Tenured professors tend to thrive at work, their identities intertwined with the goals of the university and puffed up by their interactions with students. Their offices might be clustered together in suites, each door covered in postcards from London vacations, New Yorker cartoons, and a poster of the keynote speaker from a conference they attended eight years ago. These symbols on display, they mean a lot to the professor, and the tenured professor has been able to present the preferred flavors of their intellectual personality for nearly their entire professional career. The insides of their offices are miniature libraries with the bulk of the professor’s personhood represented by shelves and shelves of academic titles, the spines belittling any student who looks up to take it in. Tackling that particular heap is not a task too many volunteer for, apparently. But the student would be wrong in that assumption. There are lots of intellectuals who read, write, ponder, posit, ruminate, debate, or declare — many teach right here in a less permanent and far less compensated capacity. In fact, most of the teaching that occurs at our universities is done by impermanent professors temporarily parked on campus, one rest stop among many along their transitory paths. Instead of sharing an office suite, non-tenure-track professors are more likely to be packed together with mismatched garage-sale quality desks in communal offices not much bigger than the single-occupancy offices of tenured professors. These temporary professors go by different nomenclatures — adjunct, graduate teaching assistant, visiting professor, full-time-temporary instructor — but the effect is the same, they are teachers at the university with advanced degrees, and they are referred to collectively as “contingent” faculty, meaning they can’t advance, and at some point, maybe in a year, maybe in three, maybe in fifteen, they will be expected to leave. Although it is possible they will never leave, the unspoken anticipation of their exit will linger for the duration of their stay.
The offices of tenured professors can be deep eccentric caverns, with soft lighting and posters of Nobel Prize winners. Temporary instructors will be scattered across campus in the borrowed rooms of other departments. At the end of any given semester there is always the possibility that a contingent faculty member will be asked to move. The borrowed space is needed again, or there will be scheduled asbestos removal over break, or, responding to some other bureaucratic ripple, a less accommodating room has been found. For this reason I keep all my teaching files in two cardboard boxes and I don’t keep anything else in my office but a coffee maker. Posters will go up at the hands of the other temporary teachers, and I’ll explain over and over again to every student who visits that I like Monet just fine, but that’s not my Water Lilies print. Getting a Ph.D. has accommodated me to this lifestyle in the same way I suppose being raised by a military parent might, and I move to a new city, a new place to teach, every handful of years. In the offices of tenured professors their degrees are hung in frames. Mine are at home, in a drawer. Their regalia, the medieval choir-robe with the gold cords and the funny hat that they wear to the convocation at the beginning of the year, and to graduation at the end of the year, hangs on the back of their door on a hook. Mine is at home, in my closet. My participation in the day-to-day of the university is confined to the classroom, while tenured professors have grown deep, knotty roots. Meanwhile each added year that I spend at an institution is a year that I’m likely to be asked to move to a new office.
What the mindset of being temporary does to one’s loyalty to the school, including colleagues, including students, and sports, and the community, and anyone who works there, from the custodial staff to the librarians, is that it makes one care less. And what that does for the reputations of temporary faculty according to nearly everyone with a more permanent role, from tenured professors, to students and parents and librarians, is that we’re seen as less professional, less available, and lesser representatives of the school. I apparently don’t know how to use a filing cabinet but keep files in cardboard boxes. There are no books on my office shelves. I haven’t accumulated an appropriately professorial wardrobe. I drive a shitty car. Temporary instructors are teacher-persons with damaged egos. I’m always shuffling from class to class and I never take my time about anything. Contingent faculty come across as the shifty subversive underbelly of these coveted college towns and it’s no wonder no one wants to keep us around.
If I have a desire to be more permanent — to be recognized for my degrees and accomplishments, and to be seen by colleagues as an equal — it stems not out of a desire for symbols displayed on walls or shelves of books, but out of a sense of justice. Sometimes on social media when I complain about my lack of job security some troll lacking empathy will chime in with the not-very-helpful advice that I should find another line of work. There’s this notion that there’s no job security in corporate work either, and university tenure is a luxury that needs to go. I might mock the tenured for their pomposity, their splendorous offices, and their daily ease, but I would defend tenure as a kind of worker’s right. You see, it’s not so easy to get fired from a corporate job either, whatever a troll might claim, so there’s often an unspoken undefined tenure in nearly every line of professional work. When employees are let go, it tends to happen in swaths, with layoffs, that have nothing at all to do with performance. Sales-related jobs are probably different, and I suspect not meeting a quota starves the worker out, so they will walk away on their own if numbers aren’t made, but when a seasoned employee is let go, a corporate boss needs to document the screw-ups. Otherwise, human resources would be too afraid of a lawsuit to carry through. Workers might be shifted around, but the company keeps its people. Under this scheme, if universities that looked up to corporations as models and have lately pretended to operate like corporations, if they were truly run like corporations, then contingent faculty would rarely be let go. Despite institutional disadvantages, contingent faculty are generally good teachers, so that there aren’t screw-ups to document. But temporary faculty can be let go at any time just the same, most often because it’s the end of the year and their contract is simply offered to someone else, a newer younger less-moved-around teacher-person.
