Thursday, August 25, 2011

Names 101: By Any Other Name

Guest post by New Faculty Majority's Anne Wiegard, previously published in Cortland Cause, SUNY Cortland's UUP chapter's April 2011 newsletter. Every year, Cause wins awards in a competition of all the SUNY chapter newsletters.

Students unhesitatingly call us “Professor,” for that is who we are to them. They do not know that almost everyone else we work with is either confused or in conflict about the proper designation for faculty teaching off the tenure track.

Sadly, though contingent academic employees are faculty, they know that communications addressed generally to “Faculty,” are often not actually intended for them, in the same way that women in the 1950s knew that memos addressed generally to employees were usually understood to pertain only to males.  Men were the norm, so a memo only applied to women if specifically qualified, as in “Female Employees” or perhaps given a separate category altogether, as in “The Secretarial Pool.”

It was foolish for a woman in the 1950s to think her gender would be overlooked in the workplace.  Though it would be wonderful if we could just be “Professors,” as long as we are treated differently, it’s foolish to pretend we are not different.  I have more than once responded to some bulletin or invitation and been embarrassed to learn that “faculty” only sometimes means everyone; it may mean only tenure-track faculty.  And as long as we are different, some other label besides “faculty” will inevitably be applied to us.  We might as well be the ones who decide what that label is.  What should we call ourselves?  

This category of academic workers is now most commonly referred to as “contingent” (because their continuing employment is contingent on factors outside of their control). “Contingent” has become the accepted term, endorsed by national organizations such as AAUP, AFT, COCAL, CAW, MLA, OAH, NEA, etc.

Moreover, UUP’s own statewide Part-time Concerns Committee has endorsed the term “contingent” as one which applies to its members appointed to part-time or to full-time positions for which continuing or permanent appointment cannot be conferred.  That committee is currently working to solidify a definition of “contingent” that will satisfy all the parties involved in approving language for constitutional amendments that would pave the way for more contingents to participate in the governance of UUP.

Like the men in the 1960s who responded to any feminist remark with willfully ignorant questions such as “What’s wrong with things the way they are?”, people who have not been paying attention to the discourse on this subject are liable to ask,  what’s wrong with historical terms like “adjunct” or “part-timer”?

The first non full-time faculty were labeled “adjunct” (add-ons), with the connotation of being “inessential” or “accessory.”  As employment practices have changed, however, we are certainly not inessential. Our campus President regularly remarks that our excellent part-time faculty are indeed essential. They now comprise close to half the teaching faculty at Cortland.

And many of them do not truly fall within the traditional “adjunct” model of someone who primarily earns a living from other professional work, such as law or publishing, and teaches one night class for a negligible salary in exchange for the privilege of professorial status or the opportunity to give back to the community. A good number of our “part-time” colleagues earn their living entirely from teaching at multiple institutions (sometimes as many as six or even eight sections per semester), so they are neither “adjunct” nor “part-time.”  Across the nation, eighty percent of the faculty teaching in the field of English Composition fit this latter description of people perpetually queued up for non-existent tenure-track jobs. 

Not only is “part-time” employee (and “part-timer” is worse—wouldn’t you rather be a teacher who works full-time than a “full-timer”?) an inaccurate way to describe many people in this category; as an apparently neutral term, it ignores the political connotations of this precarious category of employment.  By referring to the appointment as less than full-time, it leaves open the question of whether or not an employee chooses a part-time position over a full-time one.  “Contingent” more clearly denotes the insecurity of all appointments off the tenure track.

Insisting that anyone whose position is “part-time” be separated from anyone whose position is “full-time,” segregates the most vulnerable members of our college community and our union from one another.  Segregation thwarts the potential solidarity of the 40% of UUP’s members who are employed in the contingent category.  The failure to recognize our common status strikes me as regressive and self-defeating, as was the case when one of those 1950s secretaries thought that the secretary in the next cubicle was not a secretary any more because she had gotten a newer typewriter or her boss let her write some of his reports.

Some in the contingent community insist on “adjunct” as the only correct label to describe their employment.  For some of them, accepting and using “adjunct” has taken on a signifying power, as was done with “queer” in the 1990s, turning an insult into a banner of gay pride.  Within the contingent community, sometimes it’s easier to refer to people without full-time positions as adjunct and those with full-time positions as contingent, but do we want everyone else indiscriminately calling us by a name so fraught with misunderstanding?  The appointment letters we receive from Human Resources do not describe any employee as “adjunct.”

Shall we call ourselves “temporary” or “term appointees” as our appointments describe us?  Or “lecturers” (we only stand in front of the classroom and lecture) or “visiting instructors” (we’re just here to see the sights for a few months)?  Or shall we define ourselves as faculty of “qualified rank” as the Policies of the SUNY Board of Trustees does?  Are we “at-will” employees, as the NYSUT labor relations specialists sometimes refer to us, using contract language?  Are we the “precariat” (a combination of “precarious” and “proletariat”) or “ad/cons” (a blending of “adjunct” and “contingents”)—terms now current on the national listserves?  Let’s decide on a common name and get on with the work of restoring our profession.

There is no perfect name for who we are, but if we can’t settle the question and move on, we’re going to be stuck with an identity that is unrecognizable anywhere outside of the academy, and we will remain invisible.  For decades, the nomenclature dispute has undermined political solidarity.  When we get caught up in endless arguments about what to call ourselves, it’s very easy to lose sight of what we should be fighting for.  Let’s accept the term “contingent” in the hope that it will help us do away with contingency.

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