When I enrolled in the PhD Program in English at the CUNY Graduate Center to study Composition and Rhetoric, I was idealistic about the future of the discipline and my own place in it. I believed that Comp and Rhet (as I came to call it) was asking crucial questions that were central to the mission of higher education in America. I still believe that. But, after working in the field in a number of full-time and part-time positions over several years, my idealism has turned to despair at what I now regard as Composition’s great shame. It has left me to doubt that there is a place in the field for me and for many others like me.
As anyone who teaches college writing is probably aware, the majority of such courses are taught by contingent faculty, including adjuncts and graduate students. These workers usually receive low wages and few benefits. (Some long-term CUNY adjuncts receive health care, but even this small benefit has recently come under attack.) This is not just a local problem. Recent data shows that adjuncts now earn a national average salary of just $2,758 per course, which means teaching eight to ten courses per year results in a salary of $22,064 and $27,500. These are poverty and near-poverty wages. More recently, Josh Boldt, who compiles information on the pay rates and overall treatment of adjunct faculty on his Adjunct Project blog, has confirmed in chilling fashion what we already know: many adjuncts have no access to benefits, no role in university governance, and are rarely told if they will have classes to teach from one semester to the next.
These facts were made concrete to me shortly after I defended my dissertation. In the midst of my own happiness and relief at finally coming to the end of my long graduate school journey, I overheard a Composition teacher on the telephone in the adjunct office of a CUNY college. He was trying to get Medicaid benefits. I could not get the juxtaposition of these two events out of my mind. I’m sure this teacher never expected to find himself in that position as a college writing teacher. I had indeed graduated, but into what future?
This was not the first time I had considered the cruelty and injustice of the academy’s tiered labor system. During my years as a graduate student, however, I had successfully sidestepped those realities because there were so many wonderful things going on in the field. Being part of wonderful things makes certain indignities bearable. I have been particularly lucky to be affiliated with the CCRC (CUNY Composition and Rhetoric Community), a group of dedicated scholars and teachers from across New York City, including many of my (former) fellow students at the Graduate Center. I still marvel at the good fortune I have had to engage in many thrilling conversations about literacy acquisition, writing pedagogy, and the politics of education with these brilliant people.
The joy and sense of purpose that I derived from Composition Studies blinded me to its dark side for a time. Today, when I consider the widespread oppression of teachers of writing, I struggle to see how anything else ever mattered as much.
The specter of adjuncts on Medicaid haunted me in the months after my defense because I graduated during one of the worst job markets in several years. Though hiring statistics had been trending from bad to awful for decades, the 2008 MLA Staffing Report documented the accumulative carnage: more than two-thirds of all teachers in the Humanities are part-timers, teaching assistants, or other contingent faculty.
I had a solid background in Composition and Rhetoric, so there were some full-time jobs available for which I was qualified. But I noticed another troubling trend. A number of advertised positions included a substantial administrative component. Apparently, I was more likely to get a job if I was interested in supervising the low-paid, marginalized labor of others. I could be what James Sledd called a “boss compositionist” and what Joseph Harris identified as “the faculty member assigned to supervise the [Comp] droids.” Would any of the part-time teachers or tutors under my charge have to sign up for Medicaid? The thought terrified me.
I do not denigrate the efforts of WPAs or other administrators. I know this is difficult and often thankless work that is unfairly rewarded because I have done it myself. The people in these positions are not the problem. The problem is that adjunct labor in any form is not professional development; it’s not something everyone does for a while until they get a real job. This goes for graduate student TAs as well. The false notion that graduate school is a professional apprenticeship obscures the reality that student-teachers, like their adjunct colleagues, earn far less for teaching the same classes that their full-time counterparts teach. Contingency in the academy is never an apprenticeship; it is labor exploitation, plain and simple.
Knowing this, how was I to manage my own entry into full-time employment? How could I square my political commitments and my despair over the exploitation of teachers with my intellectual work and my own desire and need for a full-time job in a field I loved?
Where Can We Find Hope?
