How the Tenured are to the Job Market as White People are to Racism*

Everyone who is thinking and writing about the implosion of the academic job market is by now aware of the dust-up between Rebecca Schuman and the Tenured Radical in late December.*

On Dec. 20, Rebecca Schuman wrote the post “Naming and Shaming: UC Riverside Gives Candidates 5 Days Notice”  calling the UCR English department on the carpet for telling applicants to their tenure track job they’d be informed of any MLA interviews only five days before the conference, requiring some of them to scramble in a ruinously expensive fashion to travel to Chicago on the basis of a tiny scrap of job market hope.  “This is a move that is both elitist and out of touch,” she wrote, “Dr. Katherine Kinney, you and your committee should be ashamed of yourselves.”

Most folks who follow the abuses of the current academic job market found this a legitimate critique, couched in Rebecca Schuman’s typical uncensored style.

A day later, though, the Tenured Radical posted a tone-shaming critique of Schuman’s piece, ‘Job Market Rage Redux,” on her Chronicle of Higher Ed blog, which took issue with what she called “chronic rage” in digital media.  She accused Schuman of staging an “on-line hissy fit.”

Rebecca Schuman couldn’t let this stand, of course, and let loose on her blog with a post “A Radical Defense of the Status Quo.” Tenured Radical reacted with a snarky little “Christmas Eve Follow-up” to her original post complaining about the comments she’d gotten. Two days later, unable to let it rest apparently, she put up what purported to be an objective “thought piece” about the “larger issues” of internet civility.  “Click (Dis)Like: Why Social Media Use is Now a Professional Issue

Because all this happened over my official Christmas vacation-from-the-internet, I was late to the party and missed the window for real-time commentary.

When I did catch up to it on Twitter, however, I serendipitously found the exchanges intertwined in my feed with the #nopologetics thread generated by Suey Park.  Park created the hashtag to solicit examples of the denials, evasions, and projections used by white people to deflect and/or shut down discussion of race and racism.

For a couple of years now I’ve been thinking about tenured privilege and all the ways that the tenured enjoy a sanctioned ignorance about the conditions of the post-adjunctification academic job market.  I have been struck over and over at how their subject position is reminiscent of nothing so much as the sanctioned ignorance of white people with regard to race.

The moment I first realized this was in May 2012, when the Chronicle published its bombshell expose of Ph.D. poverty, The Ph.D. Now Comes with Food Stamps,  highlighting the increasing reliance of people with Ph.D.’s on public assistance such as food stamps and welfare.  The piece quotes James Grossman, Executive Director of the AHA, who says this:  “nobody has ever heard of [Ph.D.’s on public assistance] among our members or other historians….No e-mails, no postings or tweets.”

Really, Executive Director of the AHA? You’d never heard ANYTHING about Ph.D.s in poverty?  Not even a single tiny tweet?

This is not just ignorance, this is a specifically political will-to-no-knowledge.

Consider, for a moment, the definition of sanctioned ignorance: Westerners “maintain sanctioned ignorance (constitutive disavowal) of the role of colonialism in the creation of the wealth of what is called the ‘First World’ today, as well as the role of the international division of labour and exploitation of the Third World in the maintenance of this wealth” (Andreotti, Critical Literacy: Theories and Practices Vol 1:1 [2007]: 70).

Now consider this: “the tenured maintain sanctioned ignorance (constitutive disavowal) of the role of the adjunct economy in the funding of their own salaries and research support today, as well as the role of the two-track hiring system and exploitation of adjuncts in the maintenance of this economy.”

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This parallel leapt out in full glory as I read the Tenured Radical column juxtaposed with the #nopologetics stream.  Tenured Radical’s effort to shut down Rebecca Schuman eerily parallel white efforts to shut down discussions of racism.

Let’s walk through it a bit with a few examples from the #nopologetics thread.

Example 1:  “I’m not defending that racist joke, but your outrage is disproportionate.”

Here is Tenured Radical:

On line hissy fits, some of which identify the crimes of named institutions and departments, have become ever more acute as a buyer’s job market prolongs the discomforts and insecurities of graduate school indefinitely.

Translation: I acknowledge that those shut out of the job market by virtue of 75% adjunctification of university instruction experience “discomfort,” but they have no right to criticize the system, much less make us who are employed uncomfortable with their rage!”

Example 2: “I’m sorry that you think I’m racist. But I’m very offended that you called me racist, can we please talk about that instead?”

Anger can be healthy: it can also be a real problem in a colleague if it is a chronic response to insecurity… I don’t want to work with someone whose first response to a conflict is to broadcast their version of the story, spread unfounded accusations and express their negative feelings about me. I want to work with people who, like adults, are ready to resolve conflict and move on with our work.

Translation:  The fact that the academic job market has imploded and adjuncts’ lives are wrecked by debt, insecurity, and poverty is really all about me and the kind of people I want to work with—ie, nice and polite people who don’t criticize the status quo.

Then there is the false equivalency line: “When you make everything a conflict about race, everyone loses”:

“Venting” publicly…. amplifies and justifies the rage, making it even more difficult for the person who harbors it to move on…. Is blowing the UC-Riverside English department off going to restore your sense of lost dignity?

Translation:  You’re just being destructive; you’re the real problem here!

All sorts of familiar tropes showed up.  Like this one– “you are irrational”:

Where academic rage really screws you up is if you start with the idea that you aren’t going to get the job anyway, its ok to be angry about it ahead of time, and because of that you might as well take $500 out and burn it in your living room as take a phone call from the likes of UC-Riverside.

Translation:  I know better than you do how you should utilize your resources to get a tenure track job.

Or, “Let me help you overcome your poor judgment”:

If you are within driving or train distance, decide if it is worth traveling round trip for a day to have a job interview at the meeting, where you can be easily compared to the other candidates. Here are some things to think about as you make that decision: how much do you want a chance at a career on the tenure-track? Would you take this job if it were offered, or do you have other, better, options?

Translation:  You clearly have no idea how precious and valuable the tenure track job interview really is.

