Solidarity and sympathy in online culture and social media are fleeting things: you are only as good as your last response rather than a lifetime of responses, and only as welcome as you are permitted to be within a particular conversation. Discussions that start by drawing the “circle of we” with a circumscribed perimeter resist expansion or redrawing, often appropriately so.
So rather than beg for an ally’s badge, my best reaction to some of the latest complaints against tenured faculty and academic institutions might be to propose some alternative “circles of we” that recast the nature of the conversation.
Asking sharp questions about the imagined endgame of a critique is not about holding that critique up against utopia and finding it wanting if it does not have a road between here and that endpoint. It’s about asking for the strategic vision of that critique in the here and now. If one starts from the proposition that higher education in the U.S. (or more globally) was a basically positive, healthy institution in some previous heyday (most likely the expanded, more democratic, more accessible academy of the 1970s), then a critique of the labor practices, economics, and culture of the present is or should be sharply intent on the difference between then and now. This is how I have largely read Marc Bousquet’s arguments in the last few years: that there is no need to accept moves like programmatically limiting the supply of doctoral candidates, adopting novel institutional reforms, abolishing tenure altogether and so on in order to fix the inequalities in academic labor markets. Instead, all that’s needed is an internal reallocation of institutional budgets to hiring more tenure-track faculty and fewer administrators, a re-emphasis on the core missions of higher education (teaching and the production of knowledge) and a restoration of public funding. You can take a different line than Bousquet and still have roughly the same strategic vision, that some concretely past academy is the one that we want.
If on the other hand, the conclusion is that academia was always elitist, always exclusionary, always unfair both to its workers and apprentices and to its publics, that there was never any golden age to restore, then the strategic vision even now has to be clear: is there an imaginable higher education that could be comprehensively better? Or does the problem lie in the very idea of a professionalized faculty and in the institutionalization of education? There are good, honorable arguments of long-standing that point in either of those directions: one is not left having to craft a critique from scratch. But they have very different implications right here, right now, however far or improbable the endgame might be.
Not the least among those implications is who can be expected to join a coalition of the willing and who cannot. There’s no reason to make tenured faculty your first, preferred targets if you’re chasing restoration unless you genuinely believe that existing tenure-track faculty were the primary agents who produced casualization of academic labor, the diversion of internal budgets to administrative purposes, and the reduction of direct and indirect public budgetary support for higher education. Even in that case, you’re not against tenured faculty as a concept, since that’s the labor dispensation that a restorationist wants to return, just against the particular inhabitants of that role in this particular historical moment (or even, potentially, you are set against some past particular group who did the dirty deed rather than the present incumbents). In this vision, the conventional culture of academic life is largely something worth valuing, preserving, and continuing, and it would be foolish to do it damage in pursuing reform.
If there is some concrete assembly of labor practices, institutional budgets, internal culture, habitus, and so on that is imagined as preferable not just to the present but to any past dispensation, the coalition of the willing is very different depending on which kinds of transformations are being envisioned. There are people inside and outside of academia who envision a technologically-mediated transformation of how we teach and publish, of how we name and employ scholars and experts, of how higher education becomes a new kind of public good, who are also very committed to the reform of academic labor, the diversification of faculty and students, and the refinement or tweaking of the culture of academic professionalism. That’s a reformist politics that sets some faculty against others, that mixes contingent and tenure-track faculty on both sides of the debate. If on the other hand the academy-to-be is the one that American neoliberals, conservatives and libertarians sometimes imagine, where practical learning overthrows the liberal arts and efficient managerial approaches reduce costs, then contingent and tenure-track faculty alike are almost universally going to line up against that possibility.
If in the end there is nothing about institutional education and professionalized academia which appeals, nothing to reform or restructure short of practices which would have to be so comprehensively different to any present or imaginable dispensation, then throw all the rotten tomatoes that come to hand at every target in sight: all faculty, all administrators, all students. They’re all, in this view, doing a very profoundly wrong thing and doing it at great expense. I don’t outline this position to mock it. It has a long lineage of great intellectual profundity and political force behind it. Someone drawn to this position doesn’t need to invent a comprehensive alternative, because this sort of critique by its nature is only sure about what education or learning or training or knowledge production aren’t and shouldn’t be. But don’t expect anyone who is even modestly invested in the institutions we inherit to join in the tomato-flinging. And don’t bother with any particular rage against a particular group, because the argument is so much bigger than that.
This in the end would be my own modest proposal: that most of the arguments about the unfairness of academic labor practices and academic culture are too small. In a sense, they prove that even the strongest critics accept and are a bit blinded by a belief in the specialness of academia, because they even think its unfairness or inequity is special to it.
There is a bigger landscape to consider, one that might either further catalyze a politics of reform (or revolt) or that might bleed out the energy of such a politics within the vastness of history.
Talk of “crisis”, either within some subset of academia or about the whole of it, is often properly met with skepticism. More often than not, when you’re told that there is a crisis, it’s best to quickly check your wallet, because that kind of talk is a favorite distraction by neoliberal pickpockets. But think on a big scale and crisis talk makes a different sort of (mostly upsetting) sense.
