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Brian Croxall writes in response to Anthony Grafton’s New Republic review of Louis Menand’s book The Marketplace of Ideas. In brief, one of Menand’s suggestions is to admit fewer graduate students and shorten the time to the PhD to combat the lack of job opportunities; Grafton responds that grad school should be hard because it’s supposed to “test people who think they have this sort of calling.” Croxall rejoins Grafton for refusing to offer a solution.

Croxall expresses empathy with Marc Bousquet’s suggestion that since some 70% of undergraduates are taught by adjuncts, universities should just make them into real faculty. Here’s Brian:

I believe that this employment balance has a lot to do with how we are perceived by the nation as a whole. How, in other words, can we expect the nation at large to take us seriously as people who are able to comment on the acts of humans in context of a broader cultural moment if we outsource the teaching of this cultural critique to underpaid non-faculty? If we are outsourcing the teaching and interpretation of this context and history, why shouldn’t the rest of the nation outsource the role that humanists have traditionally paid? Talk radio and shout television are, in part, the products of this outsourcing. We have Glenn Beck, in other words, because we have too many adjuncts.

Now, there’s a certain naiveté to this suggestion, but let’s not worry about that for now. Instead, let’s ask why this crisis of part-timers applies only to humanities education, as Croxall implies. Is that 70% figure distributed unevenly across the disciplines, or does it affect the humanities even more than other disciplines?

I can’t find data more recent than 2003, but according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, almost exactly 50% of humanities faculty in that year were part-time. Here’s a quick comparison (note, I had to calculate these figures from the NCIS data just linked):

Part-Time Faculty by Field (2003)
%

field
56%

Education
53%

Fine Arts
51%

Business
50%

Humanities
37%

Social Sciences
33%

Natural Sciences
30%

Engineering

The figures above are calculated across all faculty positions (from “other” through full professor), which on first blush might help explain the disproportionate percentage of part-time business faculty. After all, a great many b-school profs are very well-paid and already financially secure from business success; they just teach part-time by choice. That might also be true in the fine arts (well, minus the financially secure part). Such details in mind, it might be better to limit these figures to the lower ranks, where part-time exploitation is more likely (i.e., assistant professor, instructor, lecturer, unranked, and other). Here’s the same data with those job titles isolated:

Part-Time Junior Faculty by Field (2003)
%

field
70%

Engineering
69%

Natural Sciences
69%

Social Sciences
66%

Business
66%

Fine Arts
63%

Humanities
61%

Education

Look at that. At the rank of assistant professor or lower, the humanities and education turn out to have the lowest percentage of part-time faculty. The data don’t tell us why this is, of course, and I think it should be clear that faculty in different fields might have many different reasons for working as part-time employees. Incidentally, removing assistant professors from the calculation just skews the above data even further in the same direction, with the humanities and education having the lowest percentages of adjunct part-time faculty (74 and 71 percent, respectively, compared to 79 in business, 83 in engineering, and 82 in the natural sciences).

This information might make Croxall and others reconsider the specificity of their concerns, even if not their spirit. By the numbers (and really, we need more and more recent ones) it’s not just “the acts of humans” that are at risk of misperception, but those of every single discipline whatsoever, indeed those of engineering and the sciences even more than the arts and humanities. Yet, nobody seems to cry out in lamentation of the fates of engineering or science as often as they do for the humanities. Why?

In his post, Croxall very kindly mentions my piece The Turtlenecked Hairshirt, which is a screed against the contemporary practice of humanistic isolationism. Brian rightly notes that my essay doesn’t offer a systematic solution. That said, I think there’s something more than an implicit plan for the revitalization of the humanities in “The Turlenecked Hairshirt,” one that is easy to overlook because it’s so dead simple: Live in the world. Care about something beyond your little blister of an esoteric specialty. Make it your purpose to make the world grasp something new through your work. Be concerned about something other than the trifles of academic careerism.

Given the perspective offered by the above data, I think this same logic helps us understand why the adjunct problem seems to fester more in the humanities than in other disciplines. It makes me wonder if humanistic adjunctdom is not (just) a problem of institutional practice, but one inherent to the humanities itself. The part-time problem is real, don’t get me wrong. But at the same time, most humanities programs haven’t even considered change. We haven’t tried to reinvent ourselves, but instead have only reproduced the same structures that have existed for half a century. We have fashioned our own turtleneck hairshirts, and yet we complain about their discomfort as if we don’t even know that we’re wearing them.

I find myself nodding solemnly along with William Pannapacker, who says the following:

Some reasonably conscientious advisers tell students that they should go to graduate school only if they “could not consider doing anything else,” but the students haven’t tried anything else—and neither have most of the professors. Given professors’ lack of information, students’ naïve trust, and the overall ambiguity of the future, the easiest thing to do is fall back on our faith in doing what you “love.”

Bracketing the valid and troubled problems of the structure and operation of universities for a minute, perhaps the reason the part-time academic life seems so dangerously afflicted to humanists is because “the cultural role of the humanist,” to use Croxall’s words, has been so hamstrung by its very proponents. Humanists don’t have the faintest clue about the cultural role of anything; like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, they only know the world as it has been filtered through the very institutionalization they claim oppresses them. The irony is thick here, of course, as the humanities often describe their value in terms of a promise to think creatively about human experience. But in most cases, humanism is not the idealistic life of the mind. Instead it is a kind of Stockholm syndrome. The “love” in Pannapacker’s lines above deserves the scare quotes, since it is morbidly bristled with an obscured hatred.

