This post by Ann Larson discusses, briefly, the rise of the “rage of the adjunct” essay genre. I’m glad that it does, as it itself is indicative of my frustrated, conflicted relationship towards that genre. It’s profoundly necessary, and has finally generated some much-needed media attention for the plight of adjuncts, which is a moral stain on the contemporary university. But there are problems with the genre which are exemplified in Larson’s post.
First, there’s the tenuous grasp on the factual accuracy of the arguments involved. I’ve said, at length and repeatedly, that the general argument about the fundamental brokenness of the academic job market is entirely correct. I’ve also said that there is some distortion and looseness with the facts in these essays that merely makes it easier for those in power to ignore them. So look at Larson’s discussion of the rhetoric and composition job market, relative to the literature market. It happens that I frequently counsel people in my field that composition is by no means a safe haven, that a rhet/comp degree is not a guarantee of anything, that people can and do graduate into unemployment from these programs all the time. But this is insufficient for Larson, so in her piece she writes
Composition does not defy our rotten economic system; it exemplifies it.
The literature on contingency leaves no room for doubt. A 2011 special issue of College English directly addressed the issue of Composition exceptionalism. “[F]aculty teaching courses in composition,” wrote Mike Palmquist and Susan Doe, “have been affected most by [higher education’s] growing reliance on contingent faculty. Nearly 70 percent of all composition courses . . . are now taught by faculty in contingent positions.”
This is frustratingly uninformative. Clearly, what’s relevant is not merely what percentage of composition courses writ large are taught by adjuncts, but what percentage of rhet/comp PhDs get long-term contracts and TT jobs relative to literature. To ignore that question is misleading. As Larson well knows, the numbers she’s discussing here include the many, many literature PhDs who graduate without jobs. She’s lumping together groups that this discussion needs to keep distinct. How many composition PhDs are unemployed one or three or five years after graduation? I’m sure that it’s far too high. I’m also sure that it’s far lower than a similar share of literature PhDs, which anyone who is exposed to the labor market of English can tell you. That isn’t an argument that compositionists are safe– they aren’t. It isn’t an argument that the labor market is healthy– it’s the opposite. It doesn’t change the fact that far too many in both literature and composition will go on to exploitative labor situations. But it is very important context for thinking through these issues clearly, and I know some would dismiss Larson’s piece out of hand for not talking about it.
This is the problem with speaking the “emotional truth,” a common invocation for adjunct essayists and part of a lot of rhetorically counterproductive strategies that, I’m sorry to say, creep into this genre a lot. The emotional truth is invoked on the ground in the day-to-day discussions I have with adjuncts. People will make claims that I know to be factually inaccurate, or will advance ideas that I find politically misguided, and I will push back. When confronted, they will say something like “I am entitled to my anger,” leaping back and forth from a position of making a dispassionate economic analysis to a position of emotional truth that I am therefore, in their minds, obliged not to contradict. There are all sorts of ways bad arguments and misleading information get excused in these debates– “it’s agitprop! it’s not intended to be factual! it’s meant first to provoke!”– and I think each of these, while certainly understandable, are ultimately unproductive. And they have made this argumentative space one of bullying and rejection. I know young academics, including TT faculty, who would potentially be allies in this cause, but because these essays always gravitate towards anger over reconciliation, they decide instead to ignore the issue altogether. It’s simply too fraught to engage.
Most academics are people who think that facts matter, and so when you are loose with the facts, you make it harder to get their support. For example: the claim that 76% of college instructors are adjuncts. The actual figure is 41%, as Matt Bruenig has demonstrated. That’s far too high! Those people deserve steady paychecks, manageable teaching loads, long-term contracts, and benefits. 41% is the opposite of an acceptable condition. But look: that’s the truth. Tell the truth. Not the “emotional truth.” The old-fashioned kind of truth.
In her essay, Larson contrasts the current order with a very common false history of the academy. This is a myth that permeates the study of literature: English was once the noble study of literature and the human ideals contained within, but has since been devalued and debased thanks to the teaching of composition. Literature was among the most prized of the liberal arts, as it helped students reach for the deeper, more meaningful values that make human life worth living, apart from their narrow economic interests. But now, thanks to the rise of the neoliberal university, English has been reduced to the study of the practical, service discipline of teaching writing, which is a betrayal of traditional values and the particular instrument for casualizing the English professoriate.
None of that is true. The equivalence of English with the study of literature is a historical curio, almost entirely a 20th century phenomenon. The kind of close examination of texts for their symbolic and aesthetic value that we now think of as the study of literature was traditionally undertaken in the study of classics and religion, neither of which was typically undertaken in the vulgate. The study of rhetoric and argumentation goes back to the very foundation of the modern research university, and is discussed as an essential aspect of liberal education by John Locke, Francis Bacon, Adam Smith, John Milton, among others. Meanwhile, the study of great texts was directly and uncontroversially undertaken with the explicit purpose of inculcating traditional values. The association between the liberal arts and humanities and the postmodern rejection of normativity is a very new phenomenon. For most of their history, the humanities and liberal arts have been based on the exact opposite philosophy than their current non-normative assumptions. They were intended to pass on values– aristocratic values, Christian values, hegemonic values. That was their purpose.
