As I’ve sort of written before, I’m a major fan of the journalist (and occasional historian) Thomas Frank. It appears from this month’s Harper’s (no link as I’m working off my paper copy) that Frank is taking over Lewis Lapham’s old job and will be writing a column at the front of every issue.
The first one is worth the price of the magazine all by itself. It’s about the demise of newspapers, but it begins with a comparison between them and his old profession:
“Although it scarcely seems believable today, I originally came to journalism as a practical, responsible career move. It was the mid-1990s, I had just finished a Ph.D. in history, and I was toiling away as a lecturer at a college in Chicago. Thanks to an overproduction of historians and the increasing use of adjunct labor by universities, the market had become hopelessly glutted. Friends of mine all told the same stories of low-wage toil, of lecturing and handing out A’s while going themselves without health insurance or enough money for necessities. Our tenured elders, meanwhile, could only rarely be moved to care. What was a predicament to us was a liberation to them-a glorious lifting of their burden to teach. For the university, which was then just then discovering the wonders of profit-making, it was something even more fabulous: a way to keep labor costs down.”
Besides being beautifully worded, I think most of the above quote is right too. I think the highlighted part, however, attributes far too much agency to people like me who have far too little agency to deserve being displayed this prominently as part of the problem.
Since I loaned out my copy of Marc Bousquet’s book a long, long time ago and have yet to get it back, I’ll have to quote one of his best old blog posts in order to explain the real problem a little better:
Instead the “prof scam” turns out to be a shell game conducted by management, who keep a tenurable stratum around for marketing purposes and to generate funded research, but who are spread so thin with respect to undergraduate teaching that even the most privileged undergraduates spend most of their education with para faculty working in increasingly unprofessional circumstances.
Historiann has been writing about that cheating scandal at the University of Central Florida in a 600 person class. With no intention of excusing what strikes me as the classic example of the lazy professor, do you think he actually wanted to teach a 600-person class? Do you see a huge flood of tenured faculty members dying for the opportunity to teach online? I certainly don’t.
Perhaps Frank was right about what tenured faculty thought about the adjunctification of the academic labor market in the mid-1990s, but if they still feel that way now they are either right near retirement or extremely short-sighted.