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By current academic-career standards, Doherty landed on her feet. She is now an adjunct at the Harvard Extension School and at Emerson College. She is also a freelance writer and editor, and has written a prize-winning book and contributed essays to The Nation, The New Yorker, and The New York Times, as well as The Chronicle. When I corresponded with her over email, she described her life as “pretty precarious and even more chaotic,” but she nevertheless considers herself lucky to have found employment before being automatically timed out at Harvard.
“I have talked to so many colleagues in their last year who were just flat-out panicking because they had nothing lined up, and they had partners and families to take care of,” she told me. Indeed, for many, an academic job’s end can mark not only the premature conclusion of a long-sought career, but also the beginning of financial hardship.
Harvard appears to be unique in mandating a comprehensive, statutory limit on non-tenure-track faculty, but the practice of capping positions extends well beyond the institution. At many similarly elite universities, caps are imposed at the departmental or program level. At Yale, for example, language teachers are appointed as “lectors,” positions that, while they may technically be renewed, “carry no presumption of reappointment and no expectation of long-term employment at Yale.”
At the University of Pennsylvania’s law-school clinical program, lecturers are capped at seven years. In Princeton University’s writing program, lecturers are hired on a one-year basis and are renewable for up to two additional years (and “may be considered” for one final three-year stint). Columbia University’s undergraduate writing program hires lecturers on three-year, nonrenewable contracts.
In the maelstrom of the contemporary academic job market, newly minted Ph.D.s have few options if they want to remain in academe. At the top are exceedingly rare tenure-track positions. Those who land them (and successfully run the gantlet of promotion) are offered permanent employment and, generally, a comfortable life. According to the American Association of University Professors, the average salary for full professors is just over $140,000. At the bottom are adjunct-professor positions, underpaid, part-time posts often just lasting one semester. These jobs usually necessitate cobbling together several placements within some semblance of geographic proximity to make ends meet. While they can sometimes be held by those with only an M.A., many with Ph.D.s nevertheless end up taking them, particularly in the humanities.
Many, if not most of us discover this to be not our first job in academia, but our last.
And then there is the vast middle, comprising lectureships, teaching professorships, visiting assistant professorships, and postdocs that promise a one- or multiyear respite from the harrowing job market. Some of these positions are effectively permanent, offering “senior” status and reliably renewable contracts. But there are others, often at the nation’s most prestigious universities, that are always only temporary. These positions are desirable: Experience at name-brand institutions like Harvard or Princeton gives new academics reputable lines on their CVs, stable incomes, and a taste of a long-term academic career.
Such prestigious but temporary academic jobs are far from new. Adrianna Kezar, a professor of higher education at the University of Southern California, told me that limited-term positions at prestigious colleges are in most cases an “old vestige” of the previous employment system, not the product of the “new market of faculty jobs.” Indeed, as Morton Keller and Phyllis Keller explain in Making Harvard Modern: The Rise of America’s University, Harvard’s “up or out” policy was adopted in 1939. Crucial to its implementation was the notion that the permanent employment of teaching faculty would dilute the excellence of the institution. As Paul Herman Buck, Harvard’s first provost, wrote in 1948, hiring faculty based simply on pedagogical need is “the Trojan horse whereby mediocrity creeps in and spreads among a faculty.”
Such logic informs, albeit mostly implicitly, the complex archipelago of temporary positions that has emerged over the intervening decades. Recent developed limited-term positions, such as those at the Princeton writing program (introduced just 21 years ago), are hardly an “old vestige” of academic culture; they are rather a product of what the higher-ed scholars Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades call “academic capitalism,” a regime of privatization and marketization that has seen contingent-faculty positions significantly outstrip tenure lines. According to Department of Education data, part-time faculty made up 44 percent
of all faculty in 2020.
While Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and Penn all institute some form of statutory time cap for non-tenure-track faculty members, far more common today are unofficial time caps that are enforced, often arbitrarily, by universities through the nonrenewal of contractually renewable lecturers. A raft of such nonrenewals struck the University of New Hampshire in 2018. At Duke University, which has no formal maximum appointment for lecturers, a similar mass nonrenewal occurred last year in the Thompson writing program. The University of California has become perhaps the most notorious system for not renewing lecturer contracts. As Cal Matters detailed, between 2015 and 2020, roughly a quarter of all lecturers left the system each year, far higher than the national average. The UC faculty union says that most of these departures were involuntary.
Involuntary nonrenewal is what happened to Nick Maurer. With an M.F.A. from the University of California at Irvine in creative writing, Maurer taught in the university’s composition program between 2018 and 2022, when his yearly contract was unexpectedly, and without adequate explanation, not renewed. Maurer reapplied when his lecturer position was advertised by the department — indeed he did so at the encouragement of the program’s director — but he was not rehired. Now unemployed and with a newborn, Maurer told me he feels “frustrated and confused” for being let go after “going above and beyond” in his teaching. The abrupt nature of his ejection, Maurer added, “seemed so beyond the pale that I convinced myself that UCI would ultimately do right by their people. I was proven wrong. They are indifferent to my family’s situation.” Maurer has said that he is applying for jobs where his experience writing, teaching, and editing might be valuable, but that he has been unable to find anything so far.
