Students often depend on the mentorship and guidance of a close faculty adviser as they explore complex topics for their senior thesis. For some students, this long and stressful year of research and writing is made more difficult when the programs in which they study lack the necessary resources to support them.
Chad Gasman (COL ’20) sought to explore the exclusion of trans narratives for their thesis. However, when the adjunct professor in the women’s and gender studies program they wished to work with left Georgetown University because of financial reasons regarding her position as an adjunct professor, Gasman had to take on more independent research without the stable mentorship other students receive.
Programs often lack the resources of an academic department, and at times the transient nature of their teaching faculty can present obstacles for their students.
The frustration students such as Gasman feel toward the volatile, unstable nature of program resources such as tenured professors and research opportunities stretches across the university, ultimately highlighting the obstacles programs face in comparison to more regimented departments.
Working Within Uncertainty
An academic program and a department are fundamentally different with respect to faculty, research and teaching.
Georgetown College has 15 academic programs, ranging from cognitive science to film and media studies, each offering minors, majors or both, according to the Georgetown College website. Within the same school, however, Georgetown has 23 departments.
Although academic departments focus on the more regimented tracks of arts and science and programs are often more interdisciplinary, both should be valued equally, according to College Dean Christopher Celenza.
“Departments and programs should not be considered hierarchically,” Celenza wrote in an email to The Hoya. “A department is not better than a program, or vice versa; each has its own distinctive strengths. One can think of the arts and sciences disciplines as pillars, and programs as structures that allow bridging to occur across the pillars.”
Of the 15 programs, the women’s and gender studies program, though small, is one of the most popular programs on campus. Among other popular choices are the American studies program, the justice and peace studies program and the disability studies program.
Despite Celenza’s assurances of equal standing within the College, programs and departments have not always found equal access to resources.
Fundamentally, programs such as JUPS find themselves with less administrative help and funding security, according to professor Mark Lance, founder and co-director of Georgetown’s JUPS program.
“Basically, when one is classed as a department, resources are both more secure and more extensive,” Lance wrote in an email to The Hoya. “Programs are generally funded out of the discretionary funds of the relevant dean, and can be dissolved at any time. We typically have far fewer faculty—especially tenure-line—and far less administrative help.”
A tenure-line faculty member is defined as a full-time faculty member that holds the title of either instructor, assistant professor, associate professor or professor, according to Georgetown’s faculty handbook.
A tenure-line track can provide a sense of job security and freedom of expression, according to Libbie Rifkin, a professor from the department of English, who helped create the disability studies minor in 2017.
“Tenure means job security,” Rifkin said. “One of the most powerful resource allocations that exists is granting departments and programs the capacity to hire. Tenure is this institution which was initially developed to make it so that scholars and intellectuals could have opinions that might be dissonant with the mainstream or even their institutions.”
Within the JUPS program, Lance is currently the only tenured professor, also holding a joint appointment in the department of philosophy. The program plans to take another joint tenure-line hire with the department of anthropology, according to Lance.
The disability studies program currently has no program-specific faculty, but has received help from tenured professors in other departments to teach some of the program’s course offerings, according to Rifkin.
“We don’t currently have any of our own faculty,” Rifkin wrote in an email to The Hoya. “As an interdisciplinary program, we have so far relied on faculty in other departments teaching classes that we can cross-list. Among the faculty who teach DS core courses (which, again, are courses housed in departments), Rebecca Kukla, Julia Watts Belser, and Jennifer Fink are all tenured. Many of our electives (housed in other departments) are taught by tenured or tenure line faculty.”
The program hopes to make its first joint tenure-line faculty hire next year in partnership with the philosophy department, according to Rifkin.
Within the WGST program, however, only two of the program’s 12 faculty members are full-time and none are tenure-line.
With a limited amount of resources designated to programs, students often find more difficulty trying to access research opportunities and build connections with their professors.
With an increasing amount of students joining the WGST program, for example, a larger pressure falls on the backs of the professors who are already overworked, according to WGST major Gasman.
“Our professors are spread as thinly as humanly possible,” Gasman said. “They just don’t have enough time to talk to students and really mentor them in the way that professors in other departments get.”
Without a tenure-line position, adjunct professors often find themselves unable to commit adequate time to students and classes, according to WGST major Rachel Harris (COL ’21).
“It’s hard for adjunct professors to devote their time and studies here when they’re not guaranteed a job from semester to semester,” Harris said. “The lack of relationships that you are able to foster is apparent because of the turnover.”
At Georgetown, the average salary of an associate professor was $129,416 in 2017 and $115,225 for assistant professors, according to Chronicle Data.
Adjunct professors, however, are part-time, nontenure-lined professors who are paid dependent on the amount of classes they teach. The national average base pay for adjunct professors is $19,999 per year, according to Glassdoor.
As a result, many professors have to work more than one job or are unable to remain teaching at the school, according to Gasman.
“All of our professors besides professor April Sizemore-Barber and professor You-Me Park are adjuncts, which on their side means that they’re getting paid really poorly,” Gasman said. “[They] often have to take on multiple jobs or teach at multiple universities in addition to just teaching a class, so they have very limited time to support students.”
Beyond job security, however, many professors may also fear retaliation if they comment against the program, according to WGST professor Elizabeth Velez.
“It’s a difficult situation for my colleagues whose only appointment is as an adjunct to criticize anything about the program because, for many of them, the desire to teach full time in the program if there were a line sort of supersedes everything,” Velez said.
Across campus and career interests, the limited resources and connections programs produce cause students to feel a lack of security in their own relationships and job prospects.
For example, while programs do offer specialized opportunities and resources, some students feel a sense of guilt by using the program’s limited budget.
Jordan Brown (COL ’21), a JUPS major and disability studies minor, was able to attend a restorative justice training through the JUPS program yet still felt a sense of guilt using the resources provided.
“I didn’t feel at all intimidated to ask for that funding because I feel like this program really and truly cares about me and my growth in the field of JUPS,” Brown wrote in an email to the Hoya. “I did feel kind of bad because I know the resources for these programs are so limited compared to full departments. I just want all the students who need these resources or funding to be able to have access to them.”
Furthermore, the nature of adjunct professors in the WGST program does not allow for long-term planning and mentorship, according to Gasman.
“Because adjunct contracts are on a semesterly basis, there is no guarantee that the professors you have one semester are gonna be there next semester,” Gasman said. “There is so much turnaround that I haven’t had the chance to take a professor more than once.”
The transition to a department can fill the gaps previously felt in an interdisciplinary program, as seen through the history of the African American studies department.
In 2016, the board of directors voted to make the African American Studies a full department after 13 years of being an interdisciplinary program.
Through its transition, the department is now able to provide a more stable, nuanced version of its curriculum independently, according to professor Robert Patterson, who served as the department’s inaugural chair.
“As a Program, AFAM largely depended on other units to offer its courses, and the kindness of committed faculty to perform additional service,” Patterson wrote in an email to the Hoya. “The hiring of tenure-line faculty has allowed us to provide a stable intellectual framework that reflects the interdisciplinarity of African American Studies.”
With the greater institutionalized support a department can provide, students like Gasman feel secure in their studies and future career.
“Knowing that my professors are going to be here for the long haul is really important,” Gasman said. “I can start talking about thesis ideas or research projects immediately, without there being a fear that either there is not enough time for my professors to help me out with that or without there being a fear that my professor is not going to be here next semester.”
This article was corrected Oct. 15 to reflect that most disabilities studies core classes are not taught by tenured professors.