The casualization of academic labor started before the rise of information technology and online media, during the 1970s. That is often overlooked even (or especially) by the newest generation of the casualized. But in different forms this is something that was happening to almost all of the professions that rose out of bourgeois life and culture in the West during the 19th Century. And often efforts to extend or erode the boundaries that had been drawn so brightly by the alliance of professional associations and the state during the first half of the 20th Century were not spearheaded by neoliberal corporatizers or conservative anti-intellectuals but by progressives of one kind or another who were either seeking to extend the benefits of public goods beyond what poorer states could afford (say, with “barefoot doctors”) or were trying to break the dominating power of socially exclusive professionals over their subjects and clients (say, with the move to allow competing forms of professionalism like midwifery or homeopathy their own legitimacy). That second move gained particular force among progressives in the wake of Foucauldian-inspired critiques of professionals and their institutions, a perspective that made it hard to simply repeat older liberal arguments about the professions as a form of beneficient service to an enlightened society.
But what is happening now is not just an intensification of this earlier attempt to extend professional services or to make the boundaries and power of professional institutions more porous. What is happening now in the realignment of professional economies and technological infrastructures is possibly something more akin to an industrial revolution. Almost none of the interested parties drawn to that scene of transformation really fully understand or master it, whether they are snake-oil salesmen speaking of “disruption”, visionaries considering new modes and methods of educational practice, or justly rageful victims watching social contracts being broken right before their eyes. How can we understand it fully? That’s the nature of this kind of transformation, whether you find yourself on the barricades or in the guillotine.
But it is happening to more than academia. It is happening to law. It is happening to psychiatry. It is happening to accounting. It is happening to medicine. It is happening to anything and everything that organized itself as a profession, that licensed people with special training as the only legal or proper source of valued services. Some of the work of the professions is being automated. Some of it is being crowdsourced. Some of it is being simply deemed too expensive or unnecessary. And some of it is being taken out of the hands of the professionals and hitched to the wagon of a new class of owners who turn professionals into workers, who demolish the idea that the defining value of professional service is the knowledgeable autonomy of trained experts within their own institutions and in their own practices of service.
So in this sense to say that tenured faculty are to academic labor as white people are to racism is both to think too small and to misfire the structural analogy. Too small because the same thing could and should be said of all professionals whose terms of employment today are still set within the economies and norms that existed in the mid-20th Century, who still can largely believe in and defend the habitus of their profession as it once existed. Which means, equally, that contingent faculty banging on the closed door have many potential allies across a wide range of professions–but to make common cause with them still requires some of the choices I outlined earlier. Namely, were the professions as they once existed a good thing in those former terms? Or do we want to tear down their remaining shreds and fragments in order to make something radically new?
In that choice, professionals of the ancien regime are to newer workers not masters or owners. They are the woeful artisans staring out the window of their cottages at the dark satanic mills rising all around them. And this might explain much of the rageful antagonism between the ancien professionals and the new workers. It always seems as if artisans and workers should be on the same side against the new owners but it rarely turns out that way, and often only for the briefest of conjunctures. Because in the end their interests are different. The artisans know that their work can’t scale to the needs both created by and creating the industrial producers. They can’t make enough room in their cottages for all the workers even if they wanted to. And the workers need a job, right now: they rightly cannot give two fucks about how it used to be great in the old days when folk sheared the sheep in the spring and wove all the summer long. They want fair wages, good work conditions, a chance for advancement. Their best hope lies in the progressive remaking of the factories, the forging of new social contracts, not in the incremental carving out of a few more apprenticeships in the old guilds.
The artisans and the workers don’t have to be against each other either, necessarily. Oh, the artisans can try to smash the new machines if they like, but they shouldn’t expect much sympathy from the people whose meal tomorrow depends on the continued working of the assembly lines. The workers can feel sorry for the old folk up the valley if they like, but they should hardly be expected to endorse the traditional claims of their guilds within the marketplace.
You can have a marketplace that has room for small producers of high-priced artisanal goat cheese and big industrial producers of Velveeta where the workers in each setting are non-rivalrous, indeed, hardly think of one another at all. Maybe that’s where higher education is going, where the few elite institutions that still have tenure are the producers of high-value craftwork in teaching and scholarship, a quaint variation on slow food available to those who can afford the price. And education or training or certification in some other massified form has its workers with their struggles for dignity and fairness to come, struggles that will have almost nothing to do with the old-timey crafters.
To set yourself against that future rather than just drifting down the river of time resigned to its flow, means making clear choices right here and right now, maybe choices that have never been made before within similar conjunctures. Maybe we do want more cottages, a landscape alive with professionals who have forcefully recaptured their monopolies and privileges in new assemblages and institutions. Maybe we just want public goods to be public goods again, which might take a rededication of professional work to the ethos of service. Maybe we want to tear it all the fuck down and build a platform for some future day of the rope against the new owners. All I’m certain of is that many of the arguments out there right now within and about academia are too parochial in some fashion and thus often as much contributing to the drift down the river as they are struggling against its flow.