Students protesting the corportization of the university at Syracuse University.

The Academic Feminist: Feminist Perspectives on Contingency in Academia

julianne-october Welcome back, Academic Feminists! I’m excited to report that members of the Feministing team are on their way to the annual National Women’s Studies Association conference. 

In today’s column, Dr. Julianne Guillard focuses on just what The Academic Feminist will be talking about while there: the problems of the contingent faculty workforce in corporate higher education. Julianne Guillard holds a Ph.D. from Penn State University. She currently teaches and conducts research as a Visiting Instructor in the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program at the University of Richmond.

Stay tuned for more about the Feministing crew’s presence at NWSA. And follow Jos, Lori, Maya and I at the hashtag #nwsa2014 from Thursday through Sunday, where we’ll keep you up-to-date not only on our own sessions but on talks by bell hooks (!) and Angela Davis (!!) among other feminists we love. – Gwen

As you read this, the countdown steadily ticks away for the opening of the National Women’s Studies Association’s (NWSA) annual conference. Representatives from women’s centers, faculty, staff, and students from colleges and universities, community and online activists and independent scholars will converge on San Juan in Puerto Rico for four days of conversations on one theme: feminist transgressions.

What does it mean to transgress — to break boundaries, to move beyond restrictions, or to violate a rule — and how do these definitions change, if at all, once we provide them from a feminist perspective? It seemed fortuitous when — shortly after last year’s NWSA conference — I received an email from The Academic Feminist’s Gwendolyn Beetham in which she reached out to potential collaborators who might like to apply these themes of transgression to understanding the very real problems of the contingent faculty workforce.

Beetham was looking for contributors to propose a panel about what many know of as the adjunctification problem. While reading her email I thought, oh! Here’s someone dealing with the very same issues I am, who also wants to bring these concerns to the fore of tenured and tenure-track faculty members attending NWSA. We had both read Miya Tokumitsu’s In the Name of Love, linking the heavy ties between a do-what-you-love (DWYL) culture, the feminization of contingent labor, and the effect such culture has on workers and the working body. Gwendolyn and I were not alone in sharing these concerns. In fact, so many scholars and activists from around the country — including our host location, Puerto Rico — reacted similarly to her initial call-for-contributors email, that we will comprise three panels on contingency as a form of transgression during this week’s conference.

Students protesting the corportization of the university at Syracuse University.

Students protesting the corportization of the university at Syracuse University.

The overwhelming response to participate in these panels shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to those of us within academia (or even outside of it). The Chronicle of Higher Education recently tracked the decline of tenured faculty (now under 25 percent of the collegiate workforce) in conjunction with the rise of part-time, non-tenure track (51 percent of job openings on the academic market) and full-time non-tenure track positions. Stacey Patton rattles-off the defining characteristics of the adjunct body: the average age of an adjunct is 50; 60 percent of contingent faculty are women; 63 percent of adjuncts have several years of teaching experience. They are individuals who predominantly occupy several matrices of oppression: they are faculty of color and they are on food stamps.

Like many, I have been reluctant to share information about my contingent faculty status with my students. I pride myself on being open (to a point) with them, but my contingency seems like an early Scarlet Letter; a mark of shame that somehow scripts me as lesser-than my tenure track colleagues.

There have been moments both inside and outside of the classroom in my four years as non-tenure track faculty, when my desire for the job has been called into question by students’ behavior or comments. In those moments, I wanted to say: Do you know that I made less with my Ph.D. when teaching as an adjunct for two years than I did as a graduate student studying for the degree? Do you know the reason behind holding office hours in a coffee shop is due to the fact that I had no office in which to meet you? Do you know that I go to my retail job after teaching your class because I can’t pay bills on the salary given to me as an adjunct? Do you know that when you ask me, “What courses are you teaching next year?” and I reply that I don’t know, it’s not because I haven’t planned them yet…it’s because I haven’t received an extension of my contract that will allow me to teach you next year.

In those moments, I want to follow-up with those questions with one more: Does that bother you, student? I hope it does. Because the institution that your tuition feeds has turned academia into a corporatized monster. Because investing in state-of-the-art dining halls, recreation centers and gyms, and dorms with en-suite bathrooms have been prized over investing in the bodies that are meant to teach you. Because dwindling federal and state allocations to higher education mean even less money to pour into recruiting and retaining faculty; those cuts also affect K-12 funding leaving many students unprepared to finish college in the traditional 4-year timespan, adding more to national student loan debt. Shirking the shameful Scarlet Letter, I now embody it, with my many transient colleagues, as an advocate and activist for change.

To that end, in the coming days, we panelists invite all to join us in transgressing the boundaries, the restrictions, and the rules placed upon contingent faculty. Minnie Bruce Pratt, in her address to the 2003 NWSA gathering*, noted that adjunct teachers and university graduates were unionizing like never before and that feminists must take the lead in joining and supporting their colleagues trapped in the contingency cycle of corporate higher education. It is a fault of the academic discipline, and of feminist movements built on social justice and equity, to ignore the continued contingency problem over a decade after Dr. Pratt’s address.

Whether you will be at the NWSA conference or not, we hope you’ll join us.

* Pratt, M. B. (2004). Taking the Horizon Path: Keynote at the NWSA in New Orleans, LA, on June 19, 2003. NWSA Journal, 16(2), 15-33.

Related NWSA sessions:

  • Feminist Perspectives on Contingency in Academia Part One: Thin Line Between Love and Hate, Fri, Nov 14, 9:15 to 10:30am
  • Feminist Perspectives on Contingency in Academia Part Two: The Adjunct Body: Contingency, (Im)Permanence and Abjection, Fri, Nov 14, 2:30 to 3:45pm
  • Feminist Perspectives on Contingency in Academia Part Three: Advocacy and Activism in the Contingent Labor Movement, Sat, Nov 15, 9:15 to 10:30am

Scholarly queer feminist working to bridge the academic/online divide.

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