Contingency and Departure

Dear Universities,

Find ways to recognize and celebrate the contributions of your departing contingent faculty the way you celebrate administrators and professors who retire or move to new appointments.

For the past four academic years, from August 2016 to August 2020, I have held full-time, non-tenure-track appointments at the same university, the first two years as a post-doctoral teaching fellow and the remainder as a Visiting Assistant Professor. Over that time, this university, a small, denominational liberal arts college, has seen a moderate amount of turnover in administrative leadership roles and several routine retirements among the faculty.

Each time an administrator or a retiring tenured faculty member has left, the campus has received an official e-mail announcement from the office of the president, the office of the provost, or the dean, often including an invitation to a punch and cookies farewell reception (in the beforetimes) or to a Zoom meeting (because pandemic). These announcements are, of course, ritualistic. They rehearse the same sentiments–we thank X for their years of service, we are grateful for Z’s contribution to the campus community, we wish Y well in their future work. They may feel formulaic, but this ritual, I would argue, is an important one.

These farewell rituals asks us, all of the members of the community, to pay attention to the contributions of individuals, to recognize the role of the parts in the collaborative creation of the whole. They ask us to pay attention to the change that is happening to the community.

While I’ve appreciated the periodic punch and cookies over the years, and while I don’t begrudge the provost, the dean of the library, several VPs, the chairs of the liberal studies program, and the dean of my school the good wishes of the community, I am increasingly annoyed at the lack of recognition for departures that happen further down the org chart.

My department depends on full-time non-tenure track faculty in positions like mine for teaching its full catalog of courses but also for curriculum development, advising of student clubs, oversight of independent studies, and hosting of campus events. The three FT, NTT people who left this department before me–Elizabeth, Jason, and Kathryn–received no farewell ritual. No e-mail to the ¬†school or to the department, no punch, no cookies, no formal recognition of their individual contributions to the collaborative creation of the whole.

In the last few weeks, as I’ve been cleaning out my e-mail and packing up my office, I have been invited to contribute to the university’s commencement activities and to the formal farewell rituals for students in my department and for the dean of our school. Participating in these celebrations have been bittersweet for me.

This year’s cohort of 4th-year seniors were in my first-year seminar and composition courses during my first full-time year at this university. My dean also started as a new employee that same year. I have shown up in these virtual spaces because I have come to care for my students, my colleagues, and my dean over these years, and I wish them all well in their future endeavors. I was glad to contribute, but I also felt excluded. Formal rituals of leave-taking recognize all of these people who began contributing to this community the same time I did. I am also leaving, but not recognized.

My contributions to this collaborative endeavor over the last four years have not been insignificant, and I have an e-mail archive full of notes from students and colleagues to remind me of this. Nonetheless, the lack of a formal ritual that includes me hurts.

Universities depend on people like me in job roles like mine. But they also depend on our disposability. They depend on our leaving. The very least they could do is recognize us when we go.

If the task of formal recognition is overwhelming because of the numbers of contingent faculty who are not rehired each year, that’s a different problem for universities to work on.


the full-time contingent faculty near the bottom of the org chart