I read a lot of posts from our un- and under-employed colleagues that refer to getting a tenure track job as “winning the academic lottery.” I understand the sentiment but that term still makes me cringe since hitting this lottery will never make you a millionaire. In fact, tenure track academic jobs (at least in the humanities) have never been particularly rewarding in the financial sense. I’ll grant you that they’ve become few and far between in recent years, but rare doesn’t always mean incredibly valuable. In some cases, they’re a lot more like winning the lottery in that Shirley Jackson story than they are like winning Megbucks.
I feel uncomfortable complaining about my own comparatively privileged circumstances, so I’ll borrow from an old post at College Ready Writing to make the same point:
I had my first “girls’ night out” in a long, long time last night. All of the women were either tenured or on the tenure-track at the same university where I work. And they had the exact same difficulty making ends meet as my family does. We all are a part of duel income homes, but they only had one kid each, as opposed to my two. I know they make more money than I do. I know they are paying half as much as I do for child care (our kids all go to the same preschool). And yet, we all got boneless wings, not because we particularly wanted them, but because it was boneless wing night and thus cheap.
Contingent or tenure-track, we are all in the same sinking ship. Contingent faculty are just a lot closer to the water line than the rest of us. I’m not suggesting that it’s time to run for the life raft because in reality there is no safe place left for any faculty member in these rapidly changing times. We are all underpaid (to differing degrees). We all face technological obsolescence.
Yet despite these common problems, it’s important to help people in the weakest position before everyone else gets their fair share. As Kate says:
There are those with tenure who are turning two blind eyes to the fact that we work in institutions that wouldn’t be open for business at all if our adjunct colleagues didn’t show up. It’s hourly-paid labour that holds open the door to our salaried careers; we really didn’t get here all by ourselves, even if it was hard to get here.
That’s why their struggle is our struggle. You can’t demand that you be treated fairly when so many of your colleagues don’t even get basic considerations that you take for granted like academic freedom or a living wage. Their precariousness devalues the entire “professor” brand. Fight together and we can grow the pie for everyone.
Or at least bail fast enough to stay afloat until we all retire.