I don’t hate MLA President Michael Bérubé’s report from the New Faculty Majority conference in Washington D.C. I respect that he positions himself as a listener, as someone who has something to learn from the NFM and from the part-time and contingent faculty who now teach two-thirds of all courses in college and universities. And Bérubé seems to understand just how dire the labor crisis is in higher education. He seems, in short, to care. But Bérubé’s position of authority and influence (and the fact that he seems genuinely interested in getting the strategy right) means he must be held to a very high standard with regard to how he frames the problem and proposes solutions.
I have to point out some problems with his report.
“First,” Bérubé writes, “it is going to be very hard to tell people that many college faculty members are exploitatively underpaid. It’s going to be a particularly tough sell in communities already devastated by prolonged economic hardship.” Here, Bérubé sets up an interesting (and false) opposition between “college faculty” and “communities already devastated by prolonged economic hardship.” Academic hiring practices are nothing new. The number of low-wage and contingent faculty teaching in American colleges and universities has been growing for more than thirty years. What this means is that college faculty are “exploitatively underpaid,” just like millions of other workers outside the academy. Why should it be difficult to state the obvious? I think Bérubé underestimates the ability of people who work for a living to comprehend that what is happening to them is also happening to college teachers, especially part timers. Everyone understands that a full-time job with benefits is generally preferable to a part- time job with no benefits, after all.
Unfortunately, Bérubé’s assumption that college faculty and devastated communities are not the same people informs his strategy for change. “[I]t might be possible to play on the still-widespread belief that college professors are professionals,” he writes, “and that parents who are sending their children to college should have some expectation that professors have professional resources . . . . Is it OK that your kid is going to a college that treats its faculty that way?”
My problem with this formulation is that the number of adjuncts in higher education is a labor crisis that relegates the majority of college teachers to low-wage marginality and professional invisibility. Yet, Bérubé suggests that the only way to persuade others of the seriousness of the problem is by addressing them as consumers. What are you getting for your money? Why should a labor crisis be addressed through an appeal to consumerism, through an appeal to parents’ desire to “get a good deal” for their money? This rhetoric implies that a college degree is a commercial product akin to a car or a flat screen TV. This is an instrumentalist and individualistic view of education that we must challenge, not reinforce.
Next, Bérubé furthers the unhelpful claim that faculty are fundamentally different from other workers by arguing that they require something special. “It is going to be even harder to tell people that non-tenure-track faculty members need a measure of job security and academic freedom if they are going to be able to do their jobs,” he writes. Isn’t this the case for ALL workers? Doesn’t everyone who labors for a paycheck deserve a “measure of job security”? And what are we talking about when we say faculty need “academic freedom”? Doesn’t everyone need freedom to think independently, in ways that may challenge the status quo, without fear of getting fired? I fear that an emphasis on “academic freedom” perpetuates the notion that academics are different because they’re intellectuals, unlike other employees who don’t use their brains on the job. Mike Rose has been arguing for years that the distinction between intellectual labor and other kinds of work is misguided. Many kinds of work require thoughtfulness and complex mental abilities. So, again, let’s try to resist the idea that academics are the only ones who deserve to be able to think freely, to challenge authority, and to act creatively on the job.
To sum up, my problem with Bérubé’s analysis is that he cannot seem to let go of the perception that the academy is special and that it operates somewhat independently of the larger economy that structures the labor market for everyone else. In fact, colleges and universities are workplaces like any other. Part-time jobs with no benefits dominate in many other fields as well. The problem adjuncts face is not that their struggle for fair wages, job security, and basic human freedoms is fundamentally different from other workers’ struggles. The problem is that the struggles are essentially the same, but academics keep insisting on a distinction that doesn’t exist, so they don’t take advantage of opportunities to forge solidarity coalitions with those who occupy precarious and exploited positions in other sectors of the economy.
Until privileged members of the academic club learn this, and start to believe it, they can’t make a persuasive argument to anyone who isn’t already invested in the notion that college faculty are a unique species. Put simply, academics have to stop pretending that they have special grievances all their own. This means faculty don’t have to start “telling parents, students, administrators, and legislators that they have to fight for the right of professors,” as Bérubé states. It means we have to start declaring, loudly and with conviction, what’s really true, which is that we are them and they are us.