Contract faculty work: a member's perspective

Anita Woods

The following article is reprinted with the author's permission. The original can be found on Woods's blog The Trending Prof.

I am a contract faculty member. I usually don't lead with that in conversations and most people just assume I am tenured since I've been at my institution for so long ... but no, that hasn't yet been an option for me. I don't thin many students know or recognize who is tenured and who is a contract worker. They would be surprised to know how many of their undergraduate instructors are just like me.

However, I am proud of the fact that I am a teaching-intensive faculty member. When I was pondering my future as a PhD student, I tried to imagine what my dream was for my career and it needed to include teaching. When I was then offered a position as a fill-in for a year to take over in a teaching-intensive role, I was hesitant because I knew it was a departure from a traditional academic role that I was training for and it lacked stability. 

Although I missed research in its traditional sense (I was accustomed to research being in a lab, working with cells and studying data with the use of molecular techniques), I decided to take a risk and accept a 3-year short-term contract position. Over the last 12 years, I have been fortunate that my contract has been renewed, but it hasn't been without a whole lot of hard work and even so, a slight fear of the unknown to my role in the future. But I am one of the lucky ones. I have a Department Chair that is incredibly supportive and assures me that I am indispensable. I get preparation time in the summer for the fall and winter terms and I know well in advance what I will be teaching. This is not always the norm in all departments for all contract workers.

Although I have support, I have felt though that I am unable to say no to requests and often feel compelled to volunteer as challenges arise. Partially because when there is a need, someone has to do it, and I also want to perform beyond expectations all the time so that I have some better sense of job security. I have never been okay with mediocrity and that drives me to overdo it most of the time. I say yes a lot because I don't feel like I have the freedom to say no. Because inside, I am still scared I am not doing enough for the University to keep me. Scared that I won't get the next contract and even if my teaching ratings are great, that is not a guarantee of future employment. Working as a contract faculty member in a world full of tenured is precarious work, even when there is great support at the department level.

But perhaps you are reading this and think, well isn't that the same in all regular jobs? Other jobs don't have tenure? No. They don't. We live in a unique world in academia. I work with a majority of colleagues who are tenured and for that reason when the discussion of budget cuts come up in meetings, I look around the room and one of the few people that can be cut is me. It is terrifying. Even if I outperform 95% of my colleagues, I am up for removal as budgets tighten, not them. This is not a normal job environment and tenure isn't going away.

I have a PhD. When I am able to squeeze in the time, I perform research and I'm good at it, it's just not currently part of my contract. But I am in the lower class of a two-tiered system and others have not always been kind to faculty like me who "just teach". I hope that the culture will change, but regardless of that, I know I deserve security in my job just like my research-intensive colleagues who do equally important work. There are other institutions that have created tenure-track positions for educators, or positions that offer security that is akin to tenure, so this is not without precedent. 

I have tried to just learn to live with the situation I am in as I do love this school and the group of colleagues I am privileged to work with who also devote most of their time to teaching. But when there are discussions that our faculty union is fighting for better job security for people like me, I have a glimmer of hope that I don't have to do my job with fear nagging in the background.