In my last column, I argued against using the charged language of slavery, sharecropping, and civil rights when discussing the working conditions of adjuncts. On the other hand, adjunct rights are labor rights. But advocates for adjuncts perceive a lack of solidarity across the contingent/full-time divide, so they turn to the more sympathetic language of civil rights in the hopes of closing that gap.
This approach, I believe, emerges a misunderstanding: Many academics, especially those in the tenure track, just resist seeing themselves as laborers. Academics, even many adjuncts, continue to think they belong to a loosely meritocratic system in which the best work rises to the top, peer review remains the optimal way to judge the quality of work, and if you work hard enough, you’ll be fine.
Fail to get a tenure-track job? Work harder. Keep your nose to the grindstone, stick with it, and you’ll find a home. Get stuck in a bad position? Publish your way out of it! Worried about tenure? Just say yes to everything, work over 100 hours a week for a few years or more, and you’ll be fine.
We believe this despite all the evidence and anecdotes to the contrary. Everyone in academia knows good people stuck in terrible jobs, or jobless, or burned out, or stricken with serious mental-health issues from the pressure of trying to compete in an irrational system. It’s not their fault.
Maybe once upon a time, during the boom years of the postwar generation, faculty truly were independent artisans—practicing the arts of teaching and writing, administering our institutions in a spirit of shared governance, and worrying only about the quality of our craftwork. I doubt it, though. The medieval university, the precursor of our modern institutions, developed when faculty decided they needed the rights and power of a guild—a labor organization—to negotiate more effectively. Sure, the University of Paris formed in part to exempt its misbehaving students from local legal oversight, but Cambridge was founded by Oxford faculty departing the city over labor disputes. At the risk of being reductive, my guess is that the shape of the university has been governed by labor issues ever since.
Yet still we persist with the myth that the university is a special space, exempt from the power and pressures of capitalism and the neoliberal worldview. I may seem absolutely guilty of romanticizing the university when I talk about teaching, but when I write against the entrée of corporate-speak into the academy, it’s because that language gets used for a reason. It’s designed to depersonalize the workplace and focus attention on “efficiencies” instead of the messy realities of our jobs.
According to the corporate language, we’re anonymous customer-service cogs. According to the way we speak about ourselves, we’re rigidly individualized specialist artisans. These are antithetical views. When we fail to make room for any conversation in between those poles, we deny ourselves the chance to organize across the lines of class and status.
When I was in graduate school in Minnesota, we twice tried to unionize and twice failed. One reason was that graduate students in better-paid positions didn’t want to collectively organize with the rest of us. This is a classic labor problem. Perceptions that the university is simply not a labor space played a big role too. Antiunion voices argued that to collectivize would reduce us to mere workers, destabilizing the core master-and-apprentice dynamic of the relationship between professor and student. Lots of people bought it.
And the argument continues. At Brown, the dean of the graduate school argued that the school depends on “a partnership of students and teachers.” “Unionization,” he said, “is not consistent with thinking of students as partners.”
Why not? It’s only not consistent if the teachers refuse to think of themselves as workers too. If graduate students, adjuncts, and tenure-track or tenured faculty all see themselves as laborers, there’d be a fundamental equality in their relationship to the university-as-employer. That could erode the divisions of rank that so bother advocates for adjunct rights.
There are signs that this erosion is happening. The faculty association of the University of California at Santa Cruz supported the institution's graduate-student union (represented by the United Automobile Workers). When the director of the writing program at Santa Cruz allegedly told graduate students that "if you strike, you will not work again," thousands of union members and supporters, employees and undergrads alike, held strikes across multiple U. of California campuses.
In February, full-time and part-time faculty at the University of Illinois at Chicago united for a two-day strike, with further action planned in April until the two sides reached a deal. The faculty voted to organize as one bargaining unit in 2011, but the university successfully sued to divide adjuncts and full-timers based on the intricacies of the relevant labor law. That said, if the goal was to divide and conquer, it’s failed. The faculty at Chicago seemed ready to fight as a single body of teachers, regardless of rank and status. Tenure-track faculty and adjuncts also united successfully at the University of Oregon, winning a salary floor of $36,000 for adjuncts.
I suggest we can think even bigger rhetorically, if not necessarily in practice. A recent article in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune talked about adjuncts as “temp workers.” That may not be as good at inducing sympathy as “slaves,” “sharecroppers,” or “migrant workers,” but this isn’t about sympathy. We need to recognize that what’s happening to our universities is happening across the North American labor market (and beyond), and that we’re not special. Other highly-trained, specialized industries have turned to contingency work. Higher ed is no different. In fact, we could learn from the industries that increasingly argue that one must treat contingent workers as full members of the community.
Why not embrace the pressures that are falling on the university? Be proud of being laborers, identify with your fellow workers, and organize across the tenure-adjunct divide. Ultimately, it’s the only thing that’s going to improve the situation.
Best of all, it’s the right thing to do.