At Chronicle Vitae, full-time adjunct professor Lori Harrison-Kahan writes “Blaming the Victim: Ladder Faculty and the Lack of Adjunct Activism”. The piece addresses tenured faculty’s apparent (or at least relative) silence in the ongoing debate over adjunct labor in higher education. Harrison-Kahan rejoins such faculty for failing to extend their ongoing defenses of marginalized communities to their own community:
Why do established scholars, who speak openly about other social and economic injustices, refrain from allying themselves with those of us who are denied academic freedom by virtue of our identities as adjuncts? How are we to explain this silence?
…and she presents tenured faculty’s unconcern as a type of victim-blaming, one that often, in Harrison-Kahan’s account, involves judgements about the quality of precarious faculty’s research and/or teaching:
In order to justify discriminatory attitudes and treatment, too many ladder faculty chose to blame the victim rather than the system, convincing themselves that adjuncts deserve, or have willingly submitted to, their own exploitation.
In a discussion of the article I happened upon on Facebook, two non-contingent, senior faculty (I’m not naming them by name because it wasn’t a public post) reflected on the fact that it’s sometimes hard for tenure-track and tenured faculty to accept that their situations have arisen largely through good fortune rather than purely through hard work and inherent talents.
It’s a great point. Indeed, it’s profoundly inconsistent for someone to hold the standard liberal progressive position that cultural, economic, social, and related factors largely account for fortune and misfortune in the world, but then to take up the party-line conservative position that hard work and ability accounts primarily for success in academia.
I’ve tried and, I think, succeeded in reminding myself almost daily that good fortune is largely responsible for the considerable professional comfort I have managed to eke out of the universe. But that result is also not entirely the result of a “lottery,” either, to invoke a term that came up in the Facebook discussion. Rather, it’s largely being able and willing to find an opening in the fabric of one’s situation (itself determined largely by chance) and then to have fate smile upon the results. There’s much more to say about the complexity of this part of the matter (particularly in the humanities, which are still confused about the balance between total intellectual freedom and the reality of marketability, even for scholarship), but I’ll resist going into greater detail for the time being. I’ll also resist saying much about Harrison-Kahan’s romanticization of liberal scholars’ political aspirations…but the truth is, politics in the academy is mostly a self-reflexive rather than an interventionist practice.
That said, here’s a puzzle for us all: accepting that tenure-track (TT) success is largely related to good fortune requires accepting that non-tenure-track (NTT) misery is also largely related to bad fortune. That is to say, given the abhorrence of NTT working conditions, the same logic that would allow humility vis-à-vis TT good fortune would also allow comfort of accident regarding the bad lot of NTT life. In fact, this is precisely the opposite of the victim-blaming approach that concerns Harrison-Kahan.
However, anytime anyone brings this up (gulp) they are sure to be accused of elitism and gatekeeping and entrenchment. Of concluding, as does Harrison-Kahan, that TT faculty ought to “take action” or else they effectively adopt the default position, namely that adjuncts “deserve, or have willingly submitted to, their own exploitation.” Indeed, the obvious counterpoint to the paragraph above is to argue that I am just a privileged, out-of-touch senior professor looking to find an excuse to wrest myself from the broader academic labor situation. One can also easily imagine a party-line moralist responding to Harrison-Kahan with that particular brand of righteous admonishment so common to academics: “How can you compare professoring to race or gender disparity!?”
But it’s possible to believe that adjuncts do not deserve their situation while also contending that they have in fact willingly submitted to it, at least in part. Without going to extremes, it is very unpopular to hold the position that one option for NTT scholars involves opting out, finding something else to do. After all, there are not many worse paying jobs than cobbled-together adjunct professorships (insofar as there are jobs at all). And indeed, as a labor tactic, opting out might be a more successful approach than attempting labor reform in an era in which labor reform has become almost impossible. Perhaps such a position risks reversing the moralist’s stand into its opposite. The stoic economic rationalist could make appeals to the sunk-cost fallacy as a justification for abandoning an unsuccessful career in academia, ignoring the fact that our profession entails substantial affective attachment.
And to be fair, many do hold the position that shutting off the supply of exploitable scholars is the answer to adjunctification. But the commonest versions of this position are either to discourage the pursuit of graduate education, or to develop so-called “alt-ac” jobs as suitable, sustainable alternatives to adjuncting. Arguably, both of these approaches represent two sides of the same coin: burn it all down on the one hand, and build it back up in the library instead of in the lecture hall on the other.
But among the surely many alternative positions, one might involve all of us admitting that the tenured professorship is a high-risk career pursuit, and that we’d do well to treat it as such. While we often compare professors’ lives to other kinds of white-collar professionals, in truth our profession might be better compared to small business entrepreneurs or pro ballplayers. The possibile rewards are substantial, but they come with an attendant high risk.
It seems to me that we could hold this position while still moving to make corrections to the profoundly unacceptable rise in adjunct labor in higher education today. Put more simply, perhaps one vital, missing ingredient in academic labor reform is a willingness to give up on academia without the self-contradictory scorn of the knee-jerk “just don’t go” position, but with greater possible outcomes than the few exceptions represented by alt-ac optimism.
Near the end of Harrison-Kahan’s piece, she tells the story of attending a roundtable on “Advancing Academic Careers,” in which she and a colleague advance a question about advancement. Given a list of reasonable factors contributing to the lack of mobility among contingent faculty, the pair requests response: “We would like to hear the panelists address these basic inequalities in the academic structure that limit the advancement of contingent faculty.” After a long pause, a senior panelist says “I really don’t have an answer for that.” Harrison-Kahan intends this story to serve as evidence for TT faculty’s complicity in academic labor exploitation through indifference and ignorance.
But I wonder, what answer would have been acceptable to Harrison-Kahan? Probably not “We should stand in solidarity at the university gates!” but likewise, neither would “The structure of your position precludes advancement; perhaps you should reconsider.” I can already hear the torches being lit as I say so, but the latter response seems far more virtuous, more tactical, and more promising than the former.