The Modern Language Association (MLA) is under fire for not fighting hard enough against the adjunctification of the professoriate. An excellent piece in Inside Higher Ed criticizes the recent MLA report on doctoral programs for accommodating when it should challenge the trends that destroy PhDs’ prospects. In blog posts and in The Chronicle for Higher Education, another group calls for the MLA to consider a 4:1 salary ratio: the highest-paid person (the Association’s executive director) should be compensated no more than four times the lowest-paid person in the profession (the adjunct). The intent here, Marc Bousquet writes, is to “goose” the MLA leadership into action by forcing it to glimpse its ample-salaried self standing in disturbing proximity to the anorexic adjunct.
Taking the MLA to task makes sense. One of our biggest professional organizations, why is it helpless to stem—much less reverse—deprofessionalization? It’s not that it doesn’t take the problem seriously. As the people rising to its defense in the comment threads observe, the MLA has formed committees and organized panels on the topic. It has issued important policy recommendations (a recommended floor for adjunct wages, for example). Indeed, it is confusing to know what to think when you move from one person’s righteous denunciation of the organization’s foot-dragging to someone else’s list of the worthy steps it has taken.
Whatever the MLA’s record, the urge to hold somebody accountable is a good one. I hope that it indicates that we are sick-unto-death of distracting abstractions. Who can stand to hear the phrase “systemic forces” again? “Market forces” is even worse. However brilliant and even accurate it might be, another David Harvey-inspired argument about the impact on the university of the post-1970 neoliberal transformation of the global economy won’t help us. If anything these analyses contribute to a feeling of fatalism in which we assume any actions we could take will just be swept into the neoliberal tidal wave. Over the last few years, for example, the term “structural adjustment” has begun to replace “crisis.” While the former term is surely more honest when referring to deprofessionalization—how long can something continue and still claim to be a crisis?—it’s also chillingly impersonal. At least “crisis” suggested emotion and emotion suggests people. And I have the strong and unhappy conviction that if we want to effect change, we have to hold flesh-and-blood people accountable for what’s happened and what continues to happen.
The urge to hold specific people accountable is one that people understandably suppress. Nobody wants to blame people she might actually know for what is obviously a complicated national problem. One solution to this queasiness has been the safe but largely impotent invocation of the nameless, faceless Administrator. I’ve been in too many conversations—perhaps you have, too?—in which hand-wringing leads to an appetite for blame and this leads to happy agreement that “administrators” are the source of all evil. We identify a common enemy in a group of people with whom we do not identify. This was my go-to conversational move when I was an assistant professor, but now that I’m tenured and even more so now that I’ve served as department chair, I can’t go down that well-worn discursive path without feeling ashamed of myself. My experiences at a state university relying on a high number of contingent faculty have taught me that nothing is likely to change until we take personal responsibility for what has happened to the profession.
I don’t know Rosemary Feal (MLA executive director) but I bet she thinks more about adjunctifaction than some people I do know. It’s not comfortable to say this but I know too many people who are skilled at not connecting the dots of their own actions to the profession-wide devastation they read about online or in magazines. Feal got it right when a few days before these recent controversies, she was quoted in an Atlantic.com article as saying that along with the help of trustees and accreditation agencies, this fight needs the support of middle administrators.
By “middle administrators,” I assume Feal has in mind people like the tenured faculty who start new minors with off-track labor, the directors growing programs out of thin air, the chairs who have to graduate majors on woefully strapped budgets, and the associate deans and deans who advise these afore-mentioned people that it is easier to get permission for an off-tenure than for a tenure-line appointment. These are the middle managers who have built our current academic labor system much more intimately than have the highly visible obscenely-paid presidents of tier-one universities.
The middleman “needs to choose not to be complicit in a system that abuses adjuncts,” Feal is quoted as saying. Yes, we need to choose not to be complicit. By “we,” I refer to all tenured faculty. Why do we have tenure if not for the freedom (or luxury) it affords to avoid acts that contradict our consciences? Tenure means we don’t have to fix lab results for the pharmaceutical companies who donate to our universities. It also means that we don’t have to write and sign contracts that make for widespread misery.
