In my sophomore literature class, I read a passage aloud from perhaps our best-known slave narrative, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, in which Douglass characterizes the nefarious effects of slavery on his new mistress, Sophia Auld:
The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands, and soon commenced its infernal work. That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon.
But then I stopped and asked, "What does the word commenced mean?" Silence. "What about infernal?" Silence. "Accord?" Embarrassed smiles all around.
In the past I would have given my standard lecture about looking up words instead of relying on something my students call "context clues," which I take to mean anything that prevents them from stopping, briefly, to do it the old-fashioned way. They have told me that they learned about "context clues" from previous teachers. I ask them what the word "context" means. Silence.
Douglass intimates that the worst part about slavery isn't the work or the whippings or the cold or the hunger or even the literal shackles. It's neither the blood nor the rapes. No, it's the compulsory ignorance, the full force of a system that understands slavery can only exist by the deprivation of learning, the absence, as it were, of light.
So I asked them: "What’s it like to be slaves?" I wasn't referring to Douglass, and I think some of them knew it.
As a child Douglass overhears his master, Hugh Auld, tell the naively benevolent Sophia to stop teaching him to read: "A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master — to do as he is told to do," Auld tells her. "Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world" and "would forever unfit him to be a slave." This is the moment of enlightenment for Douglass as he discovers through serendipity and keen discernment what he had always pondered: "to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man." He resolves to learn to read, reasoning that compulsory ignorance is the tool that keeps him and his fellow slaves in bondage.
"It is hard to have a southern overseer," Douglass’s contemporary, Henry David Thoreau, wrote in Walden; "it is worse to have a northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself." Although Thoreau refers to physical labor that fails the test of self-enlightenment, his larger point applies to my students who, too, seem explicitly bent upon achieving their own contemporary version of metaphysical enslavement. Both Douglass and Thoreau would recognize and lament this mentality, and walk away confused by the disheartening juxtaposition of material affluence and imaginative poverty. And then they would use words to write about it.
It bears asking, though, what such students might be enslaved to, or by. Dangerous ideas? Not likely. The latest in chic outerwear for the fall season? Too late. Without sounding overly prejudicial, it is difficult to conceive of much that would fundamentally threaten their defensive sense of self-assurance, which is often no such thing. What I want to say here is that I am not always sure what I would like to free my students from — figurative slavery notwithstanding — since so many of them seem blissfully happy in their formidable selves. It's freedom to I’m concerned with.
Complicating my bewilderment is that I have no transgenerational ax to grind, knowing as I do that the cry of English professors over their students' supposed failings is pretty standard fare for well over a century at least, and anyway, the topic simply isn’t that interesting before the third beer.
So here's what I want, in part: I want my students to become interesting people — that is, more interesting than they already are. I want to be able to talk to them in 10 years about Frederick Douglass, and if they aren’t into Frederick Douglass I would wish that they have a passion about something, as I think many of them will. Most important, my foremost desire is for them to have the tools to express their passion, whatever that passion may be. One of these tools is vocabulary; the more important other is curiosity.
You have an English professor, a text, and a class. You ideally have the formula for some kind of reimagining of the self, the world, the text — even the professor. And a choice gets made not to make that transformation, not out of any inchoate philosophical positioning (echoing Bartleby the Scrivener’s "I would prefer not to"), but, well, just because. I would prefer not to. Or, more reasonably, the students choose not to out of fear, having failed in their previous attempts, or because the words themselves are another in a long list of obstacles familial, cultural, and structural.
But imagine, too, how Douglass's autobiography would look had he made the same choice not to pay attention to the signs around him. It would look like silence, the kind of silence we used to see on walls in New York City in the early and middle years of the AIDS crisis: Silence = death, a morbid equation that would touch Douglass at his very core and about which, I am certain, he and Thoreau would have much to say.
