Gendering Contingency in Religious Studies

This paper was my contribution to a roundtable on contingency in religious studies at the annual AAR meeting. I talked through the paper rather than read it as written, so you miss my bad jokes , wild gestures, and animated facial expressions. What is striking to note is that the small audience was all contingent workers, who were mostly women. There were two men on our panel of five. Contractual labor needs gender analysis. Let’s hope this starts a much-needed discussion.

Gendering Contingency in Religious Studies at #sblaar14

I’ve only had contingent positions. I started adjuncting as a graduate student for extra money and continued adjuncting at multiple institutions in multiple states until I received a full-time non-tenure track job in 2011. I’ve taught at community colleges and big state universities, and for a long time, I taught heavy course loads while keeping up my research and searching for a tenure track job. I quit my lecturer job because I no could handle the strain of contractual work. Now I’m a freelance writer. I’ll say it again: I have only had contingent positions.

This shouldn’t necessarily be surprising since contingency is now the norm, rather than the exception despite the what the AAR/SBL jobs report tries to suggest. The AAUP notes that 76% of the instructional positions at American universities and colleges are non-tenure track. Since 1975 tenured and tenure track positions are up by 26% while part-time appointments are up 300%. My story and the stories of my fellow panelists illuminate the reliance (or dare I say over reliance?) on contractual labor in higher ed and within religious studies. Yet, I don’t want to talk today about contingency generally. Instead, I want to direct our attentions to the relationship between the casualization of labor and gender.

It first occurred to me that contingent labor might be gendered at non-tenure track faculty reception at my old university. My fellow lecturer (also a woman) and I entered a room filled with many, many women and few men. Our university was trying hard to be equitable to those off the tenure-track, and the reception was a meet and greet with one of the vice presidents, who was establishing a system for promotion for lecturers. I was struck by the abundance of women in lecturer positions from all over the university, not just the humanities.

Usually, when critics lament the adjuntification of higher education, neither gender nor race are prominently discussed. While contingent labor is a clearly problem for the modern university that learned societies like AAR must react to, it is not a problem that affects everyone equally. What does it mean for religious studies and the AAR if contingency is a problem that overwhelming affects women? How does, or should, this change our approaches to contractual labor within our discipline? More importantly, what does this suggest about the gender politics of religious studies more broadly?

Women make up the majority of contingent faculty nationwide. Writing in the Nation, Kay Steiger described contingent workers are “the pink collar workforce of academia.” Recent estimates range from 51% to 62% of contingent workers are women while full-time tenured faculty are still around 59% men. There’s a long history of women working off the tenure track with male professors’ wives often finding themselves in teaching roles. Additionally, cultural assumptions that code teaching as feminine and research as masculine also don’t help matters. There’s also the way in which contingent labor is touted as family-friendly, which I guess assumes that the tenure track is not.

Marisa Alison, a researcher at the New Faculty Majority Research Foundation, noted a disturbing trend: the rise in contingent faculty coincides with the rise of women in doctoral degree programs. There’s a similar argument to made about race as well. Sociologist Tressie McMillan Cothom writes that African Americans scholars are 50% more likely to end up off the tenure track. She notes that black faculty and students were protesting the “ghettofication of black scholars in adjunct roles” since the 1960s. (The AAUP only started to issuing reports on adjuncts in the 1980s.)

Despite much talk about fixing the “leaky pipeline” in which women academics leak out of the graduate school to tenure pipeline, there is less attention to the fact that women stay in higher ed, but we are off the tenure track in contingent positions. As I’ve written elsewhere,the pipeline is not really leaky, but broken.

Women in academia don’t face a glass ceiling, but a glass wall. Sociologist Ashley Finley,  writes, “A disproportionate number of female faculty members currently reside in contingent positions, where they are effectively cut off from even the opportunity to seek tenure promotion and associated pay increases.” To be blunt, women are more likely than men to end up in unstable low paying positions. What is even more striking is that Findley finds that there are more contingent faculty hired in fields dominated by women. Contingent labor, then, is feminized by the overrepresentation of women, which leads to lower pay and treatment as lesser academics. Contingent workers emerge as second-class citizens in higher ed. Ask anyone who has been an adjunct or lecturer, and they will likely attest to unequal treatment and disdain. Ask me how many times I’ve been called “just a lecturer” as a method to inform me of my place in the academic hierarchy.

Gender, then, matters greatly in the problem of contingency. What exactly does this mean for religious studies? In 2009, women earned about 30% of the PhDs in religious studies, which is about the same as in philosophy. Now, this doesn’t quite capture the amount of women scholars who study religion because of the interdisciplinary nature of our field, but this does suggest that religious studies is still a male-dominated area of study. The 2014 membership report of the SBL noted that membership is only 23.9% women. The numbers for the AAR are not much better with 34% women, which is based on a crude estimate of AAR’s membership data in which members can choose to include gender or not.

So, are women more likely to end up in contingent positions in religious studies? I want to say yes, but my evidence is only anecdata. While I was on the job market, I tracked who received tenure track jobs in my discipline, American religions. In one year, all available positions went to men. This felt more than coincidental. Additionally, many of my colleagues who happen to be women have ended up in contingent positions or have opted out of academia altogether. Does religious studies have a labor problem that is gendered? It is hard to say. I need more data.

2 Responses to “Gendering Contingency in Religious Studies”

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