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There Are Advantages To Knowing Your Limits In Making A Difference For Non-Tenure Track Colleagues (Russell McCutcheon)

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The following is the fourth essay in a series on “the contingent campus”, or the problem of adjunctification and precarious academic employment.

Late one night, in episode 5 of the first season of the television reboot of “Fargo,” a man who lives directly across the alley from the Duluth Police Deputy, Gus Grimly ( Colin Hanks), sees Gus through their windows and ends up coming over to his apartment, where they commiserate about family and work.

After Gus tells him, in vague detail, about a crime he’s having trouble solving, and while both are drinking a warm glass of milk, in that darkened kitchen, the neighbor recounts a parable about a rich man who, despite repeatedly trying to make the world a better place (such as by first donating all of his money and then a kidney), nonetheless continues to be disillusioned by people’s misery. When his doctor declines to allow him to be a liver, a heart, and a cornea donor—since this would kill him—the man goes home, stoically draws a bath, and commits suicide in the tub, with the words “organ donor” written above him across the bathroom wall.

In reply to the story, Gus asks,  “And does it work? Does it stop the suffering?”

His neighbor dryly responds, “You live in the world. What do you think? Only a fool thinks he can solve the world’s problems.”

Gus comments, “But you’ve got to try, don’t you?”

I find this to be an apt story to open a post devoted to current labor conditions in U.S. higher education – notably, the increasing reliance on instructors who, though in many cases well qualified, are not part of the tenure-track system – whether they be full-time employees who are on some sort of limited term contract, part-time employees teaching one or two courses, but possibly doing this at more than one institution each semester, or graduate students who are either teaching sometimes multiple courses of their own or acting as teaching assistants and tutors in a variety of classes.

Now, in using this scene as my opening, one is forced to ask whether, when thinking about the labor problems facing universities today, one ought to identify with idealistic Gus or with his realistic neighbor. Given my role in the university – inasmuch as I understand myself to be here in my capacity as a department chair (a role I played from 2001-2009, while focusing explicitly on the reinvention of our department at the University of Alabama, and then, after a four year break, returning to it once again in 2013) – taking both positions seriously strikes me as the most sensible way to operate within our institutions.

For while only fools would think that a single actor’s agency, whomever that actor may be, could have any sort of substantial or lasting effect on, say, altering a university administration’s priorities or changing the funding decisions made by the federal government or state legislatures (both of which establish the context in which those administrators make their decisions), let alone altering the priorities of credentialing agencies, and thereby solving the problem.

It would be equally foolhardy, I’d maintain, to think that a lone social actor, let alone those occupying the position of department chairs, are powerless to effect some sort of change – those positioned to at leave “give it a try,” in Gus’s words. So, while understanding his neighbor’s skeptical conclusion, I find myself more in agreement with Gus – if, that is, what we, in our current capacities, are trying to do is not to change the course of U.S. higher ed but, instead, to creatively and strategically work within the structures as we find them, in our own locale, to effect whatever change we’re capable of accomplishing to better the situation of the people with whom we work and, in the process, enhance the conditions in which all of our students pursue their studies.

Yet too often it seems as if tenure-track or tenured faculty members – not unlike social actors in any circumstance – side with Gus’s neighbor and act as if they are paralyzed by the larger structural conditions in their institutions, failing to see that there are likely always a variety of situations where they (individually or collectively – and thus acting as a department) can employ strategies to moderate and even enhance the work conditions of  the non-tenure track colleagues from whose labor their departments (which is code for saying they themselves) benefit (something too infrequently recognized, I’d argue).

Now, this strategic and structural shortsightedness is an understandable outcome of the institution that has produced us as credentialed experts, inasmuch as the increasing specialization required of our studies often seems to breed scholars working in isolated silos who (as I’ve noted on other occasions) have difficulty being colleagues – by that I mean that while many faculty members are deeply concerned with their own research and teaching they often have difficulty thinking beyond those two domains to entertain that the units in which they do their work – from departments to colleges and even universities as a whole – have needs and priorities of their own.

In fact, I sometimes have difficulty blaming the current tendency to go looking outside of academia for senior administrators since so few faculty seem interested in (or should I say capable of?) thinking anything is interesting beyond their own expertise and, as an extension of that, also of thinking widely about what an institution – be it a department, a college, or even the university as a whole -needs and where it ought to be going.

Simply put, what I think we need is not just more social theorists in the study of religion (a position I’ve argued often enough in the past) but, more importantly, more theorists capable of theorizing our own social conditions in academia.  These are colleagues who recognize the limitations entailed by (f)actors well beyond our own pay grade but who also go looking for the lacunae and the contradictions – or maybe we should just call them opportunities—inherent in any social structure.

