SIP 14.7 What Your Contingent Faculty Colleagues Wish You Knew

Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

Students listening to a lecture in a classroom.

Over 50 years ago, MSU Denver (then Metropolitan State College of Denver) was founded by courageous temporary teachers who worked their professional jobs and then came to campus to share their experience and knowhow with students.

Today, a significant percentage of MSU Denver faculty members are classified as affiliate or contingent and hold part-time, lecturer or Category II contracts. These instructors join ranks with their tenured or tenure-track colleagues in departments across campus to continue to provide students with the excellent teaching that has become our institutional hallmark. At MSU Denver, our affiliate faculty members frequently choose to teach with us for years – sometimes decades – and many spend most of their professional lives teaching at night, at 8 a.m., on Saturdays, between full semesters and online to complement the schedules of tenured and tenure-track faculty members. Our students are indelibly impacted by the talent and dedication of the contingent faculty members they encounter throughout their college careers at MSU Denver.

Take a SIP of this: what your contingent faculty colleagues wish you knew

A good deal of the contingent faculty experience is misunderstood by many other faculty members, staff members and students across campus, however. Contingent faculty often report feeling different, “less than” and “othered” as compared with tenured or tenure-track faculty members who have permanent contracts and a clear path toward promotion. Here are a few misunderstandings that impact contingent faculty:

  • The academic job market is so fraught right now that even institutions with highly successful doctoral programs employ affiliates and lecturers who are credentialed, have master’s and terminal degrees and have been vetted and hired through rigorous processes. In other words, contingent faculty members often have the same credentials and level of experience as tenure-track faculty. Yet contingent faculty members report being referred to as “junior faculty,” “faculty-in-training” or “not good enough” to get a tenured position.
  • Accepting a temporary teaching contract may result from a variety of complex personal and professional reasons. You don’t know what you don’t know about your colleagues’ reasons for accepting contingent employment.
  • University budgets tend to be nebulous and/or misunderstood. When a tenure-track line is cut from a departmental budget and replaced with funding to hire contingent faculty members, the overarching reasons for this can be misconstrued. Contingent faculty members can end up taking the blame. Sometimes, contingent faculty members are compared with workers crossing picket lines, choosing to support the administration by teaching more courses for less money and benefits instead of standing with their tenured colleagues. The truth is that everyone suffers when these misaligned metaphors are applied to financial decisions often made under the constraint of state budget decisions happening above the University level.

So what can be done?

If you have five minutes:

  • Introduce yourself and learn an affiliate’s name. While this may seem like a common-sense way to interact with your colleagues, your kindness and inviting demeanor may help to create a more welcoming environment than is typical for contingent faculty members.
  • Do a quick survey of the spaces in your department and ask yourself if they are welcoming to contingent faculty members. Do contingent faculty members have mailboxes in your main office? If so, are they integrated with those of tenured/tenure-track faculty members or are they separated? Is language used for communications and notices inclusive of all or is it directed exclusively toward tenured/tenure-track faculty members? Do contingent faculty members who don’t have an assigned office have a place in your department to safely store their belongings while they teach? Do contingent faculty members have a space to rest or gather between their classes? If you notice some areas for improvement, contact your department administrative assistant or your chair.
  • Think through the terms used in your department, college or school for people in different academic roles. Why do we use the terms “tenured,” “tenure-track,” “Category 2” and “affiliate”? Are there people-centered terms such as “teaching faculty” that could be used to refer to all, while saving other vocabulary to describe contract scope and length?
  • Educate yourself on the national, regional, local and institutional pay for contingent faculty members. You may be surprised to learn about your colleagues’ contract conditions – they may not have health benefits attached to their contracts, for instance, or they may not be eligible to receive situation-specific compensation or bonus money like their tenured or tenure-track colleagues.

If you have 30 minutes:

  • Get to know contingent colleagues in your department and throughout campus. Invite them for coffee.
  • Ask your contingent colleagues if they would like support and, if so, how you could best offer that.
  • Ask your chair how the budgeting process for contingent faculty members works in your department. You may be surprised to learn that the class of 30 taught by a contingent colleague is economically floating your smaller class of 15, for example.
  • Ask your contingent faculty members whether and how they would like to contribute to department, college or University committees and events. Some contingent faculty members like to engage in our community in a variety of ways; others decline because of personal or financial considerations.

If you have an hour:

  • Teach a contingent faculty member’s class. Did you know that some departments at MSU Denver have the unofficial cultural norm that non-tenure-track faculty members are expected to pay one another for covering classes? Tenured and tenure-track faculty members cover one another’s classes routinely, and while some colleagues may exchange classes or reciprocate with small gift cards and gestures, there is not an expectation of compensation. Make this practice a cultural norm for all faculty members in your department.
  • Support equitable paid professional development for affiliates and lecturers. Hold your department and college accountable for offering paid opportunities to attend conferences, workshops, trainings, meetings and colloquiums. Paid professional development for contingent faculty members demonstrates our mutual investment in teaching and recognizes our colleagues’ scholarship.
  • Advocate for longer contracts. Prior to the pandemic, MSU Denver offered contingent faculty members semester-to-semester contracts, yearly contracts and three-year contracts. Beginning in 2020, most multiyear contracts were amended to be renewable on a year-to-year basis only. The insecurity and instability of constantly having to reapply for one’s job can take a professional and emotional toll on these valuable members of our teaching community.

Still thirsty?

Check out the Delphi Award winners. This award, offered through the Pullias Center at the University of Southern California, recognizes institutions that have made important changes to how they support their non-tenure-track faculty members. They have case studies from winning institutions posted on the award website.

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