I was in the midst of trying to answer these questions when, in April 2011, I attended a talk by two veteran scholars, John Trimbur and John Brereton, at John Jay College (CUNY). I was thrilled to hear them speak. Again, I felt extremely fortunate to be a member of the CCRC, which had sponsored the event. Is there a Composition and Rhetoric group in the country that gives its students and teachers more access to luminaries in the field? I seriously doubt it.
But this essay is not about speeches by eminent scholars. Honestly, I can’t remember a single thing Trimbur and Brereton said during their official presentations. Rather, this essay is about how I left that event with the distinct and discomfiting feeling that academia was no longer for me.
During the Q and A portion of the Trimbur/Brereton event, a student from the Graduate Center’s Comp and Rhet PhD program stepped to the mic and asked a question that seemed to chill the room. “The job market is terrible right now,” she said. “What advice do you have for us? Where can we find hope?” This was a very relevant, even poignant, question. It immediately seemed to me that the subject of these scholars’ presentations ceased to matter very much compared to this student’s query. I too was very eager to hear some words of wisdom and comfort.
To my dismay, Brereton responded by advising the student to stick with her program undaunted. “If you have a Composition and Rhetoric doctorate,” he told her, “you will find a job.” Some in the audience murmured in disagreement. As for me, I was shocked at the complete ignorance of Brereton’s response. It’s not that I expected him to tell this student to choose another profession. Nor did I expect him to express the unmitigated job-market gloom that many graduate students and new PhDs know all too well. I expected, simply, the truth. Even a sugarcoated version of the truth would have been preferable to (let me just say it) an outright lie about rosy job prospects for Humanities graduates in any field.
Was Brereton truly unaware of the labor crisis in the Humanities in general and in Composition in particular? Was this prominent scholar, who had authored what is perhaps the essential history of the origin of Composition Studies, really so blatantly uninformed on the subject of who teaches Composition in American colleges these days? After all, the MLA had declared a job market crisis back in 1998, which is plenty of time for the news to trickle up to those who occupy even the loftiest towers of the academy. The shadow of contingency is everywhere. The AAUP reported in 2006 that the percentage of tenured and tenure-track faculty positions fell from 56.8 percent to 35.1 percent in three decades. (Of course, Brereton probably assumed this crisis was not relevant to Composition and Rhetoric PhDs, an issue that I address below.)
More disturbing than Brereton’s weak grasp of the facts was Trimbur’s unwillingness to correct his colleague, assuming he knew that a correction was required. It seemed to me that Trimbur was annoyed to have to respond to a job-market question at all. Such queries were a distraction from the subject matter he had come prepared to discuss, I suppose. Is this the same scholar, I wondered, who has used Marxist conceptual models to theorize the circulation of writing? When the session predictably unraveled into incredulous rebuttals by those in the room who had some passing familiarity with the Humanities job market, Trimbur was silent.
I was heartsick and furious.
The lack of good, full-time jobs for PhDs of any stripe, especially English graduates, is not a secret. I cannot believe that Trimbur and Brereton are unfamiliar with Composition scholars like Eileen Schell, whose book on the dire conditions endured by contingent faculty, those “mother-teachers,” is more than a decade old now. Nor can I fathom that Trimbur and Brereton have gone about their careers blissfully unaware of award-winning writers like Susan Miller, who famously called adjuncts “the sad women in the basement.” Have Brereton and Trimbur visited their colleges’ proverbial basements lately?
Perhaps, I told myself, feminist critiques of Composition are not on Brereton’s or Trimbur’s radar. Everyone can’t read everything, I guess. But should I accept that these scholars, who have been prominent members of the profession for decades, are unfamiliar with Richard Miller’s assessment from 1999? “Nothing can conceal the fact,” he wrote, “that at large universities most writing instruction is regularly entrusted to those without PhDs – full-timers, part-timers, advanced graduate students, and newly minted teaching assistants who have just completed their bachelor’s degrees.” That’s a pretty clear statement describing a trend that has only worsened in recent years. It may be reasonable to assume that Trimbur and Brereton are less interested in the programmatic details of academic hiring because they are focused on disciplinary theory and history, as is generally the preference of renowned scholars. Does that mean that neither had heard anything like James Sledd’s statement from almost thirty years ago that “there can be no revolution in the teaching of writing until the exploitation of teachers is ended”?
