There’s another argument between Rebecca Schuman and the Tenured Radical. You could check it out, although it’s pretty much the same themes we’ve read before. Once again, I feel conflicted: there’s little question that Schuman’s voice needs to be drilled into the heads of out-of-touch faculty and that there are prospective grad students who need to be informed about the percentages. At the same time, those speaking out for adjuncts often seem not to have a coherent theory of politics.
They say that adjuncts face a terribly exploitative and immoral labor situation. That’s absolutely true, and it’s a stain on the university system writ large, and I will participate in any meaningful political action to improve their conditions. But that’s the rub: you have to have a plan. You have to make an effort to make your arguments meaningful in the sense that they could actually improve the lives of the people you claim to speak for. You have to have a theory of politics. As far as I can tell, the growing genre of post-job market essay has this theory of politics:
- Attack the tenured and those on the tenure track.
I’ve read dozens of these; I’ve read them all. I can count on one hand the number of them that actually expressed a coherent theory of politics which might lead to genuine improvement and meaningful reform that would benefit adjuncts. What is Schuman’s theory of politics? I’ve read thousands of words from her on these subjects, and I have very little idea how she imagines that she’ll help adjuncts by constantly going after the tenured. Post-Academic in NYC is sometimes better, sometimes not– yes, 1 million of the 1.5 million people who teach at colleges are untenured, but that still leaves a third tenured, and to act like they literally don’t exist is odd. Same thing with Karen Kelsky of The Professor is In above. I find good structural critique from Ann Larson, although not always in a way that meaningfully avoids falling into making arguments that perfectly suit the preferences of the administrators who actually created this mess.
When Kelsky complains that the Tenured Radical is “tone-shaming” Schuman, she misses the point. I don’t mind that Schuman’s critiques are mean. I like mean. I do mind that Schuman’s critiques are frequently directionless. Schuman is right to rage against the department that sent out interview notices just a few days in advance of the interviews. But for every post of hers that takes pains to direct her critique in a meaningful way, there are two that devolve into sputtering anger. I never like to identify emotionalism in other arguments, but with Schuman, it’s unavoidable, because she herself has from the beginning highlighted her emotional relationship to the conditions she describes. That’s her choice, not mine. She often directs her anger in no meaningful direction and for no practical purpose. She risks playing directly into the hands of the administrators who actually perpetuate these problems.
Here’s my theory of politics: we live in class struggle like our Uncle Karl wrote about. That class struggle is a divide not between relative material wealth and security but between those who labor and those who control the means of production. Unionized, tenured faculty belong to the former group and not the latter, by any coherent structural analysis of class. My class sympathies therefore lie with them, and with the contingent labor, against the people who actually control hiring practices and compensation in the American university, which is the provosts and vice presidents and presidents and governors. And the mechanism through which positive change is enacted is the labor union, of the kind which most tenured American professors are already a part. Adjuncts must unionize, and they must receive the support of the unionized tenure-track labor. Any tenured professor who does not support adjunct unions deserves to be criticized, especially by those in his or her department who could enact meaningful consequences for this bad behavior. But for those workers who lack unions to attack those who have them plays into the hands of the actual bosses, just as it does in any factory or textile mill. That is left-wing economics 101: the bosses will try to pit workers against each other so that they tear each other apart rather than work in solidarity against the bosses. You cannot let them. Only a continued romanticism about the supposedly special status of academics in the workplace allows people to ignore this basic dynamic and their complicity within it.
But solidarity is hard, and raging against the recently-hired is easy, particularly when they were your competition not long ago. That sense of competition underwrites this whole argument. The people who write these endless essays know, I’m sure, that it is actually John Q. Administrator, appointed by the Republican governor, who works to degrade the working conditions of those who teach at universities. But he seems very remote, and they don’t feel socially competitive with him. They don’t feel that special brand of contempt that academics feel for other academics they don’t respect or like. So they ignore him, despite the fact that he is the one with his boot on their throat. And they work in a way that can do little to help adjuncts but can do a lot to hurt the tenured. At some point, it becomes fair to ask: is that actually the purpose? To hurt the tenured rather than to help the contingent? Because it is far more likely your efforts will contribute to that cause than to actually improving the plight of contingent labor.
The current president of my university is Mitch Daniels. And he is working the neoliberal playbook to the hilt. He’s doing all the things that people who righteously complain about the plight of adjuncts say that they hate. There is one and only one point of resistance that he recognizes and has tried to fight: the tenured faculty. It’s not much, really; he has a mandate and immense political power in-state and the backing of the board of trustees, many of whom he personally appointed to that position. But he cares enough about it to moderate his message and to slow the progress of certain projects and to give them a little sugar. The most likely result of the many attacks on tenured faculty, of which the rage of the untenured is just one facet, is that eventually there is no tenure, no job security, no union, no research for those not in revenue-generating fields, and no meaningful category of professor in the way we have commonly understood it. Can that still be opposed? I’m optimist enough, or fool enough, to think that it can. But when I read essay after essay that declare the tenured the enemy and leave the university presidents alone, I think of Mitch Daniels, and I imagine him chuckling softly to himself as he reads.
I’m sure the people who write these kinds of pieces will think of me as a collaborator or a fool. I don’t know, maybe I’m both. But I want the best for them. I want the best for us all. No doubt about this: between Schuman and some blockhead tenured prof who doesn’t want to hear it and won’t stand up for adjuncts, I’ll take Schuman, all day, every day. The problem is that I’ve tried to engage with support for the people making these arguments while retaining independence and critical review, and I’ve found over and over that this is not countenanced. If you aren’t willing to engage with equal rage and with the assumption that the professoriate is universally a group of con artists, you’re considered the enemy. And that’s just no way to have a meaningful discussion. I’m not interested in that.