Arranging The Deck Chairs

The following are Jill’s and my responses to Nicole Monnier’s recent piece about threats to academic freedom, “‘One Faculty’ and Academic Governance,” and its follow-up piece, “Postscript,” published in the AAUP’s Academe blog over the course of the last week. If you want the Cliff’s Notes version (TLDR), check out our accompanying photo of the Titanic orchestra fiddling the rich to an icy death in the North Atlantic. 

Jill: Monnier’s piece is a great addition to the conversation. You don’t often hear people in her position—the un-tenured yet “stable”—speak about their experiences with contingency. Her testimony is refreshing and I’m sure relatable to many who might not feel solidarity with the part-time, piecemeal adjunct. I also agree with her argument: tenured and ladder faculty must see the contingent as their peers and use their position to fight for equitable working conditions and academic freedom for all university employees. But, I’ve heard her story, and her justification for inclusion before.

Monnier feels uncomfortable with the term and label contingent because she believes it doesn’t reflect her experience. Contingent connotes short-lived—one-year contracts and part-time work. In contrast, she has held a full time position for over sixteen years. She has engaged in campus governance and has served her university—she is a Full Professor. To the outside and untrained eye, based upon her title and participation in campus governance, she might appear no different from her tenured colleagues—but her position remains precarious.

Her work, as she states, is “generally indistinguishable from what my tenured colleagues do. It amounts to a public display of stability and institutional commitment.” The university however, is making no such vows in return. It relies on her labor and takes advantage of her commitment. Every 3-5 years she is reminded that she is expendable and must justify her presence. Monnier labors within an exploitative caste system. As her experience demonstrates to me, the problem of contingency is not related to the length of one’s contract, but the value of one’s labor.

As I read through the drafts for our book, I want Monnier to talk to Erik Strobl. He writes with such passion and fire about the toxic fiction academia has sold us, and I wonder what would come if they could find common ground? They labor within two different university systems—he’s a freshly minted PhD student from an elite private university; Monnier is a long-time contract employee at a larger state school. However, they both feel secure enough or fed up enough in their position to speak out. What would it look like if we could build a shared consciousness for all university faculty, shed the fictions of prestige and academia-as-calling, and demand supportive working conditions for educators and scholars?

Emily: I wanted to scream “JUST FREAKING SAY IT!” when I read this essay. Not because, as Jill points out above, I don’t recognize its truth—it’s both a valid moral argument and a lived experience. And in the fight to save tenure and academic freedom, it takes all kinds. In other words, I’m not advocating for a carnival of freeway-flying adjunct martyr porn about 75-year old, homeless professors huddling up secretly in the Medieval section of the uni library with a candle for warmth and a dusty copy of El Cid for a pillow; we’ve seen dozens, if not hundreds, of those stories, and conditions continue to worsen for teachers and students alike, a fact that can tied directly to increased dependence on adjunct and contingent faculty.

But there is something about Monnier’s article that frustrates me deeply. When Jill and I first began speaking about the possibility of a book on precarity, I remember telling her how much I wanted to have a conference that put adjuncts, full-time contingent faculty, tenure-track and tenured faculty, and administration in the same room, so that they could really hear the realities of the problems that each of them faced, so that we could begin to have truly creative solutions to these problems, rather than the same tired, limited arguments I heard constantly from every corner. Part of the problem, I realized, was the Foucaultian problem of being trapped in a discourse—“a group of statements which provide a language for talking about a particular topic at a particular historical moment.” Each group sees itself as walled-off from the other, rather than as part of what Dr. King called “an inescapable network of mutuality.” As such, each group is trapped in its own discourse, going round and round.

This idea gnawed at the back of my mind as I read Monnier’s essay, and also while I sat in my own day-long, program work session last week: then, the idea was still unnamed, unnamable, a flea burrowing in on an extremity I can’t quite reach as I try to sleep. Monnier, attempting to name the complicity of tenure-line and tenured faculty in the crisis facing higher ed, derails—instead of potential ways forward, she lands squarely in the machinations, describing the droning realities of committee work and promotion files, trying to prove that she is, in fact, doing all the work of a tenured full professor without actually being a full professor. But I am a full professor!, the piece yearns to scream, instead describing the perpetuation of the system that politely replies, No, dear, you’re not, as it straightens its lapels, and goes back to work.

Last Tuesday, as I sat in a university classroom with my colleagues, hashing out what to do about the unprecedented increase in the freshman class, we were having the same problem as Monnier: we were stuck in the machinations. The prevailing discourse dictated that we problem solve, and so problem solve we did: we were already running a deficit of 30-plus full-time faculty members (and had been for decades), and we suddenly needed to staff 12 new classes for our most at-risk students by September 1. As we plotted and schemed (because the machinations dictate exactly this), the flea burrowed deeper and deeper and I couldn’t swat him away. My colleagues offered solutions, and it was like I was living in two alternate realities and asked to accept and make sense of both of them—when neither of them made any sense at all. This was not a paradox, not the Hegelian synthesis that Dr. King speaks about when he describes non-violent resistance. No. This was crazy making. This was a roomful of smart people naming everything but the elephant in the room: that this system was not sustainable. In fact, the elephant had long ago charged in and bashed the room to pieces—so accustomed were we to the smashed china, we were rearranging it into mosaic coasters for the busted coffee table. We agreed on a strategy, and finally, I caved, and tried to name what was in my heart: I’m sorry, I said, just… But I trailed off. I could not escape the discourse. I could not name the problem, and so the solution, or even the beginnings of one, failed me. I began a draft request for the provost. Complicit.



One thought on “Arranging The Deck Chairs

  1. Nicole Monnier

    Hmmm . . . as the “Monnier” of this piece, I have many thoughts — indeed, far too many thoughts to leave them in a “comments” section.

    But I will say this much: One should keep in mind that both of the pieces to which you are responding were written in institutionally political context(s) and to very specific audiences: one with an eye to the organization that solicited it (the AAUP); the “postscript” with a full-on stare at my own institution, where a genuine budget crisis is combining with the usual “reallocation-to-build-on-our-strengths” shenanigans attached, leech-like, to create an AY18 budget that includes significant staff layoffs -and- the “non-renewal” of ranked NTT faculty. 38 of my fellow NTTs are losing their jobs, full stop, with no severance, compensation, insurance extension, etc., etc. whatsoever. And, of course, their “non-renewals” are out of sync with the academic market, so their chances of finding anything like a comparable academic position for the next year are buggered. Up until the very last minute before the final budget announcement this past Friday (2 June), I and other NTTs at my institution — including my fabulous fellow members on our NTT campus standing committee — have been doing our best to get our institution to do the right thing in the short term, with the goal of putting in place far better protections for the future.

    Granted, I’m no burn-down-the-house radical; I’m a “work-within-the-system” woman — iif there’s any chance of reform from within. If there isn’t — and I’m becoming increasingly pessimistic of those chances — well, then, my approach will assuredly change.

    And FWIW, I, too, agree that the system is damned broke.


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