You are not special.

20 07 2014

“The contradictions inherent in the movement of capitalist society impress themselves upon the practical bourgeois most strikingly in the changes of the periodic cycle, through which modern industry runs, and whose crowning point is the universal crisis. That crisis is once again approaching, although as yet but in its preliminary stage; and by the universality of its theatre and the intensity of its action it will drum dialectics even into the heads of the mushroom upstarts of the new, holy Prusso-German empire.”

- Karl Marx, Capital [Afterward to the Second German Edition], 1873.

“Why do established scholars, who speak openly about other social and economic injustices, refrain from allying themselves with those of us who are denied academic freedom by virtue of our identities as adjuncts?,” asks Lori Harrison Kahan in Vitae. “How are we to explain this silence?” Great questions, but if you really want to make this point stick in the minds of most tenured and tenure-track faculty, I’m not sure this line of argument is going to work. Instead, I’d explain how the adjunct problem really is every professor’s problem. Drum dialectics into the heads of these mushroom upstarts and we’ll all be better off together.

For this to happen, it’s essential to convince the people on the tenure track now that they aren’t as special as they think they are. The master at this line of argument is, of course, Rebecca Schuman. Unfortunately, king cannibal rats on a festering ghost ship are unlikely to lend a hand until the moment they realize that it’s time to swim to shore.

So now then is the time to point out that it might be time for all of us to paddle the burnt-out hulk that we all occupy a little closer to shore than we are right now. I’ll let the numbers speak for themselves. Here’s Reason 55 from 100 Reasons NOT to go to Grad School:

In November 2010, the National Science Foundation reported that 49,562 people earned doctorates in the United States in 2009. This was the highest number ever recorded. Most of the increase over the previous decade occurred in the sciences and engineering, but the NSF’s report noted a particularly grim statistic for those who completed a PhD in the humanities: only 62.6 percent had a “definite commitment” for any kind of employment whatsoever. Remember that this is what faces those who have already survived programs with very high attrition rates; more than half of those who start PhD programs in the humanities do not complete them (see Reason 46). The PhD has been cheapened by its ubiquity.

Every one of those disposable academics in your field would gladly fill your tenure track job at substantially less pay than you’re making right now. And why shouldn’t they? You probably aren’t doing very much to help them, so why should they help you? Moreover, plenty of administrators would gladly fire you and replace you with an adjunct if they thought they could get away with it.

What’s that, you say? You write articles, do you? Too bad only three people read half of all articles. And most of those university press books we all write aren’t exactly setting the world on fire either. Adjuncts and people fresh out of grad school can do the exact same things that existing tenured faculty can do. They even have books published at the same university presses that you do! They’re also likely to perform all the functions that you perform for much, much less money.

At the same time (and you knew I was going to get to this at some point), MOOCs (or as these guys stress, the technologies that enable MOOCs) can do the same job you do rather badly for a lot less money in the long run. Therefore, university bosses who couldn’t care less about what books you’ve published will replace you with pre-recorded lectures and an interactive web site without blinking an eye.

Anybody with a basic understanding of organized labor knows the solution to all these problems. Join together. Help the people willing to do your job for less get the opportunity to do the job you do with you (not instead of you) for the money they deserve. Don’t be a mushroom upstart. Be an organizer. Be a truth teller. Be a fighter. And if your own liberal ideals aren’t enough to motivate you to do such things, just remember that you’ll be better off in the long run too.

You are not special. Neither are your adjunct colleagues, but they live with that fact every day. The point is that you need to learn that too if we are ever all going to save higher education together.

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12 responses

20 07 2014
Bob Shepherd

“Why do established scholars, who speak openly about other social and economic injustices, refrain from allying themselves with those of us who are denied academic freedom by virtue of our identities as adjuncts?”

Because they are afraid. The suits who now run our universities will fire them.

20 07 2014
Jonathan Rees

I would argue that the suits will eventually get around to firing most of them anyways.

20 07 2014
Bob Shepherd

That’s the plan. Flipped classes with videos used nationally–ones featuring a handful of well-vetted superstar professors.

20 07 2014
Bob Shepherd

And rather than admit that they are afraid, they rationalize. They find other excuses.

21 07 2014
Over it

VERY Well Said And Written! You Had Just Spoken The Words In My Silent Voice But Very Loud Mind!

21 07 2014

From the angle of the cocked heads in the hallways of one of the vineyards where I have toiled part-time I’d guess that one deep reason these established scholars “refrain from allying themselves” with the adjuncts around them is a real need to believe in the proposition that they ARE special. How else to continue to enjoy the benefits and joys and challenges of a position and system that has granted them membership while others equally qualified, hopeful, and energetic are denied? How else to swan down the hallways among people they KNOW are being exploited, abused, and grievously undercompensated? How else to enjoy that sabbatical? How else to accept, or else blithely ignore, the tenuousness and unpredictability of others’ working lives? These otherwise-intelligent and otherwise-compassionate and otherwise-sensible individuals wouldn’t be able to live with themselves if at every encounter with an adjunct they permitted themselves to murmur “there but for the grace of god….” Therefore they HAVE to believe that they got the full-time job rather than one of the wretched because they DESERVE that job and the wretched DO NOT DESERVE it. Of course the danger of embracing this idea of specialness is that it engenders professional blindness, an inability to see the administrative and budgetary machinations that are targeting THEM until it’s too late. But meanwhile, life is good.