Perhaps the problem is not a lack of awareness on the part of these scholars. Maybe Trimbur and Brereton are familiar with the mountain of research documenting and lamenting our field’s growing reliance on contingent labor, but they just don’t see what all the fuss is about. Maybe they think a “revolution” in the teaching of writing is not necessary at all. Or perhaps they are revolutionary minded, but they believe improving the teaching of writing on a mass scale can be achieved under current conditions? (This is a proposition, by the way, which was soundly rejected as far back as 1912 when Edward Hopkins asked the question “Can Good Composition Teaching Be Done Under Present Conditions?” in the English Journal. The answer, even then, was “no.”) What other factors might explain Brereton’s misinformed and misleading statement and Trimbur’s perturbed silence?
The Immunity of Composition
There is another explanation for these scholars’ response to the PhD student’s question. Perhaps Trimbur and Brereton believe that Composition and Rhetoric graduates have a magical immunity to the general tragedy that unfolds at the MLA conference every winter when hundreds of new and not-so-new graduates, many with sterling resumes and shiny new suits (quite possibly purchased on credit), compete for a decreasing number of full-time positions. Sure, Brereton and Trimbur might be thinking, those who made the grand error of earning a PhD in Literature are in a bad spot, but Composition and Rhetoric folks will be okay.
I reject the notion of Composition’s exceptional status because the literature on academic contingency does not support it. In fact, a special issue of College English devoted to labor in English Studies, of which our field is a part, was published the month before the event at John Jay College, which is certainly enough time for Brereton and Trimbur to have glanced at the opening pages, if they were so inclined. The issue highlights shocking statistics that should embarrass us all. “[A]lmost three-quarters of all faculty members in higher education are now working in part-time, non-tenure-line appointments,” write Mike Palmquist and Susan Doe. This shameful state of affairs is where we find ourselves twenty-five years after the Wyoming Resolution, one of the most valiant (but failed) efforts to address the growing adjunctification of the Composition profession.
The Wyoming Resolution may have failed to produce change, but it certainly alerted everyone who was paying attention to the continuing problem of contingent employment in the field. “[F]aculty teaching courses in composition have been affected most by this growing reliance on contingent faculty,” Palmquist and Doe continue. “Nearly 70 percent of all composition courses . . . are now taught by faculty in contingent positions.” There is no silver lining for our field in these numbers. In fact, it is clear that the reproduction of this horrid system, not teaching or theorizing, is now the central work of our discipline. Perhaps Composition PhDs were better positioned once, but this is not an argument that can be made today with any credibility. It is patently ridiculous to assert that our field’s dependence on vast armies of part-time teachers does not affect the number and quality of full-time job openings in the field. It’s time to put the myth of Composition’s exceptional status within English Studies to rest, once and for all.
Is CUNY An Exception?
Perhaps, I considered, Trimbur and Brereton are under the impression that holders of PhDs from CUNY are somewhat insulated from the job-market woes that many others experience. CUNY is, from a certain perspective, where Composition and Rhetoric was born, which might make CUNY candidates more desirable. Of course, there is no evidence that CUNY graduates are having more success on the market than anyone else. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that those with CUNY diplomas are more likely to find tenure-track positions. Should that really give us comfort? Should we be relieved that a crisis that relegates the majority of writing teachers to low-paid invisibility and leaves many PhDs underemployed has not yet landed at our door? This doesn’t make me feel any better, even if it is true, which it isn’t.
I considered all of these possibilities before I settled on the reason for Brereton’s advice that seems the most likely. Faculty who occupy privileged, tenured jobs, especially veterans, often don’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to adjunct labor and the crisis in the Humanities job market because they don’t have to know. They haven’t had to look for a job for so long that they don’t know what it’s like out there. This is an explanation, not an excuse. Under what conditions might such scholars be persuaded to familiarize themselves with the working conditions and job prospects of writing teachers, including those with and without doctoral degrees?
