A little thing

UCR Fund Recipient

So much has been written already about the recent online beef between Rebecca Schuman (@pankisseskafka), the adjunct faculty member, higher ed blogger and journalist, and the historian Claire Potter, aka “Tenured Radical” (@tenuredradical); I am not eager to add one thing more. The occasion of the Schuman-Potter dispute was the revelation on Rebecca’s blog that the English department of the University of California at Riverside would not contact those it intended to interview for its tenure-track position (in American literature before 1900) until January 3, less than a week before the MLA convention in Chicago. Schuman wrote the blog post about this news that went viral; in response, Potter wrote the blog post attempting, somewhat peremptorily, to shut down the controversy as an isolated and irrational instance of academic “rage.”

I objected then, as I do now, to the personal and somewhat condescending terms of Potter’s assessment. I understand anger at a broken system to be more than “merely” personal. In response to this flare-up, Chuck Rybak, Timothy Burke and others have issued sensible calls for solidarity between adjuncts and those on the tenure-track. As these bloggers observe, both populations of university employees are subject to the same forces at the hands of university presidents; both populations too make a small part of a much larger trend toward the casualization of employment in the U.S. and elsewhere.

The dispute between Schuman and Potter has quieted down in the meantime, though a general climate of dis-ease remains in the run-up to the MLA convention. How could it not? The deep inequities of a broken system show more dramatically these days. What faith can we bestow in a “profession” that (as quite a few perceive it) has disappeared in all but name? Why do we ask job-seekers and adjunct faculty to defend institutions that have shown them no favors? What loyalty to the preservation and maintenance of tenure can we expect from those who have been systemically excluded from participation in it?

When I created an Indiegogo campaign to help send to MLA those chosen by UCR for an interview, I wanted a way to contribute to a heated conversation then passing without participating directly in it. I created the campaign to show my support for Rebecca, a writer I greatly respect and admire even where I disagree with some of her opinions. Admittedly, I created the campaign from a sense of anger too, much less at UCR than at Potter’s attempt to rationalize and shut down criticism of its practice. (It took virtually no time to establish an account with Indiegogo and create the campaign — certainly less time than it took Tenured Radical to write a seemingly disinterested follow-up post on the importance of preserving social media etiquette.) Above all, I created the campaign in a gesture of solidarity with graduate students and adjuncts on the academic job market.

To date, 27 people have contributed more than $800 to this hastily-produced campaign. (I chose the fundraising goal more or less arbitrarily; that the campaign is not likely to reach the established goal is I think no indication of its having been a failure.) Contributions came from friends, colleagues, and strangers; from the tenured, junior faculty on the tenure track, adjunct faculty, and graduate students (some of them on the market themselves). Contributions came from academics from fields outside English, and from non-academics as well.

Some may think the gesture misplaced, or mean-spiritedly directed at UCR on account of a technical error. To the latter objection: I am not personally acquainted with anyone in the UCR English department. At the end of the day, moreover, I am glad and grateful that UCR has a tenure line open at all, and that they choose to interview for a specialist in “old” material (being a person who works on such material myself). I wish them the best of luck in their search.

That a fundraising campaign targeted to assist those interviewing at one school does not solve larger problems with the academic job market seems obvious, and somewhat beside the point. I am delighted that the contributions received will help one candidate who has stepped forward at least. But the campaign does not pretend to solve anything so much as its gesture intends, in a small way, to make visible the extent of the problem.

Many thanks are due to the contributors to this campaign — you know who you are — and to those many of you who helped me get the word out about it. I want particularly to acknowledge the assistance of Jonathan Goya (@jkgoya), Lee Skallerup (@readywriting), and the inimitable Rebecca Schuman.

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9 comments

  1. “To date, 27 people have contributed more than $800 to this hastily-produced campaign. (I chose the fundraising goal more or less arbitrarily; that the campaign is not likely to reach the established goal is I think no indication of its having been a failure.)”

