My friend Hannah is a single mom with a degree in art history and two kids in college. She used to have a full-time job as a slide librarian at Mills College in Oakland, till the college, under financial strain, cut her position back to something a lot less than full time. To make ends meet, Hannah did what a lot of people do: she took some more jobs. Now she’s an adjunct instructor at three, sometimes four different colleges at a time: driving the Bay Area freeways, slide collection in the back seat of her car, teaching art history 101.
Her students, though enrolled in different institutions, have a lot of things in common. Most of them are people of color. Many of them are children of immigrants, or immigrants themselves, and English is not their first language. They don’t come from money or education, nor do they have much themselves. The basic skill of writing a paragraph with a topic sentence, proper grammar, spelling, and syntax, is mostly beyond them. Like Hannah, they are working, and often more than one job. They don’t have a lot of choices, and they know it. They are desperately stressed out. So is Hannah.
In his 2010 book No University Is an Island, Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, throws out a factoid: two-thirds of all college teaching is now done by contingent workers. Contingency is one of sixteen threats to academic freedom Nelson identifies. Others are creeping into even the privileged world of top-tier research universities. Take, for example, what Nelson calls “instrumentalization”: the drive to produce “outcome measures” of teaching that will determine exactly how much value was added to students by virtue of their taking your course (the ultimate yardstick of value being employability in today’s market). Or consider what he names “neoliberal assaults on academic disciplines.” My dean at Berkeley likes to make fun of the Classics Department as a supposedly useless parasite on the body of revenue-producing departments like law, business, and medicine. My friends in the humanities (many of whom no longer are supplied with telephone lines by the university, and who pay for their own photocopies – and yes, these are full-time, tenured faculty) stopped laughing some time ago.
Hannah’s also been developing online courses. She likes the experience, actually – students can study her slides at their leisure, and can schedule their class work around their many jobs – but as the research universities move into “distance education” in a big way, it’s hard not to notice the casualization of labor this shift makes possible. Once you develop an online course, it belongs to the university, not you (you’re just the content provider). Anybody (in theory) can be the instructor, once the course has been created; there’s no need for a person with tenure to teach it. And infinitely many students could take the course at the same time (assuming we’ve hired infinite humanities graduate students to grade the exams). Law professors ought to know something about this last bit. These are the economics of the Socratic method, given a steroid boost by technology.
Marx taught us about the logic of competition under capitalism: it is in the owners’ interest to drive labor costs as low as possible. The Society of American Law Teachers is working on this issue as one of “academic freedom,” as is the AAUP. Today’s article in the New York Times about the move to eliminate tenure for K-12 teachers, however, may well be a harbinger of what awaits the university professoriate. Add the pressures of financial “austerity” to the relentless market fundamentalism of neoliberal ideology, and we high-paid, tenured professors are starting to look a lot more like polar bears in the midst of global warming: swimming in circles, looking for an ice floe.