A Professor by Any Other Name …

It doesn’t take long, once you decide to explore the issue of non-tenure-track (NTT) faculty, to come up against one of the biggest stumbling blocks to communication and to action: the thorny question of terminology. In the New Faculty Majority’s (NFM) early days, the problem of nomenclature became evident almost immediately and even threatened to derail our progress. “Adjunct” is a familiar term to most people both within and outside of higher education; “contingent,” which has been in use in activist circles for many years, still provokes confusion. “Adjunct” is considered by many people and institutions to refer only to faculty serving on part-time appointments; “contingent” was adopted several years ago as the umbrella term for all faculty serving on non-tenure-track appointments. For some of our founding board members, it was important that we focus on the faculty in the most vulnerable positions, namely the part-timers whose material and professional circumstances were most dire since they were most likely not to have access to fair wages, benefits, professional support, or any kind of job security. For other founding board members, it was important that our organization take on the larger issue of the general erosion of faculty roles and responsibilities. On this view, it was the existence of, and wide range of, disrespect and disempowerment of faculty that should be our focus (in part to promote solidarity).

We knew how often the conversation about terminology crops up—not just in activist circles but also in administrative ones, where wordsmithing a typology of names for non-tenure-track faculty is a small cottage industry. Terms like “moonlighters,” aspiring academics,” “career ender,” and the like now figure prominently in the literature designed to help administrators “manage” “their” faculty. Like the language used by activists, the language used even by sympathetic administrators too often distracts from or even subverts the issues of quality and equality at the heart of the faculty crisis in higher education.

NFM finally settled on the compromise of including both terms in our name, so that we could focus on the deep-rooted dilemmas too often masked by the discussion of names. Those dilemmas revolve around the issues of compensation and job security on the one hand and institutional respect on the other. Neither issue is more important than the other; they need to be pursued simultaneously.

Our compromise was not to suggest that the issue of language is unimportant—far from it. For those of us working to improve faculty working conditions for the purpose of improving the quality of higher education as a whole, it is important to approach the issue of names and naming with care, as we know so well from the critical role of language in social movements more generally. There is real pain and suffering attached to the use of certain terms because of the context in which they originated or in which they continue to be used. So, the use of cute nicknames for the different “types” of NTT faculty undermines the professionalism usually demonstrated by such faculty. Many faculty are offended by the term “adjunct,” which means  “non-essential”—ancillary, supplemental, or subsidiary. Not only does it inaccurately describe the nature of the work these faculty members do, which is in fact essential and central to the mission of the college or university, but also because it has taken on a demeaning connotation that is often personalized by both the speaker and the listener. “Lecturer” is also opposed on the grounds that few faculty simply “lecture” any more. “Contingent” is objected to when it is attached as an adjective to persons (“faculty”) rather than positions. Thus, Marc Bousquet and others advocate the use of the more accurate but cumbersome “faculty serving on contingent appointments.”

The debate can rage on endlessly. Some people object to “non-tenure-track” as an adjective because it defines faculty negatively rather than positively. Others have suggested the adoption of new terms, like “regular” faculty  (the term used at Vancouver Community College, which for many is the highest existing standard for equal treatment of all faculty) to refer to those with job security—only to stop when they realize that it then makes other faculty members “irregular.” Personally, I like the term “ordinary” faculty to refer to the tenure-line faculty—a term I first heard from a tenured friend at Georgetown. The term suggests that faculty work should be so essential to the institutional mission as to be “unmarked” in linguistic terms while at the same time allowing NTT faculty work to be “marked” as “extraordinary.” ”Extraordinary” is a delightful word that communicates both the heroic personal qualities necessary for and often displayed by the majority faculty in order to teach effectively in the current system and the appalling nature of the system itself.

The danger in focusing too long and hard on the issue of nomenclature, of course, is that it can obstruct or distract from practical progress on real world, bread-and-butter issues. At the same time, ignoring the issue of nomenclature fails to acknowledge the psychological and intellectual, personal and professional core that all faculty members need in order to preserve the ethos and the future of both their personal lives and their profession.

Again, the movement can learn from history and should confront all of the dilemmas that the issue presents at the same time. Will I care whether I am called an adjunct if I can finally get access to a living wage, health benefits, and an office in which to meet my students? Or will owning my identity through language—by calling myself “professor” or by co-opting the offensive terms (i.e., ‘JunctCon Job and A is for Adjunct)—empower me to fight more effectively to improve those working conditions?

Rather than having the same discussions about language over and over so that we are spinning our wheels, we need to engage in the debates about nomenclature with an eye on the bigger picture and the determination to make real progress toward that goal of faculty equality and educational quality. Adjunct, contingent, or NTT faculty, whatever they choose to be called, should recognize that the numbers alone—75% of the total faculty population—give them claim to the term “faculty”—with no qualifiers at all. Or we could just take a lesson from our students:  after all, most of them call all of us “professor.”

About the author

Maria Maisto has been an adjunct faculty member at Cuyahoga Community College and the University of Akron, both in Ohio. She is president of New Faculty Majority: The National Coalition for Adjunct and Contingent Equity and Executive Director of the NFM Foundation. These national, affiliated nonprofit organizations work to improve the quality of higher education by improving the working conditions of the majority of its faculty.


William G. Tierney is director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis, University Professor and Wilbur-Kieffer Professor of Higher Education at the Rossier School of Education.

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