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.
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.]