And this one: “You personally are doing fine so that proves racism doesn’t exist”:

What worries me is that any number of people who have every reason to be happy about how their lives turned out — they made a good transition to non-academic work, they have tenure-track or tenured jobs themselves — continue to encourage generations of graduate students to be enraged that the job market of the 1960s no longer exists, and to express that rage in ways that immediately call other people’s reputations into question.

Translation:   You have a column in Slate now! So stop telling other adjuncts and Ph.D.s to critique our precious academy!

And then there is the time-honored “uppity” trope; ie, the “who the hell do you think you are to presume to critique the way things are?”

People in other professions — oil and gas engineer, administrative assistant, restaurant franchise manager, coach, nurse, high school principle — go to great lengths to make it to job interviews where they have as much, or as little, chance as you do to get a job. Are you better than they are?

Translation: How. Dare. You.

All of these leading up to the classic wail of the white liberal: “I’m sorry you think I’m racist and haven’t taken the time to get to know me. I’m a very kind person who likes rainbows.”

Here, Tenured Radical links—in the second column– to a post by blogger Historiann which tells us how nice Tenured Radical really is:

Some of us–many of us–know her in person.  Most of us really like and respect her, because she is the gold standard for collegiality, fair play, and intellectual engagement, not to mention her service as a public intellectual and radical feminist.

Historiann tells the story of how the Tenured Radical shared a cab with Historiann back when Historiann was just a grad student, and Tenured Radical PAID THE ENTIRE CAB FARE, PLUS TIP!   Tenured Radical did not have to do this.  She did it totally out of the goodness of her heart.

…When she generously shared her cab and her readers with me I was just another grad student, [and later] junior colleague that she helped out because she’s a stand-up guy and a thoroughly decent person…

Translation: Tenured Radical is a total friend to the little people, a champion of the downtrodden. 

My issue is not that Historiann wrote this defense of her friend.

My issue is that Tenured Radical linked to it in her own post.  Without grasping that this is a digital version of: “but my black friends said it was okay. They weren’t offended, so why are you? #nopologetics”

Tenured Radical nevertheless couldn’t fathom that someone wouldn’t have a stash of money available to make a last-minute trip to the MLA on the paper-thin hope of being short-listed.

Southwest Airlines last minute fares are really very cheap, and this year’s MLA meeting is in Chicago, one of the cheapest places to get to on God’s Green Earth. OK, it isn’t dirt cheap, but booked today, it would cost you less than $500 to go, with $100 for meals. Can you bunk in with a friend? Can you just fly back the same day?

Translation:  seriously, you don’t have $600 in your pocket to blow on the faint chance of a job?  What’s wrong with you?  I am not affiliated with Southwest Airlines in any way.

 

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In the end, Tenured Radical got decimated on her comment threads.  “How dare people feel ‘entitled’ to have emotional responses as they see fit! And write about them on a blog!” wrote one commenter.

Such impudence! And imagine a workplace where the default response to being treated like shit was anger? Claire Potter is absolutely right that the ideal situation is a workplace in which the people with the power to hire are deferred to and assumed to be blameless and well-intentioned, while those hoping not to be fired relentlessly police themselves for any trace of unconstructive emotions.”

“More tenured than radical,” observed another.

The comments apparently struck a nerve, because Tenured Radical assiduously responded to nearly every one, at least for a while.

If this comment demonstrates the quality of your critical reading and argumentation skills….well, we’ll stop there.

And, “I’m thinking, you should seek anger management counseling.”

It goes without saying, Tenured Radical did not come out well from this.

The blowback was intense enough to cause her, two days later, to make smarmy internet-nice to Rebecca Schuman over Twitter. Condescending to the very end, she clumsily praises Schuman in over-familiar twitter-speak: “Srsly, u r very good writer, and am sure you will do well.”  And seems to seek some kind of exoneration: “so lets talk, k? I understand.”

I think she vaguely grasped that in about five days, she had fallen from grace as “radical” in any meaningful way. She had forfeited her claim to the moral authority that has been her column’s bread and butter.

She scrambled to reclaim the moral foothold a day later, again on Twitter, but this time by trying to coopt Schuman instead of dissing her: “maybe @pankisseskafka and I would rather combine forces against injustice than fight each other.”

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Post-Academic in NYC” weighed in on the debate, on her blog, on the subject of civility.  What is this “profession,” she asks, about which we are to be so civil, when “there are 1.5 million college teachers in the United States, and 1 million of them are contingent”?

What is stoking the rage of adjuncts and graduate students is not the ability to lob 140 character rage bombs into the ether. Rather, it’s that people like Tenured Radical still get to frame the operative questions, even though they don’t know much about the reality on the ground because they don’t have to know.

The tenured do not know because they do not have to know.

They are protected by their privilege.

What is tenured privilege, though? If privilege is the set of special rights or resources that accrue to groups based on the background into which they were born, then how does it apply to tenure, when nobody is “born” into the status of a tenured professor?  It takes work to get there.

However, today’s tenured professors indeed accrued privilege by virtue of birth: they were  born early enough to enter the job market and rise through its ranks before the total implosion of the university hiring economy.  Yes, the academic job market was tight in the 1980s and 1990s.  Sure it was; I was there!  But tight is not the same thing as decimated.  The tenured may have struggled mightily to find work, but there was still work to find, when universities had not yet begun the aggressive process of downsizing, shrinking the faculty, and eradicating lines.

In this sense, their “birth order” engenders the blindnesses that are the hallmark of privilege everywhere. The tenured indeed consider their way of life normal, unremarkable and normative.   They believe their gains are the result of their own effort and merit, not systematic structural advantage. They hold the power to exclude and limit outsiders’ participation in its processes.  They cast moral judgments on those who do not share their status based on their presumed individual failings rather than systemic disadvantage.  They literally cannot see those who do not occupy equivalent status. They enjoy, in McIntosh’s words, an invisible package of unearned assets that they can count on cashing in each day—access to the library and travel resources, an office in which to work, health insurance, the security of knowing that their employment will continue next term and next year, the right to participate in departmental, program, and campus-wide decision-making, and so on.

