How Not to Be a Tenured Ally

October 28, 2013

A few days ago, I “overheard” a Twitter conversation between two tenured folks I follow and very much admire. But this conversation made me pretty upset. The gist of it goes something like this:

Tenured A: I wish that the conversation about “the tenured” weren’t so monolithic.

Tenured B: I know! My route to tenure was so different from the usual narrative!

Tenured A: Me, too! I don’t even believe in the meritocracy!

Tenured B: Me, neither!*

There’s also this recent essay by Martin Kich on academeblog.org, “Addendum to Aaron Barlow’s “To My Tenured Colleagues”: To My Adjunct Colleagues,” which raises some good points and also provides a number of excuses. On the good side, it points out that adjuncts shouldn’t try to abolish tenure and/or university unions, as it will only muck it up for everyone (although I know no one who’s suggested this, or even wants it; rather, it’s generally the opposite, as adjuncts want a voice in those spaces.). On the bad side, it provides more excuses and handwringing about getting tenure-track and tenured people to do anything.

Mostly, I have an issue with this paragraph:

So, although I very much agree that the situation for adjunct faculty will not improve until their full-time colleagues become much more fully committed to making such changes, I think that characterizing most tenured faculty as generally resistant to such changes may ultimately be counterproductive, if only because it actually reinforces the institutional practices that have focused on distinctions rather than on common interests and common cause. More to the point, there is a danger that a characterization of tenured faculty as both a disinterested privileged class and as a necessary ally may constitute such a mixed message that it will actually confuse issues and delay much-needed change.

Okay, I get it. I know that, by and large, individual people with tenure are not the natural enemy of the adjunct. The tenured, and those on the tenure track, face the same cutbacks to university instruction that affect adjuncts. It’s all part of the same system, and, really, we should both look warily at the ballooning numbers of people in administration at the very same time that faculty positions are being cut.

But—and this is a huge one—tenured and tenure track faculty’s failure as a class to act in ways that support their adjunct colleagues does indeed make them a disinterested privileged class.  In both the Twitter conversation above, and Kich’s blog entry, the problem is that this cycle happens: 1) someone critiques the behavior of tenured professors as a whole; 2) a tenured person says they are the exception; 3) nothing happens to change adjuncts’ situations.

I would like to make an observation of the kind of the discussions, based on my years of working in activist communities. Basically, any time one group (women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, what have you) makes a critique of a dominant group within the power structure, some member of the group they’re critiquing (men, white people, straight people, etc.) has to come forth and say that they are an exception to the critique, and, therefore, the critique is invalid, or it’s not as important as the “big picture.” This derails the conversation away from the group who are trying to make a critique, and re-centers it to the voice of the (relatively) powerful.

Unlike folks in the above categories, adjuncts are not born into a position of lesser privilege—nonetheless, that’s what this derailing is about: privilege. Even the most poorly treated tenure-track person has oodles of things that adjuncts do not, in terms of pay, security, benefits, voice in the administration. Even someone who has failed to get tenure has more material advantage—at least their pay usually runs out in July (at the end of the fiscal year), instead of sometime in late May (if they are lucky). To claim that the gulf of inequality between tenured/tenure-track positions is irrelevant in discussions of adjuncts’ plight is beyond absurd.

Adjuncts do not have the same level of power within the academy as tenured or tenure-track people. We do not have a voice in the faculty senate, and often we do not have voices within faculty unions. We do not have long-term contracts. We do not have benefits. We often do not have office space or access to materials to teach our classes. Most importantly, we do not earn a living wage.

So, when we are critiquing “the tenured” for their lack of action and failure to support our efforts, we are critiquing the position of power that those with tenure have in relation to our own lack of power. We are critiquing a group with a voice that could well be used to assist in improving our situation, but that often fails to acknowledge that any of our problems exist. We are critiquing a group that has, over the past forty years, ignored the growing “adjunct problem” as long as their own jobs remained secure.**

We are not critiquing you in particular.

Though, you know, maybe we are. Reading critiques of “the tenured” as a personal slight makes you part of the problem. It means that you have, despite any protestations, absorbed the idea that you are meant to be in your position of power, via a route within the meritocracy. And it means that you are in denial of the very real stratification of the university that affects some people to a much greater extent than it affects you.

