U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Academy in Peril

As readers of this blog may be aware, I was in Dallas on Saturday where I delivered the keynote address at the 4th annual RAW symposium at the University of Texas at Dallas. Thanks, again to USIH’s own L.D. Burnett for inviting to speak on the Future of the Humanities.

Rather than reproduce my entire talk,* I wanted to briefly summarize my main arguments and then re-answer a question from the q&a period, having come to regret the answer I gave at the time (ain’t blogging grand!).

I began the talk by suggesting all the hopeful things going on in the humanities these days…and I really think there are many. We’re experiencing an explosion of interesting humanistic work beyond the academy. And academic humanities departments are operating in relative internal peace compared to the often nasty divisions found within them well into the 1990s.

But the second half of my talk, sub-titled “The Academy in Peril,” focused on what I feel is the biggest challenge facing the humanities today: the threat posed to higher education by both its enemies and many of its supposed friends, who have all embraced a narrow, economist understanding of higher education that sees tenured and tenure-track (TT) faculty as an unconscionable fixed cost that interferes with rationalizing the operation of the university.**

We are already seeing the effects of decades of forced casualization of the academic labor force. Today, two-thirds of the 1.5 million college and university faculty are in non-tenure track (NTT) jobs.  Most of these faculty don’t have PhDs, though many of them are pursuing the degree.  Marc Bousquet, one of the most trenchant observers of the current state of the academic labor system, summarizes the situation grimly, but not entirely inaccurately, as one in which PhD recipients are the system’s waste products.  Far from preparing them for an academic career, graduate school is, for many PhD candidates, the academic career itself, as they become markedly less employable after they receive their PhDs. But while it makes perfect sense from an administrative perspective focused on the bottom line to replace newly expensive (though pedagogically experienced) recently minted PhDs with cheap (though totally inexperienced) entering graduate students, neither teaching nor scholarship is served by such a management technique.

Unfortunately, rather than thinking comprehensively about this whole labor system, faculty, especially TT faculty, tend to think in terms of a semi-mythical job market, which involves the competition among PhDs for the shrinking number of TT positions.

I concluded my talk not with a solution to these problems (I’m not sure what that would be), but rather with three things we should all do in order to work toward a solution:

1) Analyze.  We need to have a better understanding of the overall labor system of academia.  TT faculty, in particular, need to gain a better understanding of the experiences, needs, and hopes of NTT faculty.  Before we can devise solutions, we need to understand the problem.

2) Organize. Any solution will involve organizing.  Though I’m less convinced than Bousquet that doing so is the solution, unionization is a critical first step…where possible. Unfortunately, many states, including my own, ban faculty unions at public institutions. And the most powerful form of unionization–one that would link TT and NTT faculty in a single bargaining unit–is being bitterly contested even in places in which faculty unionization is well established.***  But even if you can’t join a union, you can–and should–join AAUP. And NTT faculty should also join the New Faculty Majority.****  Finally, it is appalling that many faculty still oppose graduate student unionization efforts.

3) Advocate.  For the humanities, on and off campus. And for a new vision of higher education that puts the focus back on education and scholarship broadly understood.

So that’s more or less what I had to say.

Let me add here that these things are especially important right now because a lot of people on and off our nation’s campuses want to make the lives of faculty–and with them the quality of education and scholarship that goes on in our colleges and universities–immeasurably worse.

If you’re a tenured or TT faculty member (or just hope to be one some day), now’s a good time to take a look at how the NTT faculty are treated on your campus. Include graduate instructors in your field of vision.  What you’ll see won’t be pretty. And yet, what you’ll see is what your administrators and educational reformers–Democratic and Republican–want your job to look like in the future.*****

The latest example of this sort of thing appeared in the Washington Post on March 23. Opining that faculty don’t work hard enough, educational consultant and former New School Chancellor David C. Levy argues that all college and university faculty ought to be teaching 6:6 or 7:7 loads.******

All of which brings me to the audience question from Saturday that I wish to re-answer.

The q&a opened with a faculty member (I think), asking me what my work on Leo Strauss (which L.D. had referenced in her introduction of me) had to do with my “activism” (this word is usually meant as a pejorative in such a context).

My answer was simple: “Nothing,” I said.

What I meant by that was that my work on Strauss and the Straussians really isn’t informed at all by the sort of things I was discussing in this talk.  I understand–and appreciate–that many humanists understand their activism and scholarship as a kind of seamless web, that their scholarly work is, in a fundamental sense, engagé.  But that ain’t me.  I’m kinda old-fashioned that way.

But I think I misunderstood the spirit of the question. Or at least, my very pithy answer didn’t cover all it’s potential meanings.

Almost immediately after the q&a ended, however, I began to wonder whether this question may have actually been intended as way of asking “Shouldn’t you be doing your work instead of this sort of thing?”*******

At any rate, there is, in fact, a very direct relationship between my scholarly work and my “activism”: if my conditions of employment significantly deteriorate, I will not be able to do my work on Leo Strauss and the Straussians or much of anything beyond teaching (badly due to the increased load).  Which is, I suppose, also why I object a little to the word “activism” here.  I’m not, after all, choosing to be involved in a political struggle. I’m just thinking about and trying to improve, or at least preserve, my own labor conditions.  And suggesting that if others in a similar position don’t do so as well, we will all likely pay a very heavy price for our failure.