    So, what WOULD constitute a “failure”?

  2. Whether measured by dollars or the number of contributors, the numbers do not seem to represent much “solidarity”. The fundamental problem, which it appears no one who is advocating for adjuncts cares to discuss, is that the supply of PhDs in the Humanities grossly exceeds the number of academic jobs available for those PhDs in those disciplines. The result? Universities and colleges can…and do…jerk around candidates for academic positions. Additionally, defenders of the Humanities have a difficult time successfully eliciting support from “normal people” outside of academia because the political shift (e.g., away from Shakespeare to “gender-class-oppression-hegemony-etc”) is so far out of tune with broader society that it is unrecognizable (even though in academia such a shift is viewed as reasonable and moderate). Advocates if the Humanities have becom their own worse enemies.

  3. “… the political shift [in the academic humanities, away from methods like explication, evaluation, and appreciation, toward subjects like theory and identity] is so far out of tune with broader society that it is unrecognizable…”

    Citation? Or is this characterization the product of your own first-person impressions of the courses taught and the research undertaken at colleges these days?

    (Please be specific when you reply, so that we know which courses you mean, and which research, and which colleges.)

  4. Zach asks, “Citation?”

    Fair question.

    My comments are based on what I read. For example, this relatively apolitical piece from an editor of the NYT Book Review from a few years ago: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/16/books/review/Donadio-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

    Now, before you dismiss my views as simply the irrelevant views of an uninformed non-academic who has no right to opine about academic matters regarding which he has little first-hand experience, I suggest the following: How the Humanities are viewed in broader society (e.g., by someone like me who is interested in and values education but who is not an academic) is relevant to Humanities academics because the amount of funding and support for higher education, including the Humanities, is a general political matter. So, as distasteful as it may be for professional academics, they should not ignore popular views and impressions of the Humanities if those academics are concerned about the long-term survival (or at least health) of the Humanities.

    As Stanley Fish was quoted in that linked-to NYT piece, “academics should teach, not proselytize.” Yet, that’s exactly what my impression is of how the Humanities have shifted over the last few decades: Humanities academics have taken on a much more activist political role. Of course, you’re free to dismiss that impression as being one from an uninformed non-academic who has no business meddling with such matters. But the reality is that we all have a stake in education and a vote regarding how public dollars are spent on education.

  5. I share with you the ideal of a broad, public-minded humanities, and am of course interested in how the humanities are perceived in society at large.

    To the argument that English departments are responsible for their own demise, however, I’m pleased to be able to quote Rebecca Schuman’s latest in Slate here, and so forego the necessity of responding myself to a charge that is as old as it is inaccurate:

    ” here’s a big surprise: this incessant litany of ‘English killed Shakespeare’ articles? They’re actually—ahem—full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Not only are rumors of the English major’s demise greatly exaggerated, but any actual drop in majors in recent years has little to do with the death of the classics and more to do with the fact that English—even when it’s semester-long Milton classes—doesn’t train one to be an engineer.”

    There is as much canonical literature taught in college courses as ever. Where the curriculum has shifted, it has done so to meet shifting student interests, not to promote the professor’s ideological agenda.

  6. As Schuman noted in her Slate piece, many conservatives recoil at “a rising tide of literate poors [sic] who dare question the politics of privilege.” My sense is that many Humanities profs view much of the world through the fixed political lens of the privilege-oppression duality…and teach their courses accordingly. So, I don’t think it’s so much a bemoaning of a loss of Shakespeare as it is the increasingly overt (and relatively homogenistic) politicization of the Humanities.

  7. I don’t know how one could be homogeneously politicizing given the great diversity of things to read in an English class: Hamlet, Frankenstein, Invisible Man,… Certainly I don’t strive to indoctrinate my students; I don’t think many of my colleagues do either. (What indoctrination they may receive from the literature itself is another matter.)

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