adjuncts and theories of politics

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:

  1. Attack the tenured and those on the tenure track.
  2. ???
  3. Profit.

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.


  1. This is really good stuff. As a tenured faculty member who’s trying really really hard to do whatever I can to push back on both the realities of our profession and the narratives that separate and antagonize different communities within that profession, I very much appreciate this post.

    There’s no question, at my institution and in my (English) department at least, that the vital first step will be getting *all* the faculty, full-time and part-time, in rooms together more often. Which would mean, first, at all. Obviously not a solution, but a step, and an important one. I’m working to try to help make that happen.

    Thanks again,

  2. I’m another TT faculty member, and in a faculty union. Looking around my field (librarianship) I am dead certain that my job would not be tenure track if the university could pluck us out from the bargaining unit. At my most recent union meeting, there was a brief discussion of the adjunct situation (which is *well* over 50% of classes at my uni) and basically the union can’t do much for people outside the bargaining unit. This kind of sucks because 6 TT faculty librarians have left between my offer and today (due to retirement restructuring they just retired) and only one has been replaced. So even with a union, the administration can simply erase positions during retirements by reducing our unit’s allocation and telling us to come up with a balanced budget
    I’m glad you’re pointing out the need for union organization among the adjuncts. But if we’re being honest, unionized TT faculty could negotiate to include the adjuncts in the bargaining unit. But that would mean a vast pool of new members probably not voting in the interests of currently represented faculty. Also, bargaining is give and take – what do the tenure track give up to include the adjuncts? So the adjuncts are left having to organize and negotiate on their own with little power and the overproduction of possible replacements.

  3. I don’t know. This article strikes me as a fairly typical “tone argument,” similar to the tongue-wagging of pundits who objected that Occupy Wall Street had no significant lobbying strategy.

    It seems to me that the present system is inherently rotten and pursuing the wrong things to the (misperceived) “advantage” of current players.

    Temporarily-tenured faculty seem to me in a position similar to that of well-organized trade unions in the late 1970’s, who (for reasons of racism and short-sighted greed) abandoned the larger class struggle to try and become junior vice-presidents. In abandoning that larger vision, they also abandoned allies they needed to stay viable in a general “race to the bottom.”

    Institutions are assuming that currently-tenured faculty shall “age out” and the “labor problem” they represent become irrelevant with their retirement. Their pensions shall be raided later, of course, once they are out to pasture and off the shop floor.

    Comparisons to how the unionized white US working class was tricked with their own jingoism, sexism and racism seem apt. Tenured faculty are currently in the chute of an abattoir, no? Cluck-clucking that concern about adjunctification does not solve the basic issue of a corporate-captured academy, which is itself merely adjunct to other, globalized industry.

    If the main issue is that currently-tenured faculty have hurt feelings, it seems to me that they are speaking out of butt-hurt and not strategic considerations. Addressing their own sense of privilege will not hurt solidarity.

    1. A few things. First, I’m not making a tone argument at all. Tone arguments complain about tone. I don’t care about tone. I care about having a theory of politics. I am asking people to say “This is what we want, and this is how our current practice gets us there. That is a minimal requirement for anyone who claims that they are trying to make a political critique rather than a cry of anger.

      Second, I don’t think the comparison to unions is accurate, for a variety of reasons– structural reasons of division of labor and power within the system, not out of any interest to spare feelings. Tenure track jobs are not getting better; their wages have been stagnant for decades. This is part of why it’s bizarre that people insist on treating the tenure tracked like a group of immensely privileged lucky duckies. And it’s an issue where people jump endlessly back and forth from one foot to the other– recent TT hires are the privileged, lucky oppressors when it’s convenient and deluded fools who will not get tenure otherwise. Again, no consistent structural critique.

      Second, connecting this issue to broader issues of a corporate-captured academy and the larger world of labor immiseration is precisely what the people writing these essays do not do, and precisely what I’m asking for, here and elsewhere. So many of these arguments devolve into rage against the tenured while making little or no connection to the actual structural issues at play here.

      Finally, as for the issue of hurt feelings, again– that’s not interesting to me. But let’s be clear: the people who I’m talking about here have made their own hurt feelings the subject of their essays again and again. I don’t at all excuse the

      1. Thank you for the reply.

        Rhetorically I think it would be good to make the section beginning “adjuncts must unionize, and…” its own paragraph, if the goal is to encourage a wider structural critique.

        As currently structured the message of solidarity is lost behind the lead, at least for me, especially given the ordered-list pullout of South Park “underpant gnomes.”

        All academic employees would be helped by a clearer strategy of solidarity, including one that extends to non-teaching staff, to be sure.

