Over at the Atlantic, business editor Megan McArdle lit up the Beltway blab-o-sphere by posing an interesting question: If “almost every” tenured professor she knows has a “left-wing vision” of workplace issues, why do they accept the “shockingly brutal” treatment of faculty with contingent appointments?
Her perception of leftism among the faculty leads her to think that our values “should result in something much more egalitarian.” So, she asks, how is it that higher ed sustains “one of the most abusive labor markets in the world”?
Good question. One answer, of course, is that the faculty aren’t “leftists” at all, but American liberals, whose commitments to equality are relatively clear in matters of ethnicity and gender, but hopelessly confused when it comes to class and workplace issues generally.
Arguably most of the policy failures by contemporary liberals in matters of ethnicity and gender can be traced back to their blind spot regarding issues of class, labor, and the workplace.
As I’ve noted before, to produce crashing silence in a lecture hall packed with doctorates, all you have to do is ask, “Why are police departments more diverse than English departments?”
Super-Exploitation and the Myth of Faculty Leftism
McArdle speculates that the material condition of the contingent faculty (“some of the worst-paid high-school graduates in the country”) has caused the “leftward drift” of academic politics: ie, that working in a tiered workplace has made typical academics adopt egalitarian values. She’s completely wrong about that, since it was exactly the other way around: the faculty’s non-leftism (their liberal comfort with inegalitarianism in economic and workplace matters) helped bring about the system of majority contingent appointments.
Nevertheless she makes a couple of very helpful observations.
She’s especially good at pointing out that the tenured are also victims of this system. She notes that even the fortunate ones on the tenure track are “virtual prisoners” of their administration until tenure (a point now reached for humanities faculty roughly two decades after entering grad school, or in one’s forties!):
And that’s before we start talking about the marriages strained, the personal lives stunted, because those lucky enough to get a tenure-track job have to move to a random location, often one not particularly suited to their spouses’ work ambitions or their own personal preferences . . . a location which, barring another job offer, they will have to spend the rest of their life in.
This leads to the best observation in McArdle’s piece: that many faculty are clueless about worker rights and experiences in nonacademic workplaces. In faculty lore, nonacademic workplaces represent “an endless well of exploitation where employees are virtual prisoners with no recourse in the face of horrific abuses.”
McArdle believes that most academics translate their own experiences and those of their colleagues enduring contingent appointment–of super-exploitation and “monolithic employer power”–and “naturally assume it must be even worse on the outside.”(emph. original)
She’s right on both of these points. Contrary to the assumptions of most observers, faculty in the tenure stream have seriously harmed themselves and the profession by their lazy complicity with the two-tiered system of majority contingent employment. And they foolishly excuse their complicity by assigning blame to any cause but their own failure of responsibility to the profession.
This insight–of professional laziness by the tenured, who are working hard on many things, but not at defending the profession–leads to one of the obvious, clear answers to the crisis of the professoriate.
We’re experiencing a failure of professional control over the terms of professional work, what actual labor economists call a “failed monopoly of professional labor.”
Traditional professions exchange strong (even “monopoly”) control over their terms of work for a public-service mission, an arrangement that has been undermined and all but abandoned under neoliberalism and its ideologies, including the bogus analytical lens of “job market theory.” Sadly, the most common response to McArdle’s piece was the triumphant crowing of the half-smart, sprinting forward with their cliched faux analysis featuring–you guessed it–an oversupply of persons with doctorates, etc etc: “It’s simple! Too few jobs, too many PhDs! It’s simple! It’s simple! Ha-ha! I win! Shut up, whiny girls with your whiny degrees that nobody sees on Sports Center! It’s simple!”
Of course I’ve debunked the inanity of the “overproduction of PhDs” thesis many times before. There is zero such “overproduction,” since what has happened is a restructuring of demand. Regular readers know that structured demand means that work formerly done by persons with doctorates is now done by persons with an m.a. or less. This revolutionary shift was accomplished intentionally, by university management, all without much opposition by the guild of tenured faculty. Like most other senior workers after 1970, the tenured collaborated in the creation of multi-tier workplaces… trading away the future of the young for their own comfort.
The persistence of “job market theory” despite its obvious inanity is partly due to its narcotizing effect on the guilty consciences of the tenured: “Oh, it’s not my failure to defend the profession, it’s The Market.”
This doped-up intellectual response carries through the whole standard hamster wheel of the conversation about academic employment: “Gollleeee, cousin Jim-Bob, I wonder if we should put down our jugs of corn liquor and issue one of them caveat emptors to the young folks? Wouldn’t want them messing up their graduate-education purchasing decisions! Don’t want to get offen my porch, though. Guess I’ll just share my wisdom regarding this here tough job market with any young folks who happen to stop by and ask.”
So American faculty aren’t leftists; they’re liberals, deeply influenced by market ideology and fantasies about meritocratic education outcomes (wonderfully unencumbered by data). They work in institutions that manufacture and legitimate steep economic inequalities that hamper the progress of other egalitarian commitments in ethnicity and gender.
But even liberals can run a profession–when they put their minds to it.
Maybe it’s about time we stopped gassing on fatuously with outdated Fordist analogies, as if we could capture professional responsibilities and realities by pretending graduate schools are factories. Or that professional working conditions and standards are set by “markets” rather than by managers.
Maybe we should ask ourselves, “What obligations do professionals have to the profession, to other professionals, and the society we serve?”
And: “Where are we obliged to act collectively and draw the line with management on these issues? Did we cross that line about thirty years ago?”
It certainly wouldn’t hurt if we asked our professional associations to think this way as well.
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