Professional Precarity, Ethics, and Social Justice

By Netta Avineri and Steven P. Black

“As long as we participate in social systems we don’t get to choose whether to be involved in the consequences they produce. We’re involved simply through the fact that we’re here. As such, we can only choose how to be involved, whether to be just part of the problem or also to be part of the solution. That’s where our power lies, and also our responsibility.”

–Johnson (2005) Privilege, Power, and Difference, p. 89

There is a labor crisis in academia. Scholars throughout the country now recognize that a system of privilege and marginalization is permeating our classrooms, faculty meetings, and institutional cultures, placing many academics in precarious professional positions (see As a discipline, anthropology presents unique perspectives on this professional precarity. Recently, the Committee on Labor Relations, the Committee for Human Rights Task Group/ Society for Linguistic Anthropology Committee on Language & Social Justice (Avineri), the Committee on Ethics (Black), and the presidents of the various AAA sections independently recognized the importance of this issue and are now beginning to take collective action. We are collaborating to craft a statement on adjuncting and precarity to present to the AAA Executive Committee (through liaison Rayna Rapp). We encourage you to use the comments section of the blog to share thoughts and experiences with us that might be helpful in shaping our perspective and constructing a statement.

The Ethics of Professional Practice

Professional precarity is an ethics issue. Principle seven of the Principles of Ethical Responsibility, “Maintain Respectful and Ethical Professional Relationships,” is impractical or even impossible in the face of the current situation. The supporting information for this principle states, “Anthropologists should at all times work to ensure that no exclusionary practices be perpetrated on the basis of any nonacademic attributes.” While once there may have been a legitimate distinction between adjuncts and tenure-track faculty in terms of academic attributes, that distinction (if ever there was one) is no longer present. This principle also states that anthropologists, “must not exploit individuals, groups, animals, or cultural or biological materials.” The promotion of a small number of tenured anthropologists while the majority remain untenured/in non-tenure-track positions is a form of exploitation, even if not directly initiated by the actions of particular anthropologists. The research productivity of tenure-track faculty is in many ways dependent upon this existing structure.

The Language of Marginalized Identities

While propelled by institutional policies, unethical practices are also constituted in professional activities and spaces, especially through the unreflexive discourse that occurs within them. The ways that people talk about academic and non-academic positions are rooted in conceptualizations of temporality and spatiality. The labels “tenure-track/tenure-stream” indicate a sense of directionality and future-oriented possibilities. On the other hand, “contingent”/”part-time”/”adjunct”/”visiting” point toward the now, to positions that are dependent on more important things, a temporary placement outside of the system, and finding oneself elsewhere and not truly present. Professional introductions, as a system of person reference, are one example of exclusionary and marginalizing language. At conferences, introducing oneself or others using titles (e.g., associate professor, visiting lecturer) become sites for positioning and identity maintenance. Seemingly less direct questions like, “What’s your teaching load?” index particular identities, priorities, and possibilities. Even the evaluation of affiliations can become problematic–are you in an academic position? Is your university a teaching institution? R2? R1?

Such ranking systems are invalid in the contemporary professional market. The incredible scarcity of available tenure-track positions means that one’s ability to land an academic job at an R1 institution is less a commentary on one’s worth as a scholar or anthropologist and more an indication of one’s professional connections (and in some cases, luck). Our continued use of these terms, and the underlying ideologies they evidence, constitutes a conceptual and linguistic inertia that hampers our ability to be more inclusive, ethical, and just.

Safe Spaces, Leveling Policies, and Creating Communities of Practice

Our goal is to reevaluate professional discourse and AAA policy to promote a more inclusive space that fosters academic freedom, growth, and productivity in the face of the current crisis. In doing so, we hope to  contest precarity at an institutional level while simultaneously shifting our practices and policies to change the scholarly landscape from the ground up. Our suggestions are meant to complement collective action that would rectify the current reliance on contingent labor in academic institutions (eg. higher wages, a higher proportion of stable positions in departments, or changes to the tenure system itself):

Below are three proposals for actions that individuals, groups and the AAA might take in this direction:

1) End the use of rank and/or affiliation for gatekeeping. Currently, one’s rank and affiliation may determine one’s ability to serve on particular editorial boards, gain access to funding (e.g., NSF), or write pieces for venues such as Annual Review of Anthropology. These positive and negative feedback loops become a vicious cycle. Rather than the arbitrary metrics of rank/ affiliation, utilize the evaluation of expertise, knowledge, and quality scholarship.