*I’ve left off Twitter handles. On the off chance that you are one of the people who had this conversation, and you recognize yourself, I apologize for any slight you might feel, but hope you will be open to listening to your adjunct colleagues.

**Kich’s blog post reminds me of this fact. Now that he perceives tenure to be under fire, we’re all supposed to get in the same boat to fight the administration. He doesn’t seem to realize that he’s got a boat, though, and most adjuncts are drowning.

Up next on Wednesday: How to Be a Tenured Ally. Some real suggestions from an adjunct’s perspective.

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8 Responses to “How Not to Be a Tenured Ally”

  1. As I see no other way of contacting you, I will do so, here. I don’t yet know, of course, what you will say in “How to Be a Tenured Ally,” but I would love to see that as part of the conversation on the Academe blog where Kich’s post appeared.

  2. […] and tenure-track faculty who were allies to adjuncts, and numerous faculty who were not.  After Monday’s post critiquing ineffective tenured allies, I want to be a bit more productive than deconstructive. One […]

    • martinkich said

      In Ohio, part-time public employees cannot unionize. So several years ago, I began trying to organize advocacy chapters for adjunct faculty. I encouraged the Ohio Conference leadership to try to work with the NFM leadership to organize adjunct faculty, but the bad feelings toward the unions for full-time faculty made some in the NFM leadership very hesitant to join in any sort of joint organizing effort.

      So I have taken the opposite approach, starting with my own university and hoping to create a model for other chapters in Ohio. In the spring 2013, I surveyed almost 800 adjunct faculty who had taught at our university over the previous two years. More than 100 responded. I presented about 30 options of things of possible interest and benefit to adjunct faculty that our chapter could help to facilitate. By far, the most positive response was to the idea of some formal association with our chapter. (About 40% responding were very interested and another 40% were somewhat interested in that possibility.) So, at our November chapter meeting, our bargaining unit faculty will be voting to create new associate member categories for adjunct faculty, graduate students, academic professionals, and retirees. These groups will pay minimal dues and will be encouraged to form steering committees through which their concerns and needs can be communicated directly to our executive committee. The idea will be that we can bring the voices of our adjunct faculty and other unrepresented groups much more fully and meaningfully into discussions of institutional issues–without putting any individuals in any jeopardy of antagonizing those who make hiring decisions.

      So although my post to the Academe Blog.could be read as a broader philosophical statement, I really meant it to be taken much more pragmatically. I am not, however, claiming that what I am trying to do is going to be some masterstroke in changing things. I am also not trying to provide “excuses” for any of the shit that has been done to adjuncts by tenured faculty. In fact, I am pretty certain that I myself have been guilty of treating some of my adjunct colleagues in ways that have very rightly pissed them off.

      So neither my follow-up to Aaron’s thoughtful blog post nor this follow-up to your post is about my protecting privilege or having a thin skin. (If I didn’t have a pretty thick skin, I wouldn’t be blogging as regularly as I do.) But, I know from firsthand experience that every time someone on either side pops off about the self-interested behavior of those on the other side, it just makes it that much harder to get anything accomplished. Given the history, perhaps that’s inevitable, but trying to increase the sense of common cause still does not seem to me to be a fool’s errand.

  3. […] faculty who were allies to adjuncts, and numerous faculty who were not.  After Monday’s post critiquing ineffective tenured allies, I want to be a bit more productive than deconstructive. One […]

  4. […] adjuncts between two tenured folks on Twitter that set me off. So, I started blogging with “How Not to Be a Tenured Ally,” followed by “How to Be a Tenured Ally.” Suddenly, after these two posts, people were coming […]

  5. […] adjuncts between two tenured folks on Twitter that set me off. So, I started blogging with “How Not to Be a Tenured Ally,” followed by “How to Be a Tenured Ally.” Suddenly, after these two posts, people were coming […]

  6. […] and one I can’t answer fully.  There are several websites that provide advice regarding how to be a “tenured ally,” and I suggest reading up on them.  (You can go read them now. […]

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