Material Work Conditions of Contingent Faculty

Melonçon, L., Mechenbier, M., and Wilson, L.  (2020). A National Snapshot of the Material Working Conditions of Contingent Faculty in Composition and Technical and Professional Communication. Academic Labor: Research and Artistry, 4(1).

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In this special issue, we offer data and analysis from a national survey of contingent faculty specific to faculty who teach in different types of writing programs. To our knowledge, we have collected the largest set of data that is specific to (and confined to) contingent faculty who teach in first-year composition programs and technical and professional communication (TPC) degree programs. This important point (that we expound on below) cannot be underscored enough. National surveys (see e.g., Coalition on the Academic Workforce; the Delphi Project; and the New Faculty Majority) have provided important information about contingent faculty, as have the statements prepared and distributed by national academic organizations (e.g., Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC); Modern Language Association; National Council for the Teachers of English; Rhetoric Society of America). However, these only show part of the picture, and as Sue Doe and Mike Palmquist point out, particularly, there is a paradoxical nature in statements because they show that the overarching problems have yet to be solved (24). Thus, both national reports and organizational statements lack specificity about writing faculty, and more importantly, they lack specificity about the material work lives of those same faculty. Our primary question that drove this research project was: what are the material work conditions of contingent faculty in writing? We define material work conditions as “the day-to-day working conditions of faculty, such as teaching loads and institutional support” (Melonçon, England & Ilyasova 209). Our aim with this special issue is to provide the methodology and results and findings of the study to shed important light on the material realities; to provide focus for future research; and, most importantly, to move toward improving these work conditions.


  • Melonçon, L. Mechenbier, M., and Wilson, L. Introduction to a national snapshot of the material working conditions of contingent faculty in composition and in technical and professional communication.

We set the groundwork with some important terminology distinctions and definitions and then we discuss in more detail the two primary exigencies for this research project: the need for data and the need to listen to contingent faculty. We close the introduction with a detailed description of the methodology of the overall study and

Results and Findings

  • Mechenbier, M., Wilson, L. and Melonçon, L. Results and findings from the survey.

Since the survey (Appendix A) was quite lengthy and included a number of qualitative questions, this article focuses primarily on the quantitative questions. Through a series of data visualizations, we explain what the data is and why it is important. This article and the corresponding raw data (Appendix B – TPC Data; Appendix C – Composition Data) can help TPC PAs and WPAs make data-driven arguments locally. We present the data as a stand-alone piece without an in-depth analysis of it because of its length. We felt readers could make more use of the summary data points in this format.

Data Takeaways

  • Wilson, L. Mechenbier, M. and Melonçon, L. Data takeaways.

Here we provide more an analysis of the data around a set of key issues specific to the material work lives of contingent faculty. These are key issues that were revealed as being some of the most important to contingent faculty in how they experienced their jobs both materially and affectively. In this essay, we discuss

  • heavy teaching load
  • weight of titles
  • importance of professional development
  • questions of quality and qualified

Affective Investment

  • Wilson, L. Mechenbier, M. and Melonçon, L. Data takeaways.

In the third article, we introduce a theoretical framework, affective investment, as a way to understand an important contradiction expressed by contingent faculty. We wanted to understand how to make sense of the fact that contingent faculty expressed satisfaction in their jobs but still carried a weight of negative emotions. The concept of affective investment is defined and then discussed in light of the material dimensions of how affective investment impacts contingent faculty in three critical areas: salary and contract; workload and autonomy; and value.

Politics of Service

  • Mechenbier, M., Wilson, L., and Melonçon, L. Politics of service.

Closely related to the idea of affective investment is a concept we call politics of service. This is another extended definition that we created to help understand the conflicting nature of the data. While affective investment is more centered on the faculty themselves, politics of service provides insights into the complex relationship between faculty and the departments and institutions in which they work. After defining politics of service, we discuss it in light of the material dimensions of service to the institution, evaluations, and intellectual property,

Looking Forward

  • Melonçon, L., Wilson, L., and Mechenbier, M. Looking forward: Considering the next steps for contingent labor and material work conditions

In the final essay, we look forward by providing some practical, achievable suggestions on how to address some of the issues and concerns brought up by the data. We frame these suggestions through the conceptual framework of change management and institutional infrastructures, which flips existing scholarship on the “managerial unconscious” (Strickland) and managerial discourse into more positive and productive alternatives.




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