Gen/Sex Class Investigates Precarity in Professors’ Jobs

By Paloma Paez-Coombe and Theodora Rodine

Across the country, job stability for professors has become increasingly hard to find. Tenured positions, which arose in the late 1800s as a way to protect faculty’s freedom of speech, are costly to institutions because they provide long-term stability and higher salaries, and so are quickly disappearing. They are being replaced by adjunct or contingent positions, in which faculty are hired and paid either by the course, or just for a year or two at a time. Contingent faculty, which now represent a large majority, often have to travel between multiple institutions for work and are paid much less than their tenured peers. As this national problem increases, understanding the way race, gender, and sexuality impact this increasingly unstable and underpaid workforce is an important way of framing this issue.

Recognizing that this problem often goes unnoticed, Anne Balay’s class “Reclaiming the Working Class Hero” decided to examine professors’ positions in the Bi-Co for our final project. The course focused on the ways that gender, race, and sexuality intersect with class, and the final project was to be an open-ended endeavor that would have some effect on these issues in our community. While professors are not part of the working class, we realized that the increasing precarity of professorships placed this issue within the frameworks that we had been discussing throughout the semester, and we felt it was important that we listened to and shared our professors’ perspectives about it. In addition to seeing the issue of unstable and poorly paid jobs in academia as a problem that affects many professors we know and love, a strong factor in our decision to pursue this subject was our belief that most students (and even some professors) really don’t see the effects of this instability. To this end, we conducted a series of interviews with Bi-Co contingent faculty discussing their experiences inside and outside the Bi-Co. For the safety of our professors, we decided to keep all testimonies anonymous.

In our research, it was difficult to find statistics that we could compare to the national scale, considering the lack of information available about faculty in the Bi-Co. For instance, while we were able to find numbers about how many faculty are visiting professors, as opposed to tenured, the information about which faculty are part-time (which means they receive less pay for their time and potentially no benefits) is not published. In terms of the numbers we did observe, around 31% of faculty at Haverford are “visiting,” which includes professors with 5-year, full-time contracts, as well as those paid per course on a temporary basis. Although this number is much lower than the national average, the visiting faculty teach more than their fair share of classes, probably around half of the courses offered at the Bi-Co. Looking at the effect of race, gender, and sexuality on the precariousness of professors’ positions came with other challenges. The percent of people of color and women on the faculty are published by Haverford, but other categories, like women of color or LGBTQ+ faculty, are not listed, making it impossible to ascertain whether these groups receive equal pay and fair promotions. Due in part to the difficulty of accessing statistics, we conducted 14 interviews with contingent and tenured faculty at Haverford and Bryn Mawr, and we relied heavily on these personal experiences to learn more about the conditions of working in the Bi-Co.

Some of our interviews opened up very difficult conversations, and we found that some faculty members have really struggled with the stress and shame of having a relatively unstable and low-paid job, especially considering the pressure in academia to always appear successful and in control. While most faculty members we talked to expressed positive experiences and gratitude for their time in the Bi-Co, common themes of difficulties with the community, incredibly high expectations for productivity, and stigma or fear of talking about exploitation were also very present.

Some professors felt isolated from other faculty and the Bi-Co community at large. One visiting professor described Haverford as “cold, formal, and hierarchical,” while another said, “I was like, I’m just gonna go, teach my classes and leave, and if an institution isn’t gonna invest in me, I’m not gonna invest in it. That’s what I did at [previous institution] and that’s been my attitude at Bryn Mawr as well, but it makes me sad, because I like doing things, I like participating, I like being part of campus life, but that’s not—I haven’t been given that opportunity.”

In some cases, this disconnection from the community directly stems from the stigma around talking about working conditions and pay, and divisions among rank.

“Visiting faculty are all going through the same thing, but we can’t talk to each other…,” said a part-time faculty member. “There’s definitely a stigma around talking about it, not just here, but everywhere.”

For those with contracts that last only a year, constantly having to reapply for jobs takes valuable time, and creates an emotional burden.

“As soon as I get [to my job next year] I’ll be back on the market,” said one Bi-Co contingent faculty member. “Four weeks into my new job, I’ll be applying to leave it—that’s just how this works. That is the most stressful thing about a visiting job.”

While compensation at Haverford for the different faculty rankings seems comparatively high, we were unable to find out how much a professor is paid per course when they are not hired full-time, either at Haverford or Bryn Mawr. The only hint we got of how well or poorly part-time faculty are paid was when one part-time professor mentioned having to weigh their desire to be involved in the community with the thought that if they worked another 10 hours that week, they’d be making only around 8 dollars an hour, since part-time compensation is per courses taught and not per hours worked. For some professors, the prestige of their title and the level of education they’ve received don’t line up at all with their compensation. “I do find it highly ironic that I don’t get paid enough to go to Bryn Mawr or Haverford,” another continent faculty member said. “There’s something about that that unsettles me.”

In many ways, students are directly disadvantaged by the extreme pressure on professors to compete for vanishing tenure track jobs. One professor said that they were in such unhealthy circumstances in order to keep up with the workload that it seriously affected their ability to teach.

“I couldn’t figure out a way to get more than three hours of sleep a night, and I also had so much pressure on me to be a good teacher, right, and I ended up doing really unhealthy things—but at what sacrifice? And of course I didn’t tell my students about anything, they didn’t know what was going on.”

Another problem with the increased competition for fewer livable jobs is that it de-incentivizes creativity and progressive thinking in academia. A different contingent faculty member stated that “The really exciting teaching, and a lot of the most ethical, and to me most Haverfordian teaching, like the teaching that’s directly impacting social justice, is done by contingent folks. And that’s not accidental. It’s actually because the people who get the traditional tenure-track department jobs, they’ve been preparing for that since grad school if not since college, and they’re just not encouraged to think outside the box. And I’m not trying to be negative about them, they’ve been carefully going down a list of what it takes to get those vanishing positions, which really, part of the reason I’m not criticizing those folks is job security is a huge thing and there aren’t very many ways left to get it in academia.”

While we listened to many important experiences from contingent faculty, this project was also marked by the silences we encountered. Many professors refused to give interviews, and others were willing to speak with us but did not want their words published, even anonymously. Often, the stories that were not published were the most painful and traumatic. With regards to the effect of race and gender, we heard many accounts of professors with under-represented identities feeling pressured to do a lot of emotional labor to support students with similar experiences. In addition to the emotional burden of this labor, the free labor that minorities and women perform for the community can significantly increase their workload.

“Women professors, and then women of color professors, end up doing way more emotional labor because basically they’re teaching within a racist institution and end up being the people who can sort of provide allyship and comfort to students of color who are in the system,” one faculty member said. When professors are already underpaid and underrecognized, this additional work, which many teachers really want to be able to do, may take a large toll.

The stories we heard are by no means comprehensive, and considering our lack of access to information about compensation and benefits for individual people and hiring decisions, we are hesitant to make any sweeping conclusions. However, the purpose we see in our project is not to make a statement about every professor’s reality at Haverford and Bryn Mawr. We want to increase awareness that some professors really struggle with their own working conditions, although their jobs may seem prestigious and secure. We hope that the research we have done opens up this conversation and makes students and faculty more likely to talk about exploitation in academia. If nothing else, we hope that more representation of contingent faculty and their daily lives makes some professors feel less isolated.

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