OK, so the “progress” hasn’t been “amazing” [A correction to something I said at MLA 2018]

On Saturday, I was part of an MLA panel called “What Tenured Professors Can Do about Adjunctification.” A group of us who have responded to various calls to work for contingent faculty equality/equity gathered to generate ideas and tactics for tenured faculty to motivate others in our cohort to fight against the exploitation of contingent faculty (and contingency more generally). Our purpose wasn’t to strategize a movement, that is, but to get tenured faculty involved in work that’s already happening.

We began by introducing ourselves and explaining our reasons for joining the panel. The first two speakers noted the lack of progress we’ve made nationally on addressing labor inequality. As I listened, I was concerned about the tone this would set. We were there to catalyze new activism, and starting by emphasizing failures felt, well, awkward.

When it was my turn, I responded directly to the claim that nothing has really changed. Because I was trying to accomplish too many things at once, I said something that (I hear secondhand) rang a sour note for a lot of adjunct faculty; I need to clarify what I was after. I don’t remember the exact language, but it was something like, “I disagree that nothing has happened. There’s been amazing progress around the country, and the wins we’ve seen have set the standard we all need to be aiming for.”

My friend Amy Lynch-Biniek was live-tweeting the session. I don’t use Twitter so I never saw any reaction, but I learned last night that some contingent faculty reacted badly to the “amazing progress” claim. After an exchange on the Tenure for the Common Good Facebook page, I realize why. For many contingent faculty, the claim that nothing has changed rings truer than mine that lots of things have.

Point taken.

What I wanted to get at, but didn’t say well, is that I agree we haven’t overthrown neoliberalism or the casualization of higher ed. Tens of thousands of contingent faculty positions are still contingent–and as I’ve argued here before, contingency is more stressful than permanence, even when pay and working conditions are equitable. But the wins, even those at smaller scale, also count for something–not least for the people who benefit from them, and also for the sense of possibility they generate for everyone else.

Not just the sense of possibility, either. Those efforts and successes call on the rest of us to do better. As our panel convener, Carolyn Betensky, said (loosely paraphrased) in her opening remarks: the faculty most vulnerable to retaliation and job loss for their activism, and whose conditions are worst even if they keep their jobs, shouldn’t be alone in fighting back against the casualization of the academic labor force.

We have a responsibility to our colleagues off the tenure track and on it; and to the students who attend our schools (and more). That responsibility starts with treating each other like human beings and demanding that others do the same.

[I’ve written at length about ethical problems for tenured/tenure-track faculty doing adjunct-activist work. If anything I’m saying in this post is setting off those alarms for you, I hope you’ll read this chapter and see that I get it.]

10 Responses to OK, so the “progress” hasn’t been “amazing” [A correction to something I said at MLA 2018]

  1. Amy LB says:

    Thanks, Seth! Also,I apologize if I misrepresented anything you said. Live-tweeting is not the best way to communicate nuance. 🙂

  2. Heidi Tiedemann Darroch says:

    Thanks, Seth, for this and for all of your work on behalf of contingent faculty. The Indianapolis Resolution gives me hope that there is increasing advocacy and allyship (and it needs broader adoption), but for people who are working precariously, and whose careers have been wrecked, this still seems like a nascent movement, I think.

    • sethkahn says:

      Heidi, yes, that’s getting clearer to me as this conversation (and the one on Facebook that spawned this post) continue. One of the participants used the metaphor of _pockets_ to describe where the activism is happening, and that was a helpful reminder that lots of people are working on the issues, oftentimes in isolation or small groups or areas, and there are lots of people who don’t see one (or any of the results, obviously) yet.

  3. Jane Harty says:

    Seth, thank you for being a friend to contingent faculty. The thing is, I don’t think we can convince our tenure-line colleagues to “do the right thing” without appealing to their own enlightened self-interest. Contingent faculty do not need to be rescued by tenure-line faculty reaching down to save us from oppression. We need tenure-line faculty to rescue each other from serving as part of the class that is oppressing us. An adversarial two-tier faculty is not good for anyone! If you (the collective “you”) have managed to achieve the goal of tenure, please do not think that you deserved it more than the large majority of faculty who were not eligible to apply. ALL faculty should be eligible for tenure, all should have academic freedom with the responsibilities that entails. Best to you, Seth.

    • sethkahn says:

      You’re certainly right about the first part; if “Do this because it’s right” were going to be a winning argument, it already would have won.

      I hope you’re not hearing any of us who were in that panel talking about being saviors, and I’ve argued very explicitly against that over the years. On the other hand, I do think TT faculty who don’t answer the call are jerks for not doing it. “We need to do this” and “Adjuncts need us to do it” are not synonyms for me, and I tried to make that clear even in the session (and elsewhere).

      • Jane Harty says:

        Seth, I am sure you have said this elsewhere, but can you be explicit about why tenure faculty “need to do this” and how that is in their own interest? I want to copy your argument! My tenure-line colleagues don’t understand the need, they just know that they need to protect themselves. I understand that–we are in a desperate profession, both tiers.

      • sethkahn says:

        Sorry I can’t link directly to the article, but on this page you’ll find a link to a journal article I co-authored with 4 comrades (3 tenure-track, and one who at the time was in a full-time staff position that she’s left to enter a PhD program).


        It’s in a rhetoric/composition journal so the frame is discipline-specific, but the guts of the argument aren’t. We _have to_ give up this Oh-we’re-too-professional-and-white-collar-to-talk-about-that-labor-stuff stance that’s been so pervasive in among academics for so long.

        Another version of it: I made the point during our MLA session that I think we need to move away from naming the problem “adjunctification” because it pathologizes adjuncts. What it also does is to isolate the problem so that it’s somebody else’s. Instead (and I didn’t say this part in the room) I think we have to talk more broadly about the casualization of the academic workforce. That way, it’s about *the entire workforce*, not just one cadre (yes, by the far the largest, but also the most precarious).

        I’ll stop there in case you want to talk about any of that instead of flooding out a bunch of different lines of argument.

  4. Hell, yes, Seth. You keep fighting for the adjuncts. You have a huge heart and you are doing great work. For the years I was adjuncting, I was wishing for people like you.

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