I was lucky while I looked for work elsewhere to have a full time job as a teacher of writing at a university. I was not a true faculty member—one with tenure and the right to vote on issues of faculty governance—but something called a Visiting Lecturer. In the academic manual this position was described vaguely in a couple of lines. Actually none of us Visiting Lecturers were Visiting, so what “visiting” really meant was temporary.
The university started using this position a great deal in the early 80s because they had become tenure “heavy.” The problem with tenure, for the institution, is that a huge chunk of money is locked into one person for the entire working life of that person. If you are tenure heavy you have too much money locked in too far into the future for too many people, so that the university is like a giant with shackles around its ankles. It can’t move without falling all over itself.
So to achieve a degree of fiscal flexibility, the U. started hiring temps on year to year contracts. That’s what a Visiting Lecturer was. A temp. We were given what were officially called, in the letter telling us we had a job, “self-terminating” contracts. Self-terminating. Sort of like a contract that commits suicide at the end of a fiscal year. In practice, this meant that at the end of a year you were to assume you had been terminated, unless you heard otherwise.
One was not to expect a letter indicating one had been terminated or certainly nothing to explain why one had been terminated. Rather one was simply to assume one had been terminated at the moment one signed the contract. If one did not receive a letter saying one had another self-terminating contract one was simply to disappear into the sunset.
Also the Visiting Lecturer was to understand that after he or she had received four such self-terminating contracts one was terminated. The fourth contract was the terminal self-terminating contract. When one’s fourth contract had terminated, one was to pack up and disappear into the sunset because no further contracts would be forthcoming.
Why four years and not five or six years? One might ask if one has one of those self-terminating contracts. Legal things we figured. Six years is about the point where most people who are on a tenure track get tenure or not. That’s the typical “probationary” period. So we figured that they picked four because it was not six. Six would make the Visiting Lecturer position resemble a tenure track position, and that might be misinterpreted by, say, a Court of Law as implying the possibility to permanent employment. So four was the rule not six, and this became known among Lecturers as four years and out.
Many of my colleagues from middle class backgrounds really didn’t understand this self-terminating contract in an elemental way. They thought it was unjust. I didn’t think it was just or unjust. Just the way it was. The boss is the boss and you are not. It’s simple really.