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In my opinion

The academy of broken dreams

A shift in the way academics are hired has created a long, lost generation.


A lot of attention has been paid in recent months to the plight of part-time and non-tenured faculty teaching at North American universities, sometimes known as the “adjunctification” of university teaching. I can comment only on the Canadian experience, which by recent accounts is a far better situation than in the United States, where part-time professors can actually be impoverished.

Still, the reality is that at many institutions in both countries, the percentage of undergraduate teaching being done by non-permanent staff has dramatically increased.

This development is relatively recent. Throughout my entire university education (1996 to 2006) I don’t recall taking a single course that was not taught by a tenured or tenure-track faculty member. Yet here I am, one of the no-longer-silent majority of university teachers with little to no hope of permanent employment.

For a long time, I thought it was just me, that I had somehow failed in some key aspect of my dossier. I know now that I am not alone. An entire generation of scholars and scholarship is being lost due to this dramatic shift in academic hiring. In fact, not one person from my PhD program cohort has managed to land a tenure-track position.

Like many who pursue an academic career, I was fortunate to have had wonderful mentors who encouraged and believed in my chosen path. I was told repeatedly that my timing was ideal due to the large number of retiring baby boomers expected in the early 2000s. Well, many didn’t and still haven’t retired. Many more have not been replaced. All the while administrations clamor to increase enrolment, turn libraries into coffee shops and student lounges and boast about their commitment to learner-centredness. Yet, investing in teaching staff apparently isn’t part of that commitment.

The people who advised me to follow my pursuit of an academic career were baby boomers who entered academia in an era when tenured positions were practically being handed out with degrees. To be fair, they had no reason to expect a radical paradigm shift in academic hiring.

I can confidently state that I’ve done everything I was advised to do to ensure a tenure track position. Develop a clear and focused research program. Check! Study with the best scholars in the field. Check! Finish the PhD within four years and publish dissertation within two. Check, check! Pursue a postdoctoral fellowship, present at international conferences, add to list of publications. You get the idea. At the same time I taught at three different institutions and developed a broad cross-disciplinary teaching portfolio with consistently positive teaching evaluations.

So what went wrong? Nothing, it would seem, because these things are not the criteria that earn someone a tenure-track position in today’s adjunctified environment. In fact, there do not seem to be any real criteria. At least not any criteria anyone will publically admit to.

I have been interviewed for several positions and by all accounts these interviews went very well. In the first instance, I was politely informed that institutional regulations required that the “internal candidate” had to be selected. What could I have done differently? I asked. Nothing! “Our hands were tied.” After the second interview, I learned that out of a large pool of very accomplished candidates, the committee hired an unpublished ABD, someone who happened to be from an Ivy League institution. (More on that later.) It seems they could pay this person the least and brag about them the most. My third process ended when the committee collapsed due to infighting and the position was simply cancelled, four months after the interview. Most recently, I was shortlisted for a position, but not invited for an interview. A new cost-saving measure, I suppose. Eventually the successful candidate was proclaimed to have two published articles and, of course, an elite American degree.

It has been argued in this magazine that Canadian universities devalue home-grown PhDs, particularly in the humanities, and that the majority of permanent faculty hold degrees from elite American institutions, or from the University of Toronto. In a way, it is much like the experience of the Canadian creative class – writers, actors, musicians – who have only really “made it” when they find success south of the border. For whatever reason, this seems to be engrained in the Canadian psyche.

Yet, while academia has always been elitist, adjunctification is making academic culture even more elitist. In my experience and that of my contemporaries, the institution where one earned their degree is often the deciding factor on whether one will be admitted into the tenured faculty club. Defying conventional wisdom, publications and teaching portfolios simply don’t seem to matter. What does matter? Institutional prestige.

So what should be done?

Perhaps it is time to start a conversation about hiring committees, some of the most inscrutable and often dysfunctional entities in the academic world; the place where personal and professional rivalries are played out at the expense of people’s careers. More urgently, there should be further discussion about mental health issues (anxiety, depression, addiction) that accompany the experience of going through this adjunctifying meat-grinder.

In the short term, however, it’s time that non-permanent faculty learn to negotiate this new post-tenure reality and make it work for them. This means continuing to organize and assert their power. It also means developing a sense of self-respect. I would start by rejecting labels like “adjunct” and “sessional.” All too often these are simply meant to marginalize and belittle. At the end of the day, we are all as much professors of our field of knowledge as anyone who might claim to officially hold that title. We are motivated by the same passion, we do the same job, care for our students just as much, and deserve to be treated with dignity.

Timothy Pettipiece currently teaches classics and religious studies at the University of Ottawa and Carleton University.


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  1. Andrew Gow / September 3, 2014 at 13:16

    Well said, Dr. Pettipiece.