As with all privilege, the ethical response is not guilt. I do not want the tenured to feel guilty about their status. For one thing, they worked hard to earn it. Post-Academic in NYC elaborates:

The important thing that more fortunate faculty (especially those with tenure) need to know is that you don’t have to feel guilty. Guilt doesn’t help anyone. You’re no more responsible for the state of affairs than the adjunct teaching in the classroom next to you. To fix what ails higher education does not require you to give up your job or anything else, except your illusions….

For another, guilt is narcissistic and self-indulgent. What the tenured must do with their privilege is rally to the cause of the disenfranchised. As PAINYC says, “Speaking up in solidarity with the growing numbers of qualified, talented, passionate people who are being flushed out as a waste product of the academic labor system is what is important.”

Instead, what I see the tenured doing– not just Tenured Radical but most of the ones I know personally, hear of, or read about—is ruefully shake their heads about adjuncts (“I know, isn’t it just awful?”) while they run off to the graduate admissions meetings where they continue to admit the same number of students, with the same crappy funding, into the same dissertation-obsessed programs of study, based on the same outdated, indefensible job market premises, delivering the same vague, non-committal job market assurances (“the good people always get jobs”), as in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.  All. Completely. Unchanged.

Privilege has insulated the tenured for a very long time.  But the walls are crumbling. The disenfranchised just won’t be quiet any more. They won’t slink away in shame when they do not get the tenure track job and enter the hallowed gates.  They turn back and cast stones at the crumbling walls of the academy, the walls behind which the tenured lead their secure and comfortable lives.    While the tenued still enjoy their privilege, they are less and less protected by their ignorance.

Schuman refers to the tenured tendency to circle the wagons and shut out the critiques of the non-academically-employed “lifeboating.”  It’s a good image.  When the tenured truly get that they are on tiny, tiny departmental boats in a giant roiling sea of economic chaos that is engulfing our universities, they will, I hope, spend less time cultivating outrage at the audacity of the unemployed critics, and instead make real changes in their own practices.  Some that I’d like to see:

Slash or halt graduate admissions

Make job market training (both academic and non-academic) central to the curriculum

Reduce time-to-degree of graduate programs

See and include adjuncts in the running of the department-both formally and informally

Tell the truth about the corporatized funding models in their universities that sustain their salaries and research funds by cutting other labor costs through the exploitation of adjuncts.

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Tenured Radical is just the most visible recent public example of a vast phenomenon.

There is little better writing on this subject than Ann Larson’s ferocious 2012 indictment of the capitalist depredations of the neoliberal university, “Rhetoric and Composition: Academic Capitalism and Cheap Teachers.”  She tells a story of attending a talk on her campus by two prominent leftist scholars, John Trimbur and John Brereton, and a question posed to them by a graduate student during the Q and A:

 “The job market is terrible right now,” she said. “What advice do you have for us? Where can we find hope?” This was a very relevant, even poignant, question…. I too was very eager to hear some words of wisdom and comfort.

To my dismay, Brereton responded by advising the student to stick with her program undaunted. “If you have a Composition and Rhetoric doctorate,” he told her, “you will find a job.” Some in the audience murmured in disagreement. As for me, I was shocked at the complete ignorance of Brereton’s response. It’s not that I expected him to tell this student to choose another profession. Nor did I expect him to express the unmitigated job-market gloom that many graduate students and new PhDs know all too well. I expected, simply, the truth.

Even a sugarcoated version of the truth would have been preferable to (let me just say it) an outright lie about rosy job prospects for Humanities graduates in any field.

Was Brereton truly unaware of the labor crisis in the Humanities in general and in Composition in particular?

In the face of Brereton’s response and the stunned audience reaction, Larson writes, his co-presenter Trimbur maintained an irritated silence.

It seemed to me that Trimbur was annoyed to have to respond to a job-market question at all. Such queries were a distraction from the subject matter he had come prepared to discuss, I suppose.

Is this the same scholar,” Larson writes, “who has used Marxist conceptual models to theorize the circulation of writing? I was heartsick and furious.”

She uses this story to launch a wholesale analysis of capitalism’s absorption of the labor relations of the university.

In order for the American higher education system to grow, as it has done for many decades, increasing numbers of workers are needed. From the point of view of capitalists, the majority must labor for low wages and on contingent contracts in order to ensure maximum flexibility for capital. This is why some critics have called academia a “pyramid scheme” in which privileged tenured faculty, and those William Deresiewicz calls the “immiserated proletariat,” are both necessary for capital to function.

She concludes that against this capitalism, which operates by enforcing “a tiered system in which workers are encouraged to see themselves as fundamentally different from their colleagues,” only the joining of forces by the tiers can stage effective opposition.  She says of the tenured,

As prominent members of the profession, it’s their responsibility to advocate for the next generation of scholars and reclaim the soul of higher education. These emissaries guard the gates of an academic discipline that is disintegrating. It’s time they recognized it.

Although a tenured commenter cautioned her against “using veteran faculty as punching bags” in her analysis, Larson certainly doesn’t.

Rather than try to identify who the individual culprits are, then, we need to continuously assert that this is a systemic problem that originates in the necessity of capital to control labor by ensuring that a few people get everything, most get nothing, and those two groups don’t talk to each other very much, or even see themselves as part of the same profession.

I know from personal experience how hard it is to “see” adjuncts when you are a tenured professor. I wrote about my process of learning to see in this blog post, “Two Societies, Separate and Unequal—Thoughts on the TT-NTT Divide.”   When I was a tenured professor at a public R1, I didn’t feel elite per se, and I was painfully aware of how, at the perennially cash-strapped University of Oregon, I enjoyed far, far fewer resources than peers at Ivy Leagues and upper crust institutions.

But on another more core level, [as a R1 professor eligible for generous research funding] I was elite indeed. … At the time my identity hinged almost entirely on that elite status.  Not consciously, mind you.  It wasn’t that I felt others were inferior.  It was that they were irrelevant.  I was a player, and they were not.  I was in the game of academic status and competition and they were not.  I was credible, I was legitimate, I was competitive (for grants, awards, and honors) and they were not.   The people I “saw” (ie, who were visible to me) were the others who, like myself, were in the competitive status game.

