Helene Meyers

Professor of English and McManis University Chair at Southwestern University (Tex.)

Faculty Service and the Difference Between Opportunity and Exploitation

Full vitae front work pressure

Image: iStock

Like housework, academic service is often feminized, devalued, unpaid, and invisible labor, even as it keeps our institutions functional. Simultaneously, service work can be a means of obtaining professional and cultural capital on a campus.

The effects of that contradiction — not only on individual instructors but also on faculty governance — are ridiculously complex but merit careful consideration.

By service, I mean things like sitting on committees, mentoring colleagues, bringing guest speakers to campus, and advising student groups. When I ponder what, if any, service a contingent faculty member should do, my provisional answer comes from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: "Context is all." (And yes, it is particularly apt that my source is a dystopian novel.)

When I consider the same issue from a more structural perspective, the crucial question becomes: Who and what is served by the service of contingent instructors? Or, to be more blunt: Why on earth would faculty members deemed "contingent" ever do any service at all? As part of the holy trinity of academic life — the other two parts being, of course, teaching and research — service is an investment in an institution. So why invest in an entity that blithely announces its aversion to a long-term commitment to you or even to a relationship with mutual benefits?

In an essay on that very question — wonderfully titled "Skip the Department Meeting" — the pseudonymous Neil Beckett wrote: "Do not contribute to the future of an institution that is indifferent to yours. Fulfill your contractually obligated responsibilities and go home — or beat the traffic on your way to the other campus where you’re probably also teaching."

Translated into my native Brooklynese: Don’t be a putz. The author of that essay is rightly skeptical that academic service will somehow increase the value of a contingent instructor and lead to less-contingent employment. He also questions the sense of devoting any of your time and energy toward having a say in the workings of an exploitative institution.

His end goal is twofold: (1) Limit the role that individual instructors play in their own exploitation and (2) help the academic-labor system implode by putting more pressure on the ever-diminishing number of noncontingent faculty (aka tenured and tenure-track professors) to do all of that unheralded, undervalued service work.

I applaud his clear-sightedness. Yet realpolitik and professional intangibles compel me away from universal edicts and back to Margaret Atwood’s "Context is all."

Certainly, academe’s version of the Horatio Alger story — publish your rear end off, teach well, serve on your share of committees, and you will be rewarded with a tenure-track job — has become an academic tragicomedy. However, not all institutions work the same way or have the same culture. If you’re a contingent instructor, it’s important to understand local conditions when deciding whether or not to serve, and how.

Does the institution has an established — and recent — track record of upward mobility for contingent faculty members? Do those hired to teach a course or two ever get moved into one-year positions that then lead to multiyear contracts or one of those rare tenure-track openings? Are contingent faculty members at the top of the list for academic staff job openings?

Or, alternatively, is the institution committed — both economically and ideologically — to maintaining a revolving door for its contingent work force?

The point is: Some institutions invest in contingent instructors and some don’t; some invest a lot and some very little. Therefore, there is no one-size-fits-all pattern for how much service nontenure-track faculty should do for an institution.

Tenured and tenure-track professors with a conscience — especially department heads — should be offering their honest assessment of the department’s current labor practices and intentions to their contingent counterparts. Shared knowledge across ranks and professorial categories is a form of shared capital. Although contingent instructors can’t eat institutional knowledge, that valuable resource can help them make informed decisions about where their next meal is likely to come from and, thus, where to best invest their limited time and energy.

The type of service duties — and whom it might involve — should also be taken into account. Service can be a soul-sucking waste of time, but it can also be a form of meaningful networking and professional socialization.

If your colleagues are a collegial and smart bunch, those department meetings that Beckett advises you to skip could provide insights into institutional culture. You might forge intellectual relationships that will nurture your teaching and writing. And spending time with folks differently positioned from you within the institution and the profession can provide valuable insider information. That, too, will serve you well as you strive to get a more permanent gig on that campus or elsewhere.

Given that contingent status can be alienating and isolating, professional interaction with co-workers might boost your confidence and ultimately provide valuable resources for both the academic and the alt-ac job markets.

In short, don’t simply refuse any and all service duties without weighing the particulars.

But even as I say that, I’m also saying: Be sparing about what you say yes to. Here are a few guidelines on that front:

  • Don’t participate in meetings regularly hijacked by pontificators or rife with folks who consider contingent instructors part of the furniture.
  • Avoid administrative task forces that seem to give lip service to faculty governance but have no teeth.
  • Consider the timing of meetings. Only accept those service commitments that will demonstrably serve you well. Make sure they are worth an unpaid trek to the campus on a day better spent on your teaching, your research, your search for a more-permanent job, or your life (which is very likely unbalanced despite your best efforts).
  • Above all, don’t be guilted into a committee assignment by the dangerous and seductive discourse that academics do what we do "out of love" and not for the money. That rhetoric is designed to get you to identify against yourself and to forget your status as a worker — and a disposable one at that.

I don’t in any way want to gloss over the privilege (some of it earned) associated with being a tenured professor in these truly dystopian times for higher education. However, I do want to close by suggesting that smart, strategic practices regarding the service of contingent faculty members should, at the very least, illuminate and could, at the very best, transform academe’s service economy.

Increasingly, what used to be the purview of faculty governance has been outsourced to accrediting institutions, to state legislators, to boards of trustees, and to administrators — all groups that are, along a continuum, often far removed from the grass roots of teacher/scholars. Faculty service is increasingly academic theater that stays at the level of rehearsal and never really gets to the main stage.

In the pages of The Chronicle, the "Skip the Department Meeting" essay is complemented well by another column: "Loyalty, Shmoyalty." Its author, the also pseudonymous James Dixon, asks: "What do you do when you realize that your devotion to your institution is not reciprocated?"

While Beckett is a contingent faculty member and Dixon is tenured, both felt the need for a pseudonym, suggesting that academics today are positioned similarly to Victorian women novelists. And both are asking crucial questions about types of, and returns on, investments.

The very particular question I posed early on here — "Who and what is served by the service of contingent faculty?" — absolutely needs to be asked and contextually answered. But asking its corollary — "Who and what is served by the service of faculty?" — might help to forge alliances across faculty class lines rather than further the corporate game of divide and conquer being played on campuses across the country.


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