(revised and modified from 3/1/12)
Patti Smith, punk guru, often moves into spoken word when she performs live. A constant refrain is “we’re all f**ked.” But, she says this, repeats it, works it into everything she does as part of an existential gesture to motivate her audience into action.
For some Adjuncts, the answer is: walk away. I couldn’t agree more. Sometimes you simply need to walk. (I’m a former back of the house worker: dishwasher, prep, sous, exec, partner–I’m very aware that throwing up the middle finger and slamming the door behind you as you move on with your life is part of the “at will” life.)
But, I simply disagree with criticisms from administrators and full time colleagues that the lofty goals or an idealized graduate degree that accompany adjunct dissatisfaction primarily inform the problems we face as temporary migrant intellectual workers.
Perhaps it is necessary to “get over” the idea that as a professor you’ll be living the life of the mind. However, I must ask, especially for community educators: When? When was that ever the case for me? I needed to fight for every second of every research or writing or editing moment, especially my first book which was a reworking, like everyone else, of my over-specialized dissertation. I was charged with teaching traditional and non-traditional students, leading them from point A to point B.
Where is the responsibilities (ethical or moral) on the part of our colleagues to create the conditions for sustainability and equity in departments–like say English or Philosophy or History–that are filled with advocates for social justice and “postcolonial” thinking and postmodern approaches to empowerment, and power/knowledge, and the rest of the critical theory progressivism that has also been absorbed into the very machine we often serve as cogs? What’s the responsibility of professional organizations to set (and then enforce through legal and direct action means) reasonable industry or disciplinary standards regarding the volume of graduate degrees awarded each year?
When leadership fails, when administrative incompetance is allowed to run circles around disciplinary wisdom, heritage, and effective solutions, is it failure on the part of the “wide-eyed” graduate student or hopeful Visiting Professor or Adjunct if working conditions are allowed to deteriorate? Or, is it neglect or disinterest (is there a difference?) on the part of Chairs, senior faculty, administration, and above (e.g., hiring professors the first day of class or distributing textbook vouchers two months after the start of the term)?
Like the “corporate presidency,” the “corporate university” model doesn’t work. Yet, the most incompetent higher-ups and the loudest defenders of “the system,” are all rewarded. (And yes, having regular access to a doctor or knowing months in advance the schedule you will keep each term is sadly still considered a reward for what I consider an expectation, perhaps even right.)
The bubbles and crashes of the last decade proved this without any doubt. It’s time to face a different fact: colleges and universities are best run as non-profit organizations. Yet, the people who claim to know more about running a business oftentimes have no place in higher education beyond the donors office or key development administrators or the Board of Trustees. Many know how to run a business into the ground.
They do not understand that key fields need the protection of grant underwriting, donations, and creative/effective uses of tightening budget to sustain their activities. Forget about sharing resources; using the successes of emerging fields or professional and technical courses of study in a more general funding of a college goes against the departmentalization we have accepted as normal when we budget.
Non-profit models also help workers in fields that simply cannot keep up with market demands; their existence and contribution to the broader education of students, especially in the Liberal Arts have never met capitalist criteria for success or profitability. But, it’s just *bad* business practice, and typical of the neoconservative and neolibreral turn, to force departments like Classics and History, Literature and Philosophy, and maybe even the harder applied sciences–advanced Neuroscience, Astrophysics, and Geology. One could even argue that forcing these disciplines to the open market is a backhanded way to guarantee their “failure.”
What do you say to a college or university that consistently runs on the Five Hour Energy of eleventh hour crises and bad policies and zero transparency about enrollment, section, etc. decisions and winds up cancelling courses that could generate about $30K in revenue after paying the less than 20% to the instructor? Is it a former graduate adviser’s fault that people who do not understand the nature of their own business–higher education–are making decisions that have resulted in a near systemic collapse under the weight of 60-70% migrant at will temporary labor? How can you sustain curriculum with a faculty that does not know when their next paycheck will arrive? How can you connect complex initiatives across multiple departments if you cannot take the time, as a faculty, to even meet or plan or reflect?
I think that’s the nature of the crime: the decisions made by real people–not some market or some wish-fulfillment desire on the part of the Adjunct–get attributed to some automated, naturalized, and then universalized “ghost in the machine” rather than the flesh, blood, and bone of human beings making really bad decisions, without recourse, without self-regulation, without adherence to professional standards or even following binding arbitration. Without consequence other than having to spend an extra hundred dollars for flowers dispatched from the lowest bidder to the latest adjunct funeral.
Why pretend the machine isn’t programmed by people who desire the resultant misery we have collectively experienced? Let’s choose to carry the weight of the horrors and disappointments we have experienced and transform them into action steps that can make crystal clear our grievances to people who do not hold our best interest in mind. If they did, we wouldn’t need to register our complaints in public, private, in print, or online.
Lastly, when a major manufacturer in New Hampshire approached my former college to certify a machine tool program, they were the ones who asked for at least two graduation tracks: certification and associate of arts. They wanted their employees to gain the critical thinking skills and global understanding of their present personal and professional situation in addition to increasing their vocational strengths. They offered free classrooms; their scheduling ideas inspired our faculty to come up with hybrid and accelerated models. It was a fantastic collaboration. But, it failed. Administrators and long-time faculty in General Education resisted the call to innovate; they also misunderstood the promise of increased revenue as an attempt to control the curriculum. Would the corporate entity then object to us teaching X or Y text or controversial essays that challenge corporatism or embrace capitalism, and so forth. Slowly, the initiative lost momentum and most of the regular faculty moved on with their lives.
I don’t think the graduate degree granting institutions had anything to contribute here in this example of gross mismanagement, lamentable professional will, and the ongoing tyranny of lazy bureaucrats who simply do not wish to work more than two or three days a week. Just a tiny bit of effort and support would have increased department revenue by about $50K per semester and $100K in an accelerated, eight week scenario.
Sure, higher education isn’t the promised land. But, our professional home is also not best thought of as a corporation. It’s time to get back to simple non-profit wisdom, forget about casino-styled capitalism, and build communities rather than break them with false promises, bad policies, neglect, and budgetary ignorance that cannot possibly increase revenue or support/sustain emerging programs and even their successful cousins across the curriculum.
The Time is Now; The Struggle Continues (August Wilson, 1945-2005)