I will address that question later in this essay. First, I want to discuss the conversation that ensued at John Jay after Brereton’s shocking statement that Comp and Rhet PhDs won’t have trouble finding jobs. Various people in the audience, who understood that he was dead wrong, suggested ways to address the problem. Unfortunately, all of these suggestions are misguided because they betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the job market and how it works.
Solution #1: Veteran Faculty Should Retire to Make Room for New Hires
This is a refrain that one hears quite often. It is a very curious response to the labor crisis in the Humanities because it suggests a faith in the system as it is. Upon what foundation should such a faith be based? When I first entered graduate school, for example, I was told that all the “baby boomers” were soon going to retire in droves, which would open faculty positions for younger scholars. This prognosis is quite laughable now. I don’t blame the people who gave me this advice any more than I blame myself for believing it. Still, we must ask, why didn’t those jobs materialize?
I don’t know if baby boomers are still clinging to their faculty posts longer than anyone expected. In this economy, I certainly wouldn’t blame them. But I don’t think the employment status of the graying professoriate is the issue anyway. The truth is there is no guarantee that a veteran faculty member’s retirement will result in the university hiring even one full-time, tenure-track replacement. Does anyone really believe that college administrators, upon hearing of a professor’s retirement, get together and say, “Dr. So-and-so was making $100,000 per year, so we should go ahead and hire two new faculty members at $50,000 each to replace him”? I’d venture to say that most college administrators, with their reduced budgets and corporate mentalities, do not usually think that way. At least we cannot count on it. The process by which higher-ups greenlight a faculty hire is a kind of academic alchemy that bears little relationship to whether anyone retired or not.
Solution #2: We Should Stop Admitting So Many Students Into English PhD Programs
This is an infuriating supply-side response to the dearth of full-time academic positions in English. Trying to address academic contingency by admitting fewer people into doctoral programs is like saying the solution to the outsourcing of autoworker jobs in Detroit is to cut off the supply of autoworkers. That will teach those auto company executives to stop offshoring jobs!
Such a solution is similarly absurd in academia where the idea is that colleges aren’t hiring, so we should give them fewer people to choose from, and then more of “us” will find jobs. Is this a fair assumption based on the facts? How long would it take before a reduction in the number of people earning PhDs in English/Composition and Rhetoric would actually be felt in the job market? Ten years? Twenty? Never? How do we tell the difference between the “us” who deserve admittance to PhD programs and decent jobs afterwards and the “them” who don’t?
I know some on the left support this idea. I understand the impulse not to admit people into doctoral programs that take up a decade of their lives when there are no jobs for them in the end. And, in the short term, what departments decide to do in the interest of their own students is up to them. What I’m saying is that reducing the size of PhD programs is not a labor strategy. I think what we really need is a plan to develop and deploy our class power as students and as teachers.
Furthermore, can we be certain that colleges will not continue to enact policies that further erode demand for full-time jobs even in if we narrow the PhD pipeline? Mr. College President could decide to close down whole departments, which would leave a lot of PhDs out in the cold, whether they are part of smaller cohort of graduates or not. Of course, this idea also assumes we could come to a national consensus that curtailing access to doctoral programs is desirable as a labor strategy, a doubtful prospect. Professors at PhD-granting institutions need students in their classes, after all. And institutions of all kinds still need cheap teachers to staff Comp 101. As Marc Bousquet writes, “what administrators want is what administrators want, and what can us chickens do about that?”
Solution #3: Newbies Have to Work Harder These Days. But the Jobs are Still There for People Who Do Everything Right.
This insulting “solution” reflects a distorted worldview in which an individual is totally responsible for whether or not an employer hires her for a job and whether that job pays a living wage. In this fantasy, mysterious and divine market forces determine a worker’s value and we all accept the result as fair and just. This view is not limited to academia. Many unemployed and underemployed people are being told just now that they need to get the skills that employers want if they expect to make a living, get health benefits, and retain a shred of dignity in old age. Yes, it’s up to the worker to make work pay! Though many economists reject this theory, it has achieved golden-rule status in academia and elsewhere. Barbara Ehrenreich skewered such lunacy in the 90′s in her book, Bait and Switch, which is about the plight of unemployed middle-class professionals.
