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Contingent Academic Labor

reviewed by Raquel M. Rall - April 05, 2019

coverTitle: Contingent Academic Labor
Author(s): Daniel B. Davis
Publisher: Stylus Publishing, Sterling, VA
ISBN: B0765BKWJ4, Pages: 136, Year: 2017
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Contingent Academic Labor by Daniel Davis is a timely, relevant, and necessary text that pushes us all to reconsider the treatment of non-tenure track academic faculty and the implications this treatment has for students. The book is an organized and concise work targeted at all who are (or should be) concerned with the treatment of contingent faculty: faculty, students, administrators, researchers, labor unions, etc. This work builds off of successful tools geared toward advancing equity in higher education like the Equity Scorecard (Bensimon, Hao, Bustillos, 2006) and offers a useful gauge for campus stakeholders to take the temperature regarding contingent faculty treatment and experiences in higher education.

In the introduction, Davis sets the stage for the present conditions contingent faculty face working in a higher education environment that underpays, undervalues, and under-employs them. Despite the growing number of contingent faculty members, their treatment indicates higher education has taken for granted their import to student success. Davis divides the book into three parts so that the reader first has a foundation of the broader context and conditions of academic labor. He then depicts the variety of working conditions for contingent faculty and ends with an overview of the utility of the Labor Conditions Score developed to aid higher education institutions in assessing the environments in which their contingent faculty work.

In Part One, Davis lays the groundwork for the structural factors influencing faculty equity. First, he establishes his use of the word contingent as opposed to adjunct as the term of choice used to describe these non-tenure track faculty members. Davis tries to move away from the pejorative “adjunct” term that suggests that these faculty members are afterthoughts. He then moves us to consider the demographic landscape of contingent faculty members (their ranges in age, education, desire to transition to full-time status, institution type, etc.) and makes it clear that the proliferation of contingent faculty members is not a fad but rather a reality that is sweeping the globe across all industries (e.g., per diem nurses, Uber, Taskrabbit). Davis subsequently offers an overview of the cultural influences on faculty equity through his explanation of how contingent faculty frame their employment situation on campus. Two frames are presented: contingency as voluntary, flexible, and empowering, and contingency as exploitation. The former describes voluntary and flexible employment that is a supplement to another form of employment while the latter describes insecure employment that is damaging to the faculty member’s self-esteem, self-confidence, and identity.

In Chapter Two, Davis outlines the ways in which contingent faculty work conditions influence student outcomes. Poor labor conditions (e.g., low institutional commitment to contingent faculty) leads to negative student outcomes. In the final chapter of the first section, Davis discusses the “cooling-out” effect on contingent faculty. These faculty members must deal with the redefinition of their academic futures; they are forced to consider alternate achievement paths and to assume incomplete definitions of the faculty role. For example, they are called professor but do not receive full benefits of what that title means, or they face ambiguous expectations where they are unsure whether they should apply for grants, attend all faculty meetings, recruit students, etc.

In Part Two of the book, Davis offers in-depth description of material equity (Chapter Four), professional equity (Chapter Five), and social equity (Chapter Six). Material equity defines the pay parity, job security, and benefits contingent faculty often have challenges securing. While there are gradations of offerings at different institutions, for the most part, the contingent faculty members are left wanting in terms of material equity. Chapter Five is focused on professional equity, or the opportunities that contingent faculty members have for development and advancement. Social equity, outlined in Chapter Six, refers to the benefits of faculty diversity and inclusivity across race and gender.

In Part Three, Davis reveals the Contingent Labor Conditions Score. This tool pushes past quantitative depictions of the contingent labor force and centers their voices to better understand the depth, breadth, and distinction of each story. As Davis writes, “There is sometimes a methodological assumption that all contingency is the same—a point this book stresses could not be further from the truth” (p. 100). The combination of numerical data and faculty stories cement this book as a trailblazer in the contingent faculty space, delineating not only the suboptimal labor conditions contingent faculty face but also the ramifications of these environments on contingent faculty, students, and the campus as a whole. The report card measures the three categories of equity introduced in Part Two that define labor conditions for contingent professors: material equity, professional equity, and social equity.

What stands out in Davis’ work is the push to improve faculty conditions in order to maximize the learning environment for students. When faculty are not supported (in the ways that matter to them), they are unable to support students and therefore cannot engage them in meaningful ways. When contingent faculty members are isolated, alienated, and overburdened with too many students and too few supports, they often must sacrifice learning students’ names, being available outside of class time, and spending quality time on grading assignments.