Thus his communicative power — indeed, any communicative power — is tied inextricably to literal and figurative liberation; it is liberation’s proximate and ultimate precondition. Sadly, many of my students miss the nuances of Douglass’s story because its function as literary text shuts down that act of communication. Think of it: an aesthetic and polemical text — no, a book! — a slave narrative that misses its mark because the author, himself an escaped slave with no formal education, uses words too well. The very words that helped to free Douglass are now the mark of another form of enslavement. I try to encourage my students to think of the profundity of a boy, then a man, who was everywhere unrecognized as a boy or man until his escape, and even then he remained of questionable status. His devotion to learning as a slave in fact allowed him to occupy the space of all those who kept him from such learning. He took power.
I want my students to take the same power, even if it seems significantly less is at stake. Maybe that's the problem. Maybe it only appears as if nothing other than a letter grade is on the line. If so, that’s exactly where we as educators have failed. We have to find a way to free them and ourselves. Why keep pretending? Why continue the charade? Slavery, as Douglass tells us, affects everyone, including the masters whose tyrannical assumption of power corrupts even the beneficent Sophia Auld. I want my students to free me, too. They can only do this by assuming and wielding the power I would most readily concede. Take it, I want to tell them. Kill me.
William Major is professor of English at Hillyer College of the University of Hartford.
Imagine this scenario, set 15 years hence, as one possible future for higher education in the United States.
The Great Recession never entered a "double dip," as many had predicted. However, it never rebounded. The effective unemployment rate remained stubbornly at 16 percent (one in every six Americans underemployed) for over a decade. This group of disaffected Americans included hundreds of thousands of talented academics. They pieced together an existence by teaching, tutoring, and anything else to pay the bills.
Higher education struggled to find a new business model, but tuition continued to increase at 6 percent a year, as it had historically. The discounted tuition at private institutions rose to far exceed annual median family income, even as net tuition revenue didn’t increase enough to balance budgets for the institutions. At the same time, the weak market continued to devalue college savings. Parents who had been diligently saving since their child was born had accumulated too few resources to support that child’s first (or even second or third) choice of college. The availability and cost of loans grew ever more challenging, as did the ability to service loans after graduation.
Entrepreneurial organizations, like Versatile Ph.D., had arrived on the scene, offering to help "humanities and social science Ph.D.s and graduate students identify and prepare for possible non-academic careers." Students continued to qualify for admission to college but most were leery of the crushing debt they would incur.
Small colleges that had suffered losses for decades closed in ever-increasing numbers. Public universities dealt simultaneously with a lack of state support and an overabundance of state oversight. For community colleges, the standard outcome of bond issue votes was rejection. Adjunct faculty members, exhausted and humiliated by decades of massive course loads, pitiful pay, and no health insurance, found new company in faculty members from defunded and downsized institutions. These wanderers joined the ranks of disaffected students everywhere who could no longer afford traditional institutions, who had been run through the industrial grinder of for-profit higher education, and who still longed for the global competitive advantage that increasingly vocational training could not provide.
Success in the flat-world economy required training to think, communicate, strategize, and lead. It also depended on a mastery of the collective knowledge of humanity, an understanding of diverse cultures, and a desire to enter into the diaspora of global commerce.
Enter the rōnin, a new class in academe modeled after the roving teachers of 18th-century feudal Japan. Like those disenfranchised samurai — or rōnin — who had been compelled to reinvent themselves, 21st-century itinerant academics were highly motivated to re-architect their role in higher education. As the Great Recession rolled on and on, they found no permanent home in the academy, just as hopeful students were effectively shut out of the college classroom.
Thus the rise of the rōnin coincided with an emerging new market of students and their families, open to alternative educational opportunities. Nurtured in a hyper-networked world where the crumbling economies of European nations could immediately (and negatively) impact their lives, these potential students were painfully aware of the need for strategic understanding of global economies and cultures. They were eager to learn, to actively demonstrate their abilities, and ultimately become engaged participants in the global marketplace of opportunity. Employers, thoroughly numbed by candidates with "desirable" college credentials, were also open to change.
