Last March, Native American scholar and activist Andrea Smith was denied tenure by the Women’s Studies department at the University of Michigan. Smith’s publications and awards were more than enough warrant the job security that tenure provides; to students, colleagues, activists, and observers, it seemed clear that the decision stemmed not from objective concern over academic integrity (that is, whether or not she could do the job), but from a (probably subconscious) belief that work centering on women of color doesn’t have a place within higher education. It raised profoundly disturbing questions about which lines of inquiry are considered “intellectual” and which aren’t, and indicated that work that makes lives better doesn’t seem to be a priority in the university system. Brownfemipower, the leading archivist and commentator on the Smith case in the feminist blogosphere, was forced to wonder what the point of academia even is, if it’s actively disenfranchising such huge swaths of society. She writes:
As I talked with more and more women of color, I came to see that I was not the only one who spent a least a small amount of time feeling betrayed and angry that so much of our greatest thinking is created and owned by academia. I know many women of color who refuse to “do” academia at all, and I know just as many women of color who not only refuse to “do” academia, but think that other women of color who *are* in academia are not necessarily sell outs–but not necessarily doing the best thing with their time either. There’s SO much work that needs to be done in our communities, how can we waste any time fighting an uphill battle making inroads with a profession that has proven to be nothing but hostile to us?
It was about this time that things began to shift for me. I began to wonder what academia as an institution had to do with curriculum–who decided what was taught? Who decided what was researched? Who ‘owned’ the research once it was done? Who was the research done for? Who made the rules in this work place? And if women of color and their communities are not the first answers to ANY of these questions–then what’s the point of women of color being there to begin with?
One of the most frustrating aspects of Andrea Smith’s case was the opacity of the tenure process. Tenure is supposed to function as a recognition of expertise – an acknowledgment, by your peers, that your work warrants permanent academic freedom and job security. However, since tenure committees aren’t required to justify their decisions, tenure often serves as a protective screen for racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination. If Smith had merely been fired, she’d have actually had more recourse to challenge the committee’s decision by filing suit for wrongful termination (although litigation has its own set of problems). In academia, however, she’s expected to accept the loss of her job without question.
It’s a daunting problem to face, but it’s easy to forget that a woman only confronts it after she’s secured a full-time tenure track position. And with those positions becoming increasingly rare – currently, 75% of college classes are taught by part-time lecturers or grad students – more and more women aren’t even getting to the point where tenure is on the horizon. Although 57% of part-time instructors are women, we only make up 26% of full-time professors (Bousquet 171), and at, for example, the University of Michigan, only 3% of professors are women of color. Why is the pipeline so leaky? Obviously, all the normal bias plays out in academia (I was going to link to some studies here, but instead I’ll direct you to Ashley’s excellent post), and female academics – even in supposedly more egalitarian fields like the humanities – regularly report sexist behavior among their male colleagues. But there’s more going on here. After three years of working part-time in academia – two as a grad student, and one as a community college instructor – I’ve come to realize that the very structure of academia is hurting women’s chances at securing full-time jobs.
A quick note: as a white woman and an English instructor, I realize that my experience doesn’t speak to all academics. Please do leave a comment if your experience in academia differs from mine.
Working On Your Own Time
Here’s a funny thing about academia: the more time you put into your job, the less likely you are to get a promotion. Doesn’t seem to make sense – until you consider that a part-time instructors (commonly known as an adjunct)’s sole responsibility is to teach. Sure, it may be hard to get your boss to see the good job you’re doing at teaching, since deans and department chairs don’t often sit in on classes, but how could good teaching possibly hurt you?
Well, while a solid teaching record is certainly an important factor in applications for full-time jobs, what makes or breaks most CVs is research and writing, which must be done off the clock. Are you earning a reputation in your field? Are you producing acclaimed fiction or poetry, garnering citations, reading at conferences, taking an active role in professional associations? Any time you spend teaching is time that you’re not devoting to these activities, which means that the more classes you take on – or the more work you put into the quality of each class – the less time you have to further your career. And adjuncts regularly teach up to eight classes per semester: a staggering amount of grading, prep, classroom time, and miscellaneous tasks compared with a full-time professor’s load of two or three sections. Theoretically, research is part of an academic’s job description (in fact, it’s right there in the name!), but few schools will pay an adjunct to write a book or organize a panel. If we want to work toward a better job – at our current institution or elsewhere – we receive no help from our departments.
But how does this disproportionally affect women? Surely men face the same hurdles?