“The [job] seeker soon encounters ideologies that are explicitly hostile to any larger, social understanding of his or her situation. . . . [T]here was only us, the job seekers. It was we who had to change. In milder form, the constant injunction to maintain a winning attitude carries the same message: look inward, not outward; the world is entirely what you will it to be.”
It’s not the “system” or the job market or academic hiring practices! It’s YOU! Do everything right, job seeker, and you will be okay! This advice comes with an added sting in academia. If earning a PhD (or an M.A. degree for that matter), with all its attendant sacrifices, does not already indicate that one has done “everything right,” then I don’t know what does.
Here are some of the messages graduate students hear, ad infinitum, as part of the standard advice to work more and harder to earn the right to a compete for a chance not to be on Medicaid like the rest of the poor adjuncts.
English/Comp and Rhet PhDs will be okay if they:
- Publish more. (You must publish a couple of articles or a book before going on the job market. How one is supposed to manage this while finishing a dissertation, teaching, and eating regular meals is not discussed.)
- Teach a lot. (You will need to teach as much as possible so you can put all those courses on your cv and look really impressive to hiring committees. How one is supposed to do this while also publishing more, finishing the dissertation, and eating regular meals, is not discussed.)
- Happily accept any position, even one off the tenure track. (Once you get your first job, then you can publish a lot and move on to greener academic pastures eventually. Do you have a partner who does not like the idea of moving across the country so you can accept a job that you do not really want? This scenario is not discussed.)
- Present at more conferences. (Of course, you will probably have to do this on your own dime since you have not yet proven that you deserve institutional affiliation and/or funding for the conferences that you need to attend to prove that you deserve institutional affiliation and/or funding.)
These platitudes, incommensurate as they are with each other and material reality, constitute advice to eager up-and-comers in the category of “do more and work harder for less because that is the way the world is now.” The problem is that such advice sends the message that individuals are responsible for the economy. Didn’t find a job? You didn’t publish enough; you didn’t teach enough; you didn’t want to live in Idaho bad enough. It’s a devious way of letting the system off the hook by telling us that where we find ourselves, after years of intense academic study and various monumental accomplishments, is our own fault.
The Real Problem: In Which It Turns Out that Academic Capitalism is Just Like Regular Capitalism
The previous discussion of disappearing full-time jobs in Composition and Rhetoric allows me to define some terms. What do I mean by the word “system” that I have been using so far? Viewing contingency as a systemic problem means acknowledging that we can’t make everything better by cutting off the supply of PhDs, by encouraging veterans to retire, or by working harder for table scraps. And we certainly aren’t getting anywhere by waiting patiently for the field’s éminence grise to voluntarily develop an accurate grasp of the facts.
Yes, I am bringing up the Trimbur/Brereton debacle again.
Even though I find their unwillingness to frankly address the greatest crisis in the field appalling and unpardonable, I do not think Trimbur and Brereton are personally to blame for the general lack of interest in labor contingency from those who benefit the most from it. However, I focus on them because systemic problems are reflected in the attitudes and perspectives of individuals. Was it Upton Sinclair who wrote, “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on not understanding it”? No one is immune from this diagnosis.
So what can be done? As many scholars, from Richard Ohmann to Stanley Aronowitz to Donna Strickland, have argued, we need to see the academy in general and Comp and Rhet in particular from a global economic perspective. Within this framework, Humanities PhDs are workers within a larger economy in which good jobs have been disappearing for decades in exchange for an itinerant, unstable, low-wage workforce. In academia that means adjuncts.
