Swans Commentary » swans.com June 2, 2014  



Notes From The Contingent Faculty Underground


by Harvey E. Whitney, Jr.





(Swans - June 2, 2014)   Now that I have been at least temporarily freed from the constraints of teaching undergraduates and community college level students, I've been somewhat busy contributing to the growing movement in organizing adjunct faculty on a nationwide level. Needless to say, it is an uphill battle in terms of not only persuading the brahmins of higher education to recognize and address the concerns of adjuncts and the labor, the heavy lifting, that they do in educating the next generation of citizens but also encouraging other adjuncts to stand up for better wages and working conditions. The category of contingent labor also includes graduate assistants who also share in educating students: a task that they do with the demands of their own studies and the demands of raising families.

Forgive me about speaking anecdotally about the movement, but certain aspects of the life of a contingent academic worker need to be known to the public. Adjuncts in particular often teach three or four classes a semester, sometimes stringing together gigs along an automobile commute, in order to make ends meet. When I was in the D.C. area, I commuted between two schools about thirty miles apart. It was an arduous ordeal, made even more so because adjuncts work in less than ideal conditions. On the work side of things, we often do not have offices to hold office hours for students after classes, which should not be such a burden for the schools we work for since they often seem to have ice cream socials and movie nights for students or spend extravagantly on administrative salaries and soirees. Additionally, the level of respect that we are accorded by administrators is wanting, because as experienced professionals with advanced degrees in our fields, we are not allowed to choose our own textbooks or provide supplementary materials (e.g., scholarly essays or cultural artifacts such as films) to the list of required materials for our courses. I can recall a time in teaching at an institution a few years back and being told by an administrator that students seeing a film after hours would put constraints on their time. The strange thing was that he never put any evidence forward to indicate that students were working or caring for families at the times the film was shown. I had also put the film on the library's reserve so that students could watch it outside of the designated hours in which I would conduct the film showings. Yet if that was the argument to be made against showing the film, then one could also make the same argument against students reading the assigned portions of the textbook outside of class.

The film was Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, which I designated for viewing as a poignant commentary on and satire of the Cold War military-industrial complex, a criticism of the use of atomic warfare, and a rebuke of the irrationality of the conflict between democratic capitalism (if there was ever a more contradictory juxtaposition of terms) and Communism. I find it strange now that in the field of history, a field once and still sometimes disdainful of the use of film as a teaching tool, now has courses on using film as a teaching tool. The discipline itself is very slow in accepting the useful aspects of technology and in terms of artifacts, historians seem to trust more dusty letters in an archive over the film reels in an MGM/Paramount vault. That is certainly a bias of history: that more authenticity is found in a previous form of communication than in a more recent form. I'll return to the historian's creed a little later.

In terms of organizing adjuncts, I've been active on various social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter keeping up with what is going on around the country. While I have been critical of the conversational compression that social media seems to indulge in and encourage, its virtue has been nevertheless the ability to connect me with other adjuncts, share war stories, and organize. The most fascinating aspect of our connections seems to be the agreement that something must be done to hold higher education accountable for providing adjuncts with an honest salary and a transparent mechanism for advancement. The rallying cry has been the death of Mary Vojtko, the adjunct professor who toiled for over twenty years at Duquesne University and died penniless. Once a venerable profession, teaching, especially secondary and college teaching, has come under fire from politicians with anti-union instincts and teaching "theorists" or "specialists" who have no idea of the demands of teaching nor the experience to make substantive criticisms of the profession. Most subscribe to the merit based model of teaching that ties compensation and advancement to high test scores of students on standardized examinations but unfortunately, the word is still out on whether this is an effective model: in fact, many studies have shown that this model is virtually ineffective. I feel here that it is necessary to take issue with the idea that teaching is a profession that is entirely subject to the market demands of merit, most notably because 1) the market itself is not a merit-based system, and thus 2) education is not entirely a factory-based system in which a teacher is a production line worker who is manufacturing students having a rudimentary level of knowledge: measurable by standardized testing.

