How to Be a Tenured Ally

October 30, 2013

I’m an adjunct at two different private universities.* In those positions, I’ve encountered numerous tenured and tenure-track faculty who were allies to adjuncts, and numerous faculty who were not.  After Monday’s post critiquing ineffective tenured allies, I want to be a bit more productive than deconstructive. One of the things that I’ve learned from my long years studying feminist activism is that critique has its place, but positive actions should emerge from it.

Here are some handy tips, if you have tenure (or are close to getting it), and you’d like to be an ally:

1. Recognize that your job is dependent on adjuncts. In many departments, adjuncts teach the high-enrollment, introductory courses that (in part) give the administration its numbers for determining how many tenured and tenure-track faculty lines will exist. Now, this is a not-nuanced version of how administrators decide these things, but, big picture: adjuncts make it possible for tenured and tenure-track professors to teach small, upper-level classes by teaching high-enrollment, entry-level courses. They put the bodies in the seats.

2. Reframe your perspective of the “adjunct problem.” One of the biggest problems in the relationship between adjuncts and the tenured is a perception among tenured faculty that adjuncting is something you have to do for a couple of years before you get a tenure-track job, and that if you’re any good, you’ll succeed. However, the reality is that the percentage of tenured and tenure-track positions is ever shrinking, despite increasing student enrollments. Reframe your understanding of the “adjunct problem” as the creation of a long-term, growing academic underclass, rather than a temporary setback for a few individuals.

3. Listen to adjuncts. If you talk to adjuncts, they’ll tell you about low pay, lack of health insurance, their nonexistent retirement funds, their fear of not being able to get enough work next semester, their complete exhaustion from juggling classes and universities. So, invite adjuncts lunch, buy them a beer or a glass of wine, ask them to stop by your office, or just send them an email to open communication. If you get some sense of the issues they face in your department, you will be better prepared to be a genuine ally. 

4. Acknowledge that adjuncts are highly qualified teachers. Many, many, many adjuncts have PhDs. Many of us are even from elite institutions, because even in top-tier departments, the best estimate that anyone can say is that approximately 50% of graduates will get tenure-track jobs (though this is notoriously hard to track). As the reliance on contingent faculty has steadily increased, so has the level of qualifications that adjuncts bring to the table. Many of them have published, have received grants, and continue to present their research at conferences and colloquia.

5. Take an interest in your adjunct colleagues’ research and publications. I’ve been in the position several times over the past few years where faculty members are completely surprised that I publish and go to conferences. The usual follow-up question is not, “Where can I read that?”, but “How do you have the time?” That is the wrong follow-up. Ask me about my research, and you treat me like a scholar. Ask me about my time-management, and you reduce my contribution to the scholarly conversation to a footnote in my workday. 

6. Make sure your department creates physical space for adjuncts. At one institution, my office was in a windowless, cinderblock basement. In another, it was a cubicle in the secretary’s office that I shared with other adjuncts and the department’s work-study students. Though these are not great options, they’re still better than what I have at one university this semester: nothing. If your university doesn’t have enough offices for adjuncts, work with administrators to create a schedule in unused classrooms or allow adjuncts to use your office on days when you aren’t on campus. I know, that last one is a real problem for some people, as it means you have to keep your desk clean. But if you aren’t using it to hold office hours, and you aren’t using it to write your book, you would be kind and generous to offer it to adjuncts.

7. Learn what adjuncts in your university are paid. Most of my tenured colleagues do not know what I earn. A few years ago, I told a senior professor (at another institution) what I currently made per 3-credit course; he was horrified that it was less than what he’d made per course as an adjunct in the 1980s. It’s always shocking to me how few tenured and tenure-track faculty know what adjuncts earn. And if you don’t know what adjuncts earn, it’s easy to dismiss their complaints.


8. Give adjuncts a seat at your faculty meetings, or hold a special meeting to hear about their work experience. No one likes the idea of more meetings. But a very real problem arises from academic schedules that place people on campus on opposite days—no one talks. Although this as one of the factors leading to a lack of collegiality in general, it also leads to a complete lack of awareness about adjunct work conditions, as well as the perception of an antagonistic relationship between tenured faculty and adjuncts. Include adjuncts more, and you’ll be able to work together more.