Now, I hasten to add that even labeling that context a “competitive status game,” is to descriptively fail.  Because at the time, in that world, it wasn’t conceived of as a game but as sober and serious “work.”  It also didn’t feel competitive in an immediate sense since collegiality was common, and collaborations were also possible.

And above all, status was never, ever openly discussed…

In this post I grapple with my own privilege, and my inability to see it.

Because we only “saw” and engaged with others equally privileged, those outside that world were rendered invisible.  They were not people who mattered.  I’m not proud of this.  But I bring it up to articulate, with difficulty, my sense that because we occupied two societies, the tenure-line and the non-, the needs and concerns of the non- were utterly invisible to me.

More to the point, looking back now, I do not know how I could have found any place of common interest with NTT faculty at the time, or indeed through most of my career, extending well past tenure and even into my administrative career as department head. As a department head wrestling with criminally inadequate program funding (albeit in a department that almost never hired adjuncts because we used graduate students for our grunt-work), I mainly just wondered how fast I could find one when needed.

This state of affairs did eventually change.

As my absorption in this world declined for a constellation of reasons both personal and vocational, my ability to “see” those off the tenure-track increased.  When I stopped drinking the Kool-Aid (and this was a painfully slow, difficult, and shame-ridden process indeed), the rotten structure, the crumbling edifice of the whole system became visible, and in fact, inescapable.  A growing friendship with a NTT faculty member on campus, and hearing her story and daily experiences, brought it into relief. After a time I couldn’t see anything BUT those who are excluded and marginalized by the system of privilege I had once uncritically inhabited.  And that status began to stink, and I didn’t want it anymore.  By the time I had the opportunity to leave, I was ready.

Now I look back and marvel at the ignorance that was supported and sanctioned by my entire social, professional, and scholarly community of colleagues and peers.

All of my scholarly “work” had been dedicated to the critical analysis of social privilege and power.  How was it that someone totally committed to a “critical” ethos was able to spend 15 years in a profession and never turn that critical eye onto it?  How was it that power and class status were something I analyzed, but not something I inhabited?

The obstacles to overcoming this sanctioned ignorance are enormous. But I believe that the tenured can learn to see the adjunct, her exploitation, and what it means for the tenured person’s own position in a disintegrating system.  But only when critics of the academy keep up the pressure on them, and subject their thoughtless responses to essential critical scrutiny.  Just the way critics of racism have done to the edifices and practices of white privilege for many years now.

There is no question that among the tenured are some who are earnestly striving to do the right thing to correct or slow the abuses heaped on the precariously employed and ameliorate the impact of corporatization on the university (I say ameliorate because I don’t think it can really be halted).

But when veteran faculty continue business-as-usual graduate admissions and training,  blithely reassure panicked graduate students about a rosy job market, or write words as tone deaf, condescending, elitist, self-protective, and out of touch as these recent examples by the Tenured Radical, they cannot be surprised when they are counted among the enemies.  Their politics are exposed as utterly reactionary, couched in defense of an arbitrary privilege.  Far from the self-proclaimed “radicals” of the academy, they are the most determined defenders of its outdated and destructive status quo.

*[1/2/13] Please see my follow-up to this post acknowledging the inappropriateness of a racism analogy to articulate my point about tenured privilege, The Problem With My Analogy.  This follow-up was written after I read and thought deeply on many critiques of this piece that arose on Twitter and other places from scholars such as TressieMC, Jonathan W. Gray, Roopika Rikam, etc.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Karen

About Karen

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.

Comments

How the Tenured are to the Job Market as White People are to Racism* — 56 Comments

  1. You had me up until including “Reduce time-to-degree of graduate programs” in the list of prospective cures. Unless allowances are made for part-time study, the practical effect is to discriminate against all prospective students except those who are capable of full-time study and subsisting on typically modest stipends. Right off the bat this would eliminate most everyone except recent undergrads with little or no financial or familial obligations.

    • I think the point is to reduce time-to-degree for everyone, from whatever point they are. Right now it may be taking your average 22-year-old, straight-from-undergrad English PhD student 7-8 years to finish her PhD – which means that the single parent or the person caring for their elderly parents may be taking 10 or 12 years to finish. That’s untenable. Yes, people with other obligations are always going to take a bit longer – but it shouldn’t take *anyone* 12+ years to finish a PhD. I think the point is instead to get it to where perhaps that 22 year old is finishing in 5 years and the single parent/caregiver is taking perhaps 7 or 8.

      Reducing TTD, in my understanding, is more about professionalization of PhD programs and reducing the hoops that students have to jump through (the ones that exist for the sake of hoop-jumping, I mean).

      • Such streamlining would have to be done very carefully. My own institution has simply mandated that the same clock and requirements apply to everyone across the board. I knew this going in, but it is not exactly a moral boost for old-timers like me trying to push across the finish-line without dragging down my family’s standard of living any more than necessary.

  2. I think tenured faculty may be in a more powerful position than they think, because they have access to the kinds of program evaluation data that would support arguments against using adjuncts. They are in a position to prepare third-party statements for accreditation committees. For that matter, adjuncts could submit such statements. It seems to me that accreditation’s main purpose is to prevent academic institutions from doing things that improve their bottom line at the expense of their missions, so they are the reasonable bodies to appeal to against the corporatization of the academy.

    I may just be indulging in wishful thinking, but at least it indicates a possible course of action.

