The Collective Weight of Contingency

At the 2014 MLA convention, I will present on the panel “Vulnerability and Survivalism of the Humanities in Corporatized Academia,” organized by the Community College Humanities Association. The panel is part of the presidential theme, Vulnerable Times, and I will speak alongside Steven Hymowech, Lee Skallerup Bessette, George Louis Scheper, Paul Lauter, and Stacey Lee Donohue. The following post offers a glimpse of my presentation’s content.

I find myself increasingly unwilling to rest on my own privilege. In August 2013, I accepted a tenure-track position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I’m working in the Division of Continuing Studies, advocating for lifelong learning and what I call the public digital humanities.

In my previous position, I was a faculty member in and director of a new hybrid digital humanities degree program at a small liberal arts institution in Portland, Oregon. I had taken the job with the belief that it would be my career for ten years or more. It was a full-time, non-tenure-track position with benefits within a system that was described to me as “tenure-equivalent.” My colleagues seemed collegial, the campus was lovely, and the students were some of the best I’d worked with in fifteen years of teaching.

Ultimately, though, I discovered that my position was, in fact, deeply contingent. As the financial woes of the institution mounted, the mistreatment of faculty members, and especially adjuncts, increased. What I discovered was that as people got scared for their own welfare, they began to guard their perceived territory, whether administrative or scholarly, more tightly. The work I value most—collaboration and interdisciplinarity—suffered and was at times even actively discouraged. The treatment of adjuncts was downright appalling. Tears were not unusual at committee meetings.

This was the environment in which I wrote my proposal for the 2014 MLA convention panel “Vulnerability and Survivalism of the Humanities in Corporatized Academia.” Parts of my abstract were adapted into an article written by me and Lee Skallerup Bessette. That article begins with the line, “Higher education needs more bravery.” Our goal in writing the piece was to stir the pot—to unsettle assumptions about how academia should operate in the wake of widespread exploitation of contingent laborers. For me, every aspect of higher education is either suspect or somehow implicated: hiring practices, administrative bloat, disciplinarity, traditional academic publishing, the notion of a terminal degree, and the tenure system itself.

Too much of the system is designed to defend the status quo and reinforce the mistreatment of seventy-five percent of the academic labor force. This is, quite frankly, not healthy for any of us, whether on the tenure track or not. This will be the focus of my MLA presentation in January 2014, “Right Leaders of Wrong: A Revolution in Higher Education.” As Lee and I wrote back in April 2013, “full-time faculty must be willing to take risks in support of their adjunct colleagues and students.”

Throughout fall 2013, Hybrid Pedagogy, the journal I founded and direct, is publishing a series of articles focused on our role as pedagogues in a system wherein education does not always lead to opportunity. In the first article from the series, “A Lecturer’s Almanac,” Katie Rose Guest Pryal offers a harrowing account of her experiences as a contingent laborer, a litany of seemingly mundane grievances, the collective weight of which becomes quickly oppressive. Tiffany Timperman, in her article “Adjunctification: Living in the Margins of Academe,” describes her experiences in “extreme adjuncting,” hoping with her story “to tip the elephant in the room.”

I recently tweeted, “If bigger and bigger bits of our ‘wellbeing’ is what makes it go, I suddenly feel like all of education is contingent.” This was in response to a blog post by Kate Bowles, “Irreplaceable Time.” In that post, Kate describes the physical burden of academic labor and what it has literally wrought upon her body. She describes “the corporate culture of team-building that is so reckless with people’s time and trust,” and she concludes, “[Y]ou don’t have my consent to use my remaining time in this way.” If we’re contingent, we labor. If we’re tenure-track, we labor. If we’re students, we labor. And rarely are we asked to labor for each other’s mutual benefit.

As I write this, Kate Bowles is my hero. Tiffany Timperman is my hero. Katie Rose Guest Pryal and Lee Skallerup Bessette are my heroes. They’ve said to me what I can’t always say to myself: We must be brave. But we must also take care. “What we need,” Kate writes, “is the courage to put work itself at risk.” For her—for myself—I will, if necessary, fight to the death of my own tenure.

Works Cited

Bowles, Kate. “Irreplaceable Time.” Music for Deckchairs: Edtech, Risk, Planning and Precarity in Australian Higher Education. N.p., 24 Nov. 2013. Web. 26 Nov. 2013.

Pryal, Katie Rose Guest. “A Lecturer’s Almanac.” Hybrid Pedagogy. Hybrid Pedagogy Inc., 21 Oct. 2013. Web. 26 Nov. 2013.

Stommel, Jesse (Jessifer). “If bigger and bigger bits of our ‘wellbeing’ is what makes it go, I suddenly feel like all of education is contingent.” 24 Nov. 2013, 4:01 p.m. Tweet.

Stommel, Jesse, and Lee Skallerup Bessette. “A Scholarship of Resistance: Bravery, Contingency, and Higher Education.” Hybrid Pedagogy. Hybrid Pedagogy Inc., 1 Apr. 2013. Web. 26 Nov. 2013.

