Recent Scholarship on Contingency: Forum (May 2018) in Teaching English in the Two-Year College

Forum: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty, an insert in Teaching English in the Two-Year College, vol. 45, no. 4, 2018, pp. A1-A24.

The three articles that comprise the Spring 2018 edition of Forum: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty focus on academic freedom and contingency. Sandra M. Leonard reports on “Plagiarism and Contingency: A Problem of Academic Freedom,” Alexis Teagarden discusses “Academic Freedom, Contingency, and the Place of Professional Learning Communities,” and Bob Samuels briefly argues against course evaluations of contingent faculty in “Contingent Faculty and Academic Freedom in the Age of Trump: Organizing the Disenfranchised Is the Key to Success.”

The topic is highly pertinent because without tenure, contingent faculty are generally in a situation where they have academic freedom … until they do not. In other words, the ease with which contingent faculty can disappear from campus through non-renewal renders academic freedom tenuous at best.

“Plagiarism and Contingency” (Leonard)

The first article, the longest in this issue, focuses on a perennial problem of writing instruction, plagiarism; and reframes the issue in terms of academic freedom. Leonard’s essay does a good job of calling attention to the problem of “conflat[ing] intentional and unintentional plagiarism” (A2). She notes that incorrect paraphrasing accounts for most of the unintentional paraphrasing, which reflects my own experience in the teaching of writing (A3).

Many colleges and universities have hardline rules against all forms of intentional and unintentional plagiarism that require “compulsory reporting” to administration (A5). Compulsory reporting of unintentional plagiarism creates problems for contingent faculty who want to create teachable moments for students rather than punish them for mistakes that are part of the learning process (A5). Further, compulsory reporting results in the unpaid labor of amassing evidence and “prosecuting” the student (A6). Leonard notes that some faculty avoid reporting plagiarism altogether because their continued employment depends on course evaluations (A6).

Leonard critiques “plagiarism-proof” style assignments because students can still plagiarize assignments intentionally or unintentionally, no matter how “labyrinthine” the stages of writing (A8). She prefers an approach to plagiarism that emphasizes correcting a misunderstanding rather than making an accusation (A9), an approach that I largely agree with. Most importantly, the contingent faculty member should have the academic freedom to determine how to handle infractions of academic honesty without fear of reprisal (A10).

Professional Learning Communities (Teagarden)

Teagarden’s article on professional learning communities was particularly interesting to me because my last Recommended Reading posting reviewed Lisa Meloncon’s discussion of a similar idea, “communities of practice.” Teagarden views professional learning communities as a way to “shore up academic freedom against contingency’s pressures” (A14).

Teagarden notes that for tenured faculty, “academic freedom include[s] accountability to scholarly norms and disciplinary colleagues” (A15). Implicit in academic freedom for tenured faculty is a “recognition of expertise” (A15). Contingent faculty often are not perceived as having the same level of expertise because of the lack of research time and institutional professional development support (A15). This perception of inferiority in the expertise of contingent faculty adversely affects academic freedom (A15).

To counter the infringements on academic freedom that contingent faculty are prey to, Teagarden recommends “[i]ncreasing professional development opportunities” for contingent faculty through professional learning communities (A15). Professional learning communities are as diverse as the institutions that rely on them, but they have “two key assumptions”: 1. the professional experience of practitioners provides a fount of knowledge that a community of contingent faculty can draw upon, and 2. sharing knowledge within these communities benefits contingent faculty and students alike (A16-17).

Teagarden praises professional learning communities because they “intentionally decenter authority and flatten academic hierarchies. Rather than relying on workshop or mentorship models, where a recognized expert is granted authority, [professional learning communities] focus on collaboration and equitable exchange” (A17). Individuals within the professional learning communities are trained to facilitate formal discussions (A17).

Teagarden suggests that George Mason University’s approach to professional learning communities provides a model because participants were given a $1000 stipend to compensate for their time (A16); however, she does not really address the problem of how contingent faculty can find the time for professional learning communities. One challenge for many contingent faculty is their informal status as “freeway flyers,” which limits the time they can spend on any particular campus. Other contingent faculty have full-time jobs and only have just enough time to teach on campus. Still other contingent faculty enjoy adjunct work because they can teach without having to attend meetings or be a part of the campus in any other way.

Meloncon’s “Contingent Faculty, Online Writing Instruction, and Professional Development in Technical and Professional Communication” offers a possible solution to the problem contingent faculty may have in finding the time to join professional learning communities: “Understanding that meetings can be difficult for contingent faculty, the meetings can model online asynchronous practices conducted on discussion boards or us[e] online collaboration tools” (267).

Implicit in Teagarden’s article is her audience: fellow writing program administrators. She values professional learning communities because they “decenter authority and flatten academic hierarchies,” but ultimately the authority and hierarchy remain. When I read the allusion to “trained facilitators,” I questioned the extent to which contingent faculty actually lead the professional learning community if a writing program administrator approves of the person who teaches the facilitator. I imagine that it would take a skilled communicator to build trust enough to encourage cynical contingent faculty to participate in professional learning communities.

I am also concerned that Teagarden’s “professional learning communities” and Meloncon’s “communities of practice” recommend professional development opportunities that are inferior to the paid conference travel given to tenure-track and tenured faculty. The value of attending conferences regularly is hearing a broad range of ideas from scholars and practitioners that are not already a part of one’s local academic community. If contingent faculty in professional learning communities and communities of practice only communicate with one another, this will promote intellectual insularity that puts them at a disadvantage compared to tenured faculty who are continually engaging with new ideas from new people at conferences. Conferences provide invaluable networking opportunities that are denied to contingent faculty when conference travel funding is limited only to tenure-track and tenured faculty. If contingent faculty are offered professional learning communities instead of paid conference travel, they are still being treated as second class citizens in the hierarchy of the campus.

“Organizing the Disenfranchised” and Academic Freedom (Samuels)

Samuels’ short article “Contingent Faculty and Academic Freedom in the Age of Trump: Organizing the Disenfranchised Is the Key to Success” expresses concern about the chilling effect that course evaluations have on academic freedom (A22). Contingent faculty who want to integrate current political events and issues into the classroom run the risk of getting low course evaluations from students offended by opposing political viewpoints, which can affect being renewed for further semesters (A22).

He calls for colleges and universities to “stop relying on student evaluations to assess non-tenured faculty” (A22). A better method is “peer review of instruction” (A22). Given the brevity of his article, Samuels does not have the space to explore potential problems of unfair evaluations by colleagues who may disagree with the politics or pedagogy of contingent faculty.

Final Thoughts

This issue of Forum: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty is a valuable contribution to discussions of academic freedom and contingency. Taken together, the essays remind the readers that in addition to cost-saving measures, contingent academic labor is a tool for control over the curriculum. The emphasis of this issue on academic freedom highlights Maria Maisto’s observation that “[f]aculty working conditions are student learning conditions” (qtd. in Davis xv). Academic freedom of faculty directly affects students. If contingent faculty members are qualified to teach classes, then they should have the freedom to accomplish the learning outcomes without interference.

Additional Works Cited

Davis, Daniel. Contingent Academic Labor: Evaluating Conditions to Improve Student Outcomes. The New Faculty Majority Series, series foreword by Maria Maisto, foreword by Adrianna Kezar, Stylus, 2017.

Meloncon, Lisa. “Contingent Faculty, Online Writing Instruction, and Professional Development in Technical and Professional Communication.” Technical Communication Quarterly, vol. 26, no. 3, 2017, pp. 256-272.


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