21 07 2014

I would clarify my remark by saying that this deep-down belief is not only unacknowledged but also, perhaps, unsuspected. I also want to say that this is one of your best posts on this topic, Jonathan!

21 07 2014
Jonathan Rees

Thanks Ruth Anne,

Did you see the depressing outsourcing faculty story in IHE this morning? That’s what I’m talking about because if they get addicted to outsourcing adjuncts it’s obvious that people like me are next.

I kind of see it as a graduated scale of awfulness. We’re all on it at different places and working together we can all improve our positions and our relative permanence.

21 07 2014
Cedar Riener

Agreed that I am not that special. And agreed that an organized labor movement in highered would surely help more than stopgap measures and individual complaining. This post did trigger in me a reaction that perhaps we need not ascribe such selfish motives to we “king rats.” Isn’t it likely a factor that those that end up succeeding at a PhD are both the least likely to be organizing types and products of a system that has stifled that sort of thinking from the beginning? That is, the very personality factors and habits of mind that are supported and nurtured throughout our educational system are not “organize your class so you can all get good grades” or “collaborate and share credit on everything you can” but rather a more individualistic “help people out of charity, but beat them if they want to compete directly with you” ethos. I totally agree that when tenure track faculty regard adjuncts as charity cases, we are totally missing the boat. But I just see the ethic of competition and individuality as so thoroughly ingrained in our educational system that it is quite difficult to imagine switching gears entirely in one’s 30’s and trying to effect a cultural change. Perhaps it comes down to this, I know the legality of professors unionizing hinges on whether we are considered labor or management, and we are prevented from doing so in some cases because we are considered management. The problem to me is not just that this is legal precedent, but that this is what many professors think. What it seems you are advocating is that professors of all stripes need to realize that we are labor, not management, and start acting accordingly. Anyways, I always appreciate your posts and I am looking for ways to organize and advocate, without becoming a martyr or simply banging my head against the wall while neglecting how I can put my scientific expertise to good use.

24 07 2014
Richard Cronk

As a retired professional I have taught at a community college for 10 years now. The “full-time” teaching staff has a group of ‘rats’ that manage the over 80% of teaching staff that are adjuncts. These ‘teachers’ with no institutional authority hire, fire and make all the day to day key decisions for “management”. In a mass meeting one newer adjunct, in a discussion about mentoring said she had been here 2 years and had no mentoring. The “full-timer” manager was very upset because he had spent so much time mentoring this adjunct…he totally failed to see he was a supervisor, not a mentor! A boss, not a co-worker.
These same “full-timers” bounced the adjuncts out of their bargaining unit years ago for some small potatoes short term payoff. Now they cajole and coerce adjuncts into supporting their contract goals. As a longtime union member and working class man I see we mostly need to know that they are not our friends and will crap on you in a heart beat, if it fills their status pockets.

27 07 2014
CASA weekly news 21/14 | CASA

[…] “You Are Not Special” historian and blogger Jonathan Rees asked what it will take for tenured academics to […]

2 08 2014
Jack Longmate

1. One reason that TT faculty don’t align with NTT faculty is good old fashioned elitism. As Jonathan points out, TT faculty have a sort of conceit and believe they are superior (while NTT faculty assume a corresponding belief of inferiority and naturally subordinate). The emotional investment in these beliefs can be related to the phenomena of cognitive dissonance: since TT faculty are granted so much more respect, better compensated, have tenure, offices, etc., and the working conditions of NTT faculty are so clearly inferior, it gives rise to the conclusion that TT faculty must be far better educators–what else could explain this difference, even though the grades and credits awarded by both have the same value, and oftentimes NTT faculty receive equal or better evaluations from students. Martin Luther King described discrimination as giving a false sense of superiority to the discriminator and a false sense of inferiority to those being discriminated against–I think it’s the same thing here.
2. There are problems with the simplistic call for all faculty to just
“Join together” and speak with a single voice. Unions and professional associations, of course, love such proclamations, but it is naive to assume that organization, in and of itself, will be effective, particularly if those organizing entities are as entrenched by the same TT-superior/NTT-inferior attitudes. Organizing with the idea of equality, on the other hand, might stand a chance.
3. Richard Cronk’s posting cites one aspect of our dysfunctional two-tiered system: the upper tier are effectively the supervisors of the lower tier–which some TT faculty often violently deny. Yet in many places, such as in Washington State’s unionized community and technical colleges, both TT and NTT faculty are represented by the same union, which then introduces a fundamental conflict or labor organizing: supervisors in the same unit as those they supervise. At one Washington college, the union’s grievance officer happens to double as a department head, so if you’re an adjunct and have a grievance with your department head, good luck filing it, and if you should file it, good luck getting the union to prosecute it or possibly fight for arbitration.
Jack Longmate
Adjunct English Instructor
Olympic College, Bremerton, WA

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