More about Contingent Talk

Contingency, a little context (and some reflections, too)

A note of thanks from Sarah

More about Contingent Talk

Contingent Talk is a series of four podcasts about precarious academic labor that is part of the College Art Association's ongoing CAA Conversations podcast initiative. The producer is Sarah M. Dreller, PhD, a historian of modern art and architecture with over 20 years of experience as a part-time professor/mentor. The project can be found on social media with #CAAConversations and #ContingentTalk.

Following the CAA Conversations model, each episode of Contingent Talk features a wide-ranging discussion between two colleagues about a specific aspect of contingent teaching and postsecondary arts education in the United States today. Everyone who participated in this series has an active, first-hand, and long-term connection to the contingency system either as faculty themselves or as the chair of a department that relies on adjunct teaching staff.

Sarah prefaces each Contingent Talk episode by introducing the participants and briefly highlighting some of their conversation's key themes or concepts.

Average total runtime for each episode is approximately 35 minutes.

Contingency, a little context (and some reflections, too)

Sarah M. Dreller, PhD
February 2019

In American academia, the term "contingent faculty" refers to anyone who teaches college classes without a firm commitment from their institutional employer. Contingents include full-time professors with short-term contracts, part-time instructors (usually called "adjuncts"), and graduate students who teach as part of their academic training.

According to analysis compiled by the American Association of University Professors Research Office in March 2017, over 70% of everyone teaching in higher education today is categorized as contingent. That's a 15% increase since 1975 -- enough to firmly shift higher education into the gig economy. For more about this statistic, take a look at the AAUP's helpful chart: "Trends in the Academic Labor Force, 1975-2015."

What does this mean, that higher education is part of the gig economy? Well, generally speaking it means the majority of people working so hard to get their PhDs today will not be able to find full-time permanent employment doing the job they're trained to do, want to do, and are good at doing. It means that students taking loans to pay for college today are likely to receive their education from people that have very little hope of ever paying off their own student debt. And without real change it means that advanced degrees will end up being accessible only to people who can afford to be partially employed for some or even all of their working lives.

In specific, day-to-day terms, lack of institutional commitment manifests in myriad problematic ways. Here are some I have experienced personally and that are openly discussed in Contingent Talk:

  • contingent teaching assignments are notoriously underpaid for the amount of time and energy that instructors must invest, and often include no benefits (especially for adjuncts and graduate students);
  • it is not uncommon for contingent faculty to wait 6-8 months after accepting a teaching contract to receive their first paycheck, and any time during that period institutions can cancel courses taught by contingents without offering recompense;
  • contingents rarely have a voice in departmental governance yet they are subject to policy and procedure changes like everyone else;
  • contingents are routinely expected to produce the same kind of high-quality original scholarship as their non-contingent peers even though their employment contracts do not include professional development budgets for funding the requisite research, conference trips, etc.;
  • and without institutional commitment, contingents have no reliable academic freedom protections to enable the risk-taking work they need to be competitive in the job market and achieve their full personal/professional potential.

These and other similar working conditions combine to create a precarious labor environment, one that is only sustainable when contingents are fortunate to also have some kind of mitigating factor at play. A strong union to negotiate fair labor practices and reasonable compensation, an enlightened department chair who recognizes the importance of communication and transparency, alternate sources of income -- I had all of these at one point or another during my decades of part-time teaching and mentoring. In fact, it was when I lost any possibility of alleviating the situation's inherent precariousness that my career as a professor ended. I don't think anyone knows exactly how many other people like me have left teaching for this reason but anecdotal evidence leads me to believe that it is a very high number (perhaps shockingly so given how hard it is earn the needed credentials). And we are all the poorer for it.

Despite all this, neither I nor anyone else who participated in Contingent Talk is suggesting that contingency be done away with entirely. Contingency serves an important function as the administrative instrument through which non-academic professionals can be in the classroom providing "hard skills" training. This is a crucial piece of the arts education puzzle, as demonstrated by the many contingent instructors who are professional artists, curators, arts administrators, art therapists, and so on. These people can do yeoman's work preparing students from all walks of life for meaningful and viable careers after graduation. Moreover, since compensation is so much lower for contingent faculty than their non-contingent peers, the way higher education works today, contingency is sometimes the only way underfunded departments can afford to provide the number of courses required of them. And of course contingency offers early-career scholars a chance to teach a few courses here and there to gain some experience in the classroom and to make sure they really want to subject themselves to the grueling path toward tenure.

There is so much more that could be said, of course, which is one of the reasons I wanted to make Contigent Talk in the first place. I also wanted to make the series because while the nature of the contingency system is well-known inside academia, the wider public has very little understanding of how this particular labor market works. I suppose there are other formats that might have also achieved these same goals but I do think there is something urgent and compelling about hearing authentic first-hand accounts of human experiences. So I was thrilled to discover that the College Art Association had not only developed this two-person conversation-based podcast program but that the organization was also eager for more episodes on the important topic of contingency. I hope you'll consider streaming some (or all!) of these conversations and that you'll feel it was worth your time to listen in as these articulate, empathetic art history educators suggest how contingent work could be made more equitable and meaningful.

If you found anything about Contingent Talk helpful or enlightening, I'd really appreciate your words of encouragement and/or constructive criticism. I've provided a variety of ways for you to reach out on the contact page.


Sarah M Dreller PhD - producer of Contingent Talk

A note of thanks from Sarah

First, I would like to extend my heartfelt appreciation to Ashley, Cheyanne, Maggie, Ellen, David, Carmen, Sarita, and Jason. Thank you all for trusting me so readily with your stories.

Thank you, too, to the College Art Association -- especially Ellen Mueller -- for inviting me to participate in the CAA Conversations initiative and for allowing me the latitude to develop this Contingent Talk companion website as a concurrent personal project.

I would like to acknowledge Humanities Commons for providing the free web hosting that helps make this kind of public scholarship possible and my brother for jump-starting my learning curve on all the various audio recording tech/equipment details.

I would be nowhere without the ongoing unconditional support of my husband, who said "go for it" when I wondered out loud if I ought to maybe try podcasting.

And I'd like to conclude by thanking everyone reading this page and listening to these episodes. Thank you for your time. Thank you for your attention. And thank you, in advance, for turning whatever you've learned here into meaningful action.