I agree with Brian when he rejoins us to do something (as Menand suggests, if tepidly) rather than nothing (as Grafton does). But what if that nothing turns out to be nothing like what we have done before? Are humanists really prepared to leave their perverted captors and make their way out of their cellars and into the light of a world years, decades older than it was upon their capture? In a frequently tweeted line from his post, Croxall asks, “Why should students or anyone else listen to someone whose own institution will not give her a job?” Perhaps we could pose a similar question: why should anyone listen to professional humanists who know so little about humanity?

published August 18, 2010

Comments

  1. Anon

    Reading Rorty was one of the best things I ever did…

    It’s difficult, of course you’ll end up being called an ‘anti-intellectualist’ if you question the presence of certain people in the humanities. There is afterall the question of scholarship, something I believe here (in the UK) the AHRC are trying to protect… we don’t want knowledge to ‘die out’ as it were and this is something that would definitely happen in the Humanities if many ‘powerful’ people had their way- who needs Adorno, Deleuze, Heidegger et al is the world really a better place with continued scholarship in figures such as these, what exactly does critical theory contribute to anything? I jest- but even those established scholars in these fields have a hard time giving convincing justifications to such questions.

    I do believe one of the worst things to come out of the humanities and why it so marginalised is its ‘treatment’ of the sciences. Many people in the humanities have a completely blind skepticism of science, not to mention the fact that many are clueless about the developments in the sciences and the implications this has for various theories that get branded around as sacrosanct.

    ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ is a nice way to put it, there is afterall nothing more annoying than the arrogant self proclaimed ‘Marxist’ that has never held a so called ‘proper job’ in the ‘outside’ and very (contrary to Baudrillard) real world. The type that sneer into their cups of coffee about the honest efforts of people ‘out there’ trying to make a difference, and even worst, become outraged at the efforts of people that want to ennact or make change as ‘reformist’ and as being apologists for the system- despite that fact that these people do fuck all themselves.

    Even the more well intentioned people have it slightly skewed, they believe in the ‘political’ and the ‘ethical’, in social change and activism, but what good is running to the library to read Hegel going to do!?

    I’m pretty convinced that those in the Humanities tend to have this rather depressing spectre that haunts them in their darkest hours, one that tells them how utterly ‘futile’ what they do is.

    These things although depressing should not perpetuate the malaise, should not breed nihilism, but should rather act as something of a rallying cry. The Humanities need to ‘become-active’ and this is not possible without a complete overhaul of the prevailing structure of many departments.

  2. Ian Bogost

    Thanks for these comments (even if anonymized!) I don’t find anything to disagree with in what you say here.

    Since Rorty came up, I’ll link to my recent and related piece on Rorty and public intellectualism, from the “Time Will Tell But Epistemology Won’t” event at UC Irvine earlier this year: We Think in Public.

  3. Tim Morton

    Couldn’t agree more about the Stockholm Syndrome. Many of my fellow humanists for instance insist that student evaluation scores are very very important to put in promotion files, despite the following:

    –here they have a 20% margin of error

    –there is no true control

    –no one in stats looks at them

    –other parts of the university on promotion committees (the majority are scientists) don’t give a monkey’s

    But numbers are more real than letters…for people who study poetry at least.

    I could go on (encroachment of neuroscience, philosophy rolling over and playing dead in the face of scientism, etc).

  4. David Kociemba

    There are basically four groups of college teachers, and the second set of rate stats conflates two important groups: tenure and tenure-track, full time nontenure track, adjunct, and graduate student. The latter three are contingent labor, often working without grievance procedures and contracts that are, at most, a year in length, and often semester to semester.

    As for why they’ve not considered it a problem, it’s quite simple: class. As a union president, I can tell you that it takes a lot of effort to learn to accept that while one’s culture makes you white collar, your job security and pay makes you blue collar. I call it the dirty white collar.

    The first step is to end the isolation. Often feelings of helplessness, betrayal, powerlessness, and rage need to be vented before feelings of hope and solidarity can take over. Due to the isolation in our profession, it may be the first time that they’ve really articulated these issues to someone else. They can’t talk to department chairs, because they do the hiring. They can’t talk to administrators, because deans have power over them. They can’t talk honestly to those on tenure tracks, due to their own embarrassment, class resentment, and fear that word will spread. They can’t talk to their students about these issues, because that would be inappropriate. It can even be hard to talk to loved ones about these issues. The fact that it’s good work can obscure the fact that it makes for a bad living. We live with a double social face, as W.E.B. DuBois put it. We maintain one face towards those who have or might have power over us and show another face to those within our class. (Berry, 28) We rarely get the chance to show that second face, however, due to our isolation from each other. The first major impact the union had on my life was finding others out there who were like me.

    As for why this is happening, look to your campus and your representative. Higher education funding’s been progressively cut in both state and federal budgets over the past 30 years to fund wars, tax cuts and federal meddling in secondary ed. Meanwhile, college tuition has been outpacing inflation for some time. Why? Part of it is greed, as administrative positions have certainly not gone to 60% part time positions. Part of it is the increased numbers of students, which have required massive outlays in infrastructure to accommodate. Part of it is the increased competition for those increased numbers of students: better dining halls, flashy gyms, picturesque quads, palacial dorms. My media production school, for this reason, has started spending a great deal on athletic teams and fields. Why? It attracts students even though it’s not remotely related to our core mission.

    And part of the reason is because of divide and conquer tactics like ones that label “adjuncts” responsible for Glen Beck. Clearly, the behavior of the privileged in academia have nothing to do with it. It must be that class Other that’s responsible. (And we are adjunct to nothing; it’s the tenured that are the minority.)

    The fact that there is such a low unionization rate in academia, given its leftist politics, is more damning than anything Glen Beck could say. When 60 percent outsourcing is the baseline, when are people going to work together to stand up for themselves? In the old labor saying, the only solution to our problem is when we unite. Then, “We are all leaders here.”