Have a consciousness raising, satirical, ironic, laughing, not crying, carnivalesque Campus Equity Week!
87% adjuncts at San Diego Mesa College and growing…
Here is the text of the speech I gave to kick off a week of Campus Equity Week 2017 events at San Diego Mesa College.
Adjunctification and Corporatization: How Students Became Consumers and Professors Became Precarious
“The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself.”
In 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson gave a speech, “The American Scholar,” in which he made this comment. His words represent a resistance to the idea that education should be utilitarian, a notion rooted in anti-intellectualism. Emerson saw the mind as a creative force in the universe that could aspire to ideals such as the ones enshrined in the Constitution: Justice, Peace, and Compassion, for instance. Emerson saw the pursuit of these lofty aims as the appropriate aims of the American Scholar. The scholar, in seeking to know himself and his world, elevates the entire community. Emerson’s words speak to us today as we face the corporatization of higher education.
What is adjunctification? It is an ungainly and disquieting word, a neologism that is necessary to name a process that would otherwise be seen, and, regrettably, increasingly is seen, as business as usual in higher education. I use this idiom, “business as usual,” to heighten the connection between adjunctification and the paradigmatic ideology that higher education is a business, or, more precisely, a corporation, which brings me to the other unwieldy word in the title: “corporatization.”
These words, adjunctification and corporatization, together name the decades long process that has institutionalized in higher education the ideological assumptions that the student is a customer, education is a commodity, and the aim of higher education institutions is to maximize profit and minimize cost while delivering an easily consumable product: to achieve, in corporate rhetoric, “efficiency.” This is the opposite of what the aim of higher education should be and the implications of this failure of imagination for democracy, the failure to aim high, to aspire beyond the wrongheaded notion that a student is a customer, are dire.
Corporatism is the ideology that all social relations are explainable through market relations. One of the conclusions which follows from this ideology is that market value, the “bottom line,” is ultimate. The corporatization of higher education has been the applying of the idea by legislators and administrators that public higher education should be run like a business. This is a problem because higher education as a public good is not and cannot be a business. The two are mutually exclusive, except within the faulty logic of corporatization ideology. A business sells a product and needs to balance the cost of production with profit, or the business will fail. Higher education is the public institution which, and this is the brief version, is entrusted with old knowledge, new knowledge, and with ways of making knowledge, of leading students to transform information into knowledge through critical thinking. It offers students not only knowledge of the world and the world of ideas, but also an opportunity to grow as individuals and mature into the best possible versions of themselves as free-thinking citizens, ready to participate in fulfilling the promise of democracy in America as well as fulfilling the promise of their lives. Higher education is a public good, not because it prepares students for the workforce, although it does this, but because college students, by reaching deep within to meet the challenge of learning, discover talents and skills they may not have otherwise known they have, which they then bring to the democratic community. If higher education fails, community fails. And when community fails, we have injustice and hate.
Economist Guy Standing, in his groundbreaking 2010 book, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, explains that the term “precariat,” a combination of “precarious” and the Marxist term “proletariat,” also known as the “working class,” is a new word necessary to describe contemporary labor conditions. Today, according to Standing, the proletariat has been replaced by the precariat. The proletariat had unions and job security; the precariat is an “independent contractor” and has job insecurity. To achieve maximum “efficiency,” it is necessary to have maximum “flexibility” of labor. What is the most flexible labor? One that is temporary, disposable, and exploitable. Sounds like an adjunct. The aim of corporate ideology is to make the laborer precarious, insecure and fearful, and easy to manage.
What is an adjunct professor? A member of the precariat of higher education. An adjunct is, by definition, non-essential and disposable to the mission of higher education. Roughly 75% of community college professors nationwide are adjunct: part-time, temporary. Yet, this description is a lie. Typically, adjunct faculty are rehired over and over, for many years. Why? Because they are, obviously, essential to the mission of the college. To describe them as temporary and non-essential is absurd. At Mesa College, 85% of faculty are adjunct. That means only 15% of faculty are full-time. If you are a student looking for your professor, chances are she will not have her own office, or even be on the same campus.
