Instead of Tenure…?

In between these actual posts about writing and adjuncts, the subject is always simmering in the back of my mind. What is the relationship? What should the relationship be? How does one affect the other? What is the place of tenure in this equation?

Some gloriously impractical ideas for posts bubble up, pop, and, thankfully (trust me on this one) evaporate, leaving only the faint scent of l’eau de brainstorm behind. However, some leave traces that might be useful; I’ll offer them up and we’ll see.

The stated purpose of tenure is protection of academic freedom: professors who have proven their worth as scholars and/or teachers have shown earn job security. As a result, they are free to pursue their research wherever their training, conscience, and creativity may lead them. The image this ideal evokes is of the solitary thinker, standing up for what he or she thinks is right, speaking out and speaking up, despite the overt disapproval of the administration, whose hands are tied, and even of the surrounding community. This vision of tenure fits with the best elements of the ivory tower: protected and above it all, in order to see more clearly.

Tenure can also be viewed as a form of cultural capital, a stamp of social approval that is given to some but not all. This imprimatur amplifies the individual’s voice, giving his or her positions greater weight, silencing some critics and making others at least listen to one’s positions. In this tenure enables your writing more efficacy. Finally, tenure gives stability. It requires a time investment from the faculty, and, once acquired, tends to anchor faculty in place. This is fraught with potential negatives, but it has the benefit of creating a fairly stable identity for the school.

Adjuncts lack these (closely related) qualities. Not only are controversial opinions not protected, they are actively at risk. The most recent adjunct contract I signed indicated that the school in question “reserves the right to withdraw or cancel any course for any reason that it, at its sole discretion, deems appropriate.”

So…instead of tenure, what options would protect academic freedom? What could be done to give adjuncts’ writing more weight and power? (We’ll leave aside the issue of a school’s stable identity for now. It interests me greatly, but isn’t really the subject of this blog.)

One suggestion put forth for high school teachers is simply getting rid of tenure all together (and paying more money) This works to make the system less stable (in good ways—it can get rid of bad teachers), but to be frank, won’t help most adjuncts at all. It would ask schools to spontaneously pay them more…with no reason. We already work for cheap.

Another option is writing under a pen name. The practice has a long history, and an honorable one. It’s already pretty common in academia, where folks like Thomas H. Benton write for publications as influential and mainstream as The Chronicle of Higher Education under pen names. Doing so takes care of protection and the academic freedom, and even adds the allure of being a secret rebel, but removes the power of the tenured pen.

A third option is simply to ignore the administration/school. The people who might get mad about your writing are waaay too busy to keep tabs on you. Write whatever the heck you want. They won’t know unless someone brings it to their attention. And then you’re one screwed adjunct. This works for an unfortunately undefined time, which will be much longer if you’re working in non-controversial areas. It also works only for the academic freedom element of tenure, and does nothing to provide cultural capital.

A fourth option requires political involvement/some negotiation. To be more specific, adjuncts can push for colleges to spell out the reasons they might be discharged (rather than making contracts at will), push for full year contracts, push for monetary compensation for all publications, and so on. Doing so may blow away the remnants of collegiality from the working relationships and expose it for the labor situation it is, but hey. It’s rarely comfortable to analyze things too close to home, but it is useful, and any gains won here would protect academic freedom for adjuncts far more than it is protected now.

I find this avenue of thought useful, and I hope you do too; I’ll be returning to it in future posts, with more possibilities.

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