This past year, I served as a “Visiting Lecturer” at a private, liberal arts college and this coming year, I’ll be a “Visiting Assistant Professor”. I used to think “visiting” sounded really distinctive, like your talents were so specialized that another department invited you to visit their campus. I have come to learn that “visiting” simply means “contingent” and carries no special status after all.
This particular visiting position is the kind of job I’d hoped to find after graduate school. I study the sociology of education and this highly interdisciplinary program focuses on the study of education and schools with a serious commitment to student service in the local school district. Over the last year, I finished my dissertation while prepping new courses, advising students, participating in college committees and generally being a good citizen of the college. I feel conflicted about my contingent status because I am making relationships with students, giving them advice about their lives or careers, and I have no guarantee that I’ll be around in another year or so. I would like to stay there long-term, but when I interviewed, it was made clear to me that no tenure track line would materialize in the coming academic year (or the near future, really).
When I tell local folks that I have a job lined up at this college for the coming academic year, they all seem impressed because the institution is considered an elite place. However, few people understand that the jobs with the most status are the tenure track jobs. So I go through the exercise of explaining that I’m a contingent faculty member, and when I explain that the position isn’t a tenure-track job, folks stare at me blankly.
Like many new graduate students, I had a romantic idea of what it meant to be a college professor. I knew little about the hierarchy of graduate programs, the overcrowded job market or the academic publishing machine. I didn’t understand that it might be necessary to move all over the country for even a short-term appointment or that you might find a tenure-track job but it could take several years. I did not have great guidance when applying to graduate school and my naiveté lasted for several years into my program. If I knew then what I know now, I might have made some different choices. Truth be told, my graduate school experience sharpened my intellectual curiosity and honed my analytical skills, and I know that I will find a job where I use my training. That job just may not be in an Ivory Tower.
Opening myself up to non-academic possibilities, I ask myself nearly a dozen times a week if it is possible to have status in your discipline without tenure? At its core, tenure was conceived to guarantee “[academic] freedom and economic security”. Tenure protected faculty members from the possibility of termination by the board of trustees in an era when the trustees wielded direct influence over daily university life. Tenure insured that faculty members could (and would) contribute to our collective body of knowledge without the threat of dismissal for being too radical or contrary. Tenure and academic freedom made important bedfellows.
Tenure has taken on a new life in present day higher education. While tenure affords scholars flexibility and protection in their work, there is dissension over whether tenure models are sustainable, productive or even useful to a business-centric modern university life. The pursuit of tenure is a frenzied process where junior faculty members focus on publishing to avoid perishing. In devoting energy to their enhancing their vita with academic publications, early career folks often say no to other commitments at their institution that could distract them from building their CV. Tenure is meant to protect academic freedom but often untenured folks are hesitant to try new things in their scholarship because it might adversely affect their tenure prospects. Once tenure is granted, that faculty member’s future is pretty solid, yet they have no responsibility to their colleagues to be engaged in their department or their institution. Where tenure was originally conceived to encourage ambition and creativity, now folks on the tenure track may reserve their controversial work for their post-tenure days.
A tenure track job is still considered the ideal academic career for doctoral candidates. However, the availability of these jobs is limited, and when new PhDs are unable to find a tenure track job, they often find themselves working as adjuncts to pay their bills. The increasing adjunctification of the discipline is a serious issue chronicled in the popular press. Adjunct work is academia’s dirty little secret and few are willing to recognize that as tenured folks retire, their tenure lines disappear, leaving the same amount of work to be accomplished because student admission and enrollment is expected to trend upward in coming years. While some (and I mean a very small few) choose to be adjuncts because of the freedom it affords them, cobbling together teaching arrangements at multiple institutions to make a living wage hardly seems like the dream of college professor many fostered at the start of graduate school. And besides, it seems bad for the system if contingent folks are the ones doing the lion’s share of the teaching. More tenure track jobs would not necessarily fix the adjunct issue, but fewer would be forced into tenuous employment if tenured positions were maintained rather than replaced by adjuncts.
As for tenure, I am unsure if I want it. I feel nervous about writing that and sharing it with the world. To an early career professional with no long-term stability, the promise of tenure would provide a safety net. But tenure would not change my dedication to my students and my work or my drive to contribute to my institution, my discipline or my local community. I don’t think I need tenure to spurn productivity in my professional life. I teach without tenure. I also research without tenure. Having worked in higher education for eleven years now, I am deeply committed to serving my institution and my students with or without tenure.
Teaching, research and service (and not in that order) are part of the job description. I always thought that the “life of the mind” meant a combination of these three activities and lucky for me, all three get me out of bed every morning. I’ll start the new school year doing the same thing I’ve done for the last four years, balancing teaching, advising, service and research. I’m walking the walk, tenure or not.