Supporting “Contingent” Colleagues in Higher Education: What Tenure-Stream Faculty Can Do

It’s springtime in academe. Walking across campus is less a shivering ordeal and more an opportunity to savor the warmer air, the seasonal blooms—and the lively, post-spring-break energy our students are bringing to the classroom.

But this is also a season of anxiety for “contingent” faculty. For part-time adjuncts and short-term, contracted-for-a-year teachers, the stress level rises as the spring blooms start appearing. Will they be able to continue their work in the fall?

What the “Contingent” Term Means

I put “contingent” in scare quotes because there are good reasons for resisting the term. For one thing, several of the meanings Merriam Webster online offers up for the term are off the mark, insulting even, for colleagues whose contributions to academic life we should all value. Moving beyond the first definition of “dependent on or conditioned by something else,” which seems relatively neutral, we encounter “likely but not certain to happen,” which does align with the precarious nature of academe’s rapidly expanding “contingent” teaching force.

But the third definition (“not logically necessary”) could be read in multiple conflicting ways, and another, “happening by chance or unforeseen causes,” is at odds with the growing body of data and research studies indicating both connections between the increasing number of non-tenure-track faculty and predictable patterns of enrollment growth, on the one hand, and declining allocation of funds to the core mission of post-secondary institutions—academic instruction. (More on that below.)

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has emphasized in its own definition of “Contingent Faculty Positions” that the category includes more educators than related terms like “adjunct” suggest: “Depending on the institution,” the AAUP points out, “they can be known as adjuncts, postdocs, TAs, non-tenure-track faculty, clinical faculty, part-timers, lecturers, instructors, or nonsenate faculty.” Whatever the names used at a particular institution, the AAUP argues, “What they all have in common” is being “insecure, unsupported positions with little job security” compared to the long-traditional role of service on the tenure track.

Why the Increase?

Is the shift to more and more “contingent” faculty simply one element in the growing “gig economy”? Actually, the shift has as much to do with the shifting culture of higher education as with economics. In any given year, at colleges and universities all over the US, the ever-larger percentage of courses being taught by “contingent” faculty happens not so much because of some unexpected blip upwards in enrollment prompts a temporary fix at a specific institution (later remedied, should enrollment continue to grow) by hiring more full-time, tenure-track faculty) as because it saves money,

and because the role of core faculty, in general, and its longtime link to academic freedom, is less valued than in the past. In other words, as several studies have argued, the rise of “contingency” is related to a re-calibration of administrative values consistent with what Christopher Newfield has decried at the corporatization of the academy.

Most Insecure: Graduate Student Instructors and Adjuncts      

For graduate student instructors who are completing their doctoral programs (many of whom in fields like mine are also part-time teachers), spring means heightened stress over their prospects on the job market. Those of us advising doctoral students can offer up reassurances about how the faculty search calendars have shifted to later and later in the academic year (and even into early summer). But we know the statistics about the decline in hiring of full-time faculty, including in humanities fields like English and Modern Language Studies. So we have to be honest about the possibility—often the likelihood—that a tenure-track position may not be forthcoming this year, or the next, or the next; that our mentees need to be flexible in the kind of university position they might seek (i.e., not just a faculty line but perhaps a staff one that will keep them in the academic community); that they should also be looking in that rather amorphous area of “alt-ac.” (Indeed, we should have been having these conversations all along—as I did just this week when a brilliant and energetic junior, a truly outstanding student who has excelled throughout her undergraduate career, came to talk with me about wanting to be a “professor like you.”)

For the graduate students already approaching the end of the PhD pipeline this academic term, celebration of their intellectual success may well be tempered by the reality that finishing their program also means the loss of funding (however modest) for the coming academic year; that if they are lucky enough to be at an institution that provides medical insurance for graduate students, they face that loss too; that if they’ve been teaching (however successfully) in connection with their funding package, they must worry, too, about being shut out from a labor they love. Unless, of course, they’re willing to cobble together something vaguely resembling a full-time teaching position by adjuncting at multiple institutions.

(Becoming what’s satirically been dubbed a “roads scholar” or “freeway faculty” member.) Or they’re lucky enough to secure a post-doc teaching slot which might transition into a full-time role somewhere later. Statistically speaking, neither of these routes is a guarantee to full employment later as a tenure-track faculty member; sometimes, such a step just leads to more contingency.

