It Ain’t Sexy But….

conteingentfacultyWe have Kelly Baker on campus, here to give the second annual Day Lecture. On the ride to Tuscaloosa form the Birmingham airport the other day, we got talking about the issue of contingent faculty in academia (a topic on which she has blogged) or, more specifically, about how the issue plays out in the academic study of religion. We talked about the American Academy of Religion’s current forays into the issue (e.g., a task force she is herself involved with, an academic relations sub-committee my own colleague here at Alabama, Ted Trost, is involved with, and even a workshop on “best practices” at the upcoming national conference in San Diego). As a onetime instructor (having held three consecutive one year contracts at the start of my career [1993-6]) and a longtime member of the AAR — the main professional association for US scholars of religion, but also the largest national association for scholars of religion in the world, hence it has an international reach — I’ve got a thought of two on what the leadership of this group ought to be considering before it decides what it wants to try to accomplish.

Short Term, Long Term, and Knowing Your Limits

It seems to me that any professional organization can only do two things: (i) effect actual change in domains that it directly controls and (ii) suggest possible changes in domains over which it does not exert any direct control (but, instead, has indirect influence, at best). So the AAR, which presumably controls such things as its journal (in collaboration with Oxford University Press, of course — e.g., its subscription rates and who gets to publish in it as well as run it), but also the criteria for/benefits of membership in the organization, participation in its annual meeting (which is also the home of the annual job placement center), and the main jobs periodical in the field (Openings), ought to consider what it can do in its own backyard first. For these are among the domains over which the AAR has direct influence and where I think it best to put its immediate attention and energies — whether to carry out symbolic or, ideally, substantive reforms that have immediate impact on some of our colleagues. Given that it cannot directly control most of the structural factors that determine the shape of the field, e.g., salaries, the allocation of new positions, the ranks of those positions, let alone the teaching loads within the Departments where its members work, effecting these factors are a far more ambitious exercise for any professional association, requiring long term strategies and the cooperation of a host of other institutions, each with interests and limitations of its own.

Three Words: Data Data Data

But before even suggesting possible ways that a professional association can address the problem of contingent faculty, even in its own backyard, it seems to me that it needs data on whether this is even a problem. Anecdotally it sure is, at least in many people’s experience (I have stories of my own, of course), and across the academy it certainly is, but what’s the data say in the study of religion? Does the AAR even know how many of its members occupy non-tenure track/non-tenured positions (the broadest definition of contingent that is out there), let alone what sort of appointments they have, or what their work conditions are like, etc? My guess is that it does not, for I don’t ever recall a paper or  online form or poll asking that sort of information (in fact, I’m not even sure how to gather some of it, other than survey’s of Departments [akin to how the old CSSR created its annual Directory of Departments and Programs of Religious Studies in North America] or voluntary, anecdotal reporting from individual members). So it seems to me that before any proposals are ventured the Academy needs data on the extent of the issue within its own membership. For regardless the goodwill behind it, a bold proposal to, for example, waive all annual membership fees for contingent faculty members of the AAR may have an astonishing price tag, making such a commitment a promise it can’t make good on.

Definitions, Both Wide and Narrow

But collecting data on what? I think we need to dispense with the category “contingent faculty”; I certainly understand the rhetorical advantage to doing away with former distinctions (part-time, adjunct, etc.) and, instead, grouping all non-tenure-track/non-tenured faculty into one compellingly large category, but if we do discover that an unacceptable number of AAR members are working in these situations (as I suspect to be the case at many schools — but what counts as unacceptable?) the only way to do anything about it is, I would argue, to distinguish among the variety of situations they’re in — e.g., despite both being non-tenure track, the very real challenges facing a per course person cobbling together enough classes, one at a time, at several institutions, are not necessarily those facing an Instructor in a three year contract position with benefits. It therefore seems to me that knowing the differences among non-tenure-track members of the AAR and/or members of our field is crucial for any sustained action to take place — for the problems facing, and thus the strategies to address, that per course lecturer’s situation will not necessarily be the same as for that Instructor mentioned just above. That is to say, while generalization may be the rhetorical key to get us to the point where we realize that we need to act, analytic specificity is probably the key to accomplishing practical action that has effect.

Budgets are a Delicate Balance

Knowing in detail the make-up of its membership’s various types of appointments and duties will surely be an important step to figuring out how (and whether) the AAR can, in domains it controls, reach out to assist some of its members. Should fees be waived for this or that membership benefit? What would Oxford University Press think of providing the online JAAR for next to nothing to some members? Why does an applicant have to pay anything (even if only $25 in advance or $50 onsite, as is now the case) to register at the annual conference’s employment center? In fact, given the costs associated with finding work via attendance at a national convention (airfare, hotel, food, registration, etc.), why does the onsite employment center continue to exist — why isn’t it a high tech collaborative website that facilitates real time, online meetings between prospective employers and applicants? When it comes to negotiating hotel contracts, and given the buying power of the combined AAR/SBL, why are not large blocks of rooms available at considerable savings for financially-stressed members to book? (In fact, what counts as financially stressed?) The data, of course, will tell us how feasible any of these actions might be; not knowing the books of the AAR, I’m guessing it would need to make up for a loss in revenue in one area by increasing it in others — how willing are those of us in more comfortable, permanent positions to step up to assist? For no benefit comes cheap; if your institution currently pays for your registration or hotel, for example (as it likely does in many of our cases), might you be willing to pay some out of your own pocket if the prices went up for some of us? And if so, for whom?