To see the problem of adjuncts on Medicare as part of a global trend, it helps, as always, to have a theory. (By the way, an adjunct on Medicare is not a “problem” for capitalism at all. Foisting an employee’s health care costs onto the public is a very good deal for the private sector.) That is why I turn now to David Harvey’s theory of the internal contradictions of capitalism. Harvey’s work helps illuminate the macroeconomics of academic hiring, and he proposes some ways to address capitalism’s excesses which are relevant to academia. So let’s start by defining another term that is important to my argument.
What is a Crisis?
The MLA says the Humanities are in crisis. What is a crisis anyway? Harvey explains that a crisis “is nothing less than a massive phase of dispossession of assets.” This definition is important because it illustrates that the problem is not a reduction in the number of assets, which is the lie we are endlessly fed in our age of austerity. Rather, a crisis occurs when certain sectors of society are dispossessed of assets they once claimed. Dispossession happens, in other words, when bankers and politicians use so-called budget deficits to raid public pension funds for speculative investments, when public land is seized by eminent domain, or when public schools are labeled “failing” so that they can be privatized by profiteers at Goldman Sachs.
This system works fine in theory, though, as Terry Eagleton writes, “the [capitalist] system has also proved incapable of breeding affluence without creating huge swathes of deprivation alongside it.” In addition to the minor issue of plunging hundreds of millions of people around the world into daily poverty, capitalism is also crisis prone because it must never stop accumulating resources, including money and land, to further its expansion. “Capitalism,” Harvey writes in The Enigma of Capital, is a “process in which money is perpetually sent in search of more money.” This insatiable need to gobble up more stuff ensures that capitalism will always run into barriers to growth. Capitalists earn profits, which they reinvest to earn bigger profits, which they reinvest again. This cycle continues as long as those reinvestments result in a compound growth rate of at least 3% per year. Once the growth rate falls below three percent, Harvey says, a crisis ensues, like the kind that precipitates a massive bailout of Wall Street banks at public expense, for example. But remember, a crisis is not a reduction of assets; it is a period in which assets are taken from one place and moved to another, presumably more profitable, location.
The problem is that, since the 1970′s, capitalists are running out of places to invest their surplus capital. In a globalized world, the economic system cannot reproduce itself at the rate of 3% per year forever. Barriers to growth include technology, the environment, and access to lines of credit. Capital constantly needs to circumvent these barriers to assure its survival. For example, if laborers get together and demand higher wages and equal treatment from their employers under threat of a strike, this represents a barrier to capital accumulation that must be surmounted at all costs.
Adjuncts and the Global Economy: Circumventing the Labor Barrier
Where does academic contingency come in? First of all, we must understand that the problem of academic hiring is not a lack of jobs per se. That is the symptom, not the disease. A pool of contingent laborers has been created by global capitalism as a way to get around labor barriers to expansion. A reserve army of the unemployed, as Marx called it, is required for capitalism to survive, which in academia translates as cheap teachers.
Let me further explain the connection between academic labor and global capitalism. Colleges, like any business, are entities in which the majority of workers do not own the institutions where they are employed. Rather, higher education workers exchange their labor power for wages. One barrier to the growth of academic capitalism, then, is solidarity among workers, or what Harvey also calls the “culture of the workplace.” In order for the American higher education system to grow, as it has done for many decades, increasing numbers of workers are needed. From the point of view of capitalists, the majority must labor for low wages and on contingent contracts in order to ensure maximum flexibility for capital. This is why some critics have called academia a “pyramid scheme” in which privileged tenured faculty, and those William Deresiewicz calls the “immiserated proletariat,” are both necessary for capital to function. Here’s how Harvey explains it:
“[I]n a desperate bid to exert and sustain control over the labour process, the capitalist has to mobilise any social relation of difference, any distinction within the social division of labour, any special cultural preference or habit, both to prevent the inevitable commonality of position in the workplace being consolidated into a movement of social solidarity and to sustain a fragmented and divided workforce.”
In other words, one strategy that capitalists employ to control labor is the enforcement of a tiered system in which workers are encouraged to see themselves as fundamentally different from their colleagues (that is, if they see each other at all).