Rōnin, credentialed yet denied access to tenure-track positions, began to imagine and then to engineer alternative careers. Despite the sputtering of the 21st-century higher-ed machine, the desire to learn and the passion to teach persisted. Exclusion from the academy was a powerful motivator. Unburdened by the overhead of that old model, rōnin tutors endeavored to create high-touch communities of practice. They attracted cadres of committed students connected via social networks, digital resources, and shared discourse. Guilds of rōnin took form, offering an affordable education with a variety of talented teachers. The guilds offered a flexible and affordable model to students who had no hope of participating in the old academy. Freed from the strictures of the fraying academic model, disaffected 21st-century academics began to build a future that accommodated their skills, knowledge, commitment, and drive.
The open education movement had started as a trickle at the turn of the 21st century. The trickle grew into a flood of free learning resources, ranging from tutorials to textbooks. A generation of students had grown up relying as much on the Khan Academy as on their teachers. These students had never known a world without universal access to world-class lectures, Wikipedia, and Google Books. Of course, they had also grown up with a torrent of pirated resources available to anyone who cared to search for them. Learning resources, free or pilfered, had always been ubiquitously available on whatever gadget they happened to carry. Like them, rōnin took these things for granted. No one worried anymore about library acquisitions and access.
Distance was also different for this generation. They could not recall a time when social networks had not brought them together. These students had grown up learning languages from native speakers via Skype rather than from their high school Spanish teacher. Whether sitting in a classroom or on a plane to China, friends, teachers, and (alas) parents always had access to them. They had never studied without their vast networks at the ready. Indeed, they had never studied "offline." Therefore, they were perfectly comfortable forming cohorts on their own as they studied with a variety of rōnin.
The fractured past was replaced with a coherent collective of independent educators. The rōnin’s independence from the institution fueled an increase in academic freedom. Beholden to no one but their student cohorts, their respected peers, and their pursuit of scholarship, this new collective was emboldened to research, write, and publish with a freedom not seen for centuries. Availing themselves of cheap or free information resources and burgeoning digital publication alternatives, the rōnin were free to pursue their work unfettered by tenure and promotion policies or antiquated accreditation boards. Rather than sinking into self-indulgent solitary research, as some had predicted, they flourished in dynamic collaborations with similarly motivated colleagues.
Students also were free to craft their education. They created curriculums relevant to their ambitions, delivered by scholars of their choice. Cohorts of students with complementary curricular needs meshed with collectives of rōnin tutors. Both were free to craft their own futures and take responsibility for the outcomes. No one entered into guilds or cohorts unless they were motivated to take responsibility for their education and their work. Indeed, this facet of the process began to attract those students whose superior abilities afforded them more opportunities within the existing academy.
Back in 2011, the U.S. Secretary of Education had thrown down the gauntlet regarding credentialing. He had recognized that traditional accreditation and degree requirements were being outpaced by the realities of the "technology-enabled, information-rich, deeply interconnected world." In a prescient speech, he had argued, "Badges can help speed the shift from credentials that simply measure seat time, to ones that more accurately measure competency…. We must accelerate that transition…. Badges offer an important way to recognize non-traditional ways of learning. They're a way to give credence — and ultimately, credit — for the skills learners and teachers acquire in a broader set of learning environments, and a wider range of content."
Rōnin were quick to seize upon badges, but they also revived the classical portfolio of knowledge. They insisted that their students produce not only theses, but performances, readings, stories, games, debates, and other forms of scholarly work. All of these were available online, worldwide. A given student’s accomplishments were more than a set of credentials on a resume; they were a growing portfolio. A human resource manager in Singapore could get a feeling for a candidate’s skills and personality without leaving her desk. It turned out that employers quite liked these portfolios.
The guilds of rōnin continued to grow and prosper. Meanwhile, higher education institutions struggled with a growing sense that their bubble had burst. Perhaps there was no new business model that could save them.
Coda: “Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again.” – Cormac McCarthy
W. Joseph King is executive director and Michael Nanfito is associate director for strategy of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education.