Whether officially or unofficially time-capped, these positions in aggregate make up a colossal infrastructure of postdocs, fellowships, visiting assistant professorships, preceptorships, and lecturer positions that contribute to a system of turnover many dub “the churn.” New faculty members are brought into an institution at low pay just as senior ones, at slightly higher pay, are unceremoniously ushered out the back door.
The churn is most concentrated in fields where tenure-track positions have dried up, namely the humanities and social sciences. Its impact is especially pronounced in foreign languages and my own field, rhetoric and composition. While it is difficult to precisely account for the number of lecturers who are churned out, a survey of 929 institutions by the AAUP found that over 20 percent of them “did not renew contracts or terminated contracts for at least some non-tenure-track faculty” in the 2020-21 academic year.
This challenges the sense within academe that lecturers, while denied the benefits or security of their tenured colleagues, are nevertheless relatively stable, compared with adjunct, or part-time, professors. A goal at many institutions has been toward finding opportunities for lecturers to become permanent. The University of Denver, for example, has supported non-tenure-track faculty through instituting multiyear contracts and offering opportunities for promotion. Worcester Polytechnic Institute has recently created tenure lines for teaching faculty. Yet the persistence and prevalence of the churn, particularly among lecturers on contracts, underscores the extent to which precarity remains ubiquitous.
As Ben Roth wrote in these pages last year, Harvard claims “it must cycle through new teaching faculty to keep up with changing academic disciplines, evolving student interests, and new pedagogical developments.” Doherty says that Harvard defends its time caps as a way of keeping teaching “fresh and innovative,” guaranteeing a steady supply of young teachers with “innovative” teaching and “cutting-edge research” while assuming experienced faculty will “get burnt out.”
The rationale is dodgy at best. If junior faculty with seven years of teaching experience are behind the pedagogical cutting edge, what about tenured faculty with 30 years of experience — why wouldn’t the same logic apply to them?
“This is charter-school logic,” Doherty says of the teaching-innovation argument. “These are the same arguments proffered against public-school teachers and teachers’ unions.” It also mirrors a policy Amazon has used, stopping guaranteed wage increases after three years perhaps to limit the tenure of its warehouse workers.
Another argument universities use to defend the churn is that temporary positions offer valuable training for academics.
Willa Hammit Brown, a historian and a preceptor in expository writing at Harvard, is being timed out of her position. In her view, administrators claim that positions like hers function analogously to postdocs and “confer valuable skills and improve lecturers’ long-term job prospects.” In 2004, Ann Jurecic, then the associate director of the Princeton writing program, argued as much in an article: “We train postdocs and graduate students and enhance what these scholars can offer in the academic marketplace.” (Jurecic allowed that the reliance on temporary teaching might be “problematic” but insisted that “this structure enables us to get our job done here and now.”)
The University of Delaware offers a standing one-year teaching position (renewable for two additional years) in writing, which it calls a postdoc, and makes similar claims about its supposed benefits to job seekers. An ad detailing the position, which pays $48,000 and stipulates a teaching load of three courses per semester, says, “Postdoctoral personnel will have opportunities for professional development to enhance their teaching and expand their pedagogy in their own fields.”
The improved-job-prospects rationale would make sense — if the long-term positions such temporary employment supposedly prepares a junior scholar for actually existed. But tenure-steam job openings have cratered and, today, such positions are virtually unobtainable for scholars in the humanities and social sciences, even for those at the peak of academic excellence.
There is also reason to doubt that teaching-intensive lectureships even confer the skills junior academics need to succeed in the remnants of the market. As Brown contends of the Harvard writing program, “Our workload has increased enormously, and preceptors in the writing program often find themselves working for 50 or 60 hours a week.” Brown sees this increase as “hobbling our ability to be active researchers. As a result of mounting responsibilities, decreasing scholarly support, and professional stigma, many, if not most of us discover this to be not our first job in academia, but our last.” These positions, she continues, “have become off-ramps rather than on-ramps.”
Indeed, while limited-term positions may provide significant teaching experience, a valuable institutional imprimatur, and decent pay (next year, lecturers in the Princeton writing program will start at $75,200; full-time lecturers in the University of California system were, as of the end of 2021, paid a minimum of $56,945), the intense workload usually results in little time for research, and the abrupt endpoint looms.
Such was the experience of Aly W. Corey. After receiving their Ph.D. from the University of Colorado at Boulder, Corey, who uses they/them pronouns, joined Harvard’s history and literature department in 2017. Given a three-year contract with no opportunity for renewal or reappointment, they lobbied to retain their position, even co-writing a critique in The Harvard Crimson, “Harvard’s Teaching Faculty Are Not Disposable.” In the end, all they were offered was a part-time, one-year appointment. They took it for the insurance, making so little that they went on unemployment. For a year, they “scrambled for one-off adjunct positions” while raising two small children and living with family in a multigenerational household.