Stories of Marginalization

Given the discouraging context described above, these days springtime in academe brings a sad array of stories by those who never found that much-sought full-time position with the job security of a renewable contract and benefits, at least, even if not the possibility of tenure. (More and more full-time jobs, whether called “instructor” or “lecturer” or “clinical professor,” include no possibility of acquiring tenure and typically carry much heavier course and student loads. However, they are admittedly—and fortunately for those who secure such positions—far less “contingent” than adjunct work.)

Academic twitter right now does offer up an occasional celebratory announcement from someone who did find a position. But those bursts of happy prose are counterbalanced by accounts of giving up the search. Any quick google search will bring up similarly heartbreaking stories in longer formats—compelling in their integration of personal experience with a scholarly attention to well-researched context. Read, for instance, this week’s poignant Chronicle of Higher Education story by Herb Childress, “This Is How You Kill a Profession.”

Or connect with the compelling writing of Erin Bartram, a talented twitter- and blog-composer, and a deep thinker about academic labor issues. Bartram, in the words of an essay the Chronicle published after noting the enormous response to what began as a personal blog post with parallel texts on twitter, “Wrote a Farewell Letter to Colleagues. Then 80,000 People Read It.”

Or, for reminder that commendable moves to personalize this trend can do compelling, empathy-building work, yet carry some potential limitations, check out the thoughtful story by self-identified representative of “adjunct exploitation” James Hoff, who warns that “the adjunct problem is institutional, not personal, and its effects reach deep into our culture and society.”

A (Somewhat) Positive Tale of Adjunct Teaching

My own experience of adjunct teaching was very different from most of the sorrowful accounts circulating today. For several years, when my daughters were passing from babyhood to toddlers to school-age, I worked part-time at Mott Community College in Flint, Michigan.


I loved my time there. Yes, I was underpaid: a minimum-wage rate for my tutoring hours in the Writing Center. Barely $1000 per course for the two introductory writing courses (usually English 102, second in the sequence) that I taught each term. So why did I love that job?

My colleagues in the English Department (part of the Humanities Division) treated me like a fellow professional with valuable knowledge and skills. When the Department prepared a new booklet of student-produced writing samples for each of the “modes” of composition we were then, in the late 1980s, using to organize curriculum, material from my classes showed up right alongside the submissions from full-time faculty. When the time for yearly calibration of responses to student work included each teacher submitting a set of papers for reading by a colleague, my own sample set went in with those of “regular” faculty; the discussions I had with the full-time, permanent instructor who wrote my feedback remain one of the richest professional development experiences of my career. When the writing center secured some funding for additional hours, I was invited to serve as “manager” for one time slot. I had an office—a shared one, admittedly, but my office mates included Mary Minock, who went on to have a sterling career as both a creative writer and a Writing Studies scholar, and Betty Enders, a retired (but still renowned) high school teacher. Our conversations in that office still resonate in my teaching and scholarship today. My students, many of them laid-off auto workers seeking skills toward new careers, were engaged, eager learners who had already led interesting lives. I learned from every set of papers they wrote, and I felt I might be making a meaningful, “real-world” difference in their lives.

Looking back now on my time at Mott now, in the context of recent research and reporting on adjuncts’ experiences, I can see that, in some ways, I fit the model of being exploited. Consistent with a 2015 report in The Atlantic by Caroline Fredrickson, I represented an example of the original hiring patterns for part-time instructors in “a time when most schools didn’t allow women as full professors,” and part-timers were, as Fredrickson notes based on Eileen Schell’s research, “the housewives of higher education.” That shared office, after all, held three women.  (I should say that, in the years I was adjuncting, there were a number of full-time women instructors at Mott, and when I would begin doctoral work down the road in Ann Arbor a few years later, I encountered a number of outstanding tenured women. But when I did my M.A. earlier in Chapel Hill, there was only one woman on the tenure track in the English Department.) And one reason I could accept such low wages for my community college teaching was because I was married to a man with a well-paid job in TV news.

So I should confess that my own failure, in recent years, to be truly active ally for “contingent” faculty is traceable in part to my experience of “adjuncting” as feeling so positive—a context under-examined until recent conversations at my current university, TCU, where I hold the highly privileged position of a named professorship. That dialogue—both in an outside my home in the English Department—is what led to the reading and thinking that produced this blog post.

What Tenure-Stream Faculty Can Do

One result of my reflecting back on my own time as an adjunct: recognizing ways I can draw on that experience to be a good ally. My backward look at my MCC experience reminded me of how important my full-time colleagues at Mott were to my viewing that time in such positive terms. Decades ahead of articles like Datray, Saxon and Martirosyan’s 2014 report (“Adjunct Faculty in Developmental Education” in The Community College Enterprise journal) outlining positive strategies for supporting community college adjuncts, they were carrying out just such steps:

providing professional development,

assigning (and supporting) mentors,

ensuring access to institutional resources,

including part-time faculty in strategic initiatives,

“considering the needs and contributions of adjunct faculty when engaging in course redesign initiatives,”

welcoming adjuncts into policy decision-making, and, generally,

working proactively to retain successful part-time instructors.