The New Faculty Majority (NFM) summit, "Reclaiming Academic Democracy: Facing the Consequences of Contingent Employment in Higher Education," held on Saturday, 28 January, at the Grand Hyatt in Washington, DC, was full of bitter ironies. The gathering was convened in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). But when Carol Geary Schneider, president of the AAC&U, asked in the opening plenary session who had availed themselves of the "crosswalk" she had established between the AAC&U and the NFM, it became distressingly clear that for most AAC&U members "in conjunction with" apparently meant little more than "in the same hotel as." At one end of the long hallway, NFM members talked about the challenges of keeping body and soul intact while teaching 4-4 jobs to which they had been required to reapply every year for 20 years; at the other end, university administrators browsed a book exhibit whose keywords seemed to be finance, management, outcomes, and assessment. At one point in the NFM proceedings, a faculty member from Oakland Community College held up a handbook for deans she'd purchased at the other end of the hallway and noted that adjunct faculty merited only one mention, under the heading "budgets."
Adjunct, contingent faculty members now make up over 1 million of the 1.5 million people teaching in American colleges and universities. Many of them are working at or under the poverty line, without health insurance; they have no academic freedom worthy of the name, because they can be fired at will; and, when fired, many remain ineligible for unemployment benefits, because institutions routinely invoke the "reasonable assurance of continued employment" clause in federal unemployment law even for faculty members on yearly contracts who have no reasonable assurance of anything. What would it take to put these faculty members on the national radar? What would it take to make their working conditions a major issue for the higher education establishment — not only AAC&U but also, and most important, accrediting agencies? Would a national summit in Washington do the trick, perhaps?
I used to say that you could tell the difference between people inside and outside higher education by asking them if they knew what a provost was. Now I think a better metric might be to ask them if they know what adjunct or contingent means. A few weeks ago, Vice President Joe Biden startled professors everywhere by remarking that tuition increases are attributable in part to the fact that faculty salaries have "escalated significantly"; one would have hoped that Biden, whose wife, Jill, has taught for many years as an adjunct professor in community colleges, would have known better. But that strange, unfounded belief is only a symptom of a much larger phenomenon. The NFM summit was convened, according to NFM President Maria Maisto, in response to the White House Summit on Community Colleges in October 2010, which included no adjunct faculty members as participants. And today, even the NFM’s friends in Washington (few and far between, to be sure) haven’t gotten the message quite right: in a videotaped greeting to the attendees, Representative John Tierney (D-MA) spoke warmly of adjunct faculty members and the importance of the summit, noting that 40 years ago, 80 percent of America’s college teachers enjoyed the protection of tenure, whereas now only 54 percent do.
At Tierney’s misstep, the entire NFM summit sighed as one. Taking the podium a few minutes later, Gary Rhoades, of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona, remarked ruefully, "even Representative Tierney got it wrong: the number of tenured faculty is under 30 percent. That's why you're the new faculty majority."
Rhoades proceeded to mark another bitter irony, one that goes to the heart of the enterprise: colleges promote themselves, especially to first-generation students, as a pathway to the middle class — but, increasingly, colleges do not pay middle-class wages to their own faculty members. The contradiction is deepest at the lowest tiers of the academic hierarchy, where, Rhoades said, underpaid adjunct faculty members are effectively "modeling what is acceptable as an employment practice." It is no wonder that adjunct faculty members are so politically invisible: apparently no one wants to say to high school graduates, "Go to college, work hard, and someday you can get a job teaching college — at a salary of $20,000." It casts a pall over the American dream.
In response to Rhoades and Schneider, a woman from the University of Cincinnati, one of the few administrators in attendance, replied that the summit needed to address the “850-pound gorilla in the room,” namely, the overproduction of Ph.D.s. To scattered applause, she insisted that she would not be able to hire English professors at adjunct wages if there weren’t so many English Ph.D.s glutting the market. I was sitting at a table with David Laurence, the director of research for the Modern Language Association, and I glanced over at him, since we had been discussing this topic at breakfast. The session ended before Laurence could respond, but he asked to open the following session with some useful data. To wit: according to the 2004 National Study of Postsecondary Faculty, 65.2 percent of non-tenure-track faculty members hold the M.A. as their highest degree — 57.3 percent in four-year institutions, 76.2 percent in two-year institutions. There are many factors affecting the working conditions of adjuncts, but the production of Ph.D.s isn’t one of the major ones.