Overall, this text is accessible to a wide audience, including contingent faculty members, campus leadership, labor organizers, policy makers, students, and educational researchers. The content is easily digestible and therefore will be a valuable springboard from which others can continue to expand our knowledge of the experiences of contingent faculty. In its broad appeal, the text lacks a specific call to action targeted at specific groups like boards of trustees or faculty senates that may be able to address and improve the subpar treatment of contingent faculty members. On numerous occasions Davis declines to take a position or make a specific recommendation. This neutrality gives me pause because if not someone like Davis, with a wealth of knowledge in this area, then who is equipped to make recommendations? Davis himself notes that “change will not happen by accident” (p. 63) but stops short of offering readers explicit, actionable suggestions.

There are three points that warrant further consideration. First, the focus on contingent faculty at teaching institutions stops short of a more comprehensive understanding of the nuance of different teaching environments for these faculty members. For contingent faculty members at research institutions, for example, how might the lack of support and resources be exacerbated as they try to also maintain a research agenda and secure grant funding? Further, while Davis mentions that graduate teaching assistants in essence serve as the contingent labor force at research institutions, he does not unpack what differences these individuals might face. What are the features that differentiate these two groups at various stages of their careers? It might also be worth considering the idea that contingent faculty might covet what tenure track faculty members have, not the actual job. In other words, Davis can make a more lucid distinction as to whether some contingent faculty members want the various forms of equity because they want to be on the tenure track or if they would be just as content with an analogous track that offered the same securities without tenure. Based on the information presented in the text, I cannot tell. What if we stopped comparing them to tenure track faculty members and reimagined what they could be? As Davis puts forth, “Many options exist between a full tenure system and a completely insecure contingent employment system” (p. 36).

Second, Davis notes that most contingent faculty members want to obtain the enhanced security that comes with a full-time position, yet he does not unpack how this desire might color the experience or how the full-time experience might not be a complete contrast to the contingent position. Because Davis does not juxtapose the contingent faculty experience to the faculty experience in general, he does not consider that there may be similar dissatisfaction across both types. For example, tenure track faculty members, especially those from minoritized populations like women (O’Meara, Kuvaeva, Nyunt, Waugaman, & Jackson, 2017) and faculty of color (Wood, Hilton, & Nevarez, 2016), often express many of the same concerns illuminated here. They often lack access to professional development, wait extended periods for office space, and feel isolated in their roles. To be clear, they have medical insurance and do not have to work at multiple institutions, but the lack of support (both in infrastructure and in personnel) and overburden of service work, along with confronting racism and sexism, is often considerable and leads to difficulty in recruiting and retaining faculty from these marginalized populations (Whittaker, Montgomery, & Acosta, 2015). Is the treatment of contingent faculty a part of a larger trend to not value faculty who are not of the majority in general? Those of us who are not yet tenured, who have not brought in big time dollars for the university, and who are not white men often do not feel secure either.

One final consideration that Davis does not explicitly address is how participation with the contingent labor conditions score will affect contingent faculty. There is an unstated assumption that it is better for institutions to calculate the contingent labor conditions score. But would the tool also be more work for contingent faculty members to complete when they are already overburdened and undersupported? Further, although Davis alludes to the impact on students, without  indicators in the tool to consider student voice, how can we be certain of this impact?

Even with these additional considerations, it is clear that no one wins with the present treatment of contingent faculty members. One participant interviewed for this work said, “I don’t understand why this situation persists when it’s a lose-lose-lose scenario. There has to be a better way” (p. 22). When the faculty members are struggling to survive, they oftentimes cannot recognize or address the challenges students face. The use of a tool like the Contingent Labor Conditions Scorecard can help move institutions towards maximizing student experiences and outcomes. The tool can also help better assess the feelings of contingent faculty members in their current roles. The text will certainly prompt additional discussion and direct attention to this important topic of contingent faculty, and hopefully those who read it will push for institutions to convert the knowledge shared into meaningful actions that will benefit all campus stakeholders.


Bensimon, E. M., Hao, L., & Bustillos, L. T. (2006). Measuring the state of equity in public higher education. In P. Gándara, G. Orfield, & C. Horn (Eds.), Expanding opportunity in higher education: Leveraging promise (143–165). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

O’Meara, K., Kuvaeva, A., Nyunt, G., Waugaman, C., & Jackson, R. (2017). Asked more often: Gender differences in faculty workload in research universities and the work interactions that shape them. American Educational Research Journal, 54(6), 1154–1186.

Whittaker, J. A., Montgomery, B. L., & Acosta, V. G. M. (2015). Retention of underrepresented minority faculty: Strategic initiatives for institutional value proposition based on perspectives from a range of academic institutions. Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education, 13(3), A136.

Wood, J. L., Hilton, A. A., & Nevarez, C. (2016). Faculty of color and White faculty: An analysis of service in colleges of education in the Arizona public university system. Journal of the Professoriate, 8(1).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 05, 2019
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22748, Date Accessed: 5/17/2022 5:18:04 PM

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