  4. I’ve read a lot of your writing on this topic, and I agree with what you’re saying here – solidarity is essential, and blaming anyone other than administrators for dismal academic labor conditions is silly. However, what AcademicLibrarian says above is telling: a combined bargaining unit of tenured and non-tenured faculty “would mean a vast pool of new members probably not voting in the interests of currently represented faculty.”

    This seems like the ideal situation for a cunning administrator to be in – an elite minority of workers are treated (relatively) well, and the majority are left to grumble at how they’re left in the cold. Rather than dismantle tenure entirely – in which case all workers will be on the same level, and actually can achieve some solidarity – keeping the tenure system may well be more profitable for the university in the long run (not that managers are particularly savvy about the long run).

    At any rate, it seems impossible for real solidarity to truly exist between adjuncts and tenured faculty when any benefits gained from it will necessarily be distributed unequally. If the administration (which is the problem, don’t get me wrong) is defeated, but the tiered system of employment remains in place, adjuncts will still be considered second-class educators – now by their own representation. Even if a separate adjunct union was to exist alongside the tenured faculty (which seems the best option in the current system), the two organizations can still be played off of one another, all to the administration’s benefit.

    This isn’t to excuse thoughtless attacks on tenured faculty by adjuncts – though from my brief time at the fringes of academia I certainly understand the impulse – but to point out that solidarity between the two groups probably isn’t possible with an inherently unequal system at its core.

    It seems like the most sensible solution (for all workers) would be for tenure to move to a model more like the K-12 education system, where all teachers are essentially considered tenure-track, even if they don’t all get tenure. This would require, however, concessions from the “currently represented faculty” that they have no real incentive to give, other than the goodness of their hearts. The other problem with this idea, obviously, is that it’s a complete pipe dream.

    I’m from Chicago, so I’m under no illusions when it comes to public education conditions, but keeping a small, separate group of elite workers seems to me a more effective tool against worker organization than anything the Emanuel administration has thrown at the CTU so far.

    1. I don’t exactly disagree with most of what you say. But I think people really, really overestimate what “elite” means in this context. There’s a ton of variability in professor salaries; superstars in STEM fields who bring in a ton of grant money can make a ton. But most professors don’t make close to that. The many people I know who have been hired into TT jobs the last several years have been starting in the low $40k range. I have full professors here who have worked here for 30 years who don’t make more than $60k. That’s not slave wages, not at all. But for context, it’s less than a first year appellate court clerk, one year out of law school, before passing the bar exam, in most states.

      1. Oh, sure, I’m using “elite” in a very relative way. And the pay discrepancies among tenured/tenure-track faculty is another lack of solidarity, this time within the minority (the English professors at my college were certainly aware that the business department had a lot more money flowing through it – and a nicer office, too).

        You addressed this in your subsequent post (the expansion of tenure – and also your desire to stop talking about this, so sorry), but I’m still suspicious that any sort of system that pits one set of workers against another, even if both sets are unionized, can really benefit anyone but the administration. Corporations have been using part-time and temp labor to discipline and sideline full-time workers for years, to great effect. It would be better – for everyone – to give up the “glamour” of tenure in order to have an effective bloc of labor that can challenge the administration on behalf of everyone, but then we’re back to the imagined specialness of the academy, which you make very good points about.

        Anyway, if someone really wants a job at a university, the development office is probably the best bet. Maybe IT.

  5. What about taking it one step further.

    What do you do in a scheme of higher ed that’s publically controlled and charges bare bones tuition? Why not work backwards from a vision of how the university system should operate, or at least include it in the strategy. It would seem worthwhile if only because once you take away a lot of the higher ed financial distortions, it’s not clear how much TT profs and adjuncts should be looking to make.

    Basically, how does making it a public sector bargaining issue affect the calculus?

  6. A very interesting post, especially for someone who’s never understood what a theory of politics was. 🙂

    No full-time faculty member of my acquaintance wants to staff their department with adjuncts.It would be fair to say that we’ve not figured out effective ways to help them, and that sometimes our interests are pitted against each other (for example, in cases where full-time faculty are told that any increase in adjuncts’ salaries will have to come out of their own salary pool, as if all other money is untouchable). In general, though, hiring adjuncts instead of TT faculty is an administrative decision and full-time faculty are not usually invited into the discussion, being obviously self-interested.

    There’s a larger framework, however. Institutions have to be accredited, and even a cursory look at accreditation standards reveals several which don’t mesh well with the current dependence on ill-paid adjuncts. For instance, almost all of criterion 3.C at the Higher Learning Commission’s site. Both full-time faculty and the general public can submit third-party comments about an institution’s practices through pages such as this.

    Perhaps it is time for the people who care about this issue to start making noise through third-party comments. In my own field, I have heard of accreditation visits resulting in some pretty drastic reactions at the institutional level.

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