December 19, 2008, 11:41 PM ET
Some Critical Blunders by the MLA
cross-posted from howtheuniversityworks.com
There are some problems with MLA’s representation of the needs and circumstances of the nontenurable faculty. If you want to know how they really live and think, watch Linda Janakos’s documentary, Teachers on Wheels. Really, watch it: she’s a much better filmmaker than I’ll ever be.
All reports of this kind are a compromise, and not all compromises are successful. The authors of this report are frank about being divided on the issue of nontenurable faculty between the meliorative, pragmatic, and sometimes apologist position long represented by committee chair David Bartholomae and the view, long represented by committee member Paul Lauter, that a permanently nontenurable faculty is “an illegitimate exercise of institutional authority.” The effective compromise between these positions is the committee’s endorsement of rights and privileges for the nontenurable that are as similar as possible to those of the tenured. (Elsewhere, I’ve written about this kind of compromise under the heading of “the intricate evasions of as.”)
I don’t think this tension would have been magically resolved by having nontenurable faculty on the committee — I co-chair AAUP’s committee on faculty serving contingently, and can say that most welcome just about any melioration of their condition, but not the patronizing apologetics that usually accompany the fairly pervasive intrusions on their academic freedom, sense of professional belonging, personal dignity, workplace rights, and economic security — often by tenure-stream faculty serving as their immediate supervisors, union reps, and department chairs.
But I do think representation on this kind of committee should map closely onto the profession — with graduate students, faculty serving contingently, and tenured faculty with a track record on the issues in reasonable proportion. (On the AAUP committee, I’m the only tenured member, and serve as co-chair over my own repeated objection.) Many of the facts and lived realities that caught the MLA staff and some of its committee members by surprise are decades-old news to the majority of college faculty.
For me, the single most troubling line of apologetic pursued by the report is its discussion of the “freeway flyer” stereotype of faculty serving contingently.
Who’s Not a Freeway Flier?
On page 13, the committee suggests that freeway fliers are only those persons who report a household income of less than $25,000, calculating by this arbitrary and whimsical standard that the group comprises less than 20 percent of all those serving contingently. By contrast, the authors note:As we know from anecdote and experience, some part-time non-tenure track faculty members are also spouses or partners of tenured and tenure-track faculty members; others have full-time jobs elsewhere, or want to maintain contact with the university but prefer not to be subjected to the conditions — especially the publication requirements — of a tenure-track appointment.
Hmm. Really not good. Is the report saying that someone teaching on multiple campuses and unable to get degree-appropriate tenure-track work isn’t a “freeway flier” or distressed member of the academic community because they are either a) spouses or partners of tenure-track faculty members or b) married to someone else with a decent income? Isn’t it a problem for this largely female workforce regardless of their marital or cohabitation choices? Given the gendered division of labor here, isn’t this veering into sexism?
Few faculty serving contingently would support this definition, which arbitrarily excludes most freeway flyers from their own lived experience and self-definition and imposes the skeptical ignorance of the dominant gaze. Kinda like: “Well, gee, you don’t look gay.”
What’s the big deal? Well, it both excludes and diminishes the experience of Anonymous, who has lived her career, as she says, “30 seconds from humiliation,” has a spouse with a decent income, but nonetheless works in the field for which she trained because she needs the money. What about Monica Jacobe, who has been an adjunct on multiple campuses for the better part of a decade and has never made $30,000 in a year? Because they are married to men with doctorates earning more than $50,000 and less than $100,000, the household income of both women is in the upper 20 or 25 percent of all part-time faculty in English: woo-hoo! Nothing to look at here, folks. These ladies are rolling in it.
It’s hard to understand the point of this particular observation except as apologism or an inept swipe at the Cary Nelson crowd. It’s not as bad as those agitators and malcontents are saying. The adjuncts I know always seem pretty happy when they come to dinner with their spouse. Why, if you look at the numbers, lots of these adjuncts are happy and doing pretty well — some of them are married to millionaires!
A better way to get at this issue would be to track the role of gender, and the role of restructured academic employment in how individuals got into these positions. Instead of implying that everything’s peachy if you’re married to a professor (just ask Melanie Hubbard or the blogger Adjunct Whore), and hinting that they don’t really want to publish, why not ask faculty serving contingently if they’re doing so involuntarily because their spouse’s employer doesn’t have a rational spousal hiring policy? Or because the employer doesn’t make reasonable accommodations for childrearing?
Even the discussion of those who “prefer” part-time employment is problematic. It’s not as if preferring part-time employment means that the individual endorses the conditions under which they serve.
Why not ask if the person would prefer secure “fractional employment” over freeway flying?
Why not ask faculty with children if they’d prefer to be able to move from part-time fractional (and teaching intensive) employment to full-time and/or research-intensive at other points in their careers? That would be actual flexibility, by the way, not the cheap administrator tyranny we have at present.
There are other complaints and cavils to make. The report addresses gender, however imperfectly, but not class and race, or the intersection of class and race in the “wealth gap.”
The committee takes the step of recommending a set ratio of full-time and tenured to part-time faculty to graduate students, but doesn’t explain how it got to the different percentages, or justifying those percentages in the context of other recommendations.
Even as it recommends more tenure in the “lower division,” the report privileges the “upper division,” as if it is necessarily worse to have adjuncts in the upper division. Perhaps the resources of full-time tenure-track faculty are best deployed in the “lower” division — as some recent research suggests.
The report talks about graduate employees as instructors of record but bypasses the issue of their workload, their prospects in the profession and — again — the role of class and the ethnic/racial wealth gap in relentlessly influencing who is eligible to make the economically irrational “choice” to even think about the undergraduate major and the graduate education that 15 years or more down the road will allow them to join the professoriate.
MLA staff need to much more comprehensively engage the scholarship of higher-education employment, and should make a much larger effort to bring the majority faculty serving contingently into active membership and leadership.
In general, this report is a very welcome contribution and significant departure from some of MLA’s bad old ways in the bad old days. Many faculty serving contingently will nonetheless feel that some of its compromise moments represent missteps.
These mostly have to do with the managerial orientation of the committee’s chair and — column for another time — the administrative bias in the organization of MLA itself, which caters to department chairs in the ADE/ADFL arrangement, and as a result has steadily privileged the dilemma of the person who “doesn’t have enough resources to staff the department’s offerings” over the situation of the person being pushed into one of the scheduler’s McJobs.
I’ll be saying more about this report in my two appearances at MLA, as will Paul Lauter, one of the committee’s authors. (Which, together with our interview, will be an opportunity to correct any errors on my part!) I’d be glad to see you there.