Trimbur and Brereton’s comments (or lack thereof) illustrate how successful academic capitalism has been in exploiting “relations of difference” amongst academic workers. As I explained above, Trimbur and Brereton are not mean people who don’t care about adjuncts. Rather, we can see their lack of awareness as a reasonable outcome of what Harvey calls the “tactics of capital” to control labor via fragmentation and division.
This is not about the blindness of a few elite professors (or, for that matter, the willful naiveté of PhDs who believe they will win the academic job market lottery by being more deserving than everyone else). In fact, as Harvey notes, “class is a role, not a label that attaches to persons.” Indeed, many full-time professors in low-status institutions are far from the privileged beneficiaries of the upward flow of capital. Rather than try to identify who the individual culprits are, then, we need to continuously assert that this is a systemic problem that originates in the necessity of capital to control labor by ensuring that a few people get everything, most get nothing, and those two groups don’t talk to each other very much, or even see themselves as part of the same profession.
Contingency is Composition: Where Do We Start?
Academic contingency is a systemic problem, but that doesn’t mean that we can let Trimbur and Brereton off the hook. In fact, getting comparatively privileged members of our profession on board the anti-contingency train is a crucial battle strategy. At the very least, senior Composition scholars must be responsible for not spreading misinformation. Harvey says that we can’t fix capitalism by “tinkering around the edges.” We must address the inherent risk in a system in which a surplus of low-wage workers is necessary for our global mode of production to survive. “We can’t address the problem of poverty,” Harvey writes, “without addressing the problem of the accumulation of wealth.” Another way to put it is that we can’t address the problem of contingency without insisting that the elite among us get the facts right and figure out whose side they’re on.
How does getting more senior scholars to speak in favor of living wages and benefits for their contingent colleagues help the cause? Harvey explains that a new anti-capitalist (read: anti-contingency) movement should be a “co-revolutionary moment, not a storming of the barricades.” If you’re a full-time faculty member in an English department, your adjunct co-workers are not going to come and beat down your door and beg for your support. They shouldn’t have to. They are too overworked and nervous about getting invited back the next semester. Tenured and tenure-track faculty, especially those in the most privileged locations, must become active allies in the fight for better working conditions and pay for all teachers of writing. “The disconnected and alienated,” Harvey argues, “[must] have an alliance with the deprived and the dispossessed.” There are always ways to subvert the system, and tenured faculty must do more in their own institutions and professional organizations. At the very least, they must be honest about the problem.
Another step in forging an alliance between the discontented and the dispossessed is to reward those academics working to illuminate the grotesque labor conditions endured by part-timers. For example, Megan Fulwiler and Jennifer Marlow have made a documentary called “Con Job” which highlights the plight of adjuncts. The film makes the crucial point that contingency is not a qualitative distinction. Rather, it signals only a differential status of employment. That is to say, these filmmaker-scholars shatter the myth that adjuncts deserve their fate when they are actually human cast-offs of the churning capitalist expansion machine.
In addition to promoting and rewarding anti-contingency work, our professional organizations must insist that our field’s journals devote a larger number of their pages to the study of how contingency affects the teaching of writing. Brad Hammer calls this new arena of scholarship “Contingency Studies.” Hammer explains that such a move is necessary because “our professional discourse has moved away from pedagogy to embrace the work, theory, and writings of the minority elite within composition.” Scholarship on the relationship between adjunct labor and global capitalism can no longer be an academic sideline project granted a few pages of “newsletter” space in CCC. Furthermore, groups like the CUNY Composition and Rhetoric Community have done a commendable job providing support and a sense of belonging to Comp and Rhet students and other members. But until the CCRC also becomes a labor movement, it will be of limited usefulness to the majority of teachers of writing at CUNY. Organizations like CCRC must do more to ensure that Contingency Studies becomes the central intellectual work of the field because, as I argued above, reproducing a tiered labor system is already the field’s central disciplinary function.
Finally, I’m convinced that change can only come if Composition’s intellectual work is not allowed to further descend into what Marc Bousquet calls “management science.”
