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Getting Off The BurnOUT Track?

by Kendra Hamilton

Getting Off The BurnOUT Track?

For “freeway faculty,” new models of work could be an escape route — or a roadblock
By Kendra Hamilton

For those bright, young scholars who seek an idyllic life of secure full-time employment while engaging in the teaching and research of their choice, the cozy confines of higher education has always been seen as the Mecca. But according to experts, that scenario may be a fleeting reality. The growth of part-time and non-tenure track faculty since 1975 has been nothing short of startling — their ranks have swelled by 103 and 92 percent, respectively. Meanwhile, the number of full-timers has
increased by a comparatively anemic 27 percent. Advocates in the
academic disciplines have long been concerned with issues such as
academic freedom and the erosion of tenure. But the questions are much more immediate and practical for graduate students, for contingent faculty — part-timers and full-timers not on the tenure track — and for junior faculty who haven’t yet grasped the brass ring of tenure.

They are asking how to navigate the new environment. How do they strike the balance between the job they need right now and the job that will fulfill the aspirations they came into the field with?

These are precisely the questions people entering the academy should be asking, says Dr. John W. Curtis, director of research for the American Association of University Professors. New faculty, he says, “really need to be more careful about knowing when they come into an institution what the conditions of the appointment are, what their future prospects really are in that position, if they’re being tracked into something that will only lead in a certain direction, that will limit their mobility as they go forward.”

The New Academic Landscape

“When I made the decision to go back to graduate school, it was not that I was a stupid person,” says “Tiffany,” a contingent faculty member in the writing program at a large mid-Atlantic region school who asked not to be identified because she says, “I’m up for reappointment, and I want to keep my job.”

Tiffany, who is of Afro-Caribbean descent, says she carefully planned the move into an English graduate program. “I looked at the analyses of the profession and all the experts were predicting a wave of retirements. I looked down the road at when I would be graduating, and I thought I was perfectly positioned to take advantage of that.”

Unfortunately for Tiffany, that “wave” of retirements did not materialize on schedule, notes Dr. Eileen Bender, a professor of English and co-director of strategic planning at Indiana University-South Bend. And when it finally did, she says, “the people holding the budget strings [responded]. ‘Thank goodness. They’re retiring. We’re not going to replace them.’”

An extreme version of that logic is on display at George Washington University, says Dr. Christopher “Kip” Lornell, adjunct professor of music.
GWU has a rule in its faculty code that a certain percentage of professors must be tenured or tenure eligible. “Eight departments in two schools are in violation of the code,” says Lornell. “In my department there are 56 part-timers and 6 full-timers on the faculty. Over 80 percent of the courses are taught by part-timers.”

Such is often the case with music performance faculty, particularly in cities like Washington, D.C., which have the talent base to support the arrangements. “It’s an effective use of the marketplace,” but it’s also exploitative, says Lornell, the leader of a six-year effort to unionize part-time faculty at the school.

Nationally, the percentage of full-time faculty and instructional staff at all types of academic institutions fell to 56 percent in 2003, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Part-timers are most numerous at associate degree-granting schools. Sixty-seven percent of faculty at two-year programs were part-time in 2003. As early as 1997, an AAUP report warned that there were community colleges in Vermont and California where 100 percent of the classes were taught by adjuncts.

The numbers are perhaps expected at community colleges, which may need to respond swiftly to changes in local workforce needs. But that argument isn’t as compelling for private master’s degree-granting institutions, where the number of part-timers hovers around 55 percent.
Complicating matters is a clear gender disparity. Women comprise 48 percent of all part-time faculty, compared with 38 percent of all full-time faculty. Women are most likely to achieve full-time status at associate degree-granting institutions, where they hold 50 percent of the full-time positions. By contrast, only 32 percent of full-time faculty at doctoral-granting institutions are female, and they remain a tiny minority in historically male-dominated fields like engineering, where 90 percent of full-timers are male.

But part-time work is not an evil in and of itself. There are some categories of instructors who are uninterested in full time employment. These include the “career enders,” who teach for simple enjoyment. There are also specialists and experts, who enjoy the classroom — and the pay — but have no desire to change careers.

But for every one of these willing freelancers there’s at least one Tiffany. A 1993 report by NCES estimated that 60 percent of part-timers in the Humanities want full-time positions — preferably on the tenure-track — but can’t find them. These men and women make up the ranks of the “invisible faculty,” also known as “freeway faculty,” a reference to the freeway miles they rack up commuting between part-time jobs.

Freeway faculty lack nearly every accoutrement of tenure-eligible faculty life. They rarely if ever receive the pay, the research support, the health and retirement benefits, the clearly outlined procedures for retention, the promotions or the job security and academic freedom of their colleagues. Even office space or parking are often off-limits. Tiffany describes it as “the shock of finding that they are working class.”

“This was always a prestigious, white-collar job,” she says. But with so many part-timers looking for an opportunity, “[you could] say one wrong thing and you’re out of there. So there’s the sudden realization that you are not in the position of privilege that you thought you were going to be.”

Dr. Mike Arnzen, an associate professor of English at Seton Hill University, agrees. He’s managed the difficult feat of balancing academic work and a career as a novelist.

“Most of the people who graduated with me are still looking for full-time work, cobbling together careers,” he says. “It’s demoralizing. There’s the vicious cycle of being an adjunct with three jobs, not making as much money as people with half your training and not having free time to pursue the publication. They’re on their own track — the burnout track.”

