Submitted by D.G. Myers on January 14, 2014 - 3:00am
Earlier this month I stepped into a classroom to begin the last semester of a 24-year teaching career.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not retiring. I am not “burned out.” The truth is rather more banal. Ohio State University will not be renewing my three-year contract when it expires in the spring.
The problem is tenure: with another three-year contract, I become eligible for tenure. In an era of tight budgets, there is neither money nor place for a 61-year-old white male professor who has never really fit in nor tried very hard to. (Leave aside my heterodox conservative politics and hard-to-credit publication record.)
My feelings are like glue that will not set. The pieces fall apart in my hands.
This essay is not a contribution to the "I Quit Academe" genre. (A more accurate title in my case would be "Academe Quits Me.")
Although I have become uncomfortably aware that I am out of step with the purposeful march of the 21st-century university, gladly would I have learned and gladly continued to teach for as long as my students would have had me.
The decision, though, was not my students’ to make. And I’m not at all sure that a majority would have voted to keep me around, even if they had been polled. My salary may not be large (a rounding error above the median income for white families in the U.S.), but the university can offer part-time work to three desperate adjuncts for what it pays me. (In case you're wondering, I had tenure at Texas A&M, where I was for 21 years, but relinquished it to come to Ohio State.)
A lifetime of learning has never been cost-effective, and in today’s university -- at least on the side of campus where the humanities are badly housed — no other criterion is thinkable.
My experience is a prelude to what will be happening, sooner rather than later, to many of my colleagues. Humanities course enrollments are down to 7 percent of full-time student hours, but humanities professors make up 45 percent of the faculty.
The imbalance cannot last. Doctoral programs go on awarding doctorates to young men and women who will never find an academic job at a living wage. (A nearby university — a university with a solid ranking from U.S. News and World Report — pays adjuncts $1,500 per course. Just to toe the poverty line, a young professor with a husband and a child would have to teach 13 courses a year.)
If only as retribution for the decades-long exploitation of part-time adjuncts and graduate assistants, 9 of every 10 Ph.D. programs in English should be closed down — immediately. Meanwhile, the senior faculty fiddles away its time teaching precious specialties.
Consider some of the undergraduate courses being offered in English this semester at the University of Minnesota:
Poems About Cities
Studies in Narrative: The End of the World in Literature & History
Studies in Film: Seductions: Film/Gender/Desire
The Original Walking Dead in Victorian England
Contemporary Literatures and Cultures: North American Imperialisms and Colonialisms
Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Literature: Family as Origin and Invention
Women Writing: Nags, Hags, and Vixens
The Image on the Page
Bodies, Selves, Texts
Consumer Culture and Globalization
The Western: Looking Awry
Dreams and Middle English Dream Visions
To be fair, there are also four sections of Shakespeare being offered there this semester, although these are outnumbered by five sections of Literature of Public Life (whatever that is). Maybe I’m missing something, but this course list does not make me salivate to enroll at Minnesota the way that Addison Schacht salivates to enroll in classics at the University of Chicago in Sam Munson’s 2010 novel The November Criminals:
I could study the major texts of Latin literature, to say nothing of higher-level philological pursuits, all the time. Do you know how much that excites me? Not having to do classes whose subjects are hugely, impossibly vague — like World History, like English [like Literature of Public Life]. You know, to anchor them? So they don’t dissolve because of their meaningless? I’ve looked through the sample [U of C] catalog. Holy fuck! Satire and the Silver Age. The Roman Novel. Love and Death: Eros and Transformation in Ovid. The Founding of Epic Meter. I salivated when I saw these names, because they indicate this whole world of knowledge from which I am excluded, and which I can win my way into, with luck and endurance.
That’s it exactly. The Minnesota course list does not indicate a whole world of knowledge. It indicates a miscellany of short-lived faculty enthusiasms.
More than two decades ago Alvin Kernan complained that English study “fail[s] to meet the academic requirement that true knowledge define the object it studies and systematize its analytic method to at least some modest degree,” but by then the failure itself was already two decades old. About the only thing English professors have agreed upon since the early ’70s is that they agree on nothing, and besides, agreement is beside the question. Teaching the disagreement: that’s about as close as anyone has come to restoring a sense of order to English.
In 1952, at the height of his fame, F. R. Leavis entitled a collection of essays The Common Pursuit. It was his name for the academic study of literature. No one takes the idea seriously anymore, nor does anyone ask the obvious follow-up. If English literature is not a common pursuit -- not a “great tradition,” to use Leavis’s other famous title -- then what is it doing in the curriculum? What is the rationale for studying it?
My own career (so-called) suggests the answer. Namely: where there is no common body of knowledge, no common disciplinary conceptions, there is nothing that is indispensable. Any claim to expertise is arbitrary and subject to dismissal. After 24 years of patiently acquiring literary knowledge -- plus the five years spent in graduate school at Northwestern, “exult[ing] over triumphs so minor,” as Larry McMurtry says in Moving On, “they would have been unnoticeable in any other context” -- I have been informed that my knowledge is no longer needed.
As Cardinal Newman warned, knowledge really is an end in itself. I fill no gap in the department, because there is no shimmering and comprehensive surface of knowledge in which any gaps might appear. Like everyone else in English, I am an extra, and the offloading of an extra is never reported or experienced as a loss.
I feel the loss, keenly, of my self-image. For 24 years I have been an English professor. Come the spring, what will I be?
