When Kevin Birmingham used the bully pulpit of his Truman Capote Award acceptance speech to argue that "literary criticism depends upon exploitation," I stood to applaud and hoped that the worthies assembled under the gilded dome of Iowa’s Old Capitol would heed the message and squirm. The first adjunct ever to receive the prestigious award, Birmingham laid bare the treatment of contingent faculty as one of the great shames of the modern university. It is a place where your football scoreboard may cost a million dollars but where your teacher very likely makes around $3,000 per class, receives no benefits, and qualifies for Medicaid or food stamps. But even as I stood to applaud this indictment of the "system" that enables literary criticism, I couldn’t help but think that Birmingham completely misidentified the place and power of tenure-track faculty within it.
First, I should clarify a few points of agreement. When undergraduates are eager to pursue graduate study, I believe faculty are being professionally negligent if we don’t warn them about the overwhelming odds, low pay, and perilous market conditions that await them. When a new cohort of graduate students arrives on campus, I believe we commit professional malpractice if we don’t frankly and frequently discuss the placement of our students and the sorts of salaries they make two, three, and four years after they complete their degrees. And I believe we are complicit in exploitation if we don’t adjust the size and structure of our graduate programs to improve the placement of our students in decent, satisfying jobs, inside or outside academe.
By Birmingham’s own reckoning, only 17 percent of today’s college faculty are tenured. In 1969, almost 80 percent were tenured or in tenure-track positions. Faculty hiring has been outpaced by that of administrators and staff charged with managing a growing army of adjuncts and monetizing the university’s recreational and residential wings. Say what you will about Miltonists, but almost without exception this does not reflect their priorities and it was not their doing.
The change does, however, mirror broader economic and political trends, and this is important if we want to talk about "the system" with any real hope of changing it. Across the country, public disinvestment in universities over the last 20 years has been dramatic and nearly universal. During that time, undergraduates — not graduate students — have become the real coin of the realm, as their tuition dollars have filled the gap. Student debt has ballooned, and recent studies have shown shocking levels of hunger and homelessness among the undergraduate population. Outside of this supposed ivory tower, income inequality in the United States at large has arguably become worse than at any time in the 20th century.
These problems point to a system larger and more pervasive even than the mighty MLA. Malevolent or morally indifferent middle managers can certainly create much hardship, but the real roots of suffering can often be traced beyond them. After Congress changed tax policies to favor 401(k)s in 1978, for example, the share of workers receiving defined-benefit pensions collapsed, dropping from 60 percent in 1980 to 10 percent in 2006. During the same period, jobs offering health insurance and livable wages also declined precipitously. In my state, earlier this month, Republicans at the Capitol followed Scott Walker’s Wisconsin playbook to strip graduate students, teachers, and other public employees of the right to bargain for decent wages and benefits.
Such policies mean the student sinking under unwieldy loans and a minimum-wage job is more likely to meet her instructor, tenured or not, at the food bank. They place both student and teacher in an impossible bind. After all, they both know that opting out of college would probably have consigned them to even worse poverty and more drastically limited opportunities. The plight of adjunct laborers in our system is a serious one. But if we are going to understand and address its systemic causes, it is essential that we understand it as one of the worst symptoms of a larger devaluation of labor, of academic access, and of intellectual work. This is what "literary criticism feels like" because it is what our economy feels like.