Rewarding Excellence: An Unexpected Dilemma for Contingent Faculty

As I was chairing the first official meeting of the Society for Classical Studies’ Committee on Contingent Faculty last January, somebody posed a simple question: “Do you think we should try to make some kind of award for people in non-tenure-track positions?”  Our group was brainstorming ways to bring greater attention–and recognition–to people in the constituency we represent, and this proposal garnered support pretty quickly.  After all, many colleges only give awards to their permanent faculty, and our Society’s own accolades tend to privilege people in long-term positions–even if there have been some attempts over the last few years to define contributions to the field more liberally than in the past.  So none of this seemed terribly controversial, and we decided to hammer out the details at a later time if the Society’s leadership was receptive to the idea.

Flash forward a few months.  I get an email soliciting more information about our idea for an award–What do we think it should be for?  How should candidates be judged?–in short, all the minutiae we’d decided to pass over until a decision about them was actually needed.  This was on the one hand a stroke of good luck, since it meant there was at least some interest in promoting the achievements of contingent faculty as a group.  That kind of win is hard to come by, and we were very happy to have it.  On the other hand, we had to set about the difficult task of figuring out what makes contingent faculty exceptional and worthy of public recognition.  As we quickly found out, that’s a question easier asked than answered.

The most sensible place to begin was the standard trifecta of a college professor’s work: teaching, research, and service.  These are the criteria on which people in the academy are judged when applying for jobs or seeking a promotion, and they are accordingly the main arenas in which faculty awards are offered.  Teaching is not that hard to flesh out: excellence in that field takes the form of recognition by students and/or colleagues that someone has had an outsize influence on the undergraduate or graduate experience, or made some innovation that greatly improves the way a concept is conveyed (e.g. role play / “gamification,” flipping the classroom).  Research will be obvious to those in the academy, but needs some explanation for those outside.  This is specifically work that’s done to advance knowledge in the professor’s field of expertise, and is limited to peer-reviewed scholarship–work that other experts in the field have read and approved of prior to publication.  Normally excluded are things like translations, textbooks, lectures for a general audience, and studies of new teaching methods.  These all serve to promote knowledge, but they don’t actually increase it in the way academics are uniquely positioned to do.  Service is the third and broadest category, encompassing everything else professors do for their department, college, or field.  Examples here include acting as department chair (which counts as service, not an honor!), working on a curriculum committee, or editing a scholarly journal in your field.

So if you want to praise tenure-line professors for their contributions you naturally look for achievements in one or all of these areas.  This is why it’s normal to see both colleges and professional societies give awards for things like distinguished service, influential books or articles, or superb teaching–especially over an extended career.  When you try to do this for contingent faculty, however, you run into problems.  For one thing, few people in these positions–at least in the humanities–possess the time needed to compete at the same level as their tenure-line colleagues.  Recent graduates more often than not keep research going by giving talks and publishing small articles until they can land a tenure-track job, then quickly set to work publishing their dissertation as a book–a key requirement to be awarded tenure after the sixth-year review.  Service also tends to be limited.  With only so many hours in a day, spare time must be dedicated to research–the task that really matters when it comes to landing a good job.  And contingent faculty are in any case often barred from taking on service roles at the school they work for, while opportunities in professional organizations are few and far between.  Teaching is the one area, though, where contingent faculty should have an advantage.  After all, their jobs are defined as teaching roles, i.e. ones in which they are compensated exclusively or primarily for work in the classroom.  And since they tend to have higher course loads than people in tenure-line positions, they are more practiced in this area than their colleagues. The catch is that the vast majority of contingent faculty work in temporary jobs.  These adjuncts and “visitors” change schools often, and are thus rarely able to develop a reputation as good teachers or build up a large enough body of former students in a single place to gain consideration when names are solicited for an award.  Before their contributions to a school can properly be felt, their contracts have ended and they’ve been shuffled off to another institution–or else left the field entirely.

So most of the time contingent faculty aren’t going to be recognized in the areas where academic recognition is normally given–not because they are unskilled or insufficiently dedicated, but because the nature of their jobs places peculiar burdens upon them that makes that outcome unlikely.  This is the main justification for having an award for those working off the tenure track–to find a way to single out exceptional contributions made under trying conditions.

If we agree that’s a good idea, we must next determine which of the professorial criteria we ought to privilege in our judgement of contingent faculty.  Here we face yet another suite of options: Should we look at their job descriptions and focus solely on excellence in teaching?  Or should we recognize those who find time to pursue research and service despite the fact that they aren’t compensated for it?  Put another way, do we think those pursuits are appropriate efforts that show somebody going above and beyond, or are they distractions from the primary task of educating undergraduates?  And if you decide to focus on just one of these areas, are you implicitly downplaying efforts in the others?

This cluster of questions is especially hard to flesh out since contingent faculty are such a diverse group.  Somebody in a position like mine–where full time is defined as teaching three courses each semester–actually has a reasonable wage and considerable leisure to maintain a research and service agenda (or even a vanity project like a blog!).  Those in a ‘lecturer’ position are in a similar boat, with the added benefit of a renewable contract that lets them to stay put over time.  But others are not so lucky.  Take the adjuncts teaching five courses a term just to make ends meet.  If we’re considering anything but teaching, their lack of financial security–to say nothing of time–puts them at a distinct disadvantage.  People on single year visiting contracts will also struggle to do anything but teach, since their fall will be spent applying for jobs, their spring interviewing, and their summer moving wherever they manage to land.  Then there are the adjuncts who teach just one course at a time.  They’re theoretically free to pursue any number of research or service projects during the 37 hours each work-week that they’re not in a classroom, but the situation is of course more complicated than that dismissive comment makes it out to be.  On one end of the spectrum you’ll have people who wanted to teach full time but couldn’t secure more than a single class.  More likely than not they’ll have to supplement their income with another job, so they won’t really have the free time we initially supposed.  On the other end you might have someone who’s independently wealthy and teaches one class for fun and to stay active. Their decisions about where to invest their efforts–whether in teaching, research, or service–have absolutely nothing to do with their contingent post, and are likely to yield greater fruits because of it.

In short, taking contingent faculty of different types together can leave you feeling like you’re comparing apples to socket wrenches.  If you put my research output against that of our imaginary five-course adjunct, odds are I’m going to come out on top.  And I might even come out looking better in my teaching, too, since I can reuse materials each term and give more of my attention to students who need extra help.  But how would I stack up against somebody who only teaches one course?  That will depend on their scenario more than mine, and could cut either way.  Without anything resembling uniformity of experience, it’s hard to determine which of us really excels despite the encumbrances of our contingent position. And this is still before we’ve been able to figure out which criterion or criteria are most worthy of consideration!

This argument could keep going around in circles, but I think I’ve done enough to show that finding a way to reward contingent faculty for their contributions is something of a quagmire. Perhaps this is something that’s better handled at the level of the individual college, or maybe we need to judge people outside of tenure lines on a different set of criteria.  I’m afraid at this point I don’t really know.  What does seem clear, however, is that this dilemma highlights the peculiar role that contingent faculty play in the modern university.  If we can’t even figure out what it means for them to do well, how can we work towards resolving the larger issues that impact their lives and careers?

In the meantime, please share any ideas you have for how to cut this particular Gordian Knot in the comments section below!



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