Eva-Maria Swidler and Lance C. Thurner

Urgency was in the air at the OAH Annual Meeting in Boston last year. The threats to the discipline posed by recent right-wing attacks on the teaching of the history of race and slavery in the United States had energized the profession. As we waited to begin our panel on pedagogy and contingent faculty, we watched as over a hundred excited conference attendees exited the previous highly topical session on confronting just those political attacks. Half an hour later, our panel in the same room on the threat to the historical profession and discipline posed by the contemporary attack on the faculty by the corporate university was attended by five people. 

Not nearly as glamorous as a righteous reply to political censorship but equally important to the future of our discipline and its public presence, the issue of contingent faculty is uncomfortable and undignified, provoking more shame and avoidance than crusade. Teaching in the undergraduate classroom is perhaps the single most important interaction that academic historians have with the American public, and the eager attendance at the panel on the 1619 Project showed that most of us believe that the consequences of what we do in those classrooms are immense. That teaching, however, is taking place under impoverished pedagogical conditions that are increasingly hostile to meaningful learning, conditions that stem from the de-professionalization of the faculty.

The consequences of contingency for pedagogy, for what goes on between professor and student, are rarely explicitly or publicly tackled. Departments and universities are hesitant to acknowledge the damage to student learning caused by their budgetary decisions, and contingent professors such as us risk further undermining our already degraded position if we point out the insurmountable teaching difficulties we face. This shared silence supports the further erosion of the social contract between faculty, students, and our institutions. 

As has historically been the case in the gutting of so many professions and crafts, the de-professionalization of academic work has taken place via the splintering of the professor’s work into supposedly discrete tasks. A faculty member several decades ago might have expected to advise students, provide career counseling, sponsor student clubs, supervise community or service learning, review student admissions, provide writing support, manage an international study program, or run archives in a library, in addition to conducting research and teaching both general education and specialized courses. They may have watched students’ horizons expand while teaching them in varied classes over the course of several years within a department, counseling those students on a campus bench over coffee as they wrestled with life decisions, giving them research advice when they bumped into them checking out books in the library, or sending job postings their way after a chat at the meeting of a student club. 

But now every one of these activities has been spun off into separate positions on most campuses. The work of a professor as an integrated scholar/teacher/practitioner has largely been fractured, replaced by instructors, student advisement, career offices, student activity directors, and counselors.  Independent offices can, supposedly, provide more streamlined and professionalized services.  In many cases this is certainly true.  Handling situations of sexual violence, for instance, surely shouldn’t be within the professor’s purview.  Nonetheless, the unbundling of educational tasks means that teaching is increasingly seen as one task among many others on campus and the professor’s role is reduced to instruction, the delivery of educational content. Apprenticeship and mentoring, the organic and emergent methods of nurturing the maturation and development of students under the wing of an encompassing, intact faculty, are replaced with a conception of teaching as a specific, structured activity that takes place in formal classrooms, planned by someone who might not even be the instructor, and carried out by people understood as mere implementers of curriculum. This reductionist, mechanistic understanding of learning and teaching is what makes the interchangeable, semester-by-semester, adjunct professor a relevant or viable category to university administrators. Thus education is de-professionalized; teaching is becoming gig work, as over half of college instructors today are part-time and over three quarters are off the tenure track.  

Yet teaching and learning are not reducible to the transactional transfer of packets of information. A series of free-floating exchanges of data and assessments does not provide the conditions that nurture curiosity and intellectual synthesis. Delivering a lecture before dashing off to the next campus to lecture again does not allow a professor to become visible to students as a scholar with expertise who is also a real human being that students might aspire to emulate. Turning teaching into gig work forces faculty to complete the tasks of delivering lectures and administering tests at the expense of providing inspiration, grounding, example, or wisdom.

Instead, mentoring, chance discussions on the campus lawn, and extended post-semester support are becoming added unpaid burdens on already exploited workers. If adjunct professors can support their students’ growth, it is at their own expense—contingent professors cannot be blamed for avoiding such commitments. For many, the conditions of their employment make even this impossible: many itinerant, harried, precarious professors are simply too overextended and undersupported, and too unstable in their careers, to provide year-after-year developmental mentorship to students. 

The impoverished pedagogical vision that underwrites adjunctification is a challenge equal to, and probably more enduring than, the political attacks that fired up our peers at the annual conference in Boston.  It de-professionalizes the faculty and reduces our students from whole persons to mere receptacles of knowledge.  So perhaps the deepest and most important challenge we must mount to academic precarity is a pedagogical one. When we insist that student growth requires an ongoing, human relationship between professor and student, the use of precarious professors will inevitably be exposed as a practice that undermines the entire civic and educational purpose of higher ed. 

Authors

Eva-Maria Swidler teaches history and a variety of environmental studies courses in the bachelor’s program at the Curtis Institute of Music. She also writes widely on pedagogy, contingent faculty, and the corporatization of the academy.

Lance Thurner is co-chair of the OAH’s Committee on Part-time, Adjunct, and Contingent Employment (CPACE) and is Adjunct Professor of History at Rutgers University, Newark. He is a historian of science and medicine in Latin America and the US/Mexican borderlands and is especially committed to pushing the boundaries of the digital humanities to achieve anti-racist, feminist, and decolonial pedagogical goals. His pedagogical projects and students’ work can be found at www.empiresprogeny.org and www.statesofbelonging.org.