A Precarious Professoriate Works Against an Antiracist Curriculum

Kelly Opdycke, California State University, Northridge and California State University, Los Angeles

In The Reorder of Things, Roderick Ferguson (2012) exhibits the way academia folds marginalized voices into it, but only within the existing academic framework. Academia might make room for marginalized students and faculty, but only in ways that do not disrupt the system. For example, they might hire more faculty of color, but place them in various ethnic studies departments rather than in departments not attached to identity to avoid the possible confrontations that might come with a diversified faculty. Or, these new faculty of color are hired off the tenure-line, usurping any power they might have gained in their position. Antiracist efforts run the risk of being molded by neoliberal racist academia. If faculty of color are hired without tenure or placed into marginalized departments that do not receive as much resources as other departments, their hiring serves quantitative diversity goals while limiting the ways these faculty members are able to work toward antiracist shifts. As we plan antiracist curriculum, we need to push against these and other kinds of existing academic frameworks to move closer towards an antiracist university. In this essay, I look at one place we need to work towards antiracism: the exploitation of contingent faculty. Creating an antiracist curriculum must include supporting all types of faculty as they navigate the necessarily difficult terrain that comes with antiracist courses. Contingent faculty are 70% of teaching faculty in the United States (Childress). While every university uses contingent faculty to teach a variety of courses, it is important to consider how the precarity of a faculty member’s position affects antiracist courses required for all students. In particular, if a university relies on contingent faculty to teach antiracist General Education curriculum, they need to do better supporting this precarious group. This essay explores how contingent faculty might be impacted in unique ways compared to their more secure counterparts. An antiracist curriculum means little if faculty are not being supported to do this work.

Antiracist curriculum is one step towards an antiracist university. The development of this curriculum works with other antiracist practices to neutralize the racism that seeps into every crevice of academia. The hiring process is another outlet that might move universities towards creating an antiracist institution. To better understand where academia is at on this other antiracist action, I want to spend some time showing the shift in the ethnic and racial backgrounds of the professoriate. Importantly, a shift in demographics alone does not mean the professoriate has become more antiracist. Despite this, it is helpful to see if and how these demographics are becoming less white.

The Neoliberal Racism of Contingent Hiring

Neoliberal academia began to form in the late 1970s and early 1980s. During this time, universities lost some of its government funding, which meant they had to seek out other financial resources, including the support of private industries and the increase of tuition. Interestingly, around this same time, universities caved into pressure from marginalized students to diversify. We can look at today’s numbers to evaluate those efforts. In a summary using 2018 data from Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) finds discouraging numbers for the non-white and non-Asian full-time professoriate. A group labeled “underrepresented minority,” including all ethnic and racial categories other than white or Asian, is only 12.9% of the professoriate, compared to 32.6% of the population in the United States. More specifically, Latino and Black folks are especially underrepresented: 5.2% of the professoriate compared to 17.5% of the population and 6.0% of the professoriate compared to 12.7% of the population, respectively. After attending to rank and gender, the numbers reveal both underrepresented minority men and women are less likely to be represented in full and associate professor ranks. Instead, they hold more positions that are precarious.

During this neoliberal shift, academia also began increasing the use of contingent labor. Contingent faculty are all faculty who do not have secure contracts from year-to-year. They are ‘contingent’ on the budget. The AAUP finds underrepresented minority women and men have about the same percentage of non-tenured track positions (8%, 6% respectively) as they do associate professor ranks (both 6%). However, white men only make-up 33% of contingent faculty compared to 41% of full professors (AAUP). While underrepresented minority academics are slowly increasing in numbers, white fmen maintain their position at the top of the tenured hierarchy. A 2017 report by Martin J. Finkelstein, Valeria Martin Conley, and Jack H. Schuster shows this disparity more explicitly. While they recognize progress has been made for non-white faculty members, the numbers still reveal major disparities. They place the blame on budgetary priorities. They find as more underrepresented minorities began receiving terminal degrees, less tenure-track positions became available. Tenured and tenure-track demographics cannot be diversified if the positions are no longer available.

For many years, marginalized faculty have been calling attention to this issue. In 1998, the experience of former contingent faculty member Eileen Schell compelled her to explore the working conditions in English Departments throughout the United States. As a former contingent faculty member at various universities, Schell built off her personal experiences to analyze contingency in composition courses. She also conducted interviews with women contingent faculty at Arizona State University, University of California, Los Angeles, and Syracuse University. Although she did not focus on race and ethnicity, she did identify ways women are expected to accept contingent faculty roles because many in academia felt these roles allowed women to be both faculty and mothers. In a more recent 2017 essay “The New Faculty Majority for Writing Programs: Organizing for Change,” Schell identifies similar gender stratification as she did in 1998, with women hovering around 60% of contingent faculty, depending on the department. She believes this to be the case because many still make the assumptions that women are married to breadwinning men, which, of course, is not supported by statistics. A 2013 Pew Research report found 40% of US households had the mother as the breadwinners of their family.