Their commitment was closely related to being in a city whose teachers—K-12 and community college—had (and have) an active union. Though today the community’s name conjures up sad stories of an undeserved water crisis, Flint, after all, was (and is) a city steeped in labor history and activism. It’s the site of the 1936-37 sit-down strike at General Motors Fisher Body Plant, a watershed in UAW labor organizing.


And significantly, my colleagues in English Studies at Mott viewed the limitations placed on adjuncts there (low salary, no real opportunities for advancement) as a cause they should address. And they did. Furthermore, if they couldn’t change the structural situation entirely, they could (and did) proactively seek ways to treat the many part-timers like me, per my notes above, as valuable peers.


Within the framework suggested in Daniel Davis’s Contingent Academic Labor: Evaluating Conditions to Improve Student Outcomes, my colleagues sought to provide “professional equity” and “social equity,” even though they were not empowered to give our cohort of adjuncts “material equity” (in pay, job security, and benefits).

Moving forward, I hope to emulate my marvelous, thoughtful colleagues at Mott Community College. I aim to be more attentive and responsive to the labor inequities which, while they take a wide range of forms where I work today, some less severe than in particular cases described above, nonetheless point to power and privilege differentials meriting redress. I hope to teach, research, and do service affirming the need for changes in our current system of academic labor. Perhaps most importantly, I want to take my cue from the role model educators who welcomed and supported me during my own years as an adjunct. Whether they–or I–fully realized it at the time, their continued and generous positioning of me as a peer played a major role in helping me move forward in a profession where so many others have never been wholly welcomed.


When I began digging into writing about what activists today often call “The Adjunct Crisis,” one notable example I found of a faculty group and an institution seeking to address that crisis proactively—and collegially—is the Center for the Study of Academic Labor at Colorado State University. The center’s work goes well beyond the kind of short-term (indeed, momentary) rhetorical engagement with the issue of “contingency” in higher education that this very essay and others like it exemplify. For example, the center-affiliated journal, Academic Labor: Research and Artistry, “seeks to motivate ongoing research on matters relating to tenure and contingency in the academy.” Its resources range from the large-scale Women and Contingency Database to the classroom-level tools such as a syllabus focused on academic labor and position statements from relevant professional organizations.

Additional Readings:

Birmingham, Kevin. “’The Great Shame of Our Profession.’ How the Humanities Survive on Exploitation.” The Chronicle Review. 12 February 2017.

Del Rosso, Lisa. Confessions of an Accidental Professor. Serving House Books, 2017.

“Forum: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty.” Conference on College Composition and Communication 21.1 (Fall 2017): A1-A16.

Frisch, Paul, Randall L. Hughes, and Joan B. Killgore. “Teaching Health Law: The Perspectives of Three Adjunct Professors.” Religions and Cultures of East and West: Perspectives on Bioethics (Spring 2008): 179-183.

Hose, Linda and E.J. Ford. “Caught in the Adjunct Trip.” Learning and Teaching: The International Journal of Higher Education in the Social Sciences 7.1 (Spring 2014): 46-46.

Lerner, Maura. “Teaching College Courses for a Barista’s Pay—For Many Adjunct Profs, No Security, Benefits, or Desk.” Star Tribune. 30 March 2014. 1A.

Murray, Darrin S. “The Precarious New Faculty Majority: Communication and Instruction Research and Contingent Labor in Higher Education.” Communication Education 68.2 (2019): 235-245.

Newfield, Christopher. The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them. Johns Hopkins Press, 2016.

A Personal PS:

It’s been awhile since I’ve been able to share a blog post. After what I thought would be a couple of weeks away after surgery, I developed a very serious infection that required an extended period of treatment via antibiotic infusion and other medical supports. I’m glad, as of March 2019, to be back to work full-time and writing again. Thanks to all of you who sent good wishes during that extended recovery.

4 thoughts on “Supporting “Contingent” Colleagues in Higher Education: What Tenure-Stream Faculty Can Do

    1. Sarah Ruffing Robbins

      Hear, hear! I was stunned this week to read several stories about new contracts for several athletes in the megamillion range. Our values seem to be out of whack!


  1. Pingback: An “Office Hour” Appointment to Keep – Sarah Ruffing Robbins

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