Most adjuncts are career academics who have devoted their lives to the public good of higher education. Without them, higher education would disintegrate. Most adjuncts always intended to be academics, to teach, or research, or perform as experts in their field of expertise. Chances are these are people whose passion is teaching. They are professionals dedicated to teaching, to making the world a better place. These dedicated professionals devote most of their lives to gaining, maintaining, and teaching their subject matter. This is what they do; it is who they are. It is a calling.
This is bad for students. Faculty working conditions are student learning conditions. The precarious nature of being adjunct oppresses the adjunct and her students. It makes her education precarious. For instance, students do not have equal access to adjunct professors who have no official, long-term relationship with the institution, in whom the institution has not fully invested. Nevertheless, enduring the unequal working conditions, adjuncts, most of whom would prefer a full-time position, most of whom would be full-time except for the dominant corporate ideology, do most of the teaching in higher education, and do it well. Their qualifications are equal, their labor is equal, their commitment is equal. But the conditions in which they labor to maintain the quality of higher education for students are unequal. Most have more than one job, but earn half what they would make if they had one full-time job. This is unjust. How is this situation equal access for students? You can’t say that it is.
The idea that the ultimate value of labor is determined by market “forces” dictates that the cost of labor should be as low as possible. Adjunctification is the making of academic labor cost as low as possible. The result for faculty is financial insecurity and the powerlessness that goes with precarity. The business model shortchanges both faculty and students. Students are not only shortchanged because they are denied access to full-time faculty; the business model also requires that students focus their study on a vocational plan. The purpose of a commodified education becomes training students to be good corporate workers as opposed to students seeking knowledge, who study in the liberal arts, which tends to liberate. Most of the traditional subjects of a liberal arts education, including math, science, and the humanities, seem to have no practical value in this paradigm. Of course, if value is cast as utilitarian, then the liberal arts doesn’t. Science perhaps, but only if it is connected to a technological development that leads to profit. But if the value of higher education is cast as what makes students able to fulfill the potential of their lives, then the deep, reflective thinking that is required to master language, math, and science, to think philosophically, to know the diverse nature of American culture, and global culture, is what higher education should be about, that is, fostering the growth of minds. In contrast, the commodification of higher education turns the mind into readily consumable fast food.
The question that remains is what do we do about this? First, we must begin by seeing that the student is not a consumer and that faculty, most of whom are precariat, need to be empowered to provide students with the learning opportunities they need to aspire to fulfill their potential. Empowering faculty will require a radical idea, one which now does not exist as a political goal, except in name. We want to fund more full-time positions. But in the current model, there will never be enough money allocated to accomplish this goal of 75% of courses taught by full-time faculty. To accomplish this will require a radical paradigm shift.
Higher education operating under the limits of a business model offers a one-dimensional paradigm. Humans, like students and faculty, are multi-dimensional beings. When market values replace public values, education is cast as a commodity, and self-interest is held as the highest good in a super-competitive, economically defined world, individual and societal potential is diminished. Faculty are underpaid because ideas are undervalued. We need a paradigm shift. We need liberation from the business model. We need to aim higher.
UCSD students made this video for a sociology course. This is the kind of work students can do to resist the adjunctification and corporatization of higher education. Students and faculty must unite in resistance.
I am one of the adjuncts interviewed.