  3. I’m a tenured professor at an impoverished urban institution, I was on the job market in the late 1990s, and my experience is one of intimate enmeshment and identification with adjuncts. Like most people I know, I was an adjunct for years before getting my current job; most of my colleagues are adjuncts; I work with adjuncts, observe them, hire them, mentor them. I am acutely aware, every day, that nothing but sheer bloody unforeseeable luck got me out of the adjunct pool. My t-t junior colleagues are agonizingly aware, every day, that failure to publish will dump them back into that adjunct pool. Thus Karen’s description of “the tenured” is problematic:

    “In this sense, their “birth order” engenders the blindnesses that are the hallmark of privilege everywhere. The tenured indeed consider their way of life normal, unremarkable and normative. They believe their gains are the result of their own effort and merit, not systematic structural advantage. They hold the power to exclude and limit outsiders’ participation in its processes. They cast moral judgments on those who do not share their status based on their presumed individual failings rather than systemic disadvantage. They literally cannot see those who do not occupy equivalent status.”

    Essentializing adjuncts and t-t faculty as inherently different beings is not helpful or true. It makes one group into a static target for the other’s scorn. Coalition-building becomes impossible when you fantasize this way. Please remember that today’s t-t faculty were yesterday’s adjuncts, and may be tomorrow’s adjuncts if things don’t work out. We remember it. We aren’t different, just lucky.

    • Perhaps Karen is referring primarily to the professors at places like UCR, because those tenured faculty actually are pretty unlikely to have been full-time adjuncts before getting their t-t positions. I’m currently a PhD student at a elite R1 university and none of the professors in my departments were full-time adjuncts before They all either came into this position from graduate school or – more often – came into it from a postdoctoral position.

      In the theme of the post, I’d also (amusedly) like to point out that another common defense/comment that white people make in anti-racism conversations is “Well, not all white people are like that!”

      • Rose, that comment suggests why the racism metaphor isn’t useful here. It moves too quickly into essentialist identity stuff that is a) naive, and b) accuses people instead of building coalitions or recognizing preexisting alliances. I think a better metaphor for tenure-track/adjunct situations might be disability studies, which, as Tobin Siebers and others have argued, fights against the old identity-politics camps. Since everyone has been and will be disabled at some point, disability is a fluid state that we all move in and out of throughout our lives, and should be seen as fundamental to our personhood. Similarly, in the academic world we live in, adjuncthood is a fluid state, most academics moving through it at some point, and our academic identity should be understood as predicated on an unfortunately normalized state of adjunctification that is now our reality.

        If there are R1 tenured professors who glided into their positions without ever encountering the adjunct world, they constitute a teeny, tiny, nonrepresentative population. Similarly, there may be some people who have never had a vestige of physical or cognitive impairment, but that is hardly the norm. (Plus, I bet many of your R1 faculty have indeed had adjunct experience even in grad school they’re just not telling you about.)

        My point, in other words, was not to say ‘well, not all white people [tenured people] are like that!’ but rather to say that the race metaphor doesn’t work in the old-school essentializing way Karen was using it, because neither t-t nor adjunct faculty are stuck in those subject positions in the way Karen imagines it. If you’re going to use race, at least use a model of race that is more modern, theorized, globalized, intersectional. But I think disability does the work better than race for what you want.

    • Thank you for this, cunyprof. I had a similar response to Karen’s post. I also taught for 9 years as contingent faculty before landing my first tenure-track job–and as a department chair I’ve hired several long-term adjuncts into TT positions. Another reality check: not everyone with tenure has an office or access to institutional funding. What we do have, in general, is a living wage and enough security to raise objections to the systematic exploitation of our colleagues. That is–some tenured people are wellpositioned to be allies for the contingent faculty we have been ourselves.

  4. Some tenured faculty get invested in a system that exploits temporary laborers because of what I call “R1 Envy.” Professors and administrators want to increase the reputation of their university, perhaps for selfish reasons — since they couldn’t get jobs at first-tier research universities (R1), they can turn the school that did hire them into one (or something approximating one). This is often done through expanding the school’s graduate programs. This is done by getting more graduate students, and there the motivations of the school and the students diverge. The school wants to enhance its reputation, regardless of whether this will help fulfill the student goal of a rewarding career. So the professors advance toward their goal, leaving a wake of disappointed and disillusioned Ph.D. holders in their wake. They either forget their own past as graduate students or assume that since they got tenure-track jobs, everyone can. Hence, the similarity between tenured privilege and white privilege.

    When I was in graduate school (at a University of California campus), a group of students met with the graduate dean to complain about the size of our graduate classes and the push to admit even more graduate students. I described to him my thoughts about R1 envy, and I illustrated the situation to him with a World War I analogy. I said that he was asking us, the graduate students, to throw ourselves on the wire so he and the other tenured-faculty could advance toward Berlin (R1 status). He was silent for a moment, and then he smiled faintly — but he didn’t disagree.

  5. I think you’re absolutely right that too many graduate programs in unemployable fields are being perpetuated by the faculty teaching in those programs. Actually, I think that situation has improved in that I would guess there are fewer PhD programs in English Literature now than there were 20 years ago. And I think you’re right about lots of other stuff here too.

    That said, I disagree with you in a number of ways.

    First, the racism analogy doesn’t work well for me, and of course, as a tenured professor, there’s really no rhetorical space for me to argue here. “Of course you don’t like that analogy,” you (and anyone who agrees with your argument) would say. People who feel trapped in the non-tenure-track world typically want a tenure-track job; I don’t think that’s the same with race.

    I also think that different parts of academia are a lot more experienced with the conditions and problems of the state of adjuncts than others. In composition and rhetoric (my field), adjunct labor is not at all a recent phenomenon. “Freshmen comp” has been mainly taught by grad students or non-tenure-track faculty pretty much forever; Richard Weaver famously complained about the “faculty wives” teaching freshman composition back in an essay in 1963 or so. At the places where I’ve worked, about 90% of the sections of fycomp are taught by adjuncts or graduate assistants.

    So from my point of view, one of the things that I find somewhat surprising in the discussion about adjunct labor you describe in the beginning of your post as if this were a new phenomenon. Maybe it’s new to people who are newer to graduate studies generally and maybe some fields that haven’t had as many adjuncts/non-tenure-track faculty, but for anyone who has had anything to do with fycomp, the adjunct status has been the status quo for a long time.