Timperman, Tiffany. “Adjunctification: Living in the Margins of Academe.” Hybrid Pedagogy. Hybrid Pedagogy Inc., 18 Nov. 2013. Web. 26 Nov. 2013.


Profile photo of Stacey Lee Donohue Stacey Lee Donohue

….and what an enticing “glimpse” this is, Jesse. I’m very much looking forward to our panel at #MLA14! Thank you for posting this to get the conversation started before we meet.

Ray James

“In August 2013, I accepted a tenure-track position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison”: In other words Jesse Stommel, after finding out that the hyphenated adjectives “non-tenure-track” and “tenure-equivalent” have dire consequences (one wonders if he’d have a similar problem in distinguishing between “cheese” and “cheese-equivalent” in a deli sandwich), ultimately opted for a tenure position. Very few adjuncts get that opportunity. His essay is risibly behind the curve of current adjunct woes and the overall plight of part-time faculty, now often labeled a “lost generation of scholars.” The MLA itself apparently views incessant “conversations” as precursors to an epiphany and then, though never stated explicitly as a goal, a redress. By the time the MLA finally effects a concrete solution about this overt, decades-long problem, the need for adjuncts will likely be mooted out of existence by a below-radar campaign to get rid of them because they’re now becoming public-relations embarrassments and nuisances for college administrators, deans, and tenured/full-time faculty.

Finally, how many tenured/full-time faculty MLA members know about Margaret Mary Vojtko? My guess is: far too few.

Profile photo of Sean Michael Morris Sean Michael Morris

Your upset is understandable. As a long-time adjunct myself, I’ve found that far too few tenure-track faculty are truly aware of the struggles of adjunct instructors. However, I think I can say with fairness that most adjuncts, given the opportunity of tenure at an institution they respect, would take that opportunity. No, not many get that opportunity… But is it fair to hold against those that do their choice to take it?

As well, I can speak to Jesse Stommel’s integrity, and that his position here is not meant to just initiate incessant conversations. I have worked with Jesse for 12 years, have been his employer and his colleague, and now sit alongside him publishing Hybrid Pedagogy, where our attention is daily turned to giving voice to those who go unheard. We recently published several articles by contingent workers to this end, and we will continue to find those who need representation and offer it.

The adjunct problem is not new. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t need greater and more creative attention paid. And sometimes, that attention will come from tenure-track folk. As a former adjunct who left the academy harried and exasperated, I find that the support Jesse and others like him offer is as necessary as it is exciting.

Allison Easley

As an adjunct instructor of English & literature at a community college (making less than $30,000/year), I appreciate that the MLA is willing to engage in discussions about contingency and its impact on the profession!

Profile photo of Jesse Stommel Jesse Stommel

Thanks for the comment, Allison. At one point in my not so distant past, I was working in some contingent fashion at three different institutions, cobbling together up to 9 classes per semester. I was often taking additional contract work “on the side.” (I’m not actually sure what “on the side” means in this context, though — “on the side” of what?) I had little time to write about or even to reflect on my experience, and there were very few platforms where I felt I had a voice. The very public conversation we’re now having around contingency has been, for me, a long time coming. This is less about the MLA as an institution engaging a discussion, I think, and more about all of us, the members of the MLA, championing each other. The more we gather together in number, the more impact I think we can have. I’m an idealist, though bits have been chipped away, but I hope to keep what’s left of my idealism intact.

Profile photo of Roopika Risam Roopika Risam

Thank you for sharing this post, Jesse. I am honored to have Jesse Stommel as a colleague and friend particularly because he is a leading voice among early career tenure-track scholars about academic labor. I know that those of us on the tenure-track are in a position of privilege, but we can be allies. Thanks to Jesse for his work to forge these connections.

Tiffany Timperman (@TTimperman)

Dear Ray,

I too understand your concern. Though I have not worked with Jesse as long as Sean, I have worked with him for one year. He resuscitated a dying program and fought tirelessly on my, and other adjuncts, behalf against his best interest. Jesse gave me back my voice, my confidence, sense of security, and a platform to share my adjunct story. He is well positioned to argue for us, and I have no doubt that he will, even if it means reprisal.

I am honored to have him represent me (us), and we need reliable, brave, and ethical colleagues willing to stick their necks out, and encourage others to get their heads out of the sand. I’ve met the types you speak of, and I am sick of their hypocrisy.

Thank you for reading and caring.


Siobhan Senier

We can’t really depend on the MLA to figure this out. The AAUP, however, now makes organizing non-TT faculty a top priority. In fact, where state laws allow, they are also organizing TT and non-TT together, which seems like a very powerful strategy. University admins have vested interests in creating multi-tiered faculties, and TT faculty need our colleagues with contingent appointments more than ever. For instance, check out the recent contract successes at title=”U of Oregon” and title=”Wright State”


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