The following “adjunct moment” is the record of an adjunct dealing with the extra bullshit that adjunct professors deal with on a day to day basis in the service of the public good. It’s not me, but it could happen to any freeway-flying adjunct, anytime, anywhere. I will point out that full-time professors do not face this bullshit, not to accuse them of anything, but to bring attention to the disparity in working conditions, which are student learning conditions. This disparity cannot be emphasized enough, in my opinion. It’s worth noting that no pedagogical changes are very likely to improve student “success” until we make radical changes in the way we hire college faculty, especially at the community college level. Community colleges are the most adjunctified corner of higher education. Until we have a new system of hiring, one that acknowledges the moral obligation of colleges to their adjunct faculty, especially the ones who have been hired multiple times, by hiring them full-time, students will face the same challenges that their adjunct professors (straight up 75% at community colleges) face. Short of hiring them full-time, which is the only moral solution, they might settle for equal pay.
I am publishing this for the adjunct professor who wrote it, who shall remain anonymous.
For your reading pleasure, a brief narrative in the spirit of the upcoming Campus Equity Week:
“The Word of the Day”
F***! is my word for the day. I just arrived at school and confirmed my worrying suspicion that I left my students’ essays in the adjunct faculty work room at Grossmont College. I searched for it in my car and my house, but I only found about 500 pages of the other 4 English Composition classes I teach. I am pissed that I left it in the office because to go get them is a REAL pain in the ass. If it were not for the integrity I have, I would tell the students that they will not have an opportunity to revise this essay that is to be submitted in a portfolio to the English department as a requisite to enter into transfer level college English. I also will have to tell them that as opposed to my declared plan for their preparation for the portfolio that I am contradicting myself and shortening their instruction (that they cannot trust me at my word).
I am sure many times this occurs and a teacher has no choice but to shorten the quality of their instruction. I am sure many of them have pangs of conscience when they relinquish under the fact that they are not prepared. I am fraught with stress and anxiety because I want to be good at what I profess. For me, teaching brings out my perfectionism, an ethical obligation to teach well. My word of the day is deeply felt in this moment!
I am sure you are thinking that I am being dramatic, that I should simply walk over to the workroom before class and retrieve the papers. I would say the same of any professor on campus, but here is the issue. Technically, while I do the very same thing a professor does for considerably less pay, I am not a full-timer not for lack of credentials or of trying. I am an adjunct, a position that does not garner an office and which is underpaid and restrictive in that each college limits the number of hours to part-time. So, to make a living professing English, composition, and the social merits of the humanistic endeavors of higher education, I teach at 3 institutions. So the word of my day is F***.
F***! I left my English 49 Essays from San Diego Mesa College in the work room at Grossmont College 20 minutes or 15 miles away by freeway.
Rather than shorting my students, I have decided to sacrifice my sanity. It is no question that I will be on the freeway for 40 minutes, plus 20 minutes of running from office to car and car to office. One hour of my day and 5 dollars of gas, to fetch papers. However, it in not merely the fetching that is causing such problems. I had planned to be grading during that hour, and I had arrived 2 hours early to grade those very essays before my 11:00AM English 205 Critical Thinking Class and to continue grading after my 205 class at 12:35 and before my 4:00pm 101 class, so I can deliver them to the 6:35pm English 49 class. In the bag was another class’s essays that I need to read by tomorrow.
All in all when I arrived to school today and realized that I was having an “adjunct moment,” I thought about the consequences of not having one office and one campus to work at. If I was full-time, none of this would have happened, and my classes would not suffer. But, having multiple campus workrooms creates opportunities for one to get mixed with the other. I have never lost any papers, but I have heard of other instructors losing some. I immediate can sympathize with them because of the way my car trunk looks with student papers. For the majority faculty, at least in English, our car trunks are the closest filing cabinet for our work.
F***! This little “adjunct moment,” really pisses me off because most who read this will not understand that the problem is endemic and that it hurts instructors and students regularly. Underpaid, restricted, disunited faculty working out of the trunks of their cars to turn Americans into citizens capable of participating effectively in the economy and politics is a laughable indignity, as Aristotle would classify this comedy that we call “Higher Education.”
Any ;adjuncts out there who have any experiences you want me to share and who want to remain anonymous, I’m very happy to oblige. It’s high time we get real.