Teaching as much as an 8/8 load… raising children on food stamps and without health insurance… flying the freeways over hundreds of miles… crashing on couches and holding student conferences in hallways and fast-food restaurants… just another lousy job in the service economy.

All over the country, administrations have established contingency as the norm in academic employment while retaining tenure for themselves.

This is part 2 of my interview with Andy Smith. Use the miniplayer on this page or view it full-size on the associated youtube channel, where you can also view part 1 together with other greatest hits. You can read Andy’s own remarks on “postmodern wage slavery” by following the “more” tag at the bottom of the post.

Thanks to Thomas Hart Benton (Bill Pannapacker) for his kind words about the book while blogging on assignment for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Andy Smith’s remarks on his “postmodern wage slavery”:

Personal, narrative notes on the part-time labor crisis in higher education

Andy Smith

Prepared for the MLA convention, 28 December 2007

Chicago, Illinois
When I moved to Tennessee, I learned that I’d settled in what is called a “right to work state.” When I asked what that meant, I was told by a local activist that it meant we were a “right to be exploited” state.
I settled in Tennessee in 1996 and began graduate school in 1997. I lived on my GTA stipend of just over $500 per month, and I have been an academic worker ever since. At the time I switched to adjunct work at $1650 per class, my partner was still unemployed, and we had a pre-school aged daughter. Based on these factors, we qualified for Food Stamps. When I finally landed my first full-time teaching gig five years after grad school, my income doubled overnight. While I couldn’t make the debt accumulated over the intervening years go away instantly, I at least had crawled past the crags and crevices of poverty to attain a living wage.
Numerous circumstances contribute the collective malaise and corroded morale of the part-time professor: lack of private office space and limited access to infrastructure from computers to photocopies; lack of health and retirement benefits; lack of representation and participation in venues of departmental and university governance; lack of long-term contracts or any form of job security; lack of academic freedom and the tenure designed to protect it.
Sadly, these combined humiliations are just the tip of the iceberg in the thorough transformation of meaningful and engaged intellectual work into just another form of postmodern wage slavery. As bad as this litany of grievances is, the devastating and debilitating thing that makes these the second layer of our concerns derives from the fact of our fundamental concern: immediate reform of the policies that permanently suppress the stipends of part-time faculty.
To this end, I joined my university’s advocacy chapter of AAUP and welcomed the opportunity to serve as the committee chair on part-time and non-tenure-track faculty for our state conference of AAUP. For years, we have been working on this issue, slowly gaining momentum.

Frankly, I believe that the fact that academic workers in Tennessee higher education are not organized or unionized in any formal manner contributes directly to our low wages. This relates, I believe, to the larger problem fueling our plight: academics do not think of themselves as workers at all—but rather as managers and professionals.

Is our resistance to identifying as (and organizing around an idea of) an academic working class in part responsible for the recent proliferation of an academic underclass?
How do notions of and questions about caste and class contribute the continued exploitation of part-time faculty labor? Where, when, and how do lower wages intersect with other factors of the second-tier faculty? What other inscriptions influence these intersections of transience and subservience? Any administrator with a brain or a conscience would never expect a part-time faculty member to actually “live” off the pitiful pittance provided, thus making such teaching the perfect profession to pursue “on the side” of some other primary vocation—too often vocations like parenting.
The myth remains that adjunct professors are actually successful professionals in other fields—law, science, business—just donating a few hours a week to the cause of education for the love of the endeavor. If it only it were so for the first-year writing instructor!!

In my experience, the plight of the part-time faculty member directly corresponds with other questions of situation and status, with realities of gender, academic field and rank, and social position. In my institution and many like it, freshman composition is a course taught disproportionately by females. Moreover, it is an increasingly viable occupation for the married person whose spouse is the primary breadwinner.

Another group that finds itself suited for part-time university teaching is that of the marginally mainstream and downwardly mobile. That is, single men and women living in the hipster ghettos that inevitably form around every university, folks with depressed economic aspirations and modest expenses for whom part-time teaching will always beat the moral decimation of the daily grind in some monotonous McJob. It’s from this marginal minority that I imagine the homeless professor of the future emerges. I did know someone on a teaching assistantship and in grad school in northern California that claimed to be camping in the urban wilderness near his campus. Imagine this trend proliferating among the itinerant class of Interstate instructors, teachers who might decide to sleep in their cars and vans at campgrounds, at rest areas, in parking lots or other remote no-go areas on the edges of their liberal, tolerant college towns.

Beyond questions of gender, social position, and marital status, there is always the question of academic rank. Too many institutions remain willing to sell the Master’s as a viable degree, a virtual certificate perfectly tailored for this plight. But what kind of long-term work is available to an academic holding only a Master’s degree? In fact, in my state, the Master’s degree places the faculty member permanently at what’s known as the “instructor” rank (called “lecturer” in other regions). Sadly, many colleagues otherwise sympathetic to the situation of part-time faculty have used this distinction of degree as a wedge to deny solidarity and participate in the divide-and-conquer strategy responsible for such severe stratification.

In my estimation, the liberation of our labor from the hopeless hamster-wheel of expendable exploitation requires the resuscitation of how we view our craft of teaching—and parallels to this struggle can be seen across society where lip-service to the integrity of education is proportionate to its economic bastardization. In the case of composition, the demoralization of our devotion is clear, but I am certain it applies to the core classes and general studies situation everywhere.

Whether advocacy or unionization, whatever form our collaboration for radical reform takes, I believe only collective and class-conscious approaches can create a better university.






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