A Profession, If You Can Keep It

tags: academic labor, faculty labor, adjunct instruction

Erin Bartram is the School Programs Coordinator at The Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, CT. She earned a PhD in 2015 from the University of Connecticut, where she studied 19th century United States history with a focus on women, religion, and ideas. 

When their jobs were threatened in a new and acute way in the first few months of the pandemic, many tenured and tenure-track historians were able to recognize themselves as workers, sometimes for the first time. The specter of higher ed’s imminent collapse prompted many of them to ask for solidarity and support from the colleagues they have long refused to fully acknowledge as colleagues.

Even as they saw themselves as exploited laborers, few were able to acknowledge—or even seemed aware—that these conditions predated the pandemic for adjuncts. Fewer still were ready to reckon with the ways that their employment was dependent on the continuation of those conditions. The lack of solidarity with striking adjuncts and grad students during this year of labor action confirms this disconnect, and it should not be surprising—the interests of these groups of employees are not the same, and are often directly opposed.

The quick collapse of higher education may not have come to pass, but the hollowing-out has accelerated, especially for history, assisted by sustained political efforts from without and within. Anyone who thinks they made it through, that they’re safe, is laboring under a delusion, and reality is swiftly catching up with them.

Like all hierarchical systems, adjunctification has always harmed the people in the middle of the hierarchy as well—because, of course, tenured and tenure-track faculty are not the top of this hierarchy. “Burnout” is a serious and growing problem, especially for scholars of marginalized groups; it’s making you all miserable, and leading some to leave the profession altogether. But let’s be clear: this “burnout” that secure scholars are feeling is phantom pain where their colleagues should be. Or, to use a term that every other normal worker in the US uses to describe their workplace under these conditions: you are suffering from the effects of intentional systemic understaffing.


There is no path to saving this profession that does not begin with coming to grips with the fact that no scholar in the US can truly be secure if their colleagues are insecure. The differences between me and Varsha, between me and Ben, between me and you—those have been made to seem really significant by the culture of our field. Our field has continued to pretend there’s a huge difference between the skills and qualifications of tenure-track professors and adjuncts, but to the neoliberal university, a tenured professor is just some jerk taking up a valuable adjunct line. The arguments that justify adjunct labor can be and are turned around on those who thought their positions were secure, a point adjuncts have been making for decades. Imagined meritocracies mean little to extractive institutions.


Read entire article at Contingent

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