Over at the AAUP’s Academe blog, Martin Kich, whose work regarding all things academic labor I tend to like and respect a great deal, has made a point on behalf of tenured advocates for contingent labor equity that I both very much appreciate and feel the need to respond to. This post began as a comment on his post, and once it got as long as it has, I decided I should just put it here instead….
Martin, I’m glad you wrote this post as a follow-up to the original “To My Adjunct Colleagues” from last fall.
As a tenured faculty member who advocates for and organizes with adjunct faculty pretty regularly, I’ve felt some of what you’re describing here–the animus aimed at “the tenured” in very general terms, and a strong reaction against being lumped into the same general class as the worst of our tenured colleagues.
But I’ve learned two (well, more than two, but these particularly germane) important things over the years I’ve spent a lot of time working (and socializing/informally networking) with lots of adjunct faculty from all over the country:
1. Those generalizations aren’t all that overgeneralized–a lot of us TTs aren’t very mindful of how our choices affect our contingent colleagues, even those of us who declare ourselves sympathetic (if not “advocates”). It’s hard to win the argument that you’re a strong advocate for adjunct faculty, for example, if you insist on increasing support for research funding while denying access to the same funding for adjunct faculty who would do more research if they had resources (that’s just one example among zillions). It’s also hard to win the argument that you’re a committed individual ally when historically institutions (our campuses, our unions, our professional organizations) almost always overstate, if not belie) the commitment of TT faculty to our adjunct colleagues.
2. Because those generalizations are more accurate than we wish they were, it’s not particularly reasonable for us (actual advocates and allies) simply to expect trust from the adjunct-equity-activist community as the default. There have been too many of us who drop by for a cup of coffee, pledge our commitments to the cause, write some articles, maybe a book about contingency to get promoted, and disappear. Or who take sabbaticals requiring a one-semester contingent replacement to write that book and don’t notice how ironic that is. Or who assume leadership positions in organizations (professional/disciplinary, unions, AAUP, etc) and start making decisions about adjunct faculty without even consulting them first. And so on. In other words, there have been too many instances in which the exploitation of their contingent status has occurred in the ostensible context of advocating for them, and too many instances in which their movement-building activities have been colonized by people who then worked for their own ends rather than the movement’s.
So, while I agree that I’d love to be able to presume the trust of adjunct faculty who I believe I’m committed to working with, I’ve come to understand that it’s not reasonable to expect that–and not because of them, but because too many of us have proven not to be very trustworthy even when we’re not malicious.
Does that mean I think you deserved to be called an asshole? Of course not. But I would make a case (not a plea, but stronger than a suggestion) that you (and I, and other people who do work like we do) be willing to absorb a little vitriol from time to time. There’s a tendency among some of us (I don’t think this is what you’re doing–I’m generalizing some here myself) to want to respond to anger and frustration among adjunct faculty by tone-policing, calling for “civility,” accusing them of sounding like children having temper tantrums (a wide spectrum of descriptions that all serve as excuses not to listen to what they’re actually saying). Telling angry people they shouldn’t sound so angry is like telling depressed people they should just cheer up. It’s almost certain to make things worse.