As a young woman with no children, I’ll admit that it doesn’t have a gargantuan affect on me. I can afford to teach fewer classes in exchange for time to work on my fiction. But what if I did have kids? A recent New York Times Magazine article revealed that, even in straight families that consider themselves egalitarian, women handle the bulk of childcare, spending a whopping five times more hours taking care of kids than men do. The same goes for eldercare and other, similar responsibilities; when, say, an aging parent needs to move in with one of his or her children, a daughter is usually expected to take on the burden. Even housework remains squarely in the woman’s sphere – the article states that straight women do roughly twice as much housework as men, and often feel grateful for husbands who do any housework at all. Any way you look at it, women tend to have more responsibilities outside the workplace, even before you factor in single mothers. No wonder female adjuncts find it so hard to make time for academic work.
Of course, women in other fields face the same frustrations. But at least the work they’re getting paid for counts toward their career advancement. It’s almost impossible to get out of a dead-end job in a nightmarishly competitive field when you’re expected to produce meticulous and groundbreaking research on top of the forty to sixty hours you’re already working. Male adjuncts find the time to write because they’re not expected to take care of things at home – and, helped along by hiring biases, male adjuncts easily leave their female counterparts behind. A system where part-time faculty members are expected to devote their own time, for free, to advancing their career almost seems expressly designed to shut women out.
You may have noticed that I haven’t been referring to adjuncts as professors. This is because the term “professor” is reserved for full-time faculty. Part-time faculty members are called instructors, and graduate students are called teaching assistants (even though they rarely “assist” any professor). When you look at the work being done in the classroom, there’s actually little difference between a professor and an instructor; they often teach the same classes, have the same credentials, and may even have comparable publishing records. It’s common knowledge in academia that landing a full-time job is often based more on luck than merit, since most openings can attract over a hundred qualified candidates. That part-time educators don’t deserve the title of Professor seems axiomatic at first; the title of Instructor implies lower-level work, easier material, and labor that requires less skill. A professor teaches nuclear physics; an instructor teaches remedial grammar. But why is English 101 considered “professing” when a full-timer does it, but “instructing” when handled by a part-timer? What about “instructors” who teach upper division or even graduate courses? Is the distinction really based in reality,* or is it a way of justifying lower pay and the denial of benefits?
Couple that distinction with a lack of office space – virtually all adjuncts meet students in shared offices, coffee shops, or classrooms – and you get a working environment in which it’s difficult to get students to take you seriously. When I work at one of the five computers (shared by over 100 adjuncts) in our part-time office, I and the other (mostly female) instructors are routinely mistaken for secretaries; I’ve had more than one student become angry when I refused to take a message for their instructor. This dismissal carries over into the classroom, where a female instructor’s second tier status – or even third or fourth tier, if she’s at a school with full-time lecturers or star faculty – is immediately apparent to students, and begins to feed into the sexism that those students probably walked in with. I and my female colleagues all have plenty of stories about disrespectful or even hostile students. We’re regularly bullied, interrupted, lied to, and flirted with; we’re called “chica” or “sweetie” by 19-year-olds; we routinely deal with threatening emails and sexual harassment. It’s true that full-time faculty wrestle with the same problems, but notice that we part-timers can’t even say, “Stop it – I am a professor” to bolster our authority? Titles and offices may seem like little things, but when students work with a female instructor who schedules conferences at the campus Starbucks, they develop very different opinions of her credibility and expertise than that of their male professor who holds court in a private office.
And this lack of respect has the potential to do long-term damage to our careers. As I mentioned above, one’s teaching record does play a role in full-time job applications, even though it’s usually not the most important factor. Since student evaluations are a common means of gauging teaching skills, dismissive or disrespectful evaluations can cast an unprofessional pallor over an applicant’s record and feed into a hiring committee’s unconscious bias (see above). The cycle just keeps going.
Furthermore, you have to consider the issue of basic morale. Any faculty member can tell you stories of rude or confrontational students, thanks to the current cash-for-credits mentality, in which students see themselves as consumers buying degrees. But it’s hard not to internalize disrespect when you have no symbols of authority. How can we be effective educators, pushing students to think critically and challenge their assumptions, when we’re bombarded with the message that we’re no more than unskilled information dispensers working anonymous, interchangeable jobs?
Since this essay is long, I’ve broken it up into two posts. Tune in tomorrow to find out why our problem is your problem, and what the hell we can do about it.
Source cited: Bousquet, Marc. How the University Works. New York: NYU Press, 2007.
*One could argue that professors are paid to do research and help govern their departments through service such as committee work. However, the distinction starts to crumble when you consider that many instructors do the same work, except for free.