My colleagues will barely notice that I am gone, but what they have yet to grasp is that the rest of the university will barely notice when they too are gone, or at least severely reduced in numbers — within the decade, I’d say.
Much attention has been focused lately on the tragic death of Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct professor who had taught French at Duquesne University for 25 years. She died in extreme poverty September 1st at the age of 83, following a massive heart attack she had suffered two weeks previously. Despite good teaching evaluations from her students, Vojtko had recently been laid off, a possibility faced by hundreds of thousands of other non-tenure-track faculty members.
Unfortunately, there will be many more tragedies like Vojtko’s in the years to come. Contingent faculty members today make up three-quarters of the workforce in higher education. They are not on any tenure track leading to permanent employment. Underpaid and typically without benefits, they lack the academic freedom that comes with job security. They lead precarious lives, never more than one small step away from disaster for themselves and their families.
Contingent faculty, whether part-time adjuncts or full-time lecturers, can usually be non-renewed for any reason or no reason at all. Even if they are union members, they are generally not afforded any due process in a non-renewal, such as would be the norm when laying off a janitor, a secretary or similar union worker. As is typical with most adjuncts, Mary Margaret Vojtko received no severance pay or retirement benefits.
“Duquesne has claimed that the unionization of adjuncts like Margaret Mary would somehow interfere with its mission to inculcate Roman Catholic values among its students,” according to an article in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by Daniel Kovalik, senior associate general counsel of the United Steelworkers union. Kovalik twice wrote to Duquesne to inform the university of Vojtko’s plight, but never received a reply. Duquesne’s president, Charles J. Dougherty, makes over $700,000 with full benefits. So much for Catholic values at that institution, whose website describes Dougherty as “a nationally recognized scholar and expert in health care ethics.”
Unfortunately, this situation is not limited to Catholic or even to private institutions. Things are just as bad at public institutions of higher education. Take the State University of New York, for example. Its top academic officer, David Lavallee, recently stepped down from his position as executive vice chancellor for academic affairs and provost. Lavallee is currently on a six-month “study leave” while continuing to receive his full salary of $316,000 per year. Despite repeated Freedom of Information Law requests, SUNY has been unable to produce a single document detailing the purpose of this “study leave.”
Lavallee, age 66, will return next spring to his former campus at SUNY New Paltz and receive ten-twelfths of the $199,000 salary he had previously received when he was provost at that college. As the second-highest-paid employee on campus, Lavallee won’t be working either as a teacher or as an administrator. Instead, he’ll be conducting a few leadership workshops, mentoring one lecturer and “building candidate lists for senior leadership positions.” This is one example of the extremely generous packages that many senior system administrators arrange to take with them when they return to their home campuses.
Meanwhile, thousands of adjuncts within SUNY, who deliver a substantial portion of our educational mission, continue to work for near-poverty wages. Adjuncts are the only employees for whom there are no minimum salaries in the contract between New York State and United University Professions (UUP), the nation’s largest higher education union with over 35,000 members. My research shows that when adjusted for inflation, adjunct wages at New Paltz have plummeted by some 49 percent between 1970 and 2008.
The union pushed hard for a salary minimum that would have benefited thousands of part-time faculty throughout the system. However, top SUNY officials adamantly refused to accept any salary minimum whatsoever. At a recent meeting in New Paltz where SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher was confronted by demonstrators demanding a $5,000 minimum starting salary for adjuncts, she went so far as to publicly deny that SUNY had even been present at the negotiating table.
When asked about SUNY’s refusal to increase wages for adjuncts while doling out hundreds of thousands of dollars to a former provost who is still on the payroll, a SUNY spokesman said that “they’re completely unrelated.” Actually, nothing could be further from the truth: they are indeed very much related, and the sooner we acknowledge this relationship, the sooner we can begin to fix the staffing crisis in higher education.
We absolutely must find a way to pay the majority of college teachers a living wage and stop squandering resources on overpaid college executives, expensive facilities, extravagant athletic programs and lavish services that do little to advance the true educational needs of our students. The quality of education will be enhanced by focusing our limited resources on instruction.
Our UUP chapter at SUNY New Paltz launched a $5K campaign in May to raise the minimum starting salary for a standard three-credit course to $5,000, about twice the current national average, but considerably less than the $7,090 recommended by the Modern Language Association. This campaign has been endorsed by a growing list of unions and organizations around the country, including UUP and New Faculty Majority, the only national organization advocating exclusively for contingent faculty. The $5K Campaign was one focus of Campus Equity Week during the last week of October and should become part of every union’s legislative program next year.
Class warfare in the academy is unlikely to end any time soon. Meanwhile, we urgently need to connect the dots, to stop underfunding and privatizing public higher education. At the same time, we need to put an end to wasteful spending and overly generous perks that top administrators dole out to themselves. Saddling our students with backbreaking tuition loan debt is simply unsustainable. They, their parents, taxpayers and legislators deserve to know where their hard-
earned tuition and tax dollars are going. The quality of their education and thus the future of our country depend on providing a living wage, job security and benefits to those actually teaching in our classrooms.
Peter D.G. Brown is a Distinguished Service Professor of German Emeritus at the State University of New York at New Paltz. In addition to being a founding member of the board of directors of New Faculty Majority: The National Coalition for Adjunct and Contingent Equity (NFM), he is president of the New Paltz chapter of United University Professions.