Everyone knows how hard it is for new Ph.D.s, especially for new Ph.D.s in the humanities, to find tenure-track jobs, and everyone knows about the outrageous working conditions faced by contingent faculty. The problem with these problems, however, is that they are one problem we have come to think of as two. It is a labor problem of epic proportions -- at a time when labor is having its own problems.
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone proclaim that there are “no jobs” in the humanities, I’d be able to buy every graduate student in my department a hot meal. Just this month, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences published the latest addition to the literature on the decline in jobs for faculty in the humanities. Yet the truth is that there are jobs: lots and lots of jobs. The prevalence of MOOCs notwithstanding, classrooms across the nation still need to be staffed by instructors. The problem is that most of these are per-course assignments that pay horribly and offer few benefits, if any. Demand for instructors remains high. It is the egregious working conditions and compensation for those who instruct the majority of our students at the majority of our universities and colleges that are at the heart of the matter.
The consequences of thinking about the plights of graduate students and adjuncts as if they were separate problems are many and insidious. Because there are “no jobs,” many people advise their brightest undergraduates not to enter academe. It is actually considered irresponsible not to try to dissuade the young and talented from following in our footsteps. Some people applaud the shutdown of graduate programs in the humanities at institutions of lesser prestige and the downsizing of elite programs because there are “too many Ph.D.s.”
While I do understand the desire to protect students from the anguish of not finding tenure-track jobs, culling the competition is a mistaken and destructive approach to the problem of perceived scarcity. Instead, we need to turn our attention to the ways our institutions hire, compensate and retain educators. This is a labor problem that can be resolved -- but it will not be resolved by thinning our own ranks.
The consequences of our bifurcated thinking about graduate students and contingent faculty can be subtle, as long as you are not an adjunct instructor, in which case they are toxic. Adjunct faculty members, for example, are generally hired in a completely different manner than the full-time faculty members whom we groom our graduate students to aspire to be. Whereas the hiring process for tenure-stream faculty most commonly calls for the input of several or all members of a department as well as the approval of umpteen levels of an administration, it is customary for department heads alone to hire adjunct instructors, sometimes sight unseen. By conducting our adjunct hiring sub rosa, as it were, we reinforce the split between the “real” jobs we prepare our students to compete for and the invisible (but all-too-real) jobs of people who are often teaching alongside them.
The message these vastly divergent hiring practices send to graduate students and contingent faculty alike is that much of the teaching performed in their midst is somehow something to be ashamed of (and that teaching doesn’t really matter). Everything about the manner in which we select adjunct faculty suggests that they occupy the status of a necessary evil -- the less spoken of, the better.
The Normalization of a Two-Tiered System
This rotten system arose on our watch. How did we let it happen? Speaking for myself, I was so busy trying to find a job after completing my doctorate in 1997 that I didn’t pay much attention to the bigger picture. All I could think about was my own situation. Even though I understood that the odds of getting a tenure-track position were against me, I spent my time trying everything I could think of to improve my chances. Getting a job was up to me, I told myself. Oblivious to the highly individualistic ethos implanted in me in graduate school, I figured that if I was good enough, I would succeed. I did not think of the many other graduates who were also desperate to find tenure-track jobs -- except for when I wanted to make myself feel better about the jobs I didn’t get.
I found a job -- a three-year term position that turned into a six-year term position -- whereupon I devoted myself to becoming even more irresistible as a job candidate the next time I had to go on the market. When I finally got an assistant professorship at the institution that employs me today, my thoughts turned to getting tenure.
It’s embarrassing to admit this, but even though I disapproved of the treatment of contingent faculty, I just wasn’t paying attention to the way the naturalization of their exploitation was taking place concurrently with my own professionalization. I never thought of myself as having any say in the matter: without a stable position from which to voice my opposition, I just looked on as administrations chipped and hacked away at humanities programs across the country, cutting costs by depleting programs of their tenure lines and replacing them with adjunct slots. Like most people I knew in the humanities, I felt helpless to do anything about the seemingly irreversible decline of the profession.
