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.