2) Stop using the AAA Annual Meeting as a venue for interviews. Those in “contingent” positions frequently do not receive funding to attend conferences and are therefore automatically in a less desirable position than those who have the money to make face-to-face contact with potential employers. Once difficult and confusing, digital interviews (eg. through Skype) are now easy and cost-effective for initial candidate screening.

3) Create safe spaces in which academics in a variety of positions are able to share ideas freely and experiment with their pedagogy without fear of being fired because their positions are less-than-secure. The field of anthropology can then move forward through enacting many of its basic tenets of perspective-taking and depth of understanding through experience over the long-term. Adjuncts’ teaching positions are highly dependent on student evaluations but don’t generally have the support they need to do their best in their teaching. For example, as a field we should support one another through anonymous online spaces for support and advice, online writing groups and retreats, teaching resources websites, “non-academic” advisors, and scholarships — where hierarchies can be flattened and various knowledges can be valued to allow for a variety of mentorship models.

Our sincere aspiration is that these and other policies will help to alleviate the current labor crisis in conjunction with direct action, while allowing for more flexible career trajectories and a level playing field. In doing so, we hope to encourage those in a range of jobs to feel confident and proud of what they are doing, to have the support they need to move them in the directions they would like at this point, and/or stay right where they are. Please share with us your thoughts on these proposals, or suggest alternatives, in the comments section of the blog.


8 Responses to “Professional Precarity, Ethics, and Social Justice”

  1. Excellent remarks. Netta and Steven, you overlook a “third way” that some universities are adopting, and that is full time lecturer with a multi-year contract and an avenue for promotion. Not that this third way obviates anything that you have written, in some circumstances it substantiates it. For example, when the dean of your college, in conference with a department chair who is seeking new lines for a department says, “We can’t afford $60K for a new assistant professor, but we CAN pay $50K for a lecturer,” you know there’s a problem. Especially when the ass’t professor will be teaching 2 classes per semester, and the lecturer will be teaching 4. In public schools where state funding (what little there is) is based on semester credit hour production, it’s a straightforward calculation to determine which of these positions is “worth more” to the department.

    With regard to your specific proposals, yes, yes, and YES!

  2. I think this is a lovely piece. As a labor historian, the only think I missing here is something about wages and compensation. Yes, we should support contingent academic workers in all the ways you describe, but we should also fight for more equal compensation. The rates vary so wildly by school, but generally are fair below what would be the minimum wage if it was an hourly wage. Respect and inclusion is one thing, but the right to a fair wage is another. I would consider adding something about how anthropologists can support adjunct unions in their organizing efforts, but I’m a labor guy. Instead, maybe consider including a statement about being an ally for contingent workers vis a vis departments and campus administration in negotiating more fair and equal rates of compensation. Just a thought.

  3. I support the notion of ensuring that job interview sites are financially accessible to all AAA members. As the organizer of a recent section meeting, I know that one reason AAA and section meetings are so expensive is that in 2004, we passed a resolution requiring meeting planners to choose a unionized hotel. This was a well-intentioned attempt to show solidarity with hotel workers, precarious workers who had low wages and no job security. Unfortunately, it has meant that we have to raise both hotel rates (since unionized hotels are most often more expensive than non-union venues) and registration fees (since AAA has to guarantee the purchase of a certain amount of food and beverage from the hotel, totaling in the tens of thousands of dollars). Does it make sense to support precarious hotel workers at the expense of our precarious adjunct colleagues? Should we make it harder for adjunct anthropologists to get jobs in order to protect hotel workers’ jobs? This is an incredibly difficult calculus, one nobody wants to make. But I believe we need to protect our undermployed colleagues first—-and repeal the resolution directing AAA staff to only book conferences at unionized venues.