Despite many an attempt to describe the market as a merit-based system, such a system permits non-merit based-hires and advancements. We can look at, for example, the not too temporally distant hires of media giant NBC: Luke Russert and Jenna Bush Hager. Both hires were descendants of famous people: the former the son of Tim Russert, the deceased NBC correspondent, and the latter the daughter of former president George W. Bush. Neither one of these hires had significant news reporting experience that would justify their hiring for these positions. These were not merit-based hires if we look at their past journalistic experiences (which were lacking), and the only merit they had was being the descendants of famous people. We can look at other instances of legacy hires. Donald Trump's children have official, controlling positions within his real estate empire. So merit, as a record of accomplishment and achievement, is not recognized as a decisive or sole criterion of employment and advancement in the market as market proponents swear by.

Additionally, if the market supposedly rewards merit, then it punishes failure whether it be business mismanagement or incompetence or moral failings. I've often brought up the example of the bank bailouts during the most recent crash as an example in which the mismanagement, incompetence, and greed of the banking was somehow above and beyond the reproach of the government which somehow warranted them in receiving taxpayer funded bailouts. Merit was not the issue nor was it a criterion of market value. Instead, social and government dependence upon the banking system necessitated the bailouts and perhaps will be the justification for any future bailouts. What was prescient after the bailouts was that the stocks of the big banks ascended because for any future fallout, the banks would always be saved by the government. In the end, the markets rewarded the banks.

If the market is not entirely or even superficially a merit-based system, one that rewards productivity, then it stands to reason that teachers should not been seen as fast food workers churning out the most burgers or factory workers assembling the most Pez dispensers because the teacher's job should not be modeled as a worker producing a product or service that can be mass packaged and mass consumed. The ability to critically analyze arguments and opinions is not a readily packageable skill but it has value beyond market interests. It reinforces our humanity by strengthening our rational faculty: a faculty no doubt that has aided us in our survival as a species. I think sometimes that those of us in the human disciplines need to stop being used car salesmen for our disciplines: that we need to sell critical thinking as some sort of consumable that is of high value to prospective employers of our students as if it were something that would guarantee maximum profits to the employer if they hire our students. Instead, the students who come through our classes learning how to critically reflect and analyze arguments have the ability to adapt to the changing demands of the marketplace or even redefine the marketplace as a complex of relationships that restores merit as a criterion of value. That means, for example, recognizing that the market does not, as it exists today, does not reward merit, that it does reward failure, and that market and government institutions need to be accountable for holding contradictory or distorted views of the market.

I think sometimes that historians are the worst proponents of a free-market system because they are still intoxicated with the writings of Adam Smith and John Locke and believe that liberal capitalism was the tool that loosened humans from the shackles of the feudal system, and was perhaps the greatest invention since the printing press. In my experience, historians have often resisted the unionizing efforts of graduate assistants and students in their own ranks and have warned them against union organizing or even accepting other teaching assignments outside of the department or school in which they teach to make ends meet. This is an unfortunate position and as a junior historian, it pains me that people in my profession think this way. Some have even said that in advocating for higher wages and benefits, grad students and adjuncts should be thankful for the experience that they obtain in having a temporary teaching position and that they are not "owed" anything else. But experience is not enough, especially for long time adjuncts, and experience is not enough considering that adjuncts now in universities and colleges teach more than seventy percent of undergraduate courses. Additionally, it is false to believe that we organize and fight for higher wages and benefits out of a sense in which we are "owed" something. We can take this on pure capitalist grounds. Every year I worked for a graphics company in Boston, I always approached my employer with a list of benefits and accomplishments that I provided to the company in addition to my normal duties as justification for a higher wage. In essence, I was making a sales pitch. This is what essentially organizing is all about: getting an employer to recognize your value to the company beyond what you are ordinarily paid to do.

So enough for now on the adjunct front (at least in this article). Stay tuned.


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About the Author

Harvey E. Whitney, Jr. is a doctoral candidate in history at Florida State University and teaches medieval and modern global history at Howard Community College in Maryland. To learn more, please visit his Web site at http://hewhitney.com/.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published June 2, 2014