9. Fight for yearlong, rather than semester/quarter-based contracts. Or better yet, fight for multi-year contracts. If you really want to do something for adjuncts, use your power—collectively—to argue that these courses cannot be taught unless it’s by people with some level of job security and investment in the university. Argue that it’s in the best interest of the revenue stream (students), that it helps with retention rates, that it contributes to university ranking. Any time you do this, you reinforce the idea that long-term commitment to the university—as an institution, as an idea, and as a force of education—is essential to teaching, learning, and research. Even if it does not work in the short term, it’s an essential argument for the long term.

10. Include adjuncts in the faculty senate. At one of my universities, I get emails from the faculty senate. These emails never fail to remind me that, while I’m on their list, I’m not “real” faculty. It’s disheartening to get emails celebrating the preservation of the meager 3% increase for faculty salaries when adjuncts haven’t gotten even this percentage since the 2008 recession (when we have gotten a raise, it’s been less than 3%; for the past two years, there’s been no raise). If adjuncts had representation in the faculty senate—true representation—it would be a greater acknowledgment of their contribution to the university, and maybe they would not have to critique “the tenured” so much.

Finally, even if you do none of the above, treat adjuncts with respect. Not because they are excellent teachers (though they are); not because the hold the PhD (and many do); not because many of them do research and publish (they do, and some of them even win awards for it); and not because the university is coming for you (it is). Be respectful because it’s the right thing to do, and maybe we can all work on those university crises together.

*The fact that my institutions are private definitely affects the tone of this list. Professors in these institutions do not face as much of a squeeze as those at state schools, and I recognize their privilege as well as my own. But the same could be said for adjuncts at those institutions, who face much more difficult situations than I do. 

11 Responses to “How to Be a Tenured Ally”

  1. […] How to be a Tenured Ally (Elizabeth Keenan, […]

  2. Thank you for this. It is extremely polite and kind of you to acknowledge us adjuncts with such respect. As an adjunct with a PhD from an elite university, I am feeling the pain of not having a full time contract. I teach because I really love to teach and mentor my students. I believe I am an excellent teacher and the university is lucky to have a devoted teacher like me. I teach at the American University in Cairo (AUC) a private university where 85% of the faculty are adjunct. We are paid miserably and receive no benefits at all, aside from taking the bus for free. I believe a very important aspect which is rarely voiced is the fact that many universities (AUC for sure) would not be able to function without the adjuncts. We teach the bulk of the classes. If the adjuncts at AUC all walked out together, the university would have to close many of its doors and loose many if not most of its students. It is time university administrators begin to acknowledge, reward and respect adjuncts. Without us the university will not survive as a teaching institution.

  3. Reblogged this on As the Adjunctiverse Turns and commented:
    companion piece to … PS whenever possible, follow adjunct bloggers on their own space rather than under the umbrella of a bigger name. I appreciate the Academe blog’s #CEW2013 series but feel even more strongly about supporting our own spaces

  4. Skander said

    Thank you very much for this. This is really helpful, well thought out, and a beacon of constructive input in an internet full of well intentioned but solely negative critiques.

  5. […] Elizabeth Keenan, “How To Be a Tenured Ally” […]

  6. […] Elizabeth Keenan:“How To Be a Tenured Ally” […]

  7. […] Please read more about how you can help us! Here is an excellent article on how to be a tenured ally! […]

  8. Yellow Dog said

    […] could include speaking about these issues in classes, in meetings, in public forums; writing op-eds; insisting that senior […]

  9. […] that set me off. So, I started blogging with “How Not to Be a Tenured Ally,” followed by “How to Be a Tenured Ally.” Suddenly, after these two posts, people were coming to my blog and contacting me over Twitter. […]

  10. […] that set me off. So, I started blogging with “How Not to Be a Tenured Ally,” followed by “How to Be a Tenured Ally.” Suddenly, after these two posts, people were coming to my blog and contacting me over Twitter. […]

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