No one asked me or my fellow graduates how we felt about the adjunctification of the professoriate as we were trying to claw our way into permanent positions. But no one ever does ask you about such things. The normalization of the two-tiered system just manages to steal up on you, and suddenly, you’ve got tenure in an industry dominated by massive exploitation, denial, resurgent elitism and magical thinking. I am pretty sure that most tenured and tenure-track faculty do not approve of the current condition of adjunct workers, but I am absolutely certain that even those who don’t think about adjunctification do feel terrible about the lack of decent employment prospects for their own graduate students. Relinking these problems will allow us to see clearly this dilemma for what it is: a labor problem.
Of late, adjunct faculty members have bravely come together in unions and affinity groups that are creative and ambitious in character. Such organizations as the New Faculty Majority have formed nonprofit and lobbying entities to unite adjuncts and broadcast their plight to the public at large. Graduate students have united to form unions and political action groups of their own. And yet tenure-track, and more significantly, tenured faculty have yet to form a national organization dedicated to resolving this problem. Why is that the case? Why is it that those of us who occupy relatively privileged positions are the readiest to accept that this is just the way things are?
Calling on Tenured Faculty
The American Association of University Professors has focused valiantly on these issues for a long time, but the AAUP cannot do it alone. It’s time for those of us who have relatively secure positions to speak out in our communities and on a national level. Tenured professors have considerably more leverage than graduate students or adjunct instructors in our institutions; it’s up to us to come together to put pressure on our administrations to make the many invisible positions we fill under the table into “real” jobs. We need to do it for all of our students, present and future, undergraduate and graduate, academe bound and otherwise. If many of us are already working under austerity conditions at our institutions and feel our own jobs imperiled, so much the more reason to act now to secure a living wage for all who teach at the university level. It is in the interest of all faculty members to band together to demand a future for higher education.
So how can we begin to change this situation? Unionization is an obvious answer and an important part of the solution, but when the interests of the full-time faculty are pitted against those of the part-time faculty, with each group represented by a different union, it is hard to reach any sort of common ground. When the full-time and adjunct faculty are represented by the same bargaining unit, adjunct faculty do not have an easy time getting support from their tenure-stream colleagues, in large part because of the great difference in the modes of hiring and reviewing that I discussed above. As long as we continue to accept this two-tiered labor model, there is only so much that unions can do. (A rare exception was the strike two years ago at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where full-time faculty walked out in solidarity with their adjunct colleagues.)
The labor movement we will need to assure the future of higher education requires action on the local and national fronts. Tenured faculty must get involved, and vocally involved, at every level of governance at our institutions. We must vigilantly attend and participate in every kind of meeting open to us that bears any relation whatsoever to mission, staffing, funding and budgeting priorities -- and demand representation when such meetings are closed to us. We must insist, loudly and incessantly, on full-time positions in our departments. We might want to experiment with the establishment of a more rigorous screening procedure for hiring contingent faculty so as to draw attention to the need for higher pay to draw and keep the most qualified applicants. We need to write letters, articles, emails, blogs -- anything we can -- about this problem. We need to get creative.
And we need to lobby our elected representatives at the local, state and national levels to address this systemic labor problem. Tuition rates have been skyrocketing across the country at the same time as full-time positions have been slashed; wherever this money is going, it is not being spent on full-time positions. Like increased tuition and student debt, this two-tiered system plays a role in the dynamics of income inequality. Legislators need to reverse the decades-long retreat of state and federal governments from the funding of higher education. Colleges and universities are not going to change their practices unless we put pressure on them from without and from within.
Some people will say it’s too late to do anything about this trend. But do we really believe so little in ourselves and in what we do as educators to give up on the future so easily? As long as we keep thinking about the fate of our graduate students as if it were separate from the condition of adjunct labor, we will continue to be complicit in the dismantling of higher education. And this would be tantamount to collective professional suicide. Have we really given this battle our all?
Carolyn Betensky is an associate professor of English at the University of Rhode Island.
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