VOICES: Why contingent faculty are organizing at Duke University

Non-tenure track faculty at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina are organizing a union with Faculty Forward, a project of the Service Employees International Union. (Photo of the Duke campus by Matt Phillips via Flickr.)

By MJ Sharp

I've had the pleasure of teaching Duke undergraduates for just a few years now, but that has been long enough to see the disconnect between how the academy actually functions and how it functions in the popular imagination. My vantage point is from within the ranks of contingent faculty — non-tenure-track instructors often paid by the course rather than a salary and working under contracts that range anywhere from one semester to several years.

When teaching as contingent faculty, one is paid a very modest fixed sum for a semester-long class, with $7,500 common in the humanities at Duke. Often there is no guarantee of teaching again the next semester, and there are no benefits of any kind, including health insurance. Health insurance plans not provided by an employer are ruinously expensive, even for the most basic policy. A few years ago, my entire semester's earnings for teaching one class went towards my very basic, very non-luxurious health insurance premiums for the year. In raw financial terms, I literally taught for health insurance.

While the financial compensation was lamentable, what felt even worse for someone who loves teaching as much as I do was the way my energies had to be continually divided between dedication to my current Duke students and the ever-present possibility that I would need to leave the university in order to survive financially.

Teaching in the academy still has a romantic air to it, but the reality is fairly brutal for many of us. What perhaps used to be a temporary teaching status, when you paid your dues for a few years with uncertain employment and very humble earnings until you found permanent, gainful employment, is now the permanent reality for a huge swath of university instructors. Because most of us love teaching, we stay well beyond when it makes any financial or emotional sense to do so.

Getting paid for courses as though we're doing piecework rather than contributing to the intellectual climate of the university affects our ability to engage more fully with our students. To take a common example, when a student wants to do an independent study with us, it's painful for us to decline, even though we know that we would literally be doing it for free, something our students would never suspect. The recommendations we're happy to write, the opportunities we're happy to pass along, the sounding board for career advice we're happy to be: all the crucial intangibles are nowhere reflected in our modest compensation. We do these things because we care about our students, and we want to help them succeed.

Our personal career advancement is affected as well. Because we're not "regular rank" faculty, there are very few, if any, grants or professional development resources for us. So we attend conferences and contribute to our fields — whether by articles, artwork, or competitions — all on our own dime, like freelancers.  

Right now I feel relatively fortunate. I have wonderful colleagues where I teach at Duke, and within the constraints of this compensation model I've been embraced and supported by them. Even just moving to a year-to-year contract from a semester-to-semester one, as I have done, makes me realize how much emotional energy once spent worrying about my very precarious state of employment has now been liberated to participate joyfully in the larger Duke academic community. I am also able to turn my attention to the latest developments in my field with extra energy because I know I'll be around to share them with the next semester's crop of students. Those are just a few of the differences between no security and even just the minimal security that a year-to-year contract with benefits provides.

The precarious state of contingent faculty was identified over 20 years ago and has only worsened since then. I believe that those of us with the ability and passion to do so must step up in this historic moment and work together to find a better "new normal" for the academy than this widespread reduction of the professoriate to a "gig" economy. To do so, I'm convinced that the rigor of an official faculty union is required such as the one that Duke Teaching First is organizing with the Service Employees International Union's Faculty Forward. As is usually the case with any creative endeavor, this vital transformative work will require pressure and a deadline. If the academy could have thought or "well intentioned" its way out of this problem, it would have done so by now.

With all due respect, the Duke administration's notion that each instructor should individually lobby their superiors for better conditions and compensation in order to fix what is, after all, a systemic problem, betrays a profound misapprehension of human nature. People in positions of extreme vulnerability (semester-to-semester contracts with no health benefits, for example), whose present employment and future advancement depend entirely on the goodwill of the person above them in the hierarchy, are not in a position to advocate for themselves with anything like the boldness and passion required.

Assuming we win our union, I predict we will hear a university-wide sigh of relief as department heads everywhere no longer have to pretend that they are doing right by their most vulnerable instructors because finally, finally, instructors and members of the administration will be legally required to put in the time and effort necessary to bring fairness to the wide range of faculty positions at Duke. Finally, we will all be able to go back to spending our energy on what we love — teaching and practicing our craft.

(MJ Sharp is an instructor with the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and a member of the Duke Teaching First organizing committee. This is a modified version of an essay originally read at the Faculty Speak Out held on campus on Oct. 8, 2015 and sponsored by Duke United Students Against Sweatshops.)