Katie Rose Guest Pryal

Novelist and Essayist at Chronicle Vitae

The 50-Percent Problem

Full kurosawa pryal

Image: Seven Samurai (1954), by Akira Kurosawa

If you are a non-tenure-track instructor, you likely take on more work than your job description calls for. You might do it out of hope. (“Maybe they’ll offer me a real job someday.”) You might do it out of fear. (“If I don’t say yes to everything, I’ll get fired.”) Eventually I figured out that the extra work I was taking on out of fear and hope ended up being 50 percent of the work I did in a week.

I was spending only half of my time actually doing the job that I loved — teaching and advising students, making the university a better place by serving on committees (including the university-wide faculty council), running a law-review symposium, doing research, and publishing my research. The other 50 percent of my time was filled with “work” that qualified as complete BS.

In short, I had a “50 Percent Problem.”

Let me be clear: The printer breaking down? That was not BS. That was just part of life. Learning new scheduling software? Not BS, either. Every job everywhere (including working for myself, like I’m doing now) involves stuff you don’t want to do. That’s just life. No, what I’m talking about is being forced to do “bonus” work (uncompensated or undercompensated) because of your low status on the faculty as a non-tenure-track faculty member.

A Career Built on Community and Hope

I effectively left academia a year and a half ago, but I remain on the fringes. I teach continuing education courses. I attend conferences, deliver talks, and present on my research and publications. I have a few academic book projects that I’m finishing up with co-authors. I also live in a college town — Chapel Hill, N.C. — so the university is part of my life. I want the university here to thrive. It’s the heart of our community.

But when I was in academia, I didn’t thrive. Let me be more specific. I thrived in graduate school. I won awards and fellowships, published, and generally excelled in my courses. At least, I think that’s what “excelling in graduate school” means. But at the same time, isn’t that true of most graduate students? Isn’t that what it means to “attend" graduate school these days? If you don’t do those things, you don’t stand a chance of getting a tenure-track job. Although as Kelly J. Baker recently pointed out, even if you do those things, you hardly stand a chance of landing a tenure-track job.

Once I graduated, I held two different full-time jobs, both off the tenure track. (I also held a couple of adjunct positions, but for now I’m going to focus on the full-time jobs.) Like most non-tenure-track professors, I threw myself, body and soul, into those jobs. Like many, if not most, non-tenure-trackers, I took the jobs because of geography, family, and other ties that I didn’t want to sacrifice. And I’m glad I didn’t sacrifice them.

But I didn’t thrive in either of those jobs. That isn’t a secret. You just have to read my blog or my Vitae columns to figure that out. But if you’d asked folks who worked with me (including my tenured colleagues) if I were thriving, they would have said I was. Shortly before I left my final position, I’d even been promoted. Unless you knew me well, you couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. (Some thought it had something to do with this. LOL.) Of course, few actually bothered to ask me.

If they’d asked, I would have told them that they’d put me in an untenable position, one that no one will likely stay in for long. It’s underpaid, overworked, disrespected, alienated, and all of the things that everyone knows are wrong with non-tenure-track jobs in academia. How no one saw this problem coming down the tracks is incredible to me, because the same problem is happening everywhere. (Duke University, just a few miles up the street, now knows non-tenure-track employment is a problem because the SEIU is knocking on their door.)

Defining the Bonus Work Problem

Bonus work falls on faculty for a variety of reasons. Sometimes faculty, both on and off the tenure track, are asked to do time-consuming bonus work because of their race and/or gender. Academics of color, especially women of color, are asked in disproportionate amounts to serve on committees, to make public appearances, to be photographed for websites and school materials, and to advise students. (If you want to learn more about this race- and gender-based academic bonus work, you can start with Debra A. Harley’s landmark “Maids of Academe” published in 2007. Check out the collection Presumed Incompetent published in 2012 and read this interview with the collection’s editor. General Googling works, too.)

Bonus work also falls on contingent faculty simply because of their status. The tenured or tenure-track folks in the building either don’t want to do that work (so it rolls downhill) or feel that non-tenure-track faculty should have to do it because of who they are.

For example, if I have trouble getting a classroom reserved for some reason that has nothing to do with my job title — maybe they’re all booked or the software is jammed — that’s just life. However, if I get bumped from my classroom reservation because a bigwig tenured professor decides at the last minute to bully me out of the space by pressuring the administrative assistant to tell me to relocate, that’s BS. I’m not going to make the staffer fight the senior prof. I’ll just move my students and lose 10 to 15 minutes of my class time. Therefore, I just gave up 15 minutes to BS. And when I have to move classrooms eight to nine times a semester? That’s a lot of BS that creeps into my work time.

Always having to meet in the offices of the tenured, even when they’re asking you for a favor? That’s BS. Being paired with a tenure-track colleague on a project, yet you end up doing most of the work because “you only teach”? More BS. I’m sure you can think of other examples. (Share them in the comments!)

The longer I worked at my non-tenure-track jobs, the more of my time went to bonus work. Things literally got worse. More and more of this work landed in my lap as my tenured colleagues realized that I wouldn’t fight back because I was too scared of getting fired. I don’t even think my colleagues (mostly) realized they were doing it.

Decreasing Your Percentage of BS Work

If any of this sounds familiar then the next question is: What can you do to decrease your BS percentage? I have some ideas. They might not be what everyone wants to hear, but if you already recognize that half of your job is bonus work, then you are probably ready for these.

  • Give up hope of ever getting into the tenure club. Hope is the worst. Hope is what keeps you saying yes to unreasonable demands. Listen well: They’re never going to let you in. It’s never going to happen. And if it does happen, it won’t be because you’re letting them push you around. Just let go of that hope. Read this manifesto — it might make you feel better.
  • Keep a list of all the things you do for your department or division. Then, at the end of each week, write a delightful little email to your immediate supervisor, and your supervisor’s supervisor, recounting all of the great things you did that week. I know that this sounds like a strange thing to do. But it is not. One of the main problems non-tenure-track faculty face is invisibility. Our divisions don’t know who we are and don’t know what we do. Fix that problem by “managing up.” Let your supervisors know just who you are and what great things you are doing. That kind of knowledge creates job security. It allows you to say no more often because you keep track of all the things you said yes to. It also enables you to …
  • Live without fear. If you stop hoping to get into the club, then you won’t be afraid of not being promoted. The worst thing they can do is fire you. But if you are managing up, then getting fired becomes far less likely, too. You are no longer invisible or easy to disregard. You’ve done your job, and you’ve done it well. If they still fire you, then you know there’s nothing you could have done to stop it.

Those three things — giving up the tenure hope, keeping track of what you do, and living without fear — can work together to decrease the percentage of bonus work dominating your days. I hope they work for you.

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