New Models Emerging

It’s against this backdrop of low pay, low prestige and low expectations for contingent faculty that several new models of non-tenured work have emerged. Among them is the somewhat prestigious “professor of practice,” also known as  the “practice-professor.”

Professors of practice include high flyers like Gerhard Schulmeyer, president of Siemens Corp., who joined the faculty at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Another is Christopher Stone, director of the Vera Institute of Justice, who recently took a chaired professorship at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
The category was pioneered at Duke University about a decade ago, says the school’s provost, Dr. Peter Lange, to confront a far more mundane problem.

“We had a significant number of faculty being hired on one-year contracts, one after the other after the other,” Lange recalls, referring to the languages and literature departments in particular, but also to the sciences, music and dance. “That didn’t seem a fair way to treat people who were doing something important for the institution, but who did not have the credentials for tenure.”

At Duke, the professor of practice is a full-time, renewable position with contracts running usually between three and five years. Contracts can extend even longer when the review process reveals particular merit.

Practice professors are governed by the “normal faculty hiring and promotion processes and procedures,” Lange says, adding, “A professor of the practice counts against the complement of faculty that a department gets, so the department has to make self-conscious judgments that a program would be better” with the addition of a given professor of the practice.

“This was never an effort to create a status that would allow us to hire people and not offer them tenure,” Lange says. “This was an effort to improve the status of people who would never be offered tenure and whose functions are those that, generally, faculty on the tenure track don’t want to do and don’t do well.”

Similar objectives are behind the development of the “term faculty” position, increasingly found at elite private institutions like Carnegie-Mellon University and Stanford University, as well as at schools like Virginia’s  George Mason University.

At GMU, term faculty have multi-year appointments, ranks and formal performance reviews every five years, says Dr. Peter Stearns, the institution’s provost. It’s a far more stable situation than forcing faculty to subsist on multiple year-to-year appointments. “We’re trying to reduce the exploitative element” of non-tenure track work, Stearns says.

But while there’s no doubt that term positions are an improvement over the freeway faculty model, individuals still see mixed results.

One doesn’t have to look far to find someone like “Jesse” — again, not her real name — who found herself on the wrong side when her large Southeastern school moved to term arrangements two years ago.

Though she has a Ph.D. from a highly selective public institution and even published her first article while still a graduate student, Jesse made a critical mistake, one she says she would “make again in a heartbeat.” She married her high school sweetheart, ignoring the suggestions of advisors who urged her to apply for a prestigious dissertation fellowship for minority scholars that could have led to a tenure-track position.

Those advisors were “very disappointed” when she chose instead to move with her husband and teach at a large commuter school while she finished her dissertation. And Jesse agrees now that they had a point. Being labeled by her department as a “comp instructor who taught the occasional African-American lit course” definitely worked against her, she says.

Jesse eventually landed a tenure-track job at a graduate institution in a nearby city. But though her career appears to be back on track, she still wasn’t prepared to use her real name because, she says, “I don’t have tenure yet.”

Careers Just Don’t Happen

The new models of academic status have raised some significant questions. Some have wondered loudly about the lack of permanent faculty at the primary access point for first-generation, low-income and minority students. Others question the wisdom of trying to separate teaching from research, “as if one could teach without thinking about it,” Bender says.

But the principle question for entry-level academics, caught between the rock of their aspirations and the hard place of new institutional structures, remains the same. They still want to know how to navigate the environment.

Step one, the experts say, is to stay true to what most likely led you into academia to begin with: the opportunity to teach.

“I think graduate students often get misled by their advisors,” Arnzen says. “Advisors emphasize the publish-or-perish paradigm, which is implicitly a call to specialize and to do research. But you’re still a teacher as an academic, and good teachers are called upon to synthesize, to bridge the gap between the general and the specific.”

Bender agrees: “Universities are looking for people with teaching experience. We need people who have done it, not just read about it.”

Step two involves educating yourself about your choices. There are times when an academic might need flexibility — as Jesse did when she chose to marry, or as Lornell still does. Married for 15 years, Lornell is the flexible partner in the marriage who ferries the couple’s daughter to Girl Scouts and socks his entire $17,000 annual salary away as retirement income.

The AAUP’s Curtis stresses, however, that moving into one of those positions could be a one-way street. It may not be possible to move back onto the tenure track down the road.

Step three involves asking the right set of questions before you accept a new position, particularly one in any of the new categories of academic work.

“Ask how you are to be evaluated and how your contract will be renewed. Ask how your rank will be assigned and what is the relationship between salary and rank,” says Lornell. “And get it in writing. Don’t believe anything they tell you orally because they can always deny it later.”

But the final step may be the most important one. You’re going to have to exorcise a persistent ghost — the image of the “perfect academic career,” Bender says.

She came face to face with her ghost on a parents’ weekend visit to Wesleyan University, where her son was an undergraduate.
Bender walked into a male professor’s office that seemed drawn straight from a movie set. It was “a big, old room just lined with books. There was a beautiful rug and a pipe stand on his desk and a stack of manuscripts he was going through, and the whole room smelled of an aromatic tea he was brewing.

“It was the academic career I had always dreamed of, and I knew I was never going to have it,” Bender says. “He was talking about his graduate student days and I remember thinking, ‘Yeah, that’s your career — it’s not mine. I have three kids, one in college. I’m teaching, and I’m going to school. It’s never going to be like this.’”

But it can still be rewarding and fulfilling, says Arnzen, “if you’re valuing what you do and following your own light.

“It’s like John Barth says. So often people are looking for the magic key to open the treasure. But that’s all wrong,” Arnzen says. “The key to the treasure is the treasure.”



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