In the end, Corey was fortunate, eventually finding a desirable administrative position as an associate director for inclusive learning environments at the Davis Center at Williams College. But they have lingering feelings of frustration and anger: “Harvard has resources they could have used to support faculty carrying the day-to-day weight of the university.” Corey also disputes the narrative that most eventually find their way to secure positions: “Some of us get very lucky … but many are forced out of this industry or into even worse conditions of employment once terminated.” “Universities,” they contend, “churn folks up and then excrete them into a void.”
Universities churn folks up and then excrete them into a void.
Because non-tenure-track faculty frequently teach introductory courses and are among many students’ first professors, the churn intimately affects students’ transition to university life. “The unpredictability lecturers face,” a group of Berkeley co-authors, including an undergraduate, wrote in The Daily Californian, “produces uncertainty for students, too, as they face losing inspirational teachers and mentors.”
Such concerns have been backed up by research on pedagogical effectiveness and contingent labor. In a 2012 report, Adrianna Kezar and Daniel Maxey concluded that an institution’s moving from tenure-track to non-tenure-track faculty results in reduced graduation and retention rates, lower GPAs, and diminished faculty-student interaction, among other undesirable effects. In a stunningly bad deal, universities have exchanged quality instruction for cost savings.
The cultural loss is evident to those doing the leaving. This year, Terence Renaud’s position in Yale’s humanities program was not renewed after six years of work. As he tweeted, his dismissal was “neither for budgetary reasons nor for performance,” but in order to uphold the administration’s “ideology of merit.” This comment highlights the self-serving logic used by administrators to justify the temporariness of these positions, a logic dictating that junior academics in teaching positions in which they’re unable to move up are ultimately undeserving of an academic future. Over email, Renaud told me that in the contemporary academic marketplace, humanities Ph.D.s are quickly and routinely rendered worthless. “This wasteful dynamic is built into the system.”
Renaud has since taken another time-capped position, which meant a cross-country move and a significant decrease in pay. “My family and I are at our limits,” he tweeted.
Those staring down career clocks are also turning to coalition-building. “What tenured faculty can do is stand with their contingent colleagues and graduate students,” suggests Renauld, “and actively fight for unionization of all faculty ranks.” Kezar agrees. The solution, as she sees it, lies in organizing. “Institutions will not change,” she says, unless pressured to do so by advocates.
And unions have seen some success. A new teaching-faculty contract won by the nonsenate faculty and librarian union at the University of California includes significant improvements for lecturers, including 9.5 percent raises for the lowest-paid members and “the right to be reappointed if deemed ‘effective’ before an external candidate could be considered.” Lecturers on short-term contracts have now been transitioned to two-year contracts, which are set to lengthen again in 2024. Mia McIver, the union’s president, calls the new contract “life changing” and says she couldn’t be happier about the benefits now afforded to teaching faculty.
There is, in other words, reason to be guardedly hopeful that some institutions are taking the right steps.
Several years ago, I timed out of a one-year, fixed-term position at what was then Philadelphia University. Having previously been an adjunct commuting across state lines to stay afloat, I was, at first, delighted and relieved at being offered something so stable as the Philadelphia U. job. It was more money than I had ever been paid. And the job allowed me, for a time, to feel like a real academic. I attended faculty meetings, ran training sessions, and was even funded to attend a conference. It was, in short, a position where I felt like I had useful work to do. I would have done anything to keep it.
When a college senior emails a churned former lecturer for a letter of recommendation, the email bounces back and the letter goes unwritten.
But because it was nonrenewable, it wasn’t long before I began to be racked by overwhelming anxiety about my future. I spent much of my free time scrolling job postings. My teaching took a back seat, and my research ground to a halt. I furtively took interviews in my office and secretly attended campus visits. I spent my final days in the position assigning adjuncts to sections that I sorely wanted to be teaching myself.
Then I got lucky. Before my year was up, I accepted a renewable lectureship across the country. Five years later, I moved into the tenure track. This was remarkably good fortune, and yet I have still been shaped by my time as a temporary lecturer. The abrupt stop to that one-year position upended my life. I faced the culmination of my nascent academic career, and in the end I was pushed out of a life and a job that I urgently wanted to keep.
For those without an intimate understanding of such jobs, temporary positions might well appear to be lifelines when measured against the grim conditions of adjunct labor. But while they certainly aren’t the most precarious form of academic employment, they are far from adequate. Those drummed out of limited-term positions face heartbreak and potential financial destitution at every turn. It’s time that institutions own up to what these jobs really are — a means of extracting cheap labor by ruthlessly exploiting the dreams of the most vulnerable academics.