At the Intersection of Privilege and Precarity

The precarity of contingent faculty members limits their ability to make important structural changes in the academy, including responding to student demands for racial justice, writes Michelle Kweder.

March 18, 2016

Last fall, not unlike other faculty members across America, I attended community meetings on my campus to listen to and show my support for black students speaking out against systemic and structural racism in higher education. Where I teach, concerns that traced back 50 years are now urgent demands. At our college’s first community meeting, I sat on the floor listening and thinking about what I still need to learn, what I can do differently in my classroom and what I can bring to the college -- specifically as a white, queer, first-generation scholar.

But then my listening and thinking were interrupted by dread. I thought, “I cannot help you.” My white-privileged self thought, “This is not my fight -- I have other fights.” I thought of my business school debt of $50,000 and my partner’s worsening Parkinson’s.

The privilege to dismiss racism is real. I checked it, challenged it, didn’t dismiss it and contemplated it for days. I thought about it until I knew that my privilege would interfere with my teaching as little as possible, that I would continue to teach on my learning edge. In my classroom, writing and conversations, I continued to challenge the predominant business school approach to diversity and inclusion with authors and theories that are combinations of black, of color, of less-developed nations, critical, queer, intersectional and feminist. I recommitted myself to addressing my own racism and the racism in my classroom. Not a one-and-done process, but an ongoing commitment.

And yet the precarity of being contingent faculty is ever present. Where I teach, the precarity is real for probably 75 percent of us. And even the 25 percent who are tenure track or tenured don’t feel secure in an environment where institutions are closed or, in administrationspeak, where “admissions are suspended” -- and where faculty members continue to work without raises and with cuts to benefits. I see how precarity limits the ability of faculty to address the demands for racial justice issued by students.

There are ways that the struggles of black students -- or, perhaps more precisely, the success of those struggles -- is linked to the ability of adjunct and contract faculty to organize for job security, academic freedom and a voice in the university. Demands related to curricula, faculty training and mentoring a pipeline of scholars of color assume a stable, full-time faculty, but that assumption is false. Precarity and job insecurity impede racial justice on campuses in specific ways.

The curriculum needs to be updated. When I was an undergraduate student in the early ’90s, my professors explained to me what a syllabus audit was. Those professors weren’t always completely successful in their audits, but they were transparent and self-reflexive. My attempt to move from diversifying to decolonizing my syllabi has been a process. It is a process that does not fit neatly into a one-year contract. It is also a process better done in a community of peers and colleagues who have support and stability.

Faculty members need training. But what does that look like when faculty turn over at alarming rates? When faculty members are increasingly spread out across the country teaching online classes? Will the “rigorous training” end up being a multiple-choice test administered by human resources so that we don’t “get in trouble” -- rather than difficult face-to-face theoretically guided discussions about privilege, racism, Islamophobia, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, capitalism and the intersections among them?

As a white woman teaching in a predominantly white university, I have found myself facilitating conversation in class about race and racism. I initiate and invite these conversations. However, when racist language is used (i.e., “colored students”) or stereotypes are reinforced (i.e., you shouldn’t go to “that neighborhood”), I do my best to ask the perfectly placed Freire-inspired question, challenge racism and create space for a “learning moment.”

But this is my first year as a full-time teacher. I’m learning, and that learning is limited by the fact that I know that, at this college, with this curriculum, and with this student population, my limited-term employment does not include the time for reflection, experimentation and redos of mistakes and failures.

Last semester, I went off syllabus to facilitate a conversation about the 10 demands students had made on the campus where I teach. Knowing it would be a difficult discussion, I grounded the conversation in the social justice theory that we had been using all semester. Despite my prior planning, the conversation veered toward a racist rant from white students who insisted they had the “same concerns” as black students. The students of color in my class were silent. I tried to question, challenge and disrupt the racism. In the end, I shut that conversation down.

What I did was not perfect, but it was the best that I could do without meaningful training. I pivoted and talked about historically and socially situated knowledge in the context of slavery, Jim Crow, the prison industrial complex and the preschool-to-prison pipeline. By creating a less racist space, I probably alienated my predominately white class. I drove home knowing that those white students were angry. I knew their evaluations of my class would likely reflect that anger.

As a contract employee on the academic job market, my evaluations need to be good, if not excellent. The market is crowded and competitive for tenure-track positions (and even low-paid contract and adjunct jobs). What I suspected about my evaluations turned out to be true: my scores are bimodal in the area of “freedom to ask questions and express opinions.” Anonymous student evaluations in a predominately white university do not encourage professors to tackle the complex issues of racism at this moment in the history of the United States, the world and the neoliberal university.

So, how can I help? I don’t know. I will have about three months to figure that out. During that time, I will be teaching three classes, submitting my dissertation research to journals, consulting so that I can pay down my student loans and searching for a job. Seven out of 10 of the professors at our college will likely have similarly demanding schedules -- some with more demanding family responsibilities than I can imagine.

So, what can help all of us? We need to work together. Let’s not be pawns in the game. The faculty is not a disposable resource in the newest business model; students are not customers in a diploma factory. Students, let faculty own our shortcomings and outright failures. Be kind as you critique us, knowing that if we look tired in class it is because we are working second jobs, sometimes at multiple universities, and are always, always wondering where we will be teaching next year. If I have a blank look on my face, I might be calculating the costs of saying what I know versus what I know the university wants me to say.

Until we stop the cycle of precarity for faculty, I’m not sure we can make long-term structural changes. And until we make those changes, we cannot honestly do one of the most important things in academe: encourage students of color to follow in our footsteps as teachers, researchers and public intellectuals.


Michelle Kweder is a critical management scholar and lecturer in Boston. Her contract expires May 31. You can follow her on Twitter at @AcademicWorker.


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