A while back I wrote about the difficulty I’d had finding a group to represent Contingent Faculty. Although there are a few entities serving this purpose–the New Faculty Majority and the American Association of University Professors among them–I’d never seen much action from either group in all the time I’ve been working on this issue. Time and money are the two obvious reasons: Contingent faculty almost never have cash lying around to spend on institutional memberships and they usually juggle heavy teaching loads that prevent them from investing significant time on a volunteer basis. Sadly, without time or treasure to support it, talent can only go so far.
One benefit of my current status, though, is that I have a good deal of time on my hands. I decided I might as well use put it to good use and see if I could make something bigger happen on the contingent faculty front. Sure, things might not pan out, but there’s always a reason not to do something. Better to try and fail than to accept an untenable situation.
So a few weeks ago, I reached out to my counterparts in other professional societies to arrange a conference call for Chairs of Contingent Faculty Committees and Executive Directors. My plans were admittedly loose: to meet one another, to share strategies we had used separately (whether successful or not), and hopefully to map a path forward that would allow us to work together and avoid reduplication of efforts. I knew it might end up being a one-off event, but I also saw the potential for a more formal consortium to develop over time.
By the time the call came around last Tuesday, I’d attracted interest from ten other people from a range of disciplines and ranks. Some of them have worked in adjunct or ‘visiting’ roles their entire careers, and many have actually advocated for contingent faculty for more than a decade. This was a real boon. My team in the Society for Classical Studies is fantastic, but our experiences are mostly personal and limited to our field, and we don’t have direct contacts in larger groups like the Modern Language Association (of “MLA format” fame). By organizing a simple video conference, I created an opportunity to tap into a much larger network. And best of all, if I played my cards right, I might be able to put Classics in the middle of it.
As recently as three years ago, every discussion I had about job prospects and working conditions for contingent faculty was negative. But things are definitely changing. The mood on my call was buoyant, and people were excited to organize with one another and advance a shared mission.
We started with a discussion of the past–in particular what each of us had done in the context of our associations. This was really enlightening. Some people had no history, coming into the call as representatives of newly formed committees in disciplines that hadn’t given these issues any thought until very recently. Others were able to explain a range of efforts that had been made since the 90s, from internal initiatives to larger, coordinated programs. Throughout this I learned that the lack of action I’d seen was something of a fluke: plenty of people had worried about the issues I was raising, but their efforts stalled out around the time I got involved. This was in truth the most useful thing I gained from the call: the ability to place my own efforts within a wider context.
Just shy of an hour in, we came to a few conclusions. First, we decided there was no need to reinvent the wheel: rather than forming a new group, we could likely revive one of the entities that already existed to advocate for contingent faculty. One of them has already responded favorably, and we’re hoping to hammer out the details in the coming weeks. Second, we established a shared mission: for every academic society in the US to have a contingent faculty committee within the next five years. The absence of such permanent groups seems to have been part of the reason why earlier coalitions of contingent faculty stalled out, and given the increased reliance on non-tenure-track positions since 2008 it’s a logical move for the profession. Third, we’ll bring the chairs of those new committees into the fold of our own group in order to strengthen ourselves over time and create a sustainable organization to advocate for contingent faculty across academia. This may be an ambitious goal, but it’s one that’s definitely worth pursuing.
How far we advance these goals remains an open question, but I’m excited to be at the center of a newly (re)energized group of contingent faculty advocates and am hopeful that the first step we took together last week will move us down a more positive path. At the very least, I know as I step away from my academic career that I’ve done everything I can to leave my field and my profession a little better than when I found it.