Saturday, May 3, 2014

Keith Hoeller's "Equality for Contingent Faculty": Book Review

Opening this, I wondered how my cohort might "overcome" the two-tier system where, by now, only about 25% of professors earned or are on the track to tenure, whereas part-time, contracted, and/or full-time lecturers or instructors (the last category is often overlooked) replaced the former model where most professors taking on a few classes worked by day in their professions, leaving full-time teaching until around the 1970s mostly taught by the tenured. As a relevant aside, I've taught about thirty years, first as a T.A. at a "public Ivy" research university and then in adult academic and college programs. After I earned my Ph.D. at that campus, in an extremely competitive job market, I have taught both part-time and full-time nearly two decades in higher education settings where no tenure is offered.

Equality for Contingent Faculty, edited by Keith Hoeller, collects various articles from those who have taught and who have lobbied, often on behalf of unions or in one case outside of them, to include contingent (the new term replacing "part-time" or non-permanent positions, reflecting too the growing numbers of full-time instructors lacking lifelong stability as jobs are contracted out to increasingly demoralized faculty trying to use these jobs as a way into the few tenure-track lines still left) faculty on parallel lines. The idea is that after a period of observation, peer and administrative review, and evaluation, these contingent candidates could qualify for the same long-term protection as their research-oriented tenure-track colleagues. Most contributors argue that this is feasible. The problem is that it's cheaper to relegate the teaching of larger introductory courses, the heavy teaching loads and duties in writing and math courses (which by the way tend to be remedial and less desirable than ever to those aiming for tenure), and the "factory model" massively enrolled standard courses to those eager as ever to teach, no matter what.

Many articles are factual, if packed with statistics. Others enliven the anthology with personal testimony. Most mix these two themes, addressing fellow faculty desperate for any change.

The advice is given by one professor to forget it unless one can come into teaching with a steady income elsewhere provided the teacher or his or her household. The "freeway flyer" cobbling together five courses at three campuses weekly is not a fictional conceit. The debt incurred from graduate school, the pressure to grade constantly and not find time for research, and the lack of benefits or insurance afforded many instructors provides a sober reality far from outdated images of part-time professors drawn from occupations who supplemented their professional life with a class now and then. The past forty-odd years, the contributors stress, have eroded these positions as cost-cutting and a lurch to more business-driven dynamics create both traditional and for-profit institutions bent on maximizing profits.

An added aspect, meriting more focus (as many of those writing here teach at community colleges, often in the Western urban areas which still tend towards in-class rather than online or blended/hybrid models), is that the shift to online course delivery to supplement or replace in-class teaching will mean higher enrollments, centralized curricula, and a top-down system that will further erode classroom conditions as the electronic method of teaching seems to cut costs much more for institutions, who can hire faculty who will earn very little compensation.

I welcome the treatment of this timely topic. Success as reported by contributors who have made a breakthrough in Western American or Canadian institutions does qualify some of the above paragraph, and the unionization of faculty in a few colleges points to one way that reform can please faculty who have been exploited by a hiring that evolved from filling part-time needs on the side to one that dominates non-elite higher education facilities in the US and Canada today. The lack of support for their contingent colleagues by many tenured, some of whom regard those relegated to the non-tenured ranks as failures, is disheartening. As authors remind us, there are two or three times the number of qualified faculty produced at the Ph.D. level for tenure-track positions open, which now attract hundreds of applicants.

Therefore, I am uncertain that reform will occur on a widespread scale, given current economic realities for universities and colleges as they keep raising tuition and fees far in excess of the cost of living. Financial aid shortages and the dependence on student loans and the debt incurred drag down prospects for both students and those who want to teach. Unionization is one way forward, but promoting this inequality--which may in turn discourage those getting Ph.D.'s in many fields as majors move away from the liberal arts to business--in turn solidifies both the frustration felt by the non-tenured and the bottom-line, corporate-driven direction taken by higher education, as it streamlines initiative in the name of profit.

So, this book may have the side effect of highlighting dire conditions and decreasing grad school applications; it reminds us that there's far more underpaid and overworked faculty than the public or parents or taxpayers may assume teach today's students. Contrary to the ideal of a few courses a year, a few students, and lots of time to research and read and publish, the reality for most North American faculty, this book emphasizes, is less romantic. May it invigorate not only awareness but policies to fix a faulty system now firmly entrenched. (Amazon US 2-17-14; for more, see Noam Chomsky, Henry A. Giroux via Truthout, Tarak Barkawi at New School, Jennifer F. Morton at CCNY.)

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