By Joseph G. Ramsey, PhD
Faculty Staff Union (FSU/MTA/NEA)
Senior Lecturer, UMass Boston
Is there any other profession besides professor @ academia where you can have the same degree, same (or more) teaching experience, same (or better) publications, same (or greater) record of student and community engagement, and, yet, never be allowed a formal chance to ‘cross over’ from the lower-paid, less-resourced, teaching-intensive, low prestige “track” of “Lecturer” or “NTT” (Non-Tenure Track) to the more fully paid, respected, resourced, and less exploited “track” of TT (Tenure Track) “Professor”? (At least without abandoning the very institution that you’ve devoted your working life to and starting over someplace else altogether.)
I’ve been thinking for a long time about how effing absurd it is that we use this metaphor of “tracks” (or sometimes “streams”) to demarcate NTT from TT faculty. I mean, isn’t it one of the fundamental facts of train tracks in the world that they can and often do *cross* and *intersect* at various points along the way (just as streams often combine as they flow to the sea)?
And yet…in magical mystified academia, it’s like these “tracks” exist on different planes.
In fact, maybe we should mockingly speak of “planes” instead of “tracks.” Planes…both with its (deluded) sense of inhabiting different ontological “universes,” and also *planes* in the sense of (imagined) isolated airborne tubes, separately flying through the air…and incapable of converging (NTT and TT) for fear that contact would result in a stratospheric explosion. (Best to keep our planes apart then.)
But of course, we’re actually NOT on separate planes, in either sense. It’s more like one plane, with some confined to coach (sitting or serving) and others in business or leisure or “first” class. (Meanwhile Admin and Political bosses are at the pilot’s helm—a danger to us all and to the people below.)
Anyways, the ruling metaphors for describing (and naturalizing) our often unjust and absurd “tiered” system frustrate me. And I’m pretty sure I’m not alone.
We need new language here. Some suggest we should cease speaking of “tracks” and shift instead to “tiers,” which at least has the virtue of being honest about the enduring—and often absurd and unjust—hierarchies at work. But clarifying language is not enough. The material inequities are huge and demand redress.
The TT/NTT difference used to grate me more for the symbolic degradation than anything else. But now with a new baby and rent gouging landlords and childcare costs going through the roof here in Boston I’m looking at the over $1 MILLION DOLLAR estimated career differences in earning between Tenure “track” faculty and what I will call Tenure *Excluded* Faculty…and this massive equity gap is feeling not just unjust or unfair…but increasingly intolerable. (And, in the spirit of full disclosure, I speak here from a relatively secure full-time position at a public institution with a relatively strong union and a relatively good contract for “NTT” faculty too. I’m painfully aware that many “Adjunct” faculty who lack such a strong contract probably can expect to make $1 MILLION LESS than I can over their careers! We have a multi-tier system at this point, as the recent “Confronting Contingency” zoom events hosted by Higher Ed Labor United (HELU) have explored:
So then, what do we do?
How about we merge the tracks. Combine the streams. LEVEL UP Adjunct and Contingent Faculty and NTT, creating equal pay, privilege, recognition, and support FOR EQUAL WORK.
This will be a huge collective organizing lift, make no mistake about it. But some things we can change right now, in terms of how we think and talk.
For instance: one symbolic piece we can and should dispense with right now is the frankly absurd idea that Point of Hire is a magical moment that must set the ontological “universe” in place for all time to come—separating lower and higher status beings forevermore. Instead, we could get real about honoring and supporting all the genuine and necessary work that people do, whatever label has been branded on our foreheads. Why can’t such evaluations of quality, and such moments of entry and transition be built into these “tracks” along the way? Why must we envision these tracks as inhabiting separate “planes” rather than sharing the same campus, the same students, the same city, the same planet earth?
We are all one faculty, folks, with many kinds of work that need to be done, together.
Let’s start thinking, talking, and acting like it.
Joseph G. Ramsey is the chair of the Contingency Task Force (CTF) at Higher Ed Labor United (HELU), though the ideas expressed here are his own and do not speak for the broader HELU or CTF. Joe welcomes your replies, as well as collaboration, at firstname.lastname@example.org