[Usually around this time I’d be sharing Fall Semester Preview posts. I’m on sabbatical, so no teaching for me this Fall; instead I thought I’d connect Labor Day to issues of academic labor this week. Leading up to a special weekend tribute post!]
On the disastrous and dehumanizing trend at the heart of 21st century academia, and what to do about it.
I don’t imagine it’s news to most readers of this blog that over the last couple decades, institutions of higher education in America (and I imagine around the world, but as usual on this blog I’ll focus in this post and series on America) have come to rely more and more fully on underpaid, unbenefited, too often unappreciated, always painfully precarious adjunct and contingent faculty labor. Wherever you look you can find striking statistics in support of that claim, but I would note two examples from the always reliable American Association of University Professors (AAUP): more than half of all faculty appointments are now part-time; and over 70% of all instructional appointments are non-tenure-track (meaning even if they’re not part-time, they don’t allow the instructors the chance of moving toward tenure and stability; such full-time non-tenure-track positions almost always have time limits as well, making them at best a temporary alternative to contingency). That AAUP site lays out the wide range of disastrous and destructive effects of these trends, not just for the faculty members but also for the institutions, for their students, and as a result for all Americans (since the success or failure of our education system affects us all).
I would never want to argue for a hierarchy of those disastrous effects; indeed, it is precisely the combination of all of them that makes adjunctification as destructive (and short-sighted, if it even offers short-term financial benefits which that AAUP site persuasively argues it does not) as it is. But for those of us in the Humanities, one particularly horrific such effect is the dehumanization of our peers and colleagues. I don’t mean simply that adjunct faculty are generally treated as entirely interchangeable and replaceable cogs in a machine, although that is how far too many institutions and administrators (and, yes, tenure-track faculty; that piece was written by my friend and NeMLA colleague, and consistent advocate for adjunct faculty, Angela Fulk) seem to treat them. No, I mean the way that contingency consistently strips away even the most basic layers of human security, such as having a home or having enough food. Such stories of adjunct life might seem extreme, but I would argue the opposite—that they are frequent, if not indeed commonplace, reflections of an extreme system. I also refuse to give any credence to those who would argue that these faculty members should simply do something else for a living—besides being itself an inhuman response to inhuman conditions, that argument represents a destructive distraction from the core issue here: that numerous teachers are living in such conditions in 2019 America.
So what can we do about this unavoidable and awful reality of 21st century higher education? The next few posts in this series will focus on my experiences with some of the ways through which particular communities, from labor unions to scholarly organizations to state legislatures, can help us collectively address and change the realities of adjunctification. But when it comes to us tenure-track or tenured faculty members, it seems to me that the first step is a simple but crucial one: to admit that luck, purely and entirely, is far and away the most important factor in our having such positions compared to our colleagues who do not. I thought about finding an article on that theme to hyperlink, but the truth is we shouldn’t need further evidence or other arguments beyond our own experiences, both of this system and of our own career. We do this because we love it, and so (even leaving aside natural human ego) it’s tempting to think that we deserve to find security and stability in this chosen life. But if we do (and I think we do), then we all do, full motherfucking stop. The fact that in 2019 only a minority of us are able to find those things, and the related fact that luck is the deciding (if not in many ways the only) factor in determining which of us do, are part of the horrific realities, and ones that each and every one of us has a responsibility to highlight and challenge.
Next Labor week post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
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