    What’s interesting though is that very few people teaching fycomp in this country as a non-tenure-track faculty member or as a part-timer have a PhD in composition and rhetoric. Rather, almost all of these folks have MAs or PhDs in some flavor of Literature mainly because of the supply/demand imbalance on those fields: too many people with graduate degrees in literature and not enough jobs. I’ve been a faculty member since 1998 and I only teach fycomp during the regular school year when I can/when I want to.

    As for the comp/rhet PhD market: I think Brereton was and still is basically right, though with some very important caveats. I’ll use the program where I earned my PhD in Rhetoric and Writing, Bowling Green State University, as an example. As far as I know, everyone who has graduated from that program and who has actively sought employment has found a permanent position as faculty on the tenure track or the equivalent. But again, there are a lot of qualifiers in that sentence.

    Lots of people don’t finish. Some people don’t “actively seek” employment in a faculty position for all kinds of reasons– they don’t want to move to some undesirable location, family keeps them put someplace, they seek different kinds of employment, etc., etc. Some people get permanent but not necessarily tenure track positions– I know some folks who took good jobs like this at community colleges. (Which is another thing worth mentioning: the boundary between tenure-track and non-tenure-track positions is a lot more fuzzy than this and other discussions suggest.) And on top of this, obviously not all programs in comp/rhet are created equal: BGSU’s program has a pretty long track record, while other places don’t.

    BTW, I’m also kind of fascinated that you’ve left academia and you now are in the business of advising/helping people get into academia. Seems like an odd kind of consulting business and also a contradictory way to make money.

  6. The article is overlong and could use editing, though the subject has some importance. My reason for commenting, though: the title, while attention-getting, is objectionable. As a person involved both in very wide-spread travel to nations of many different cultures and ethnicities, I can attest that racism is not unique to, or even worse in, white people. Too many examples abound for me to have to prove that. Also, tenured professors, perhaps in the medical community more than in yours, and more so if also being physicians, are the most protective od students’ rights and education standards than the non tenured who have jobs to lose if they offend the upper echelon in the medical school community.

  7. This was great, and trenchantly put. My recurrent thought reading the original TR piece was “with friends like these….” In addition, I expect the blowback you’ll get on the choice of metaphor used here will be indicative of its accuracy.

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  9. I’m so glad you wrote about this. What I’ve seen in my department is that the few adjuncts who do try organize, who demand fair wages, and talk to their students about labor issues are then disciplined by the same faculty who turn around and publish books about marxism, class, and labor issues….

    At my university I was offered an adjunct position that would pay me for 15 hours of work over the course of the semester as a TA (15 hours total for the whole semester). The faculty member who I was assigned to assist told me that she expected me to not only do grading, but to attend every class session, and to hold discussion groups, upload course materials, etc. That would have used up the 15 hours in the first two weeks. I told her that I was only given 15 hours for the semester, so I would be happy to work those 15, but could not work unpaid hours. My TA appointment was rescinded. The same faculty member turns around and publishes on labor issues, and ‘speaks out’ about adjunct rights, etc. while asking her own TAs to work for free. With apologies to the blogger, this is the archetypal “Tenured Radical.”

    But I think this “specifically political will-to-no-knowledge” manifests on other levels, including between instructors and undergrads. As we hear from fellow frustrated adjunct faculty every day now, students are awful – this generation is the worst ever. They can’t write, they don’t know an academic source from a conspiracy web site, and they spend most of class staring into their laps trying to secretly text. That said, what students face today and how they’re dealing with it is terrifying. A large number of the undergrads at my institution take Adderall and other amphetamines regularly – faculty seem oblivious to this, but across the country it has become like coffee, they use it to cope with the workload in school while still having enough time for jobs, and life outside of school. The underground ‘black market’ for these prescription drugs in universities is so strong that as a graduate student I was asked weekly if I want to buy it despite never asking for it and not being interested.

    Part of the issue is that these students have so few coping skills for dealing with study outside of standardized testing, but another is the expectation of the amount of work. I’m a recent graduate and in order to do well in undergrad and grad, I had to work 60+ hours a week on schoolwork. And despite doing very well as a result I’ve had to go into over $50k in debt to pay for my education. The work doesn’t pay off, it gets you the bare minimum you need (which thanks to grade inflation is now all As). The life of undergrads, grads, and recent PhDs isn’t actually all that different – and yet I find little sympathy from recent PhDs for their undergraduate students. Students who are, mostly as a result of the horrible failing education system, admittedly not very good students – but who are humans nonetheless, trying to deal with the hand they’ve been dealt. And hoping for a place on the other side.

    As this blog post points out, tenured faculty don’t allow themselves to understand what life is like for PhDs on the job market (it would shatter their world to do so) – and despite all my respect for the endless work put in by adjuncts – I think many adjuncts also don’t understand what life is like for their students. And I think these problems are related. There’s a “will-to-no-knowledge” that stretches all the way down from Distinguished Professors to first year undergrads and affects everyone in between.

    This post is so important because it expresses the real problem: Despite talking about these issues all the time, no one ‘in power’ seems to be doing anything about changing it. From the adjunct perspective that’s the tenured faculty, but you can follow that down the chain of people who are ‘just following orders’ or who are ‘just trying to survive’ all the way down to the power and privilege issues reproduced by adjuncts themselves in relation to their students, in relation to other workers in the university, like office staff or janitorial staff.

    What can be done? To start, adjuncts are on the front lines – and despite being underpaid, they have been given an incredible power. They have been handed the job of teaching the next generation of students. They can explain all of these issues to every class they teach – create an informed undergraduate student class. Forget the tenured faculty, and radicalize the students.

  10. As a tenured faculty member at an R1, I agree with the bulk of your comments and also agree that the situation for adjuncts is deplorable in many, many ways and often significantly worse than at my own institution where the non-tt faculty collectively bargain and have fairly clear and stable paths of advancement in many (though not all) cases. Where your race (or someone else’s disability) metaphor falls flat for me is in the implicit claim that adjunct faculty have no agency/choice in their situation. They have highly portable skills (as you must regularly point out to those seeking alternative careers) and are not required by any particular part of their being to teach under such rotten conditions. This is not meant as any justification for the labor practices involved. It’s more a concern for what seems to me a limited view of what may be possible from many adjuncts I know and interact with both professionally and socially. For what it’s worth, I have stopped accepting doctoral students to train and those still in my pipeline are regularly put in contact with people who can help them with alternative career options. I believe it’s my responsibility not to be blind to the conditions of employment for any of those who work at my institution and I do my best to take that responsibility seriously.

