track position in today’s adjunctified environment. In fact, there do not seem to be any real criteria. At least not any criteria anyone will publically admit to.
I have been interviewed for several positions and by all accounts these interviews went very well. In the first instance, I was politely informed that institutional regulations required that the “internal candidate” had to be selected. What could I have done differently? I asked. Nothing! “Our hands were tied.” After the second interview, I learned that out of a large pool of very accomplished candidates, the committee hired an unpublished ABD, someone who happened to be from an Ivy League institution. (More on that later.) It seems they could pay this person the least and brag about them the most. My third process ended when the committee collapsed due to infighting and the position was simply cancelled, four months after the interview. Most recently, I was shortlisted for a position, but not invited for an interview. A new cost-saving measure, I suppose. Eventually the successful candidate was proclaimed to have two published articles and, of course, an elite American degree.
It has been argued in this magazine that Canadian universities devalue home-grown PhDs, particularly in the humanities, and that the majority of permanent faculty hold degrees from elite American institutions, or from the University of Toronto. In a way, it is much like the experience of the Canadian creative class – writers, actors, musicians – who have only really “made it” when they find success south of the border. For whatever reason, this seems to be engrained in the Canadian psyche.
Yet, while academia has always been elitist, adjunctification is making academic culture even more elitist. In my experience and that of my contemporaries, the institution where one earned their degree is often the deciding factor on whether one will be admitted into the tenured faculty club. Defying conventional wisdom, publications and teaching portfolios simply don’t seem to matter. What does matter? Institutional prestige.
So what should be done?
Perhaps it is time to start a conversation about hiring committees, some of the most inscrutable and often dysfunctional entities in the academic world; the place where personal and professional rivalries are played out at the expense of people’s careers. More urgently, there should be further discussion about mental health issues (anxiety, depression, addiction) that accompany the experience of going through this adjunctifying meat-grinder.
In the short term, however, it’s time that non-permanent faculty learn to negotiate this new post-tenure reality and make it work for them. This means continuing to organize and assert their power. It also means developing a sense of self-respect. I would start by rejecting labels like “adjunct” and “sessional.” All too often these are simply meant to marginalize and belittle. At the end of the day, we are all as much professors of our field of knowledge as anyone who might claim to officially hold that title. We are motivated by the same passion, we do the same job, care for our students just as much, and deserve to be treated with dignity.
Timothy Pettipiece currently teaches classics and religious studies at the University of Ottawa and Carleton University.