This made sense, given the historical purpose of the university, and this is the most important point: the university of the past– the one which Larson thinks was once alive and is now dead– never existed. Larson contrasts the present with a dead past, but it’s a figment of her imagination. It’s remarkable to me how often intelligent people who have historical chops repeat this false notion of a prelapsarian American university where knowledge was pursued for its own sake. When Larson says that the university is dead, I want to ask: when was her version of the university alive? It’s easy to find people lamenting the decline of knowledge for its own sake, but harder to find documented evidence from the past that shows that the university was ever involved in its production To whatever degree that was once true, it was true because of the initial purpose of the American university: to train and perpetuate an elite aristocracy. If colleges were places where practicality never entered into the equation, it was because their students had nothing to fear from the job market. They were already wealthy and destined for more wealth.
Now if this is a discussion of “pure research,” then of course I’m in favor of it, and like most humanists I believe that human inquiry has ended if all of it must be connected to immediate material or pecuniary gain. At the same time, I am perpetually confused by the notion that it’s a failure if humanistic knowledge is also demonstrated to have practical value. I think that the study of literature is a noble and necessary pursuit, one that does indeed have the potential to access deeper values and more expansive human good. At the same time, I think there’s lots of practicality in that study too, and I don’t see why anyone who is interested in the teaching of literature would want to deny that. Our pedagogy and our research can and must be both about generating knowledge for its own sake and for the practical good of students and humankind. That always seemed straightforward to me.
Finally, arguing that the study of composition is the wedge cudgel through which administrators have rendered English a discipline of adjuncts seems strange, given the relative (only relative) health of the rhet/comp job market. Rhetoric and composition, at some places, functions as a defender of literature because the programs help secure the funding necessary to keep literature programs viable. I don’t mistake that for a sustainable solution, nor do I doubt that there are rhet/comp scholars and faculty who are partially to blame for the current labor market. (I don’t excuse faculty in general, although I do insist on pointing out that the greater part of the blame lies with administrators and state legislators.) But I also think it’s relevant that, in demonstrating the ways that English is important for the (yes) practical needs of students, rhetoric and composition can help English departments and literature scholars. There’s nothing dishonest about using the university’s focus on capitalist goods to support and sustain humanistic research and careers. On the contrary, it strikes me as just sensible.
Worst of all is Larson’s advice, such as it is. She writes, “As public institutions are dismantled around us, those who identify as Compositionists should take the radical step of refusing to apply our knowledge and expertise in the corrupt institutions as they are.”
As I’ve said in the past: this is Underpants Gnome theory. Refuse… and then what? I’ll tell you what: if the good people who care about adjunct labor, cultural studies, and the political economy of the university drop out, then the university will simply replace them with people who don’t care about those things. It would be a great victory for conservative academics and those who really are collaborators, but not much use for current adjuncts. Larson mentions the UIC protests, one of the most invigorating developments in the university in the last several years, for me any way. But if they took her advice and refused to participate in their jobs, there would have been no one in those corrupt institutions to fight back. Does Larson think we can really escape those institutions entirely? Does she think we can escape those institutions entirely, rebuild a new university system? I find that deeply unpersuasive. We need to do our best to reform the current institutions, precisely because that is where our adjuncts are working and need the help.
There are times when I feel genuine hope about these issues. The UIC strike is only a small beginning, but it demonstrates the ways in which permanent faculty and contingent labor can work together. And in making the essential argument that labor conditions and undergraduate education quality are intimately linked, the strikers and their supporters are taking up the necessary argument to create change. When Rebecca Schuman makes her brilliant suggestion to reflect adjunct labor in the US News and World Report rankings, or JD Hoff points out that the deck is stacked against adjuncts doing quality teaching, I feel energized. The universities care about the opinion of parents, they care about what potential students care about, so if we can use journalism and cultural commentary to demonstrate the ways in which adjunct labor hurts students, we can make real headway. But when I read posts like Larson, or when I engage with people who insist that I am a collaborator if I refuse to engage in useless emoting, I feel real despair.
Crisis necessitates that we respond carefully and intelligently. We cannot emote our way out of this problem. We can make real and substantial progress, but we need to tell the truth, and we need to gather what allies we have, not eject them because they haven’t ritualistically quit their jobs in a way that would only make things worse for everyone. Save the emotional truth for your diary. We need to organize, we need to unionize, and we need to strike.