These numbers have implications that go far beyond the usual debates about the size of doctoral programs, because they illustrate how inadequate it is to say simply that all non-tenure-track faculty lines should be converted to the tenure track. Precisely because adjuncts are so invisible, it is not widely understood that many of them have held their jobs — at one institution or at many, on a year-by-year basis or on multiyear contracts — for 10, 15 or 20 years and more. I keep running into people who speak of adjuncts as bright, energetic 30-year-olds who enliven their departments and disciplines, working in the trenches for a few years before getting their first tenure-track job. There is no shortage of bright and energetic adjuncts, but not all of them are 30 years old; the average age at the NFM summit seemed to be considerably higher, and the NFM statement "Forging a New Way Forward" closes with a proposal acknowledging that many adjunct faculty members cannot be "converted":
Reform efforts that involve restructuring should prioritize upgrades for people rather than conversions of positions, in order to respect the value of the ongoing service that existing employees provide. All reform or restructuring efforts should build in some form of protection for currently serving faculty in order to prevent further harm to these faculty who have served in contingent appointments, without proper support or compensation, for so long.
During one of the breaks, I spoke to a participant who worried, understandably, that the summit was preaching to the choir. "To some extent, I suppose," I said, "but then again, the choir needs to find out who’s in the choir, and it needs to figure out what it wants to sing." It is no small thing for adjuncts to gather in Washington and try to lobby, precisely because their job security is so precarious: as one adjunct from Cape Cod Community College put it, a better designation than adjunct or contingent might be the term a Spanish-speaking colleague offered her — los precarios.
I attended the summit to listen rather than speak, and listen I did, as my colleagues off the tenure track discussed ways of addressing students, administrators, legislators, unions, parents, and the general voting and taxpaying public. Laurence and I distributed (with permission from the NFM) the MLA’s 2011 document Professional Employment Practices for Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Members: Recommendations and Evaluative Questions, and Donald Rogers of Central Connecticut State University gave me a copy of Standards for Part-Time, Adjunct, and Contingent Faculty, from the Organization of American Historians. I talked to dozens of faculty members from institutions around the country and made a note to buy Adrianna Kezar’s Embracing Non-Tenure Track Faculty: Changing Campuses for the New Faculty Majority and Joe Berry’s Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education. And after listening for six or seven hours, I did have two suggestions to offer my breakout group in the afternoon.
First, it is going to be very hard to tell people that many college faculty members are exploitatively underpaid. It's going to be a particularly tough sell in communities already devastated by prolonged economic hardship. But it might be possible to play on the still-widespread belief that college professors are professionals and that parents who are sending their children to college should have some expectation that professors have the professional resources — offices, phones, mailboxes, e-mail and library access, meaningful performance reviews, participation in department governance — that make it possible for them to do their jobs. Let's say you need an attorney, I suggested, and you go to a firm that fobs you off on an associate who has to consult with you in a hallway because he doesn’t have an office. Who would stand for that? Is it O.K. that your kid is going to a college that treats its faculty that way?
Second, it is going to be even harder to tell people that non-tenure-track faculty members need a measure of job security and academic freedom if they are going to be able to do their jobs. It amounts, I suggested, to telling parents, students, administrators, and legislators that they have to fight for the right of professors to challenge their students intellectually, free from the fear that they will be fired the moment they say something unfamiliar or upsetting about sexuality or evolution or American history or the Middle East. This argument will resonate with people who understand what higher education is all about. They are a subset of the American electorate, but they know why academic freedom is essential to an open society, and they believe in the promise of higher education. The question is whether they can be persuaded that the promise of higher education is undermined when three-quarters of the professoriate is made up of los precarios.
Michael Bérubé is president of the Modern Language Association and the Paterno Family Professor in Literature at Pennsylvania State University. A longer version of this essay is available here.