Or so the social theorists tell us.

So, while knowing that we, more than likely, cannot single-handedly ensure that our universities obtain sufficient state funding or private donor support to, say, double the size of the tenure-track faculty, our department at the University of Alabama has tried to carefully go down the road of employing what we locally classify part-time or full-time temporary instructors (PTTI and FTTI).

For as I mentioned earlier, when I was hired, in August of 2001, my task was to help revive a department that had long failed to graduate a sufficient number of majors and which therefore faced the very real possibility of losing the major, being demoted to a service department, or perhaps closing altogether. This means that the faculty (which was less than half the size then that it is now [4.25 as opposed to 9.5 tenure-track and tenured faculty]), clearly understood what was at stake for them personally.

We were therefore cognizant of the need not just for speedy but, more significantly, for long lasting collective action that would put the department on a different path for the coming decades—after all, our own jobs hung in the balance (did I mention that I was the only one with tenure at the time?).

Now, although our situation made the inevitable sand on which any social group is built profoundly apparent to us.  That is, we were judged to be non-viable, according to the state credentialing board, and were therefore poised to lose our major, reducing us to a so-called service unit. I’d suggest that the members of every department – no matter how successful or well entrenched it appears – would be wise to keep in mind that their continued existence is never a forgone conclusion and that, instead, social life is always premised on persuading members continually to reinvest energy into the unit, a reinvestment that, if done just sufficiently, leads merely to what we call the status quo (suggesting that new initiatives require far more investment than one might think).

You will have noticed that I’ve not talked specifically about non-tenure track labor – though I’m happy to, as part of the discussion, name a few strategies that, as chair, I’ve tried to use to create as favorable work conditions for these colleagues as I think I can manage, given the agency that I have in this specific administrative role.  But as I’ve said, I’ve not talked specifically about non-tenure track labor because it seems to me that the only way to address this issue, within the agency that is the department’s chair’s or faculty members, is to ensure that it is seen by all members of the department as a department-wide issue.

For it is the department as a whole, which includes the people to which it has made a long term commitment, aka the job security that comes with tenure and the hope for tenure, that benefits from the labor of its non-tenure-track members.

So while I could focus on such things as whether contingent faculty have offices and computers, asking whether they have phones, whether they appear on the department website, and have library privileges, are they part of the department’s governance structure, mentored in their teaching and research, welcomed at faculty meetings (because they too have a stake in the department’s success) and so forth.  Or, better yet, while I could strategize on ways to obtain office space, computers, phones, library privileges, etc., none of those strategies will be successful if the rest of the faculty fail to understand their own investment in this part of departmental life.

So, speaking as someone who began his career as a full-time instructor, employed on one year contracts, at the University of Tennessee, eventually for a total of three consecutive years, I think it is instead worth considering whether the d

department’s tenured and tenure-track faculty accurately understands – at least from where I sit, having not only been an Instructor but, since then, having been directly involved in a large number of searches – the surprisingly thin line of situational happenstance (a.k.a. luck) that often, or perhaps always, separates themselves from those who sometimes work in their midst for rather less salary and with very little (if any) job security.

For, at least in my experience, only when everyone feels an investment themselves, an affinity for their colleagues and a sense of a collective goal, will the entire faculty be united not just in equitably sharing the many different tasks that constitute the work of making a department exist from day to day but also in distributing its various resources and benefits.

And because this is done by strategically identifying and then working on those factors that are within their power to change – something that, in my judgment, did not  necessarily animate the final version of the American Academy of Religion’s recently released “Statement on Standards Pertaining to Contingent Faculty in the Study of Religion” – I think the only that way we can make a difference addressing.  And you will notice that, somewhat like Gus’s neighbor, I am purposefully less ambitious than saying “solving” the problem of contingent faculty members is to work toward ensuring that no one sees it merely as a problem of the contingent faculty themselves.

For only then, I think, can we—the plural pronoun is crucial—give it a try.

Russell T. McCutcheon is Chair of the Department of Religion at the University of Alabama.  His areas of interest include the history of scholarship on myths and rituals, the history of the publicly-funded academic study of religion as practiced in the U.S., secularism, as well as the relations between the classification “religion” itself and the rise of the nation-state.  From 1990-2001, and then again for 2012, McCutcheon served as one of the editors of the quarterly periodical, published by Brill of the Netherlands, Method & Theory in the Study of Religion.  From 1997-2001 he also edited the Bulletin of the Council of Societies for the Study of Religion. In the Fall of 2007 he stepped down after having served three years as the Executive Secretary, Treasurer, and webmaster for the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR).

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