- “Neither a Servant nor a Family Member”:Recognizing the Unsustainable Nature of Stratification in Our Profession
I have been teaching college courses continuously since 1988. Unlike many of my peers, I have worked at only six institutions on eight campuses, but, like many of us with MFA degrees, when I left graduate school, I was able to find only part-time positions, and not only do these positions have abysmally low starting salaries, the salaries rise only a few dollars per course every year if at all.1 After several years of barely earning a livelihood teaching concurrently at two universities, I realized that my workload was not going to be sustainable indefinitely. I have stayed in the profession only because I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time: I received an offer of employment as a full-time non-tenure-track (or “contingent”) faculty member at the college where I still teach today. In 1969, when I began my undergraduate work, tenure-track faculty constituted 78 % of the academic workforce (Lounder). Today, according to the 2013 AAUP Salary Report, only about 24% of the academy is on the tenure track. In one generation, the relative proportion of tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty labor has turned completely upside down. Additionally, data released by the National Center for Education Statistics indicate that, since 1992, full-time non-tenure-track positions have dropped from 24% to 19.6% of the professoriate while the ranks of the part-time have doubled, growing from 25% to 51% in 2010.2 Clearly, the profession is becoming more and more fragmented and, hence, more unstable. In my remarks here, I will explore contingent academic labor and argue that contingency is an unsustainable practice that must undergo environmental reform.
For me, as for almost everyone in our profession, reading was a fundamental way of life during childhood. As a young, introverted female reader, I was indelibly marked by novels such as Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, whose heroines spoke to my emerging values and identity. I have often thought that the untenable situation of the nineteenth-century governess, by virtue of its double binds, is a useful analogy for the angst of contingent academic employment today. Consideration of the parallels with the situation of the governess is enlightening. Sarah Lewis, “a sensitive observer” of Victorian society, assessed the situation of the governess in 1839: “the real discomfort of a governess’s position in a private family arises from the fact that it is undefined. She is not a relation, not a guest, not a mistress, not a servant—but something made up of all. No one knows [End Page 224] exactly how to treat her” (qtd. in Peterson 9–10). The Victorian Governess by Kathryn Hughes describes “the dilemma” of the “incongruent position” of the governess in this way: “To uphold her claims to ladyhood, it was imperative to be treated as a family member, but the bourgeois household had to insist on clear distinctions between masters and servants to rationalize its personnel structure” (86). Her “ladyhood” was problematic because “[it] caused the difficulties and isolation within her employer’s home—she was assumed to be part of a family group whose head was responsible for her financial and moral welfare—and her claims to ladyhood could only be upheld by making use of this assumption to obscure the economic bond which tied her to her employer” (98). To maintain her status as a quasi family member, the governess had to pretend that her mission of sharing her knowledge with her charges precluded any concern about the mundane matter of her livelihood.
The applicability of these descriptions of the employer-employee relationship to contingent academic employment is fairly obvious. The contingent professor lives an incongruent identity. In economic terms, contingent faculty belong to the servant class with other support staff who service students, but, to borrow words penned by Lady Eastlake in 1848 regarding the governess class, “no other class” of servants on campus (for example, food service workers, electricians, custodial staff), “so cruelly requires its members to be in … mind, and manners, above their...