I think many people would agree with this. So why do we do it? Why is creating adjunct sections so tempting for people who know better? My department has done it for years. Hiring off the tenure track has enabled us to: 1) hire people with higher courseloads to meet student demand without undertaking the hard work of time-intensive searches (rather, a chair makes a phone call); 2) hire people with higher courseloads without asking how this might—or should—prompt us to rethink our more desirable conventional jobs bundling teaching, research, and service; 3) hire spouses not as spousal hires but into non-tenure track positions since they are easier to secure; 4) hire people for curricular areas we find alluring without committing to those areas in perpetuity; 5) grow niche programs on all-adjunct labor to boost our overall student-credit-hour numbers so that we have more capital to ask for tenure lines; 6) hire adjuncts to give full-time faculty course releases for research and other projects; 7) add new sections at the last minute when all the others fill up so that our students have the classes they need to graduate; 8) hire our graduate students in the hope that teaching experience will make them attractive for full-time jobs elsewhere; and, of course, 9) continue to run the full gamut of courses during budget crunches that we hope are short-term but that often become long-term. Some of these motivations are more understandable than others but all of them have made the world in which we now live.
I once talked to a chair of a different department who felt very guilty about her use of adjuncts. She brightened, though, when she told me that she was working on a plan to improve the situation. She had submitted a proposal to the dean for a full-time non-tenure-track position to both teach and manage the thirty-odd adjuncts she typically employs. This new person, she said, could improve the adjuncts’ lives by holding occasional social events and developing a helpful handbook. This woman is an excellent chairperson in many respects but I don’t understand why we don’t use the power of our privilege to stop running our programs on disposable appointments. Sure, it is a hell of a lot of work strategizing, re-arranging, coordinating with other bodies (such as Senate), cajoling, foot-stamping and stonewalling to insist that we grow responsibly – but it’s easier to sleep at night.
Actually, the truth is that I know perfectly well why we don’t do more about this problem: because when you tackle it, you don’t sleep better. You may even sleep worse. We do nothing in large part because the people who came before us or we ourselves have already done the damage. At first each contingent position was a canny solution, a short-term and apparently victimless strategy for weathering tough times. It is now our collective disaster that (flesh and blood) people depend on even the worst non-tenure-track positions. It turns out that bucking the system that is already in place is as hard on the conscience as maintaining it. Even if in the long run better jobs with access to tenure are created and this improves the university (and, in turn, society) by strengthening academic freedom, particular individuals likely will lose out. No matter how ingenious the circumstances designed to move us from a majority off-track to majority on-track workforce, no matter how irreproachably conscientious, there will be outcomes that feel unjust from someone’s perspective. This is by far the hardest part of making change. Since both options—bucking and not bucking—are painful, the path of least resistance (doing nothing) is the one we typically choose.
Hard, too, but in a different league from taking people’s jobs away, is that bucking the system wins one enemies because tenure-track faculty have come to benefit from the compromised labor system we deplore. It’s really nice, for example, to tell that treasured junior faculty member that you will hire an adjunct to cover her class so she can finish the publication she needs to achieve tenure. It’s really nice to learn that you can drop next term’s class to complete the book that’s been weighing you down for five years, the book that will change the world . . . or slightly reframe a small part of it for the five people who read it.
I can hear in that last sentence that my tone is turning sour. I am in danger of ranting about university plantations and caste systems, about lifeboaters and migrant workers, so I’ll stop. But you see what I’m getting at. I’d like us to help our middle managers to not be complicit with the deteriorating conditions of the profession. We might start by understanding that when we ask for releases from our chair (for whatever more or less excellent reason) we are often asking them to hire adjuncts. We also need to resist the temptation to ask for adjunct sections so that esteemed friends, perfectly qualified lovers, and prodigiously talented graduate students can earn a small income.
Let’s be even bolder by asking our directors and department chairs to stop hiring off the tenure track for any reason and by helping them use this strategy to demand new tenure-line positions. The first baby step towards getting good positions is refusing to create adjunct sections. Insist that your department wants to meet student demand but can only do so ethically and professionally with tenure-track positions.
You will be called naive. That’s to be expected. What’s harder is when people call you doctrinaire because you resist the creation of an adjunct section for, say, someone’s brilliant son or daughter when teaching one class is everything to this adult child at this moment in time but isn’t it, really, nothing—infinitesimal—in the grand scheme of adjunctification? Might you also inadvertently make it more difficult for your students to graduate? Might you have to spend many hours forging alliances with faculty across your university to put pressure on deans and your provost to create new tenure lines? Yes and yes. It could be worth all of this, nonetheless, because you could move from hand-wringing to turning the system around, job by job.
“Why are we complicit in creating a disposable workforce?” is part one of two parts. Moving from refusal to possibility is the subject of part two, which appears next week. How do we effect change when contingent labor is now written into our universities’ fiscal strategy for survival?