With this essay, Schell turns her criticism of labor in academia towards the exploitation of Black faculty, who are exploited through contingency more than whites. She writes, “…we need to make sure that histories of antiracist struggle and solidarity are included in our analyses of the contingent labor movement: stories of Black faculty who were hired as tenure-track but denied tenure and shuffled into non-tenure track roles…” (xvi). Denial of tenure for Black scholars such as Cornell West and Nicole Hannah-Jones made national news, but many Black and other adjuncts of color have been dealing with this for years and they do not have the media to advocate for them. Tressie McMillan Cottom points out Black faculty and students have been “protesting the ghettofication of Black scholars in adjunct roles for almost 20 years” (para 8). McMillan Cottom blames this adjunctification of Black academics on the political nature of tenure. She explains Black faculty tend to be found in departments where budgets, and tenure lines, continue to be cut. She writes, “Our current anger about class divides in higher education labor cannot be separated from its racist roots” (para 12). This is why the consideration of an antiracist curriculum must work concurrently with antiracist hiring practice, including a consideration of how contingency perpetuates racism.

After establishing the racist linkage to contingent faculty positions, I want to shift my focus to how contingency might affect antiracist efforts. As curriculum planners, we must consider how those dealing with precarity deal with an extra burden to their antiracist efforts. In previous work, I have explored ways contingent faculty at my university navigate General Education (GE) diversity courses dealing with race and ethnicity through precarity in my institution (Opdycke 2020). In this context, GE diversity courses includes courses such as Intercultural Communication, Gender and Culture, and Chicano/a Culture. I interviewed 20 contingent faculty in departments ranging from Chicano Studies to Women and Gender Studies to Communication Studies. Through these interviews, I found those in departments already considered to be about a particular identity, and, therefore, adding ‘diversity’ to the university, to be generally content with teaching diversity courses to students outside of their department. However, in my department of Communication Studies, a department not seen as adding to the ‘diversity’ goals of a university, all contingent faculty I interviewed struggled with performing their work through contingency. For example, one Latina dreaded being assigned GE diversity courses. In particular, she found it hard to walk the line between appearing objective on issues such as immigration when she had personal investments in those issues. She worried how the students would evaluate her and how those evaluations might affect her course offerings in the future. While this struggle might be the case for any instructional faculty, contingency adds the element of possible job loss. Based on my interviews, it might also seem those who come from fields not related to an identity (such as Chicano Studies or Queer Studies) might have an even bigger challenge as well.

Being asked to teach antiracist courses through precarity, especially with little support from the university, leads to burnout, which impacts how much effort contingent faculty want to put into antiracist goals. I am not the first instructor to recognize how burnout negatively affects my pedagogy. On bad days, I fail to ask the extra questions or leave time for necessary criticisms. In an antiracist course, these failures could shift antiracism to a not racist course. A not racist course is a course that fails to ask all involved to work actively towards shifting racism systemically and within oneself. Adding to this, some of us who have the agency to do so might elect to quit teaching the courses all together. For example, in my research a white woman colleague gained enough experience to be able to decline teaching GE diversity courses. She said her mental health and personal relationships improved after making this decision (Opdycke 2020). She recognized her privilege in being able to do this, but she also found it as necessary. As more senior contingent faculty elect to stop teaching these courses, the burden might be placed on less experienced ones. This begins the diversity burnout cycle again.

My research only provides a sliver of the struggles contingent faculty might deal with. More research needs to be done to show how contingent faculty at other institutions and in other departments navigate diversity courses and/or antiracist teaching to help us better understand the struggles they might have in antiracist courses. We can also learn from the experiences of faculty with more secure positions. In her reflection on teaching in a diverse college called “Challenging Oppression in Moderation? Student Feedback in Diversity Courses,” Anita Chikkatur writes, “It seems like bodies of color are still wanted, but the challenges these bodies might pose to the institution and changes these bodies might demand from the institution still are not always acknowledged, and certainly not welcomed” (98 – 99). As a junior faculty member teaching racial and gender diversity courses, Chikkatur finds she must do a lot of mentoring for other students who look like her and feel out of place. Concurrently, she must negotiate between this mentoring and appeasing the frustration of some of her other students who resist discussions on diversity and difference. She wonders if she takes it too easy on some of her students to gain approval from them so that she can continue moving up the academic ladder. The feelings of out-of-placeness and appeasement squeeze tighter when combined with even less job security.

The diversity work expected of those faculty making the university more ‘diverse’ also makes contingency more difficult. As contingent faculty tend to be more diverse than tenured faculty (Finkelstein, Conley, and Schuster), they might receive more pressure to do diversity work than other types of faculty. In her book On Being Included, Sara Ahmed explores ways diversity work ties up professors of color, queer professors, and all other professors who are not white, straight cismen, preventing them from doing the actual work of changing the institutions to meet the needs of diverse faculty and students. For example, as a contingent faculty member of color works towards creating an antiracist classroom, some of their students might seek them out as mentors. However, because contingent faculty are not sure if they will be hired for the next semester, they might be hesitant to serve as a mentee. Or, in a completely different scenario, a contingent faculty member of color might be hesitant to file a complaint of racism because not only do they worry about retaliation, but they also might be overwhelmed with too many courses on too many campuses.