    • Couldn’t agree more. Though as someone who occupies a similar niche and has had similar responses to change it might be said that of course I agree. I’ve had tenure for twenty years at a big program, have taught quite a few grad students (all of mine getting TT jobs), and have stopped admitting new ones until the future becomes more predictable. These race/class/mode of production metaphors have been around for ages and are in my view as unhelpful as they have ever been. The alternative to the present system is not the worker’s paradise of our dreams, it is something else in which distinction and stability will be as rare and as fought over as ever. The non-tenured might see themselves as a revolutionary caste but unless they are willing to abandon all hope of autonomy they will forever side with the system. I’m reminded of the old Marxists who gave it all up to organize in factories only to be shocked that workers were more adamant in defending privileges than in asserting equality. The workers did not see themselves as equal, and neither does anyone here.

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  12. thanks for this. I agree with most of it, and the coverage of the debate. Something that continually shocks me, as a NTT post-postdocy ‘associate’ person, is the fact that tenure is rarely, if ever, used to defend what it is we do. Who is listening to this debate? it’s happening inside the academy – does anyone care on the outside? Should the base ethical stance of tenure be – ‘protect your young?’ or ‘defend your discipline’ by being a public intellectual in a way that makes what it is you do apparent? This entire debate makes it more and more evident that even these basic notions of why tenure might exist are completely lost on those who have it. And… I’m still looking for the TT. Fun times.

  13. Sadly, grad programs are still expanding in fields where there are few, if any, jobs. At our university, that’s because grad students are considered cash cows and we need a lot more of them, especially if they are full-tuition-paying foreign students or children of the privileged. There’s been nary a peep from our heavily tenured faculty, who look forward to working with grad students and leaving the undergrads to the adjuncts. That they are simultaneously creating the next layer of the adjunct underclass doesn’t seem to trouble any of them, and 90% of them consider themselves radicals or progressive.

  14. I will say this. We tenured people often did our duty in two ways. One was continuously asking for lines. In my last department, two of the eight professors had previously been adjuncts in that department. The other way was to try to protect lines and adjuncts through out faculty union. We contracted that no more than 50 percent of the instruction could be taught by adjuncts. The college had no large lecture halls, so this put pressure against administration to develop lines, and they did. Also our contract offered ranks and protection for adjuncts, although the ranks were salary only. Adjuncts received an advantage when applying for tenure line positions.

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  16. Some interesting and forceful points, most of which make me glad I don’t live in the USA. I am surprised, though, that in your suggestions you do not consider abolishing the whole two-tier system. The ostensible purpose of tenure is to ensure that academics will not lose their jobs for taking controversial positions, but that is a protection that all academic staff should enjoy. These days, tenure strikes me more as like the lives of ease which winners of the Hunger Games enjoy, unaware that a Quarter Quell may be coming.

  17. While I do agree that the TT are woefully out of touch, comparing TT privilege to white privilege isn’t right (smart, thoughtful, accurate…). People choose to go to grad school and get PhDs, even knowing full well – and really there’s no NOT knowing full well unless you’re engaging in full-on willful ignorance – what the academic job market is like. Non-white folks don’t choose to be not-white, in any way “choose” might be understood.

    Truly, I cannot understand the forces-of-the-universe explanations that somehow force so many people into grad school, never let them reevaluate and leave, and drop them into adjunct poverty after graduation. I 100% understand the structural nature of the problem, but I do not see this understanding matched at all, in any poor-me-PhD blogs/posts/articles/comments, by an understanding of choice and agency. This is why there is no comparison between white folks and TT folks, and the concomitant comparison between non-TT PhDs and non-white folks.

    Happy to be flamed for this. I’m not stupid or out of touch. I will graduate in May with a PhD and a realistic view of what I can expect in terms of jobs.

    • And, indeed, by any meaningful metric, people with PhDs enjoy vastly superior material conditions to those with only high school diplomas or without them. The adjunct crisis is just that, a crisis, and a terrible moral stain on the academy. But the constant attempts to analogize adjuncts with doctorates to America’s vast underclass is dishonest on its face. That’s just numbers.

  18. One of the oldest stories in capitalism is the tendency of those who are not unionized to direct their anger at those who are, rather than where it belongs, which is the bosses who contribute to the oppression of both. That describes the jobs crisis in academia precisely. And yet people refuse to recognize this basic feature of this argument, because for as much as they like to posture as being cynical about the university, they continue to treat it as something other than a regular workplace. It is not. It is a widget factory like any other, and it has a shrinking pool of unionized labor and a growing pool of non-unionized labor, and the latter directs almost all of its anger against the former rather than against the administrators that actually create the conditions that they say they hate. Which makes sense from an emotional point of view but not from a political point of view, from the point of view of creating change.

    For every blog post attacking the administrators and state-level politicians who actually created the current conditions, there are a dozen attacking faculty who have remarkably little ability to actually change things. This is a fact: it was administrators who created the current conditions and it is administrators who perpetuate it. That does not excuse the conduct of any individual professors or the professoriate writ large, but it is an essential element of producing an actually accurate, meaningful critique of the current situation. Yet you could read dozens of these kinds of posts without knowing it. That does nothing to actually help the people who are suffering. It merely makes it more likely that more people will be forced into their station. Which, I suspect, has been the point all along.

    I support faculty writ large because I support unionized labor, and that’s what faculty is. I also support contingent faculty because I support downtrodden workers. Each I support against those who actually control the means of production. And that is not senior faculty. It’s an army of deans and provosts and presidents and state legislators. Again: that’s just a fact. Maybe not a comfortable fact for those who are angry at TT faculty, but it is a fact. Anyone who undertakes their analysis without acknowledging it cannot be part of the solution. The question is, what is the priority? To improve the lives of adjuncts? Or to hurt the lives of the tenured? I can see ways that these types of arguments can achieve the latter. I cannot see ways that they can do the latter.