* I gave the talk off of an extended outline, so reproducing it would either involve reprinting a series of notes to myself or attempting to reproduce the thing ex post facto.

** I’ve blogged at greater length about these issues on USIH before here, here, and here.

*** Last week, an Illinois State Court prevented such a combined union from gaining recognition at the University of Illinois at Chicago, which is happy to bargain with split unions.

**** Seriously. If you’re a faculty member–and that includes grad students who teach–and aren’t a part of those organizations, follow those links now!

*****Although my talk at UTD was generally well-received by its majority grad student audience, I heard through the grapevine that some senior faculty felt that I had come across as young and naive.  Though I’ll admit that I’ve reached the age at which being called “young and naive,” like being carded, has become more compliment than insult, I really do think that, with the possible exception of those of us lucky enough to be tenured at the best-funded and least sectarian private institutions in this country, all of our jobs are–or will shortly be–under direct, sustained attack.  The naive position at this point is to conclude that, because you have tenure, the bell does not toll for you.

****** Levy’s argument is pretty self-refuting. But if you crave refutations, you can visit Paul Krugman at the Grey Lady (for a short one) or Robert Farley at LGM (for a longer version).

******* Though in all fairness to my interlocutor, my own capacity for guilt and self-punishment enables me to translate, say, a desire to grab a second cup of coffee into the question “shouldn’t you be doing your work instead of this sort of thing?”

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. As I said in my last post, you rocked the house. I didn’t say the whole house liked it. But even the buzz of dissent is good buzz — it means you said something worth thinking about.

    I can’t say for sure, but I’m guessing that the first question — and it was from a faculty member — was asked out of genuine curiosity rather than implicit disdain for “activism.” She was probably just trying to fit an interest in Leo Strauss and an interest in academic working conditions together. Because I think you’re probably right: many people see their scholarship as informing their activism, and vice versa.

    And speaking of activism…On the off chance that my dean wonders what kind of a rabble-rousing grad student he’s dealing with, who would invite a keynote speaker to come in and tell all us TAs and adjuncts to unionize, I have to say that my rabble-rousing was purely accidental. I have yet to go full Garrison (or even half Garrison) on any cause or issue. Not sure what rainy day I’m saving that up for, but there it is.

  2. It might be useful to remember the discussion that erupted to Ms. Burnett’s post about the job market and the gentleman who stated that modern scholars were crap. There was a split between those who agreed and those who argued that the problem was one of over production of PhDs. Of course, Jesse Lemisch in his proposal for a WPA for Historians was arguing for an increase in demand.

    Do we really need to analyze the problem any more? This has been going on for a generation. There are YouTube videos entitled “So you want a PhD. in the Humanities.” Back in 1988, a few of us at UVA attempted to form a union for graduate students. Of course, since we were crushed you’ve never heard of that unpleasantness. “You’re students, not labor.” When I was an adjunct in the 1990s, we posted two articles from the OAH newsletter on the adjunct office door and on the walls of our communal office detailing the “Adjunct Purgatory” so that the powers that be would get the hint. See http://www.oah.org/pubs/nl/96nov/adjunct1196.html and http://www.oah.org/pubs/nl/96nov/pmurphy1196.html Of course at some institutions, it is next to impossible to get a critical mass in favor of unionization because some of the adjuncts are from other professions and are ideologically biased against anything other than a traditional business hierarchy, others are teaching simply to provide supplemental income for their family, and others are simply too frightened to rock the boat.

    Had we had blogging in the early 1990s, I might have been the “Invisible adjunct” years before she ended her examination of the “use and abuse of adjunct faculty.” When she ended her blog eight years ago, the Chronicle of Higher education wrote an article among many others detailing the practice. My anger is still fresh twenty years later when I think about teaching a 6/6 load including a class in a high medium security prison, an occasional summer school gig or mowing the grass of a local golf course, and delivering pizzas at night while trying to have a life with my wife and babies. It is probably best that I didn’t blog.

    Unionization in this country is a hard slog, and has become even more difficult the past forty years. With the ever escalating cost of tuition and the shrinking job pool, applicants from our more prestigious universities are more likely to have a higher antipathy toward unionization that the general populace. One can’t even depend upon sympathetic scholars such as Alan Brinkley to do the right thing when constrained in a position of power.

    To sum up this rant, I am not optimistic that much will be done. Like America, academia professes to be meritocratic, but is in fact quite hierarchical. I think we should ponder the sections of Corey Robin’s latest book to understand some of the mental blocks that prevent tenured track faculty from understanding and wholeheartedly achieving solidarity with contingent faculty.

  3. “If you’re a tenured or TT faculty member (or just hope to be one some day), now’s a good time to take a look at how the NTT faculty are treated on your campus.”

    Over the last fifteen years, I have been affiliated with more than a dozen colleges and universities in several different faculty capacities. Never have I seen tenured and tenure-track faculty risk anything to make the pay or working conditions of contract, casual, contingent or adjunct faculty any better.

  4. Mike,

    Is this not because all too often the TT faculty see NTT faculty as the equivalent of scab labor brought in to control the TT faculty. As long as the two groups are played against each other there will never be solidarity.

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