What if the Adjuncts Shrugged?

Boston — Michael Bérubé’s address at this year’s Modern Language Association convention was one of a handful of times that I felt some real solidarity in the profession against the exploitation of the majority of our students and colleagues.

Back in the 90s, Bérubé helped make it possible to talk about academe’s labor practices through writings such as Higher Education Under Fire (1994) and The Employment of English (1997).  I remember that Bérubé —along with Cary Nelson and Paul Lauter—was prominent among a small group of faculty who gave moral support and leadership to graduate students, like me, who were questioning the legitimacy of an educational system that talked about “the life of mind” while using its students to teach thousands of composition courses on the cheap.  If we didn’t like it, we were told that we could go look for jobs as Hollywood screenwriters.

Told by our mentors to regard our ever-lengthening service as an “apprenticeship”—a prelude to a wealth of opportunities that would be available in the near future—most graduate students in the last 20 years have ended up working as adjuncts without job security, academic freedom, or wages that amount to more than a fraction of what tenured faculty earn.  Back in the 90s, Marc Bousquet—a graduate student at the time—famously called that the “excremental theory of graduate education”: the academic labor system runs primarily on non-degreed labor.

Observations like those are accepted without much objection now: they are the common sense of our profession. But that’s because leaders like Bérubé took risks early in their careers; they applied their intellectual and political commitments to their profession, even while it was often whispered that doing so was “career suicide.”

So hearing Bérubé as the president of the MLA call out higher education for more than 40 years of exploitation was a watershed moment for me, and, I am sure, many others in that packed ballroom: the first time I remember seeing an MLA president receive a standing ovation.  I kept thinking of Jesse Jackson crying during Barack Obama’s presidential acceptance speech in 2008.

“I found Bérubé’s address incredibly compelling,” said Katina Rogers. “He harnessed the very best elements of our profession—the pleasure of reading and the ways in which it changes our understanding of the world—and pinpointed that to some degree, our vocational sense of the profession has led us not to defend the importance of fair wages and working conditions within it.”

The talk was as humorous as it was serious. Bérubé acknowledged that some of us in academe are the sort of people who name their cats “Trotsky,” but we are often exploited because “we love this profession so much, we’d do it for free—and many do.”

How do we talk about a profession that feels like a calling—that’s infused with the rhetoric of “love”—without at the same time undermining the other reality that being an academic is a job, and we are workers who need to advocate, collectively, for our common interests?

Bérubé’s speech acknowledged that a set of interlocking economic, political, and cultural forces cloud the future of our profession. The only seemingly effective arguments in favor of the teaching of languages are “competitiveness abroad” and “national security.” In that context, he joked, we might be better off if we called ourselves teachers of “enemy languages.”

For literary scholars, it is difficult to argue in favor of intellectual and aesthetic pleasure from within the corporate university: joy offers no return on investment. On the other hand, we play an important role in learning outcomes and the ability to write effectively and think critically has real economic impact.

While the MLA can suggest a $6,800 minimum wage for college teaching, the organization can’t dictate policies to individual institutions. Bérubé exhorted the MLA membership to use any position of power that we might have to work towards a more equitable labor system.  It’s a matter of fairness—something for which the remaining tenured faculty should lobby—and it’s a matter of survival as we lose control over faculty governance at our institutions. Perhaps the percentage of tenured faculty is already so small that we can be “drowned in the bathtub.”

Certainly efforts such as the MLA’s Academic Workforce Data Center and the Adjunct Project, a collaboration between Joshua Boldt and the Chronicle, could bring market forces to bear on adjunct employment, at least regionally. And surely there is value in exposing the maltreatment of faculty by the majority of our educational institutions who talk so piously about serving the public good.

As the parent of three children who will be choosing colleges in the not-so-distant future, I want to know how much of the teaching is being done by faculty who are unsupported, overextended, and disrespected by their institutions. We need to educate the public why the working conditions of teachers are the learning conditions of students.

More transparency may not cure all of the problems in higher education, but at least the leadership of the MLA is moving more rapidly in the right direction than ever before. And, I think we are reaching an increasingly visceral consensus about the need for more coordinated, collective action among academic workers. There are many of us who occupy positions in which we can help improve conditions, but there are far more—graduate students, contingent workers of all kinds—who have the power to withhold their labor.

What would happen if they stopped working, for even a few days? What if the adjuncts shrugged? And what if the MLA supported them in doing so?

William Pannapacker is an associate professor of English at Hope College, in Holland, Mich. His Twitter handle is @Pannapacker.

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