But the first problem has to be to treat this as what it is; a labour dispute. It’s not a “crisis of scholarship”, nor is it a “scandal of the denigration of teaching as against research”. It’s not even a “closed shop of existing faculty”. It’s a dispute between employees and their employers over terms and conditions of employment.
Consider this. Are the newly minted PhD/adjunct’s really bemoaning their fate because they can’t all be the Goerge Washington Plunkitt Professor of Practical Politics at New York University or some similiarly well-endowed post? I don’t think so. Whatever Brad and others think about the systematic tendency of PhDs to overestimate their own prospects for academic success, I seem to get a feeling of genuine grievance in the complaints from the adjunct proleteriat. It’s not just a matter of them not having turned out to be as successful as they hoped; they actually think that their current fate is an injustice.
And I think that the reason they really feel aggrieved is that what they wanted was tenure and they haven’t got it. And when you clear away the thickets and fog of “community of scholars”, “guild system of values”, “sacred trust of learning” etc, the reason that people want to have tenure is that once you’ve got it, they can’t sack you. It’s a Job For Life. Which is a very, very pleasant thing to have, or so I am told in travellers’ tales or the senile ravings of old men who claim to have been alive when such mythical beasts walked the earth.
That’s the good thing about being a “tenured professor” or being on the “tenure track”. It allows you to look forward to a day when you don’t have to worry about the possibility of losing your income2. I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to say that the academic career path is profoundly attractive to people whose personalities tend toward insecurity and low tolerance for being exposed to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. These are after all people who have got where they are by passing exams, and it is not unreasonable to suppose that lots of these people will have passed exams a lot because they have studied a lot, and have studied a lot because studying has been a way of controlling their anxiety about their general vulnerability to things and events outside their control. The PhD track are also people who have elected to keep away from the big bad world on completion of their undergraduate degrees, and their role models and mentors are all people who live in the easy world of tenured income certainty. To then expose them to considerably more income uncertainty than, say, an average second-year graduate trainee at a consultancy firm seems pretty cruel.
So at the end of the day, the “adjunct crisis” is just the problem of the labour market overall; it’s one of insufficiently long-dated labour contracts, which have been imposed by people who want to shift their operating risks onto their workers, and who enjoy a side-benefit of forcing more unrewarded labour and effort out of those workers as they attempt to get back to the level of income security they want. It’s part of the same shift of the burden of risk onto the shoulders of those least well-equipped to bear it and away from those whose natural social function is to bear it. The adjunct crisis is just felt particularly badly by a particularly articulate group.
Tune in toward the end of the week for my shocking proposal for a solution …
1I have never seen so much incomprehensible fucking jargon in my life. I’m not at all sure of the meaning of any of these terms. Etymology gives no clues at all and they’re not even descriptive. If at all possible, just use them as empty signifiers.
2I also suspect, but can’t yet prove, that a very significant motivating factor for all those would be writers who “have an urge to express” is that writers are paid in royalties, which is a little bit like owning capital. Certainly, this would fit in with the almost mystic reverence that people of my acquaintance seem to have for royalty statements; hacks like me tend to view them as bitter reminders of past failure to ask for a big enough advance.