    A few comments from the other side: I finished my Ph.D. in 1993. I was lucky to slip into a job market that was just opening again after almost 20 years of drought. Those of us who entered academe in the 1980s had no reason to think we would ever get a job–there were none. I was fully prepared to go to law school or teacher’s college after my Ph.D. Fortunately, I did not have to. As a historian, I have to note that the period from the recession of 1973 to around 1990 was in many ways worse for academics than the the last six years have been. First, it lasted for over 15 years. Second, it was unclear if/when it would ever end. It did: because mandatory retirement was still in place, and because of demographics (smaller entering cohorts meant that retired colleagues were not replaced). The current slump also has complex causes: the Great Recession starting in 2008 and the current demographic trough in children born 17-20 years ago. Again, retirees are not being replaced because there is not yet enough demographic pressure (though we seem to teach as many students as ever). The latter will be rectified by larger cohorts of 17/18 year olds entering post-secondary studies in 2020; but the economic situation is far from clear. This is cold comfort for colleagues caught in the non-tenure vortex.

    I agree we ought to come up with better terminology, but ultimately our attitudes need work. The Ivies do not provide better training to teach in Canadian public universities than we provide here at home. In fact, our Canadian grads are almost certainly better prepared to teach our students. Prestige-hunger is an intellectual disease, like snobbery or antisemitism; the only remedies are better information and more light.

  2. Ali / September 3, 2014 at 14:45

    ” It seems they could pay this person the least and brag about them the most.”

    I’ve never known a search committee to have any control over salary. Your statement here might hold true at some institutions, or if senior administration were controlling the search, but i find it hard to believe in this context. Professors serving on search committees rarely know the exact salary of the position (which might be flexible based on other factors, after the recommendation is made). The search committee’s main goal is with the fit of the candidate in that department (which occasionally means an ABD with the right areas of speciality will outrank a well-established Ph.D. who doesn’t quite fit the needs of the position).

    For your core argument – that we privilege certain schools above others – I agree wholeheartedly. But, it isn’t as black and white as weather or not it is an American university or a Canadian one.

  3. Andrew Robinson / September 3, 2014 at 15:57

    The current slump in tenure track positions is due to the deliberate policy by Universities of using contract instructors instead of full-time staff, as a cost-savings device. There are plenty of students to teach, paying ever-increasing tuition, but the universities are deliberately not investing in people to do teaching, they are investing in student services, campus building projects and increasing numbers of well paid administrators.

    I have just had my application refused for my multiple contacts at Carleton University to be converted to a full time instructor position. Despite me teaching sufficient courses to qualify as full time “the department does not need a full-time instructor”. Translation: we want to continue expkoiting contract instructors, because they are cheap and disposable. If this policy was reversed across Canada, more positions would be opened up.

  4. David Seljak / September 4, 2014 at 10:51

    Thank you, Andrew, for an intelligent reflection on a social issue. Too often the plight of non-tenured and part-time faculty are defined in terms of the personal problems of individuals rather than a social issue. Your column addresses the social issue while offering an insight into the personal experience of a deeply flawed structure and culture.

    My own experience confirmed how personal “success” indeed depends on social circumstances. I am a tenured faculty member, but I could have just as easily become an “adjunct”, “sessional,” or “Contract Academic Staff.” While I was doing my PhD and teaching sessionally, only one position in Canada came open in my field. After I graduated, there was one every year for seven years! The difference between me and my CAS colleagues is mostly luck. Would I have the chance to compete for a full-time, tenure-track job if I graduated in 2014? Who knows? I was lucky.

    Finally, the paragraphs on Canadian universities not hiring Canadian PhDs really struck a nerve. The articles in University Affairs on the topic (thanks for the links) confirm my evaluation that much prejudice dominates the hiring process at Canadian universities. Canadian scholars have to grow out of the colonial mentality that dismisses the products of their own PhD programs! If these candidates are second-rate, then the full-time professors should resign because they have obviously designed and administered second-rate doctoral programs. You see this same prejudice at work in terms of attendance at the meetings of academic societies. I know some scholars who warn their students against participation in Canadian academic conferences in favour of their American counterparts. Needless to say, they themselves never attend Canadian meetings.

  5. John Goyder / September 4, 2014 at 11:10

    Old-timers will recall with me that back in the late 1960s we had the same situation of infatuation with US “elite” Ph.D.’s in the humanities and social sciences. Thanks to activists such as Matthews and Steele, governments of the day forced Cdn universities to look seriously at the emerging crop of Canadian-trained academics. The result was a rich generation of talented researchers who worked for Canadian intellectual life and Canadian society, instead of to be a US branch-plant. Now, as Timothy says, the problem is back, deriving, I believe from ratings-obsession, from a tight US academic market causing some of the Harvard etc grads to rough it in the Canadian bush until something better comes along, etc. Not every Canadian undergrad wants to study in the US, which is a ghastly, ugly society in many ways. Chairs and deans in Canadian universities, you need to face up to the problem and inequity you’re creating by playing prestige and ratings games.

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