Antiracist curriculum will benefit from experienced contingent faculty who have support from their university. While support for contingent faculty looks different depending on university and social conditions, I want to share three ways I envision it. First, as universities expand their antiracist curriculum, they also need to expand their efforts to train faculty in antiracist pedagogy. These trainings might include guest speakers, the assignment of new texts, and brainstorming sessions where faculty from different fields share their unique challenges. Importantly, these trainings must be flexible, and they must be paid or some contingent faculty will opt out of them. Regular antiracist training is absolutely necessary, as antiracist needs are constantly evolving.

Second, departments need to consider how they create community connected to antiracist efforts. When I interviewed contingent faculty on campus, it became clear to me each department had different ways of including or excluding contingent faculty. Generally, efforts need to be more inclusive of contingent faculty; but, specifically related to antiracist curriculum, contingent faculty need to feel as if they have direct support if they need it. This seems to be even truer for those in fields not explicitly connected to diversity or identity; however, more research needs to be done to confirm this suspicion. Contingent faculty also need to feel valued enough to be able to offer their advice on antiracist curriculum. This is especially true for those departments who rely heavily on contingent faculty to teach. If contingent faculty are expected to teach through precarious working conditions, they should play a role in shaping the curriculum. I visualize this looking like the creation of a living document of antiracist readings, assignments, and syllabi where all faculty can add their ideas. I also hope contingent faculty would be included in meetings where important curriculum discussions are made.

Third, it would obviously be easier to achieve the goals suggested above if universities stopped placing faculty in precarious positions in the first place. Paying us for trainings and allowing us to be involved in decision-making at the administrative level help us feel a bit more included, but these actions do not eliminate our precarity. I realize a complete overhaul in the exploitation of faculty is an impossible demand. At the same time, the creation of antiracist curriculum also seems impossible to some of us. In particular, it will feel impossible to teach antiracist sentiments when faculty of color are disproportionately impacted by contingency and disproportionately pressured to take on diversity work, including the antiracist efforts of our new curriculum.

As we move towards a more antiracist curriculum, we must reflect on how hiring practices block our hopes for an antiracist institution. Contingent faculty are much more likely to be faculty of color. Adding to this, their precarious positions affects how and if they can be antiracist with their pedagogical choices. I hope for a future antiracist academia where faculty are no longer exploited. I hope you will work with contingent faculty to make this future a reality.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. On Being Included. Duke University Press, 2012.

American Association of University Professors (AAUP). “Data Snapshot: IPEDS Data on Full-Time Women Faculty and Faculty of Color,” December 2020, www.aaup.org/sites/default/files/Dec-2020_Data_Snapshot_Women_and_ Faculty_of_Color.pdf

Childress, Herb. The Adjunct Underclass: How America’s Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, Their Students, and Their Mission. University of Chicago Press, 2019.

Chikkatur, Anita. “Challenging Oppression in Moderation? Student Feedback in Diversity Courses.” Transforming the Academy: Faculty Perspectives on Diversity and Pedagogy, edited by Sarah Willie-LeBreton, 2016, pp. 97 – 109.

Ferguson, Roderick. The Reorder of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference. Duke University Press, 2012.

Finkelstein, Martin J., Valerie Martin Conley, and Jack H. Schuster. “Taking the Measure of Faculty Diversity.” Teacher Insurance and Annuity Association, 2016, www.tiaainstitute.org/sites/default/files/presentations/2017-02/taking_ the_measure_of_faculty_diversity.pdf

McMillan Cottom, Tressie. “The New Old Labor Crisis.” Slate, 24 Jan. 2014, www. slate.com/articles/life/counter_narrative/2014/01/adjunct_crisis_in_higher_ed_an_ all_too_familiar_story_for_black_faculty.html.

Opdycke, Kelly. Diversity as Contingent: An Intersectional Ethnographic Interrogation of and Resistance Against Neoliberal Academia’s Exploitation of Contingent Faculty in General Education Diversity Courses. 2020. Claremont Graduate University, PhD dissertation.

Pew Research Center. “Breadwinner Moms: Mothers Are the Sole or Primary Provider in Four-in-Ten Households with Children; Public Conflicted about the Growing Trend,” 29 May 2013, www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2013/05/29/breadwinner-moms/

Schell, Eileen. Gypsy Academics and Mother-Teachers: Gender, Contingent Labor, and Writing Instruction. Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1998.

Schell, Eileen. “The New Faculty Majority for Writing Programs: Organizing for Change.” Contingency, Exploitation, Solidarity: Labor and Action in English Composition, edited by Seth Kahn, William Lalicker, and Amy Biniek-Lynch, WAC Clearinghouse, 2017, pp. ix – xx. DOI: 10.37514/PER-B.2017.0858.1.2