  19. Let us not exclude the non-academic realm of the job market. There have been too many dentists for over ten years, maybe longer. Who are advising students to avoid dentistry? No one. There are many examples of professions that should be avoided but it is deemed the responsibility of the student to identify and avoid. I consistently read articles identifying programming as a viable entry into the IT profession. Really?! As a retired professional of IT with contacts among the many sub-divisions of IT, I categorically state that “programming” is the last place a student should seek a viable occupation.

  20. You’re all talking about R1 universities. At comprehensive universities, the tenured and tenure-track faculty are doing all they can to keep it all together (a large percentage of female colleagues are their family’s only support)and also trying to help the adjuncts with frequently limited-by-the-university appointments. I knew I might not get a tenured job, didn’t get the first one, and now I self-censor to avoid problems, toe the line to not cause problems, as well as help individuals with PhDs in my field that I can, by including them in research projects, recommending them for jobs, etc. But there are NO TENURED JOBS anywhere outside of academe, and few of those. Do what you can and can accept for yourself, and then look elsewhere.

  21. It’s validating to hear this from you. The voices like Potter’s are far more common and they flow from people higher up in academia who those of us further down are taught to trust and respect. That makes their ideas emotionally harmful, so the validation from an academic public figure like you is very meaningful. Thank you so much for this.

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  23. OK, wait, wait, don’t tell me! We’re complaining about the tenured and we don’t suggest that ending tenure is part of the solution? You offer 4, 5, suggestions….but not ending tenure?

    It’s over already. Tenure, that is. So why not take the advantage–is this characteristic of white priv, too?–of the fact? And promote it ourselves.

    And by the way, I’ve been against tenure since before I obtained it.

  24. You’re seriously comparing the “struggle” of tenure to the problems of racism? Are you actually reading the self-centered crap you’re putting out here? This piece smacks of the over-indulgence and ivory-tower nature of academia.

    People suffer from the effects of racism based on their looks and their ancestry–elements of their person-hood that cannot be changed. They are denied basic human rights because of their skin tone. These human rights include the right to free speech, the right to vote, and even the right to have the same opportunities of education.

    The struggle of tenure? Are you shitting me? There is no right for someone to gain tenure. There is no right that someone will find employment. A doctorate does not give you magical rights.

    Live in the fucking real world. It’s true that there are problems in academia. But a doctorate does not necessarily give you or anyone else the “right” to a job for life.

    • Could not agree more. There was a point in my life, right after completing my Masters in IT, I was asked by mentor professor to pursue a PhD. After investigating the job market and my personal experiences as a Grad Assistant, I realized my job prospects as a Tenured professor would be slim.

      Instead I went into the corporate world and have worked my way into a position that actually provides greater rewards than any professorship could ever hope to provide.

  25. The whole adjunct vs. tenured (or tenure-track) framing of the crisis in the academic job market is a massive and dangerous distraction. Even those with supposedly secure positions face a lack of opportunities for advancement, job insecurity, and the intensification and extensification of job requirements that are putting pressure on everyone working in the system (see Rosalind Gill on this in the UK, for example http://www.kcl.ac.uk/artshums/depts/cmci/people/papers/gill/silence.pdf) I normally find Karen’s posts very useful but this, like some other recent posts here, is not a useful contribution to the discussion and merely shames and silences anyone who can be one-upped by anyone else in a more dire situation.

  26. Adjuncts, who are the large majority of professors, have to organize into unions and/or take over the faculty unions they are in as Jim Pricket did in the 1980s at Santa Monica College and then fight to get increase in wages and benefits as well as end the adjunct system. Very simple. Take over the unions! Organize the unions.! Adjuncts have to run for union president and then train the next generation of adjunct leaders as was done at Santa Monica College where I teach.

  27. Everything was fine till you wanted to slash or stop admittance to the graduate programs. And no explanation there! Why? To protect the future grad students from THEMSELVES, from making mistake? Or to revitalize the job market in humanities? Isn’t that the same fallacy as our tenured brothers fall into? I, honestly, don’t understand that. Can you provide more argumentation to this idea?

    • I actually just really believe that the level of grad admissions has to be more commensurate with the real rate of tt positions. Not anything like an exact quota system, but just a realistic and truthful acknowledgment that there should be some connection between the numbers coming in and the numbers going out, in terms of employment possibilities. I say “stop” not for all programs on all campuses for all years, but for some years for some campuses, so that the over-production—which I believe is a real thing (and i know that some don’t)–can slow down.

  28. Love the title…but my personal experience as an immigrant and minority is that minority’s are seriously much more racist than whites.

    Hmmm…can we stop blaming other white’s or in this case academia for other people’s failures. This is the era of the internet and a quick Google of any topic can quickly give anyone interested in digging deeper into any topic more information than they can digest in a month.

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  30. The Tenured Radical/Historiann anecdote somehow reminded me of a favorite Dorothy Parker take down of Claire Boothe Luce: when informed that Luce was always so gracious to her inferiors, Dorothy Parker, replied, “But wherever does she find them?”

  31. I think it also bears mentioning that the easiest way to get a tenure-track job is to hail from an Ivy League graduate program, and the easiest way to get into an Ivy League graduate program is to come from an Ivy League undergraduate program, and the easiest way to get into an Ivy League school is to check the “no financial assistance needed” box on the application form. You wouldn’t believe how many of the tenured faculty members at the (elite public university) I attended for graduate school went to private boarding schools . . . not on scholarship. It’s hard to pretend that this is a meritocracy when so many of the advantages are derived from family wealth.

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    • To clarify, I am not being sarcastic. I sincerely did really, really like it. I’ve forwarded it to friends.

      You make “Tenured Radical” look like a fool. I enjoy seeing the self-important be embarrassed.

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