Faculty issues aside, it’s good to remember that universities are not corporations. I know this might sound surprising to university presidents who think of themselves as CEOs — also the class they generally come from, also how they tend to be compensated — but a university shouldn’t be as bound to the whims of capitalism as a company that makes things. Which also reminds me of the perhaps misguided perspective of university boards and state legislatures who seem to be obsessed with results. Of course, state legislatures, who may see everything in dollars, are going to be convinced that the rules of capitalism apply, with the university supported by dwindling taxes, though the dwindling isn’t necessarily in line with the market. And state bonds can be minted easily enough. It happens for sports stadiums. There’s money to spend on advertising for the school, from billboards, to TV ads, to media specialists running Facebook and Twitter accounts, to snappy catchphrases plastered everywhere on the university website and on free T-shirts at football games. There are bonuses for the people who are already the highest paid university employees. Meanwhile, temporary teachers are replaced with younger newer temporary teachers.
State legislatures cannot know the effect of temporary labor on education and the quality of life of those hired to teach. But CEO presidents should know, and tenured professors should know. Better offices for tenured professors are justified because temporary instructors aren’t as well trained or credentialed. If you went to Yale and you work as a temporary instructor, then you’re not doing it right. If you published a book and still can’t find a tenure-track job, that’s your fault. The temporary instructors don’t win academic awards not available to them, or research grants not available to them, or go to conferences they aren’t compensated for, or any number of exo-classroom activities expected of the professor hired into the tenure system, with the carrot of tenure dangling as reward for being spirited and omnipresent on campus. Temporary instructors pick up the slack by teaching twice as many classes with twice as many students, for less pay and no chance for promotion. The notion of tenure cannot be separated from the slew of transient professors who prop it up and make it possible. Meanwhile tenure is bestowed on fewer and fewer professors, as the CEO presidents and their strong-arming provosts shrink the ranks, even as the university grows, and since students are, by definition, also temporary, these paying participants rarely notice the downslide during their four- or five-year residencies. And the teachers who arrive in a slot designed to lead to tenure usually haven’t been tarnished by the taint of transitory labor along the way. Maybe they are less experienced, and more naïve, but as their roots thicken they also buy into the mystique that they’re special, and more deserving, as their luxurious offices prove, with X on the wall, a piece of their identity, and so many X books. And here they are for good. They belong and at the end of the year no one will ask them to move.
I didn’t set out to become a teacher. I declared myself a pre-med biology major but became disillusioned with Scantron tests designed to trip students up, the students mostly on their own to keep up with the rigorous regimen of memorized biological structures and chemical pathways. I dropped organic chemistry in order to give myself time to read. I fell in love with an old university library and book led to book. I changed my major to English but continued to take science classes, as curiosity allowed, and I also followed the teacher certification track because I had no idea what else an English degree would recommend that I might do. Straight out of college, I got a job at a Catholic High School where I taught science. The next year I got a job down the street as a bank teller, because it paid more. Some of my old students would sometimes come into the bank, which was uncomfortable for me. I had sold out, but cashing and depositing checks all day also allowed me to read at night, which teaching hadn’t. And I’d been writing, working on a writing sample to apply for graduate school to get an MFA in creative writing, which I did, and while I was there I taught writing as a graduate student, something I’d been entrusted with because I’d already had teaching experience, my student teaching experience and that one year of teaching high school science.
Teaching made the intellectual life possible, and then it didn’t, and then it did again. Because I was used to student poverty by this point, something I think universities cultivate and take advantage of, I decided to apply for a Ph.D. I wanted to keep reading and writing, and I was pretty sure it would make me more employable, which it did, in job after temporary job, until I got here, at the end of another nonrenewable contract, yet again, unsure where I’ll be in five months.
I fell into teaching but I got good at it, mostly from experience, which for some reason that has nothing to do with me, seems to be working against me. And by this point I’ve read enough and written enough that I’ve developed an ear for good writing. Not everyone who writes or works in publishing has an ear. You have to have it to know. It’s a skill I’ll take with me when I’m no longer teaching, when I’m replaced by writing teachers still developing an ear, and it’s something that’s worthless in just about any other job. If our culture valued writing, things might be different. If state legislatures and CEO university presidents respected teachers, I might be in a different position. I devoted most of my life to writing and reading because I wanted to, and I can’t exactly go back. Will my talents, and those of thousands of others like me be wasted at a time when we lament the state of education in this country? University students are mostly taught by teacher-persons who are made to feel like they don’t belong. It’s enough to make one cynical about a life spent reading and writing. American universities, which have been among the last bastions in the pushback against anti-intellectualism, are currently structured to encourage academics to go chasing something else, and the potential of an entire generation of writers, thinkers, and researchers has been wasted.