  4. Thank you so much, Netta and Steven, for drafting this excellent statement. I think that focusing on three areas, such as what you have proposed, has potential to make this something more actionable. I generally agree with the points raised by the three previous comments. I don’t know if I’m (yet) for repealing the AAA’s stance on unionized hotels, but I think that it’s worth revisiting the topic if a possible side effect has been identified.

    I would like to make the first comments in support of your first proposal for action. If members of the AAA are recognizing the challenging situation for recent PhDs in regards to not only the academic labor market, I would add that there may be a different distribution of personal reasons that today’s academically-minded PhDs face than the faculty of 20-30 years ago. This second trend is encouraging some anthropologists to consider other applications of their degrees, even while they look to maintain scholarly profiles. I write as an anthropologist who has recently been split across two institutions, one of primary employment (in administration) and the other of primary academic affiliation. I have published more than many tenured faculty at my institution of primary employment, and my administrative work there has given me unquestionably broader international experience than if I had stuck to previous solely academic plans. I can accept the value of rank for gatekeeping in some cases. However, I would encourage more journals, funding agencies, and boards currently relying on rank to consider diversifying their measures of expertise to reflect both the reality of the tenure-track market and a diversification of professional paths that can yield new yet still academically relevant expertise.

  5. Thank you both for inviting a discussion about this issue. I appreciate these proposals and agree strongly with your discussion about the “vicious cycle” that takes place for adjuncts in particular. It is clear on the many search committees that I’ve been on that there is a bias against candidates who have worked primarily in adjunct teaching for more than a year; the bias is compounded by the fact that this type of teaching complicates efforts to maintain a research agenda. My spouse and I both have Ph.D.s in anthropology. We alternate between a one-income household and one that is supplemented with adjunct teaching. I was fortunate (and I agree that luck is definitely a part of it) to be hired on the tenure-track, but my husband, as an occasional PTI (part-time instructor) has no job security and of course no retirement or insurance benefits. One year he may be asked to teach two or three classes, and we become accustomed to the supplemental income, and then a few years go by with no opportunities. Our institution’s approach to the inequities of adjuncting is to require adjuncts to have independent health insurance and additional part-time work, but these requirements can also be exclusionary. We also have permanent Instructor positions, but their pay is substandard; though they don’t have the same expectations for professional development, they are expected to teach many more classes and should have access to the same salary as tenure-track professors. My main suggestion for change would be for a more equitable salary distribution across universities, which would free up money for many more full-time teaching positions with fair pay. I would be willing to forgo any salary increases for several years to this end, though equity should be considered at all levels–there are administrators and professors at my institution that make nearly 10 times the salary that I make as a tenured professor in anthropology.

  6. Netta and Steve, thanks for iniciating a very important conversation. Being in a somewhat precarious professional position myself, I can say it is a bit daunting to weigh in on these issues in a public forum, but it is crucial to do so. One thing that I feel is important to articulate is that while I absolutely agree with previous commenters who have touched on the insidious de facto class system that has emerged within the academic ranks between those with TT positions and those without, I think that all academics are currently being impacted by the imposition of market logic in higher education. TT faculty and adjuncts alike find themselves having to articulate and translate the “value” of their work and expertise to non academic administrators and higher ups who seem to be embracing the idea that our worth as teachers and researchers can be neatly and easily quantified in terms of the dollars we bring in through grants, and the number of majors we can attract. There are plenty of examples to show us that even those who have achieved that mythical unicorn we know as “tenure” are not necessarily safe from the budgetary that views one “multidisciplinary” department as more economical and efficient than three.

    The reason I point this out is to highlight what we all share in common as professionals who are eiither employed or seeking employment within a system ofa higher education that is being radically transformed in a way that is consistent with the very same processes of neoliberalization that many of us have written about in our ethnographic work. We all stand to gain more collectively by finding the common ground shared by TT and adjuncts, lectures and visiting faculty, as well as the with the workers in the hotels where our conferences and interviews take place. Rather than questioning the AAAs policy on unionized hotels, I suggest we pursue the unionization of faculty across the country and across disciplines and recognize our own place within the ongoing history of the labor movement.