‘Meet The New Boss, Same As The Old Boss’
As scholars such as Joseph Harris, Leo Parascondola, and Tony Scott know, Composition and Rhetoric PhDs are often hired as bosses for academic capitalism. In fact, there is now a de facto rule that most Compositionists will spend at least part of their careers managing and supervising adjuncts and other low-wage higher education workers. We must ask ourselves if this is what Composition and Rhetoric scholars ought to be doing with their hard-earned degrees and big brains. Marc Bousquet explains how our field’s intellectual endeavors serve the interest of capitalism, which, again, requires a reserve army of low-wage workers to survive and perpetuate itself.
“Clearly, the emergence of rhetoric and composition into some form of (marginal) respectability and (institutional-bureaucratic) validity has a great deal to do with its usefulness to upper management in legitimating the practice of deploying a revolving labor force of graduate employees and other contingent teachers to teach writing. The discipline’s enormous usefulness to academic capitalism [includes] delivering cheap teaching, training a supervisory class for the cheap teachers, and producing a group of intellectuals who theorize and legitimate this scene of managed labor.”
As a dynamic and creative force, academic capitalism has absorbed the intellectual work of Composition in the service of the continued exploitation of teachers of writing. Our field is useful in this scheme because earning a PhD in the field is perceived as a credential for managing the low-wage labor of those who occupy the academic pyramid’s bottom levels.
What can be done? Rhetoric and Composition scholars who direct programs must do more to insist that a majority of those they hire and supervise are full-time workers who earn fair wages and benefits. I know this is a difficult proposition, and perhaps impossible in some settings. But what kind of field will we have if Compositionists continue to allow their labor to be co-opted by those who perpetuate the oppression of the majority of writing teachers? Many writing program directors are not in a position to make change alone. That is why our discipline, and our professional organizations, must vigorously support them if they choose to take such a stand.
Finally, my experience at the Brereton/Trimbur event has convinced me that those who occupy places of relative privilege in our field’s decreasing number of tenured positions must educate themselves about academic contingency and do more. A lot more. Higher education must have a new labor movement that is anti-capitalist in orientation and that seeks to build coalitions with precarious workers in other sectors of the economy. The emergence of Occupy Wall Street has opened the door. We must not let the opportunity pass us by. As Nate Brown wrote in his essay about privatization at the University of California, “the only way the university struggle can isolate itself is by failing or refusing to acknowledge that it is also an anti-capitalist struggle, that it is also a class struggle.”
I admit that I am not optimistic.
The Academic Curiosity Shop
Let’s face it, many of our field’s eminent scholars ignore the class struggle in higher education and the shameful low-wage teaching trap that ensnares many bright and deserving graduates because Rhet Comp needs those teachers to reproduce the game for the next round of players. Established faculty who have the power to get their words in the field’s top journals and win places on popular conference panels can no longer be let off the hook for declining to advocate for workers in the academic basement.
A recent College English article, by Jim Cocola, frames the issue as a growing divide between the haves and the have-nots. The result is not pretty for traditional faculty.
“For if the American professoriate has never been a closed shop in the traditional union sense, it remains a guild, albeit a diminished one, whose tenured and tenure-track members are increasingly old and, increasingly, curiosities, occupying a dubious position somewhere between a self-propagating administration, on the one hand, and a rapidly proliferating casualization, on the other.”
Brereton and Trimbur, and other established scholars who do not vehemently challenge the labor system that funds their own privilege, are the “curiosities” that Cocola describes.
But there is a way back to true relevance. Harvey’s theory of capitalism’s road to crisis suggests a new task for those who are in a better position than most to demand change. It is “the task of the educated discontented,” he writes, “to magnify the subaltern voice so that attention can be paid to the circumstances of exploitation and repression.” The well-known voices in our field must magnify the voices of their oppressed colleagues. A real “Contingency Studies” ought to start with the field’s veterans, and it must include taking action at the local and national level. As prominent members of the profession, it’s their responsibility to advocate for the next generation of scholars and reclaim the soul of higher education. These emissaries guard the gates of an academic discipline that is disintegrating. It’s time they recognized it.