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Oberlin’s “Visiting” Assistant Professor Problem

by Cameron Avery

[originally published 11/15/19]

Oberlin, as we all know, prides itself on being a bastion of liberalism; an institution that’s been at the forefront of American progressivism since abolition. “Change the world”, implore its promotional materials. High school students, convinced they’re entering a place dedicated to solving the big issues facing the world, willingly accept the idea that it’s the College itself that’s on the right side of history. Yet a closer look at the school’s labor practices—particularly its treatment of certain faculty members intimately involved with the success of the College as a whole—points to the fact that the Oberlin administration, like any other schools’, is perfectly content to produce an image of leftism without any of its substance.

The Visiting Assistant Professor is a job title held by many professors at Oberlin: although the exact number is difficult to pin down, they represent a significant portion of the teaching body. It’s almost certain that upon graduating, a student will have taken at least several—and probably many—classes taught by a Visiting Assistant Professor, or VAP. This is a term that Oberlin (and countless other liberal arts colleges) gives to faculty members that are hired on short-term, typically one to two year contracts and who are not eligible for tenure.

These professors, like their counterparts with tenure-track jobs, are responsible for teaching and grading, hold office hours, and mentor and advise students. Like all professors, they typically hold the highest degree in their field (for most disciplines, a PHD), and many have published journal articles, written books, and contributed valuable research to their chosen field. In other words, there is nothing that distinguishes them from a professor with a secure job: except for one key difference. VAPs and other contingent faculty members are part of a nationwide class of professors who are subject to rampant exploitation by the institutions that hire them. Simply put, they are paid less, expected to teach more classes, and have little chance of securing long-term employment from the institution that hired them after their contract expires.

Contingent faculty form an underclass among college professors, a class which is voiceless and barely acknowledged. The relationship between professor and student, ostensibly the selling point of a small, expensive liberal arts college like Oberlin, is becoming increasingly strained as the school implements budget cuts and hiring freezes. Visiting Assistant Professors and other contingent labor—once the exception in higher education—have become the new norm: tenure-track job openings are vanishingly rare, and more and more colleges have turned to cheap, flexible, and disposable faculty members.

It seems too that most students have only a faint understanding of the conditions faced by visiting professors, if they know about them at all: from my own experience, most students don’t know whether their professor is tenure-track or visiting. But this, to me, is exactly the unfairness of it all: it’s not as if visiting or other non tenure-track professors are worse teachers. In fact, it’s far from it: many VAPs are highly rated by their students.

It must be noted that VAPs are different from adjunct professors, who are prevalent in many larger universities (including so-called “elite” ones). Adjunct professors are typically paid per class they teach, meaning they usually make less than VAPs and have perilous levels of job security. Oberlin, as of now, does not hire any adjunct professors. Yet we cannot laud them for this decision. Both adjunct and visiting professors are part of the same group of precarious faculty members whose positions are legitimated by narratives of “crisis” that allow colleges and universities to exploit labor while claiming that this exploitation is necessary to save money.

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