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Supporting Contingent Faculty: Concrete Suggestions

Shira Kohn

If you are reading this, you are undoubtedly aware of the contingent faculty crisis – both for universities that rely too heavily upon these positions instead of hiring on the tenure track; and particularly, for the thousands of qualified individuals with doctorates who are stalled professionally or stuck in underpaid and unsupported positions. My goal is not to repeat the alarming statistics or reproach those fortunate enough to be in secure positions. What I would like to offer are some concrete suggestions that departments and individual faculty can adopt to enhance the professional opportunities for contingent faculty they employ or encounter. Since university resources vary greatly by institution, I have provided a variety of options, some of which do not rely on funding, to maximize the different ways in which faculty and departments can better support their contingent colleagues.

» Funding Opportunities, Big and Small: It would be a true service for Jewish Studies departments to find ways to provide ongoing contingent faculty with health insurance (and/or access to the school’s health plan), since individual insurance plans can be expensive. If this is financially or administratively difficult for your department, consider whether you could provide a colleague with funds to attend a conference or even cover some research costs. One-hundred dollars goes a long way when it comes to photocopying. This past year, an institution where I taught a single course offered me a few hundred dollars to purchase books for my teaching and research needs. Beyond the financial assistance provided, that they prioritized my needs over their own meant a great deal and helped to legitimize my standing as a scholar and colleague. Also, think small, but pivotal: Can you provide free parking or reimburse travel expenses (gas, tolls, MetroCard, etc.)? This seems like a minimal amount, but it could enable a contingent faculty member to more easily cover your course needs. Perhaps department members could band together and produce a small fund to enable contingent colleagues to offset their research and logistical expenses.

» Non-Funded Positions Still Make a Difference: Even if your institution does not have resources to hire additional faculty, you can still help contingent faculty members in your area. For example, might you be able to create an unfunded visiting research opportunity? This usually involves providing office space and school library privileges for a semester or academic year. For international scholars, visa assistance is often invaluable and truly provides an unparalleled service.

» Title and Letterhead: In addition to these tangible benefits, providing a title can help contingent faculty hoping to enter academic or non-academic opportunities in other ways. The greatest advantage is providing gap coverage on the academic CV or resume, which is the first thing committees often see when reviewing a potential candidate for a position. Additionally, for those seeking tenure-track positions, having access to letterhead and a photocopier can be a huge asset on the job market and help offset application costs with minimal financial burden to the home department.

» Mentorship and Collegiality Matter: While listed last, this is truly the most important source of assistance you can offer contingent faculty members. Provide them with an opportunity to present their research to other faculty and students—and make sure those on the tenure track show up. Remember, contingent faculty are as committed to their scholarship as are those on the tenure track, but often do not receive invitations to present their work or receive feedback. You can provide an excellent opportunity while benefitting from exposure to another scholar's work. To this end, refer such faculty in your department to other colleagues as invited guest lecturers. The publicity adds to their CVs and professional networks. During the job market season, offer to read a colleague's materials and, when appropriate, offer to provide a letter of support or additional reference. Investing in a scholar's professional development costs nothing – maybe a cup of coffee – but is an invaluable service, one which contingent faculty will appreciate.

These are simply jumping-off points for providing contingent faculty members with opportunities – both funded and non-funded – to continue their research, offset expenses, retain their ability to network, and gain professional development opportunities. All of these initiatives put little financial burden on the home institution, while providing potentially game-changing assistance for those still seeking gainful and secure employment in academia and beyond.

Shira Kohn is visiting research fellow at Brooklyn College.