  7. Netta and Steve, thank you for this insightful and timely piece. I support all three of the suggestions you make and hope that their proposal will lead to a more serious discussion about how to (as the political buzzphrase states) level the playing field, rather than just lamenting the state of affairs via venues such as the Chronicle or Inside Higher Ed. The one suggestion I would add to your list would be to drop the practice of printing institutional affiliation on nametags at the AAA Meetings. I recently attended the SfAAs and noticed the absence of affiliation on nametags. It was freeing not to be confronted immediately with these prestige markers when chatting with people after panels and in hallways. As you point out yourselves, our conference small talk is littered with “where are you now” and “what is your teaching load,” questions that reify a pecking order that needs disrupting. Dropping the practice of printing institutional affiliations on nametags would be one step toward doing so.

  8. Thanks, Netta and Steve, for beginning this conversation within the Ethics space of AAA and to all of the other commenters who have taken the time to write in so intelligently far. I think a number of really important points have been made about the issues we may be able to address within this format:

    1) fair pay and job security (administration v. faculty, tenured v. non-tenured, full-time v part-time…)
    2) discursive representation and stigma (titling at conferences, inclusion in departmental activities…)
    3) institutional gate-keeping (teaching positions, publication, research grants…)
    4) safe spaces for disciplinary and activist discourse (within our universities, at conferences and workshops…)

    As a long-time adjunct — no longer called for interviews for tenure-track jobs and no longer considered for grant funds despite my extensive research and publication record — I have many thoughts about how to address these issues. However, I also think we need to remember that the ethics board of AAA has limited rhetorical force. We need to think carefully about what powers our audience has to enact what. While our policies may be broadcast to a wider media, they will mostly be read by and have an impact on fellow anthropologists in academic positions who do not have direct control over the tenure system at large nor over many of the administrative decisions of their individual institutions. Thus, our recommendations will have the most impact if they 1) are actionable at the level of the association and 2) point out ways for individuals to speak up through everyday interactions and take action through institutional channels.

    So far the specific proposals made by Netta and Steve, as well as some of the others proposed here, seem to be more or less actionable by AAA and more or less effective as appeals to individuals in control of particular institutional structures. I’ve followed Netta’s and Seve’s numbered points here and then added a fourth point to address a couple of suggestions that were brought up by others:

    1) Does AAA have the power to impose editorial practices on the publications that are published by our sections, much less those that are not published by its sections? At best, I suspect this one could act as an appeal to individuals in charge of academic journals and presses; but this suggestion needs to be supported by a more general paradigm shift about how knowledge is constructed and represented and by whom — something that an ethics policy might be able to performatively index.

    2) Clearly interviewing at AAA is something that AAA controls, and so this recommendation could be implemented. This would NOT solve the basic inequities that adjuncts face on the job-market, which have more to do with the rapid way in which a class cleavage emerges between those who have access to time and funding to conduct research and publish their findings and those who have not…. This is something that only far deeper structural changes can address. However, it might indeed lessen the general meat-market feel to the meetings and contribute to more of a safe-space-feel for scholarly exchange.

    3) AAA can only hope to promote (and model) ways of creating safe spaces for scholarly debate; it can’t impose these on individual academic institutions. However, AAA already offers a number of ways of doing this, which an ethics policy statement could be used to applaud: there is no gate-keeping limitation on adjuncts organizing and participating in panels, roundtables, or workshops; or publishing in Anthro Newsletter or blogs such as this one. In other words, AAA already allows precarious academics to use these media of expression, and this can be highlighted and used to encourage individual academics to follow suit in their home institutions.

    4) AAA obviously has no control over academic pay or contracts or unions, but can make statements promoting such changes. I suspect that this might encourage many young adjuncts to become more active in their part-time unions and to even link this activism to the wider movement for fair pay (e.g., I will be engaging in a demonstration this Wednesday, 4-15, that combines the Fight for $15 (minimum wage) and the Faculty Forward (demand for $15,000/course) in front of the Trump Towers in NYC). I don’t believe we should repeal AAA’s 2004 decision to support unionized hotel practices both because at the level of representation this models our larger ethical commitment and at a more practical level AAA has already instituted a very good sliding scale for membership and registration for the underemployed.

    Thanks again, Netta and Steve, for initiating this discussion. Let’s be sure to take it forwards.