At the Intersection of identity and Contingency

Updated Mar 11, 2015

Rebecca DolinskyRebecca Dolinsky
I became a contingent faculty member at a private liberal arts institution shortly after I earned my Ph.D. in 2010, and I remained at the institution until this past May, balancing one course per semester with a full-time position outside of academe. I have a deep passion for teaching and learning, but that passion became compromised as I spent the better part of three years watching my weekends give way to course preparation and grading, while the meager pay that I earned from teaching drifted to the debt I accrued as a graduate student.

This is a common story; everything I have stated so far probably resonates in one way or another with many of my fellow contingent faculty members. But, there is a particular element to my experience that I want to underscore in this commentary: at this private liberal arts institution, where I taught courses on gender and sexuality, I was one of the few out lesbian professors on campus. I bring this point to the forefront, because I want to discuss my experience as a contingent faculty member through my identity as a lesbian. But I also want to focus on the demographics of non-tenure-track faculty (NTTF) in general, and discuss what it means to place identity at the center of a larger discussion on the contingent faculty experience.

In terms of my own experience as an out lesbian professor at a private institution — the longer I taught at that campus, the more visible I became to the institution’s LGBTQ students and their allies. This visibility led to increased requests from students to serve as a resource beyond the bounds of my courses: I spoke on student-run panels about critical issues related to sexuality (while sharing my perspective as an out professor on campus), I met with and mentored former students on projects relevant to my courses, I wrote letters of recommendation, and so on. Every time I agreed to help a student outside of my course, I knew the university would not recognize the extra work — but that didn’t stop me from wanting to serve those students. It also didn’t stop my slow crawl toward burnout.

I suppose I could be accused of actively causing my own burnout, but it was difficult for me to take lightly the role of being one of the only visible lesbian professors on campus. If the institution offered better support to its LGBTQ students and their allies, then perhaps I wouldn’t have felt so compelled to serve those students beyond the bounds of my courses. It was also difficult for me to shy away from my responsibilities as a professor — particularly one who believes in the success of all students (at the personal and professional levels).

In the time since I have left the contingent faculty track, I have often wondered about the demographic breakdown of contingent faculty — across lines of sexuality, but also across gendered and racial lines. Not surprisingly, I have been unable to track down data on LGBTQ contingent faculty, but there are some data out there about the gendered and racial positions of NTTF.

The 2010 National Survey of Part-time/Adjunct Faculty, conducted by Hart Research Associates (HRA) on behalf of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), surveyed 500 part-time NTTF who taught at two- and four-year institutions during the spring of 2009. In these data, the part-time NTTF pool consisted of more women (54 percent) at two-year institutions and more men (56 percent) at four-year institutions. At private, four-year institutions, 63 percent of the part-time NTTF identified as men. At public, four-year institutions, 49 percent of the part-time NTTF identified as women.

The Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW) also released a report in 2012 (A Portrait of Part-Time Faculty Members), with data collected from “just over 20,000 … individuals who identified themselves as working in a contingent position at an institution or institutions of higher education in fall 2010.” In the CAW data, 61.9 percent of respondents identified as women. Although it’s difficult to make a direct claim about gender from these two reports alone, the data certainly give us some idea about the gendered nature of contingency. (And from my own experience, only women held contingent faculty positions in the department in which I taught post-graduation.) The racial and ethnic breakdown is much clearer, however. The AFT survey respondents identified mostly as White — 84 percent, with 4 percent of the respondents identifying as Black, 3 percent as Hispanic and 2 percent as Asian. In the CAW report, 90 percent of part-time NTTF who reported their race or ethnicity identified as White.

With these data, I want to now take a step back and think about identity at the crossroads of contingency. As a former contingent faculty member who identifies as a lesbian, I often thought about my sexuality at the institution as being an asset (even if I was slowly burning out) — students called on me as a resource outside of the classroom, and I watched with deep respect as a segment of our nation’s queer undergraduates boldly laid claim to their equity at a private institution. But, identities are not disparate. Like most NTTF, I am also White. And although I have been very troubled by the exploitative nature of contingency, I have also read too many comparisons of the non-tenure teaching track to a slavery or caste system. These comparisons make me uncomfortable.

There is no doubt that the contingent track needs serious overhaul, but there are so many marginalized groups in higher education, not least of all academicians of color. Within descriptions of the contingent track, academicians should do their level best to avoid using comparisons that alienate one marginalized group in favor of another. I can’t help but think of Tressie McMillan Cottom’s excellent blog piece here. Cottom describes the “blanket” advice of some individuals in higher ed who recommend against attending graduate school — in part, because of the academic job market. Cottom acknowledges the difficulty of the job market, but she also emphasizes the importance of credentials for Black Americans, particularly in a country that “has always been inhospitable to Black labor.”

More and more attention is being paid to plight of NTTF, and I have hope that this will translate to some form of social change within the professoriate. As academics continue to engage with the current state of our nation’s faculty, I also hope that the intersectional identities of all faculty are placed at the center of these discussions.


Rebecca Dolinski is a research analyst and program coordinator with the Association of American Colleges and Universities.