Dear Academia: We’re All Labor

Today over at Inside Higher Education, John Warner has a great piece on “After Wisconsin.” He writes: 

The erosion, or worse, destruction of tenure is very bad news for contingent faculty[1].
The forces that seek to erode tenure are the exact same ones that are the root causes of the adjunctification of the professorate, shrinking public support of higher education and the increasing influence of corporate and political interests in governing the public sphere.
Regardless of what happens[2] in Wisconsin, these issues aren’t going away. Indeed, as evidenced by the adjunctification of faculty, they’ve already been with us for many years.
Apparently, it takes crises like Wisconsin’s to make us pay attention.
Since many of us are presently paying attention, I’m hoping we can take this opportunity to broaden the discussion a bit.
I think the professorate is perhaps reluctant to see itself as labor, but these events make it clear that we are indeed workers like any other (contingent know this well as we are consistently reminded that we are fungible), and as such, we need to examine our work as part of the larger systems in which we operate.
All of labor is in an age of percarity [sic].

Warner is, in part (he said on Twitter), inspired by Kelly Baker’s outstanding essay on tenure, which everyone should read. Baker talks about the purpose of tenure and the ways it was supposed to be linked to what professors do (teach, research, publish, communicate) rather than what kind of job they have. She says:

I don’t think this current exploitative tenure system is our only option. There are ways to improve the working conditions of contingent faculty if we are willing to do so. Tenure, and all of its securities, can be expanded to contingent laborers. Those who teach most of the classes need security and support. They need both academic freedom and economic security. This does not require a reimagining of what tenure is and who it should protect, but rather a return to the AAUP’s original conception of tenure for all of those who teach in Higher Ed. Can we please make tenure a right of many, not a privilege of the few? This is the only way tenure and justice can rest easily beside one another. It is the only way I’ll ever support tenure.

More on Baker in a moment, because she suggests some pathways forward, but first I want to revisit two pieces I wrote about a year ago. I have tenure. I try to practice good ethics personally within my department and globally as a journalist on higher-education issues. I also believe that, as Warner says, the issues pushing contingency directly threaten my livelihood and job security too, so I have  a personal stake. In my writing, I’ve been wondering what it might take to get other tenure-stream professors to realize this.

Last April (2014), I started writing for the relatively new space Chronicle Vitae, a sub-set of the Chronicle of Higher Education. In my first piece, I pondered why so many adjunct activists use the language of sharecropper, migrant worker, and slave to describe their position – rather than simply calling themselves exploited temps/contingent workers. I suggested that the fault was because tenure-stream faculty didn’t care without such incendiary metaphors. I wrote:

The issue here is not that writers are loosely deploying hyperbolic metaphors. The real problem is that adjuncts and their advocates believe the rest of us aren’t on their side.
We tut-tut and say it’s too bad, but then throw up our hands, blame the budgets, and let the system continue. Civil rights, slavery, sharecropping, migrant laborers—these are terms that evoke sympathy and demand action within the neoliberal world of higher education in ways that just calling adjuncts “temps” does not.
So let’s not be too quick to blame adjunct advocates for invoking historical inequities when trying to change the system. Instead, let’s question why such metaphors seem necessary. I propose that the plight of the adjunct lies squarely alongside that of a long-recognized historically oppressed group: the working class. Why are faculty so resistant to seeing themselves as labor who need to act in solidarity with the exploited adjuncts?

N.B. Also read Tressie McMillan Cottom’s response to the use of the slavery metaphor, if you’re not persuaded this is a problem.

In my next piece, I argued that when tenure-stream faculty embrace the identity of labor, great things can happen. Alas, our professional rhetoric is designed around avoiding identifying with labor, talking instead about passion, meritocracy, and artisanal craftsmanship. I wrote:

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.

We’re not special.

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

But once we embrace this, then what? What do we do? Fortunately, Kelly Baker has answers:

Confront your own privilege. Understand how you are implicated in the academic system. Make a stand. Treat the contingent laborers in your departments and institutions fairly. Find ways to make their jobs better, not worse. Recognize that landing on the tenure track is a privilege and that you can wield it to help others. Don’t support tenure to save yourself. (Who knows how much longer it will last?) Create a tenure system that will save all of us. Don’t be silent. Don’t look away. Be better. Be brave. And then, maybe we’ll have equity.

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