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What Contingent Faculty Really Want

A new survey conducted for the American Federation of Teachers adds confusion to the already muddled debate about the majority of faculty serving outside the tenure system. Ultimately the union is interested in a particular problem — organizing — for which in many states part-time status represents a legal boundary for the construction of bargaining units.

This legalistic definition of the group, and the “who’s the market for our services” orientation makes perfect sense for AFT. But it’s not a particularly good standpoint for analysis.

The problem is that the study focusses on part-time faculty to the exclusion of all the other major categories of non-track faculty, including full-time nontenurable, graduate students, post-docs, staff, etc.

This narrow focus skews the perception of what faculty serving nontenurably “want.” We already know, for instance, that nearly 100 percent of those in full-time nontenurable positions prefer full-time work. Likewise we know that in most disciplines most graduate employees and postdocs want full-time tenurable positions.

As a result, the survey’s suggestion that “only” half of all part-time faculty would prefer full-time work misses the mark. What this really means is something more like 75 percent of all faculty (those teaching perhaps 90 percent of all classes) prefer full-time work.

The story being reported out of the survey is the part that isn’t news: The roughly one-quarter of all faculty who are moonlighting and teaching a course or two for love are happy with a psychic wage. (“I teach at the U,” over golf or mah-jong, delivers status compensation with both friends and professional associates in one’s primary profession.)

Asking this question of these people is a a little bit like surveying folks in a burger joint and “discovering” that they eat meat. Of course those who are teaching avocationally are mostly satisfied with working part-time.

When read critically, the survey means something very different: It has discovered that roughly half of the people in the burger joint are actually vegetarians! And even quite a few of the meat eaters think the fare could be improved.

That’s the interesting result — that half of all part-timers are trying to get something that isn’t on the menu. And most of the scholarship suggests that we’d all be a lot healthier if what they wanted (full academic citizenship) was available to them.

In short, at least half of all part-timers are more like all other teachers than the other part-timers with an avocational relationship to the job.

While useful for a union that needs to understand the complex “market” for part-time representation, this survey could have been a  lot more helpful by clearly separating the avocational faculty from those who espouse college teaching as a profession.

Better surveys

We need to ask tougher questions of this kind of data. Here are just three for starters:

Q. Is there anything wrong with converting college teaching to lightly paid volunteerism?

A. In addition to consequences for students, it would seem to contribute to the race, class and gender segmentation of the workforce, as I’ve previously remarked in posts on Obama, on a better AFT report, and in my credo (We Work) for minnesota review.  Police departments are often far more ethnically diverse than English departments, despite decades of elaborate affirmative hiring efforts.

Women are commonly disproportionately shunted into part-time and nontenurable positions. It’s hardly an accident that since 1970, when women began to stream into higher education teaching, tenure began to be steadily reconceived as a privilege for research-intensive faculty.

When teaching-intensive positions were held overwhelmingly by men, they were mostly tenurable. Now that they are held disproportionately by women in many fields, most teaching-intensive positions are not tenurable.

This line of analysis ultimately pushes uncomfortable questions: not who is teaching, but who should be teaching?

Q. How many classes are the satisfied faculty teaching vs. the unsatisfied?

A. It would appear that the unsatisfied teach more classes than the satisfied, often at multiple institutions. The conditions with which they are dissatisfied have a larger impact.

Q. What unites the dissatisfaction of the dissatisfied part-timers with other faculty, grad students, and post-docs?

A. The demand for more security, better pay, due process, a fair return on educational attainment, more equitable participation in professional decision making, etc.

In between the satisfied fraction of the tenured and the satisfied fraction of the moonlighers are the majority of all faculty — teaching the highest proportion of students, including the most at-risk students — with profound, frequently shared dissatisfactions about conditions that most analysis shows has an impact on student retention and success.

x-posted:
howtheuniversityworks

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