The Power of Disclosure

Finally, recognizing that many factors that govern the job market are well beyond its direct control, I still think it might be surprising to see how much the AAR could get done in the long term, and in other people’s backyards, not only by developing and publicizing a “best practices” document (something I’m all for and something which it has already begun work on, I’m told) but also by publicizing the field-wide data is accumulates — just why do we have so many non-tenure track colleagues (if, as some of us suspect, we do)? What is their role in the field and who is generating all the credit hours in Departments (credit hours essential to the field’s well being)? What are the tenure-track and tenure faculty teaching and what are their service loads? On whose shoulders do certain responsibilities fall — and why? That is, subscribing to already existing resources or generating its own data through surveys sent directly to Department chairs (the AAR has mailing lists for this group, no?), and then sharing that information with all members (akin to that directory of members it used to print), might have surprising consequence, inasmuch as it prompts Departments to talk a little more openly about how their labors are divided and their benefits are allocated.

And if you develop a best practices document, then follow through by applying it and publicizing how Departments stack up — do Departments visit lecturers’ or adjuncts’ classes and provide them with feedback and thus evidence on their teaching effectiveness that they can use in their own job search? How are these (in many cases) early career people mentored not just in therms of teaching but also in carrying out their research and publication? Do they come to faculty meetings? Do they receive travel support funds of any sort? Do they have an office and computer/phone? Do the large enrollment classes fall on their shoulders, in addition to heavier teaching loads? Are they given service duties — an assignment that can be an important moment in ongoing professionalization but also an unreasonable expectation, all depending on the assignment. How late in the year are they alerted about possible renewals of their contracts?

So develop the document and then apply it and let us know the results. Will some of us squirm? Maybe… And maybe we should.

It Aint’ Sexy, But…

Nothing I’ve said here is earth-shattering, of course. But I think that practical action for what strikes me as a systemic issue has to first recognize where we can and cannot effect change and then have enough accurate information as the basis for devising a plan. Going through these steps isn’t sexy and doesn’t make for catchy headlines or photo-ops, of course, but it seems to me an essential step forward if we’re hoping to do anything that will eventually matter and have consequence.


4 thoughts on “It Ain’t Sexy But….

  1. Russ,

    Thanks for this thoughtful post! The staff, the Membership Task Force, the Contingent Faculty Task Force, and the Academic Relations Committee are trying to coordinate efforts to address these issues, starting out with separating what we CAN do from what we WISH we could do. 🙂 We’re revamping our Member Profile to get members to self-report this sort of information. A Departmental Survey is long overdue. I hope we can get one out early next year.

  2. Ideally, I’d love to see a complete overhaul to the jobs center (we are not using it this year and moving instead to Skype sessions, if required, prior to finalists’ on-campus interviews), a novel pricing system for membership/conf registration based not just salary or flat fees, and free online subscriptions to JAAR for grad students and early career faculty (anyone not full-time? Not t-track?). That would be a start that would inject significant energy into this and make sure people understand that the AAR is serious about all this. What OUP would think of this, what the AAR would no longer be able to afford doing, or what fees would thereby fall on the rest of us, would certainly have to be figured out… As for the demographics of Depts, aim to produce the sort of volume a job candidate would be reading, to empower them, to provide them with the lowdown on what this or that unit actually values and rewards…, and if a unit fails to voluntarily submit the data then print a blank page with just their contact info–I’m serious. That tells us as much as we likely need to know…. An online database would be relatively easy to set up that each Dept has a login for and which we’re asked to keep updated annually and thus it is a public site that one logs into to see the results…. And don’t let the big PhD granting programs in the game to determine what stats are submitted since they’ll work like hell to skew it in a way that keeps up the impression that they’re top dogs….

  3. As a recent Ph.D. and a recent t-track hire I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to completely reinvent, if not destroy, the Employment Center as it currently stands. Candidates should not have to travel to a national conference for initial interviews. In a world with Skype, FaceTime, and any number of other methods for getting an initial feel for candidates there is no reason to require them to travel. It forces the AAR members with the least resources to come to the meeting, often with no institutional support. It’s also an incredibly depressing space. Second, the AAR recently moved its job listings behind a membership paywall. This is yet another resource hurdle for candidates to jump that seems a unnecessary.

  4. Pingback: The $200 Handshake: Why We Should Stop Doing Job Interviews at Conferences #SBLAAR14 | Michael J. Altman

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