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Posts Tagged ‘contingent labor’

By Richard Ohmann
“Devote one hour each semester in every course to discussing the status and character of campus labor.  These issues are relevant to every discipline and every subject, no matter what the catalog course description says or what conservative polemicists claim.  The AAUP’s 2007 statement Freedom in the Classroom helps define your rights as a teacher.”
–Cary Nelson, “A Faculty Agenda for Hard Times,” Academe Online
This is #17 of Nelson’s 30 suggestions for improving our weakened profession.  (He is President of the AAUP.)  Good idea.  The condition of campus labor has a legitimate place in class discussion, whether the subject of the course is Intermediate Italian or Intro to Macroeconomics.  If I were still teaching, I’d try to pick up on Nelson’s suggestion.  But how would I use that hour, in my imagined literature class at Wesleyan?  Gwendolyn Bradley asks a similar question in a note on the Academe blog, “Talking to Students About Working Conditions”:  “Readers, do you find that your students are aware of the facts of faculty employment and working conditions–including poverty wages and lack of academic freedom protections for many faculty?”
Many of my students were on their way to professional careers.  Almost all of them thought their intelligence and creativity should be allowed to flourish–and of course be well compensated–in jobs granting them freedom to conceptualize tasks, not just execute orders from bosses.  If I had a group of those students today, and if they did not know that 70% of university teachers are now pieceworkers on “poverty wages,” did not know how the labor of those teachers is being broken up into scientifically managed fragments, did not know that adjuncts have little control over their work, did not know that those teachers could be fired any time for stepping out of line or offending a student–such revelations would be shocking and also personally discouraging.
But if I were adjuncting at a community college or a for-profit, would revelations like these stir a similar reaction among my students? Can we expect students who have suffered “the hidden injuries of class,” but never glimpsed professional futures for themselves (as did the subjects of Richard Sennett’s book by that title), to identify with highly educated teachers suffering the degradation of a profession?  The commercializing of higher education may seem an outrage to people in or entering the professional-managerial class, but plenty of other people see this shift as promoting access to college and efficiency in matching curriculum to future work–not to mention as a suitable rebuke to privileged elites like me and many of you.  How would you set up your hour of talk on campus labor, with those students?  I think I’d ready myself for some serious disagreements about work, education, and class.  I like Cary Nelson’s proposal, but wouldn’t expect instant solidarity–much less rage at capital–to come out of that hour.
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According to “The Path Forward; The Future of Graduate Education in the United States,” what’s wrong with graduate education is too little of it.  The Educational Testing Service and the Council of Graduate schools published this “landmark report,”on April 29; we know it’s a landmark report because ETS and CGS said so, in their press release.  OK, OK, minimal irony from here on, I promise.

The reason we need more people graduating with Ph.D.’s and M.A.’s–overwhelmingly the main reason–is the “necessity of a graduate-level workforce to maintain US competitiveness and innovation” (April 29 News Release),  The United States “is in peril of losing its competitive edge . . . ,” say the presidents of ETS and CGS.  People with graduate degrees are “crucial to ensure our nation’s continuing ability to compete in the global economy. . . ,” says the report’s conclusion.  There is much talk of losing the “dominant position” of US graduate education, its standing as “world leader,” its “preeminence,” and so on.  Yes, our grad schools are competing with those in other countries, but that competition is governed and warranted solely by its contribution to “our nation’s” economic battle with other nations.  You don’t have to look too deeply between the lines to understand this economic “necessity” as that of the companies that want to employ highly skilled and innovative holders of advanced degrees.  Naturally, the ETS-CGS commission that produced the report included business leaders, one of whom (Stanley S. Litow” of IBM) called for “innovative graduate programs in partnership with business.”  I suggest decoding this call to partnership  as:  “you grad schools produce the high-tech workers and we corporations will make the profits.”

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This is my fourth and final post on the academic job market and the future of college teaching as a profession.  Quick review:  in earlier installments I noted the devastation that came to academic employment via the crash of 2008; proposed that recovery from that crash will not restore the jobs lost, either across the whole economy or specifically in higher education; suggested that our profession is a moribund institution; and laid out some lines of action it (for instance, the Modern Language Association) would need to take in order to have a chance of rebuilding its market haven. (more…)

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“Full- and part-time faculty members teaching off the tenure track are professionals who make indispensable contributions to their institutions.”  This point turns up in a February brief by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, called “One Faculty Serving All Students.”  The Coalition does good work, including this brief aimed at persuading universities and college to treat contingent workers decently.

But take a close look at this way of using the term “professionals.”  It has at least three common meanings.  (1) It often refers to athletes and others who play for a living, in contrast to amateurs.  No problem.  (2) It’s also often used to credit people whose work is skillful, dedicated, based on sound knowledge, and so on.  No problem here, either–except when this meaning blurs into the third one:  (3) a person who works as a recognized member of a recognized profession.
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